A true historical Wallachian town

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

My escape to the mountains has not proven to be the wonderful respite from the heat that I planned on. It's still broiling here! Certainly it's an improvement on Craiova, which was baking hot, but even the northern reaches of Wallachia aren't all that cool. The one thing I can say is that I slept better last night than I had the previous few, which I suppose is progress to a degree.

In a more obvious change though, I'm out of the ugly, heavily-industrialized zone. For a switch, the awful Communist housing blocks are actually outside the center, instead of smack in the middle of it. Curtea de Arges is a true historic town, complete with an old town and numerous, charming medieval monuments around. Sure, the largest hotel in town is distinctly 70s-socialist in design, but at least it's off on a tree-lined street away from the center, instead of towering over the few remnants of an "old town" (like in most other cities). This place has got a real sense of the past around it and still feels like the old mountain town it always was (just with a few suburbs of faceless concrete apartment complexes tacked on more recently).

The pride and treasure of Curtea de Arges is its beautifully distinctive Episcopal cathedral, part of a larger monastic complex. For all the attention it gets, it pays to keep in mind that the present design is not especially true to the original, but based upon the whims and imagination of French architect Andre Lecomte du Nouy. Saving it from near collapse in the 19th century, du Nouy took quite a bit of creative license in its restoration, which apparently infuriated local experts and purists, but seems to have greatly pleased the modern tourist. The result is a sleek Byzantine structure touched with Arabic and fairy-tale elements, certainly among the more unique religious monuments in the Balkans. It now features on most tourist literature for the country, so I guess the Frenchman knew what he was doing after all.

Sadly, when I arrived to pay a visit, the entire structure was surrounded in scaffolding! Literally every side of the church had wooden scaffolds mounted up on it, with only a few small sections of the walls and the domes relatively uncovered. I understand the need for restoration, but can't they just do it a section at a time?? As you might guess, I was a little peeved to discover this. The interior, on the other hand, was thoroughly scaffold-free and really magnificent to behold, filled with frescoes and glittering gold. Somewhat interestingly, I didn't have to pay the normally obligatory photo fee, since no one was there to collect it; in fact, I didn't even know there was one until I returned later to see the royal tombs there I had previously overlooked. Oops. I'm not complaining though.

The other major site in town is a pairing of a Princely Court and Church, set just off the main square and traffic roundabout in town. Dating from the 14th century, it was established by Wallachian voievod Basarab I as his personal palace. While the court itself is all in ruins, the church has survived completely intact. After dodging young, begging gypsy kids, I headed straight there after visiting the Episcopal cathedral. For some reason though, the church was closed up, while the grounds themselves were open to any visitors. I found it odd that no one was there to collect the admission fee, but then I noticed a note in multiple languages pinned to the church door, stating that someone would be back immediately. Once I'd had a good look at the rather paltry ruins, I sat down on a bench and waited for a good 15 minutes or so. So much for "very soon." Since there was no telling when someone would bother to return, I thought I'd look around elsewhere.

It took a good hour's wandering around some of the rest of the town's other sights for the caretaker to finally show, but on the return trip I managed to see the amazingly well-preserved interior. Elsewhere in town, I got to see the marvelously ornate (but terribly underused) train station, the stark ruins of Sān Nicoară church, and the surprise discovery of an exterior-frescoed Olari Church in the backstreets. With that though, I'd mostly exhausted Curtea de Arges of its main points of interest, save for the Municipal Museum, which I took in this afternoon.

This morning though, I got out of town for the other major tourist destination in the immediate area: the "real" Dracula's Castle at Poienari. While the swamped, overly picturesque fortress at Bran (near Brasov) has stolen a lot of the glory in the past couple decades, the true castle of Vlad Tepes "Dracula" lay here in the Arges valley, not in Transylvania. It's not the easiest place to reach though, so that probably accounts for Bran's higher popularity. For those willing to put up with more hassle, it's possible to take a maxitaxi towards the little village of Arefu and hop off at the smaller village of Căpăţāneni. From there it's a few kilometers walk along the road to a hydroelectric plant and the start of the ascent to the castle ruins proper. With some 1480 steps to get past though, it's not exactly the most accessible even then, but I pushed myself up and managed it in just twenty minutes.

The view from the top is really the biggest reward. That, plus the fresh breeze, which helps dramatically in drying up all the sweat accumulated! The ruins themselves are not especially impressive, since the vast majority of the castle collapsed down the mountainside in an earthquake in the 1800s. The scenery makes all that irrelevant though. Just below the site in the valley to the north, the highway winds up into the mountains, forming the start of the famous Trans-Făgăraşan highway - one of Ceauşescu's few successes. From Poienari it's quite easy to see how it's gotten the reputation of one of the most amazing drives in the country. To the south, the foothills of the Carpathians tumble outwards, with dense clusters of houses marking the nearby villages. It doesn't seem like a whole lot of foreign tourists get up this way; while I didn't have the site all to myself, everyone else there was Romanian, seemingly swinging through for a brief stop en route to elsewhere. Once again, Wallachia appears to be firmly off the foreign tourist map.

With no maxitaxis around for miles, it seemed, I ended up having to hitchhike for the return trip. It took quite a few tries, but I finally got picked up by a very friendly father and daughter on their way back to Ploiesti from Sibiu. Both spoke English well, so it made for an enjoyable ride, and on top of that, they refused to take any money from me once we arrived. I was hoping to squeeze in a visit to nearby Cāmpulung Muscel next, a small city important for being Wallachia's very first capital. Unfortunately, transport links between Curtea de Arges and Cāmpulung are inexplicably few, and there was only one more bus - leaving at 4:15pm - when I got back to town. The guy at the station seemed sure that I could get back to Curtea de Arges if I took it, but I wasn't convinced that he really understood that I wanted to go, visit and return in the same day. I thought that I'd just pick up the bus when it passed my hotel around 4:20 and ask then, but I got what was easily the rudest reception by the bus driver when I got on. The instant I tried to ask him about return buses, he yelled at me to get off and walk, apparently exasperated with the prospect of doing anything other than driving. Stunned, I tried once more to ask, only to have him get even angrier and shout until I descended. Nice civilized behavior, you simian peasant.

Apart from that extremely aggravating incident, it's been a nice visit. I do have to say though that I'm quite ready to get to the big city, as weekends in Curtea de Arges are plain deadsville. Tomorrow morning I head down to Bucharest, which will undoubtedly be far hotter than I've had to deal with here. We'll see how long I last there . . . if it gets to be too much, I'm going to have to split town and make for Transylvania for some fresh mountain air.
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