Befitting the horror lore I was chasing, it was a dark and stormy evening. The plane shuddered as it finally mustered the courage to plunge through monstrously thick clouds. Acting on some eerie impulse I fished out my phone and from the vantage point of my window seat filmed the diving plane. A passenger let out a muffled scream. It took an astonishing full minute to cut through the grey altostratus clouds. Suddenly a panoramic wet, green-and-brown landscape revealed itself below. I kept filming, the plane steadied somewhat and finally the rubber hit the asphalt as the shadowy landscape of the city’s outskirts morphed itself into a weary airport runway. Startlingly, the passengers broke out in applause (my pick-up driver later told me her compatriots are notorious for this in Europe).
I had landed in the land of Dracula. I was in Bucharest, on my first leg of my Romania-Bulgaria-Albania run on the easternmost flank of Europe.
The next morning I was ready for Transylvania — the famous forested mountain region three hours’ drive away from the Romanian capital. The destination: Bran Castle, commonly known as the original ‘Dracula’s Castle’ — where the fierce legend of Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia burst forth onto an unsuspecting world in the 15thcentury and is yet to exhaust itself in the popular imagination.As I ascended the steep climb up to the picturesque but imposing castle, scenes from the best of Dracula films played in my mind, particularly the sepia-tinged 1922 version Nosferatu and Christopher Lee’s terrifying Hammer Horror series of films (starting in the late 1958 and continuing until 1973) in which, to me, he features as the quintessential celluloid version of the original Transylvanian vampire. Most Pakistanis, of course, better recognize Lee as Jinnah from his Jamil Dehlavi film. How ironic!
I found the 14th century castle claustrophobic, with unusually narrow and steep staircases needed to traverse its various sections designed over a 60-metre expanse on the sides of a mountain. It had four towers with walls made of stone blocks and its stuffy rooms and narrow corridors forming a mysterious labyrinth of ghostly nooks and secret chambers. In the inner courtyard there are wells where people throw coins. I wondered what they wished for. A dark, ancient mystery unfolded itself. I didn’t want it any other way. It was a fulfilling experience.
After a couple of hours exploring the castle and its environs, and haggling hard over a set of blood-curdling Dracula postage stamps (I’m a chronic philatelist),I headed to one of the most luxuriously gothic castles in the world —the Peles Castle, once the summer residence of Romanian kings, and now home to one of the country’s most important museums. It has over 150 opulently decorated rooms.
Here rest in eternal peace several Romanian monarchs, including King Carol I, who died here in 1914, and King Ferdinand and Queen Maria. Impossibly beautiful, it is easily the best castle I’ve visited in five continents. Ithen stopped for lunch in Brasov, a picturesque town located in the heart of Transylvania, where a walking tour through the historical centreoffered charming pleasures.
Three hours later I was back in Bucharest after an exhaustive 12-hour getaway.
The next day my exploration of Bucharest started with theUnirii Square for a view of the colossal Palace of the Parliament, the second-largest building in the world (the largest is the Pentagon) and the largest civilian building anywhere. It has a staggering 1,100 rooms! Outside, an attempt by me to take some selfies with the whole building in the frame proved to be challenging.
Called the ‘Palace of the Parliament’, it towers among the city’s rooftops.A testament to the folly and megalomania of a dictator, and built in the 1980s by strongmanNicolae Ceausescu, it was his attempt to show the world how wealthy and powerful was his socialist republic. Work on it started in 1983 when Romania was still under communist rule. It wasn’t completed when the popular Romanian Revolution toppled communism in 1989.
Aone-hour tour of the building is offered that barely cover a fraction of the roomsspread over three million square feet. I was told everyone hates the building for the opulence it represents in a time of crippling shortages. Tonnes of gold was used to adorn the building at a time when the country was struggling to feed its hungry people.
However, suggestions to demolish the building have been resisted so far. Less than 200 rooms are in use today, some of them housing the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.The famous tvshow Top Gear once featured presenters driving their cars through the tunnels beneath the building. The tunnels were designed by Ceausescu to escape to the airport in case the need arose.
The need did arise in 1989 but he never managed to reach the building.
