English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked across the Balkans in the 1930s, writes in The Broken Road of first catching sight of the medieval capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo: "It rose from a canyon like an emanation, a sharp flight of houses hovering in ascending waves... The rock face, as the town gained height, fell beneath it into a chasm of organ-fluted rock, all stress and heavy with shadow, to the sinuous bend of the river Yantra.
I was no less astounded in October, as our coach literally wound its way upward through Veliko Tarvono to our Hotel Grand Yantra — accommodation that delivered 360-degree views of pinnacle-like hills topped by the spectacular Tsarevets Fortress or bulbous Eastern Orthodox churches, and draped in tiers of red-roofed houses. Down and beyond, stretched undulating hinterland backed by mountains.
I was told that luxury cruise ships moored in the Black Sea bus their passengers across Bulgaria to Veliko (meaning "great") Tarnovo for an overnight excursion. The small city, which retains a centuries-old reputation as a centre for Bulgarian culture, seems a little out of time — as well as physically out of this world.
In the morning we visited the nearby village of Arbanassi to see one of a number of churches noted for a distinctive Bulgarian National Revival architecture. The Church of the Nativity (dating to the 15th century) was built like a long, low farmhouse to avoid the ire or attention of the then-ruling Ottoman Turks. Inside it's chock-a-block with fabulous fresco paintings depicting scenes from the New and Old Testaments.
From the city of Russe, we crossed the Danube River into Romania and drove north to the capital Bucharest. Bucharest has long been lauded for its wide, leafy boulevards and many historic buildings and monuments — a "Paris of the Balkans." But the Ceausescu dictatorship, which ended in 1989, damaged it, in my mind, beyond repair. Hundreds of historic buildings were flattened to build the gargantuan "People's Palace," the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon).
This unavoidable paean to power and wealth casts a pall over the city. The fact that it poured rain the several days we were there didn't help, and so, but for a night out to see some folk dancing, I holed up in my ever-so-attractive room on the 16th floor of the Hotel Intercontinental, above the madcap traffic and unending lights. Others in our group reported on the city's celebrated nightlife.
Then it was northward again into the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania region. Meaning "on the far side of the woods or forests," populous Transylvania is known for its rural scenery and villages that haven't changed much in the past two centuries.
The region is also associated with Count Dracula, the mythical figure created by Irish novelist Bram Stoker and loosely based on the Romanian folk hero Vlad the Impaler, revered, in part, for skewering Turks on poles, and then watching them suffer.
And while there are sites in Transylvania where traces of Vlad can be found, including the tourist-driven village of Sighisoara, the small castle at the town of Bran, dubbed Dracula's Castle and a big tourism draw, is in truth a former home of the long-unseated royal family of Romania — and the family wants rid of it.
A more straight-up attraction was Peles Castle, once the summer escape of the well-loved King Carol of Romania (1866-1914) built in the German-Renaissance style, and filled with exceptional woodwork and antiques.
While Transylvania was long part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and has a large Hungarian population, it is also home to German Saxons who arrived as Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages, and remain today in a handful of small cities, albeit in declining numbers.
The city of Brasov, with its centerpiece German Lutheran "Black Church" (re-named after a fire in 1689) is a lovely mercantile city and burgeoning tourism destination. Located amidst wooded hills, it is renowned for its central square lined with baroque buildings and outdoor cafs. And a stroll through its pedestrian-only heart at night is pure delight.
Heading west again, we stopped in the larger and grittier city of Cluj-Napoca, and again found a treasure-trove of 19th century architecture, much of it in dire need of costly restoration, and sidewalks packed with people shopping and socializing.
Roma or gypsies, numerous in Romania, are also enjoying a newfound affluence. Most are settled in villages or farms, and while horse-drawn wagons are still in use, some can now afford Mercedes-Benz cars (perhaps second-hand). These better-off Roma build huge, ramshackle, nouveau-rich "gypsy palaces" with glittery tin roofs and trimmings and, near the roofline, embed the Mercedes-Benz tri-star, their adopted symbol of success.
(Part I of the Balkans travel story appeared in Pique Jan.8. It can be found at www.piquenewsmagazine.com.)