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A Stone’s Throw

A Stone’s Throw

Rule of thumb has it that Bucharest provides convenient international flights, the necessary logistics, as well a recently restored, pleasant old town complete with plenty of bars and restaurants for all tastes and wallets. A good place to arrange, start, or end a trip to Romania, a den of expats working for multinationals, and a good nightlife plus a handful of museums to fill in the blanks, if any. Nothing wrong with the lines above, yet while working in the travel business and obsessively spending nights posting on travel forums in the late 1990s, I once got a rather e-mail. The Australian running the last addition to the local hostel market wanted to put together a few day trips around the city. Places I knew well and had spent long hours at the National Library reading about, yet had never considered as something else but selfishly personal. My own places. Dilemmas are useful only if short-lived, so, one sunny morning we arranged a shabby taxi (the 30 year old Renault 12-based Dacia 1300 was still omnipresent) to take us around. After the driver’s ‘What? Where is that?,’ ‘Why are you going there, dude?’ and the de rigueur haggling over the price of a day’s ride, we departed. We would end with far more options than the hostel owner had expected. As for myself, I learned not to take – or keep, for that matter – places or issues personally. Of the ‘sharing is caring’ league.

A quick look at the map shows Bucharest lying in the Wallachian plain, about half way between the Danube and the foothills of the Carpathians. The map gives one reason to expect an area of meadows, remains of the old Vlăsia Woods, a handful of rivers – some swampy and others creating lakes in their meanderings -, fields of crops or weeds, and… well, more fields, more crops, more weeds. At the end of the day, the city itself was founded on the site of a few villages along the Dâmbovița, a river that used to flood the adjacent fields every now and then. So, where is the fun other than that of dirt-loving off-road bikers and scouting groups willing to sleep in the wild and discover new routes going nowhere? The Middle Ages saw this part of Wallachia developing unevenly, shaped by three major forces: the local landlords, the military power controlled by the ruler at the time, and the church. Nothing new –  the same old story like in, let’s say, Scotland, Tsarist Russia, or neighbouring Transylvania. Yet as expected, the results took a local form. Let us have a look at them one by one.

The high and mighty who owned big tracts of land and controlled hundreds of peasants, built mansions for themselves. Sometimes impressive, at other times not so much, they showed architectural details of Persian or Ottoman origin. Close enough to the de jure Ottoman Empire border and lying on the trade routes between Istanbul and Western Europe, cloths from afar (Damascus or artisanal towns in Central Asia), heavy carved wood pieces of furniture, and larger-than-life oil paintings decorated their houses. There were also those of simpler taste. Some of these buildings still exist, scattered throughout the region around Bucharest. While most of them were meant to host various businesses of the monopolistic state-owned apparatus during the Communist rule (e.g. hospitals or state farms) and only a few were returned to (or claimed by) inheritors of the families that had built them in the first place, there is such a mansion that is nowadays a museum: that of Udriște – Năsturel in Herăști, south of the city. Founded in the 17th century, it was built of polished stone, bearing – rather uniquely in the region – a Romanesque touch; these days it hosts various exhibitions of the Peasant Museum. In the same category, and especially as the whole region of Wallachia was influenced by it, there are the two palaces built by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu who also developed his own architectural style blending the Baroque of the West with the shapes and patterns of the Orient. Meant to be the prince’s summer residence, Mogoșoaia Palace was constructed in 1702 and came complete with an extensive domain overlooking a lake – a rather well-known destination off Bucharest. The prince’s gem however – the little known Potlogi Palace – was built three years before the Mogoșoaia. Apart from Brâncoveanu’s typical carved stone columns and floral – patterned stairway, it offers exquisite stucco and painted Persian-style decorations around the windows – both inside and out. The two are well worth a peek before visiting Bucharest at large, as well as other Wallachian towns and monasteries, as what one calls the ‘national style’ was greatly influenced by the prince’s architecture. As for the 19th century upper classes breaking from the traditional line above, what about the 1864 Palace of Știrbei, designed in Tudor style and set in the middle of a tranquil domain complete with ponds and a chapel? One would not believe that downtown Bucharest lies only some two dozen kilometers away.

While not impressive and sometimes poorly preserved, the fortresses developed as strongholds or homes to the princely courts in Wallachia are also notable in the region’s history. The Curtea Domnească in Târgoviște can make an interesting day trip from Bucharest (together with Vlad the Impaler’s story to which it is strongly connected) and the same goes to the nearby 15th century Dealu Monastery which overlooks the vast fields to the south. Further afield, the ruins in Curtea de Argeș or those at the top of the cliff at Poienari also invoke medieval Wallachia.

With a thriving Orthodox majority, Romania is a highly religious country – at least as far as appearances are concerned. After 50 years during which attending religious services was not encouraged (i.e. everything but banned), people have felt an urge to go back to their roots and chose religion as one of the most convenient means to do so. So it’s no wonder that many religious settlements are built now, while several of the old ones have been carefully restored by the same church that once owned vast plots of land. Of those around Bucharest, the Middle Ages saw the building of several picturesque monasteries on the lakes and sometimes in the middle of swampy terrain that would ensure their preservation during the numerous Ottoman invasions. Worth noting is St. Nicholas-Balamuci with its frescoes reminiscent of the painted monasteries in southern Bukovina, the twisted brick- column Sămurcășești, the Pasărea with its picturesque nuns cells and flower gardens, the Căldărușani with its Nicolae Grigorescu paintings and frescoes, the Snagov with its location on a small island, and the Comana, built by Vlad the Impaler not far from Comana Woods, now a nature reserve.

Take a deep breath. In, out. Whew! Good, let’s continue.

With the places above pinned on a map, one soon realizes there is no straight route joining them all. Or no route at all. And where there is one, it crosses the odd forest, lake or what some call a mini-delta: the lakes down the Argeș or along the Colentina, the so-called Neajlov Delta, the extensive Bolintin Forest or the aforementioned Comana Woods Reserve with its plethora of birds and beautiful peony bushes which blossom in springtime. No wonder our taxi driver wanted to make sure we were neither mocking at him, nor literally taking him back to the bushes. And when you think of it, we did not visit even a third of these places back then, with the list above being far from complete.  As for that Singureni carved wood troiță, I still ride my bicycle there every year or so, some walnut cookies in my backpack. With children playing football in the street. With locals congregating while coming home from the church, taking alms to their neighbours or sitting on street-side benches by their gates, talking for hours. With the Earth seeming to turn at a slower pace. A stone’s throw from malls, top end hotels, that convenient airport with its international connections.

About the author:
Shortly after getting his degree in tourism, Alex started traveling across Eastern Europe. He then went farther on, Eastwards, riding trains, bicycles or overloaded trucks, as well as trekking through the Middle East, Central Asia, the Subcontinent he never gets tired of and, more recently, Central Africa. When at home, he spends his spare time hiking, cycling and camping in the Carpathians, respectively researching and exploring Bucharest. His passion towards these places can be read about in the guidebooks on Romania he worked for, or in his websites, bucharestian.com or notrails.info