My next stop was the Central Committee Building in the Revolution Square with a balcony where Ceausescu gave his last speech before a big crowd of Romanians forcefully herded together. But despite all the government’s use of force the rebellion in the city of Timisoara made its way to the centre in the shape of heckling during this last speech, stunning the dictator. This was the beginning of the end.
He fled the building with his wife Elena in a helicopter but was intercepted by the military and executed by a firing squad in Targoviste town close to Bucharest following a three-day trial. Ceausescu’s last words before the execution were: “Long live the Socialist Republic of Romania! History will avenge me.” It was not to be. Democracy was the best revenge.
Some of the buildings in Revolution Square still bear bullet marks from the fierce fighting that erupted after that last speech.
Bucharest is a mix of the anciently gray and the jazzy new. While there are distinct halves of both, the best parts of the city are where the twains meet. There’s pleasure to be derived from sauntering through the city’s dense urban centre interspersed with pockets of green between the buildings,with the chattering classes enlivening the spaces of outdoorsy Bucharest. Open cafes and drink gardens are never more than a few minutes walk away. For the intellectually inclined the lovely Carturesti Bookstore has an extended open garden at its back. In the evenings waltzy jazz wafts in from the neighboring open music club. Drinks, books and music — wah!
You, of course, haven’t been to Bucharest if you haven’t visited the medieval Old Town that has been transformed into a bustling downtown. This is a place best explored on foot. Must-sees include St Anthony’s Church, the oldest in the city, the Manuc Inn, the ruins of the former Royal Court and the Stavropoleos Monastery. The Old Town is populated by 16th to 18th Century beautiful French-style buildings on the Calea Victoriei Street.
No wonder Bucharest was once known as ‘Little Paris’ harking to the pre-World War II art nouveau palaces and architecture reminiscent of the French capital. Communism and a 1977 earthquake collaborated to wreak havoc in much of Little Paris. But several buildings from before this era still retain a lingering elegance. On one side of the Old Town, broad avenues sashay past old villas and acres of green lead to an imposing replica of the Arc de Triomphe as if to drive home the point of an old romance with Paris.
I had also pencilled in a visit to a new delight in the Old Town — the intriguing Kitsch Museum showcasingover 200 Romanian kitsch items, ranging from a life-size Dracula to communist-era glass-fish and images of corporate appropriation of religion. The retro theme is unmistakable. Comrade-era music plays as you investigate fake news. The headline from a 2001 edition of Weekly Dracula declares: “Extraterrestrials steal electric current.”
Why a kitsch museum? Bucharestis complain that kitsch has become pervasive after the fall of communism and is threatening to engulf the city in many places as more people are becoming well off and flaunting their wealth.
The museum hosts images of clerics next to expensive cars and the message is clear: Christ was spiritually rich, priests are only materially so. One true news item reports on priests caught blessing sex shops and brothels.
The museum succeeds in conveying that kitsch succeeds as a form of expression by being failed art. There’s plenty of Ceausescu featured in the museum. There’s a striking photo of him standing with a presidential scepter and a telegram sent by artist Salvador Dali, reflecting the personality cult communist leaders cultivate.
My favourite was a massive book of photos of Ceausescu meeting world dignitaries and their letters of felicitation. Leafing through it, I accidentally stumbled on a picture of a letter from our very own Dracula-like General Ziaul Haq greeting Ceausescu. Nothing could be kitschier than one dictator admiring another, I thought. Oddly, I couldn’t find a photo or letter from our own favourite socialist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto even though he was a comrade to Ceausescu.
Before resigning myself to a lazy evening, I chanced onto the Cismigiu Gardens – a green oasis laid out around a serene lake with a broad array of botanic species running riot. It’s more like the Garden of Romania with over 30,000 botanical species from all across the country and even other parts of Europe as far as Austria and France. Wrought-iron signposts and benches abounded. Charming busts of Romania’s most famous writers, philosophers and scholars dot the gardens. Cafes and terraced plantations rekindle romance – the innumerable couples lolling or cavorting about being proof enough.
As I sat down in a corner quietly sipping my evening drink, a gentle Bucharest breeze began caressing my hair.