Meditation & Health #20-The Resilient Beauty of Romania
The Resilient Beauty of Romania
BY QING QIAN & QING CHA
Nestled in southeastern Europe, Romania is an enchanting country famous for its well-preserved medieval towns, fortified churches, and magnificent castles balanced on hilltops jagged with rock. The stunning Carpathian Mountains cut a broad arc through the nation’s center, its undulations stark against the sky. The mountain range’s groves of trees are home to elk, deer and bears. Many verdant meadows lie below.
The beauty of the country is rivaled only by the hearts of its people — visitors consider Romanians among the friendliest, most hospitable and generous people around. Many tourists leave with memories of the friendliness and kindness of the locals.
The country also has a rich history, having endured Roman colonization in 106 AD, attacks from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the ninth century and from the Turks in the 17th century, and totalitarian communist rule from 1945 to 1989. Despite a tumultuous past, resilience and grace shines through Romania’s pristine countryside and vibrant towns.
Landmarks Tell a Story
The name of its capital and largest city, Bucharest, stems from the Romanian word bucurie meaning “joy” — which is a telling reflection of what Romanians value. Sprawls of elegant Belle Epoque architecture constructed in the early 1900s have earned Bucharest the nickname “Little Paris.” One of the city’s icons, the Arcul de Triumf (“The Arch of Triumph”), rises 27 meters in honor of the victory of Romanian soldiers during World War II and is inspired by Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Resting at any of the Parisian-style cafes or French restaurants that line Bucharest’s streets is indeed reminiscent of the Paris experience, but immerse yourself in the city and you will experience a charm that is uniquely Romanian. In the midst of this busy city, within the scenic Herastrau Park, is an unexpected guide to Romania’s culture and way of life. An open-air ethnographic museum, Village Museum, offers a picturesque marvel of more than 60 peasant houses, farmsteads, windmills, watermills and churches, from historic regions around the country. Under the rustling canopy of the park. the museum takes you through Romania’s countryside life and past, to the beauties of a simpler time.
Another gem not to be missed is the colossal Palace of Parliament, one of the few structures visible from the moon and an important bearer of the country’s history. The world’s second-largest administrative building after the Pentagon in the United States, this controversial building began to take shape in 1983 as an attempt by then-Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to assert the success of the republic.
Its interior is replete with grand staircases, marble-plated halls, stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, and richly carpeted floors. Unfinished by the time of the revolution in 1989, only a portion of the building’s thousand rooms and eight underground levels are in use today. It currently houses the Romanian Senate, the Romanian Chamber of Deputies, and the headquarters of the Southeast European Cooperation Initiative.
Eyes on You
Imagine pairs of eyes gazing down at you as you stroll along. Does this give you a cold shudder or a sense of intrigue? Sibiu is a city in Transylvania, a region in the center of the country, and it is known as the “city with eyes,” memorable for its “staring” houses. Tall houses typically have one pair of eyes, but some of them have three, four or even five pairs on their heavily tiled rooftops. In reality, these “eyes” are small attic windows that open to keep the houses ventilated, covered by sloping tiles resembling eyelids. They make the houses seem alive. Rest by a roadside and take a minute or two to look upon these “eyes” and appreciate the imagery. It does make one wonder: If eyes are indeed windows to our souls, what story does each set of eyes tell about the household and the life within?
Built in the 12th century, Sibiu is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities and contains a grand citadel constructed with the influence of Germanic settlers. As Transylvania’s first Saxon stronghold, it was known as the Red Citadel, and today it offers a mix of art, history and bustling culture. Wander through the cobbled streets of its old town to explore the splendid squares, towers, churches, and many charming buildings of the area. Visit Astra, the open-air architecture museum, which features 340 historic buildings. If you are lucky, you could join in the numerous opera, jazz and film festivals and events held in this cultural hub.
The Truth Behind Dracula’s Castle
Perched on a foothill in Transylvania, Bran Castle has long been associated with the famous gothic novel Dracula. It is alleged that the character Count Dracula was inspired by the ruthless ruler Vlad Tepes the Impaler (also known as Vlad Dracul), who fought battles in the Bran region and is believed by some to have stayed in the castle. History tells us that the castle, completed in 1388, served strategic commercial and military functions, acting as both a customs post and a fortress against attackers. A labyrinth of secret passages and tunnels runs transverse throughout and beneath the castle courtyard, providing quick access to weaponry and fortifications. In the early 1900s, Queen Marie made the castle a summer royal residence, and in World War II her successor, Princess Ileana, turned it into a hospital for the war-wounded.
In 1993. the castle was transformed into a museum, displaying art and furniture from the personal collection of Queen Marie. Visitors expecting the eerie, crumbling fortress of the Dracula legend will get a pleasant surprise when visiting Bran Castle. It is in fact bright and magnificent — featuring intricate fixtures on its walls and ceilings, beautifully decorated rooms with hand-carved furniture, and a delightful inner garden.
Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular castles in all of Europe is Peles Castle. This masterpiece of German neo-Renaissance architecture was completed in 1883 and rests at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains in the picturesque town of Sinaia. Peles Castle served as the summer home of King Carol I and his family until 1947. The castle is also notable as the first in Europe to be entirely lit by electricity and have central heating, produced by its own power plant.
The castle’s exteriors, with its huge balconies, painted walls, splendid fountains, stone sculptures, marbled paths and meticulously landscaped gardens, are simply breathtaking. Inside the castle walls are 160 rooms, furnished with the finest European art, silk embroideries, luxurious tapestries, stained-glass windows, crystal chandeliers, and other opulent adornments. Each corner you turn springs a delight, whether it is the grandeur of carved woodwork and glass roofing of the Entrance Hall or the gilded grand chandeliers, marble fireplace, and solid bronze doors of the Florentine Room (also known as the Great Salon).
Arts and Music for the Soul
Romanians are ardent music lovers. Superstar Michael Jackson visited Romania after the fall of the Communist regime and was embraced by his passionate fans. After his passing, a memorial dedicated to Michael Jackson was erected in Herastrau Park. The monument, carved with the words “His music will live forever,” celebrates the legacy of the singer and his lesser-known Romanian connection. The main road in the park is named Michael Jackson Alley.
Their love for music is even etched on the nation’s five lei (Romania’s currency)
banknote in the form of the great Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu. On
its reverse is the Romanian Athenaeum, headquarters of the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, along with a piano and a line from his opera.
A significant annual performing-arts festival is the Sibiu International Theatre Festival. Since Sibiu was designated European Cultural Capital in 2007, the festival has attracted participants from 70 countries with thousands of spectators a day. For 10 days every June, the city of Sibiu turns into a huge concert stage featuring over 300 events which transform it into a city lit by art, music, and dance.
Romania is a land of contrasts, a place where horse-drawn carts share the road with sports cars and castles coexist with office towers. History and modernity intersect on a daily basis, reminding locals and visitors alike to both learn from the past and embrace change. And those lucky enough to look upon the great Carpathian Mountains may be inspired to reflect upon living life with a more expansive inner view, and to find resilience and strength in the face of adversity, as the Romanian people have done.