Friday, May 30, 2014

Mediaş and the Bucharest People's House, Romania: May 19 and May 30, 2014

During our tour of Transylvania, we stopped at the Vitrometan Glass Factory in Mediaş. Now, this factory produces hand-blown glass for export through a middle-man to companies like TJ Maxx and Ross without credit to Romania as the country of origin. Pre-1989, this factory employed over 3,000 people who worked around the clock with 11 furnaces operating. Today, the factory employs about 200 people over 2 shifts.  Only one furnace still operates. The factory itself is run down, looks derelict, mostly vacant, and has many broken windows.

Inside around the one operating furnace, it looks like a scene from Dante's inferno.  The work done here is production work.  Several people (I counted 6) contribute to each piece of blown glass.

It was quite cool outside, but inside was hot even though running water was cooling the furnace walls. Imagine the heat in the summer.

This factory made all 480 crystal chandeliers for Nicolae Ceausescu's "People's House" (Casa Poporului) in Bucharest.  Many of them were so large that they had to be assembled once they arrived at the Bucharest building. In 1984, the foundation was laid for the palace. By 1989, the construction of this building with 3.77 million square feet (the second largest building in the world--the Pentagon is the largest) had caused the demolition of 9,000 homes, 8 churches, bankrupted the country, and the population was forced to survive without food, water, electricity.  In 1989, the people decided they had had enough deprivation and overthrew Ceausescu.  Ceausescu and his wife were tried and found guilty of genocide. Within hours, on December 25, 1989, both were shot by a firing squad.  In January 1990, the new government outlawed capital punishment.

Although Ceausescu referred to this enormous building as the People's House, it was to be the administrative and political seat of government; he also planned to live there. To build this structure, Ceausescu borrowed heavily from willing countries.  He wanted to pay the debt down quickly and the payments were very high.  In fact, the loans were paid off just before the revolution. Many of the architectural details had to be constructed multiple times until Ceausescu was satisfied. No one knows exactly how much the building cost to construct, but estimates come in at about 3.5 billion Euros.

All materials (wood, granite, marble, textiles) were sourced from Romania.  Like the chandeliers, the carpets were so large that they were loomed and assembled inside the building. A nuclear shelter large enough to accommodate the entire population of Bucharest sits 60 feet below the building.  Also, below ground, somewhere, is a swimming pool.

Once back in Bucharest, we took a tour of the People's House building now called Palace of Parliament (Palatul Parlamentului). Our guide who was too young to experience Ceausescu directly, said she prefers to ignore the man and the suffering he caused and think of the structure as a piece of art.

When Ceausescu was executed in 1989, the building exterior was mostly finished. There was a discussion about whether to continue the construction or not.  The demolition costs were estimated to be larger than the cost to finish so it was finished.

The People's House hasn't held up well. Maintenance is an issue.  Fountains on the road leading up to the palace have crumbled. The surrounding landscape is not manicured.

Many of the crystal chandeliers were unlit or missing bulbs. In the 80s when the entire building was lighted, the electricity consumed in just four hours could have lighted the entire city of Bucharest for an entire day. 

The massive marble double staircases on the formal entry floor were re-built five times to satisfy Ceausescu's demand that he be able to walk down the stairs without looking down. He envisioned his wife descending from one staircase and he from the opposite staircase gazing into each other's eyes, meeting in the middle space, walking together toward the formal entry to welcome visiting dignitaries. He did not have the chance.

The largest chandelier weighs 2.5 metric tons.

The road leading up to the Palace was made to be exactly one meter wider than Paris' Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Currently, there is discussion about what can be done with this building which houses the senate. Rooms are often rented out to conferences, seminars, and trade shows. The tour covered only about 4% of this massive structure. Many of the rooms are vacant and maintenance costs are too high for a country that cannot even properly fund their doctors and hospitals.

The People's House is a mausoleum of delusions and greed.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Return to Sibiu-Return to Bucharest, Romania: May 27-29, 2014

Everywhere we went in Transylvania, especially the rural areas, we have been following the footsteps of Prince Charles the Prince of Wales. He believes in preserving crafts and culture and in that capacity, a foundation called Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET) was established that has funded the renovations of many of the fortified churches and surrounding villages like Miklósvár and Viscri. In fact, most of the craftspeople we visited had photos of themselves with Prince Charles (also Prince Harry) because he visits the area every May. Now in Sibiu I see on the Romanian news that Prince Charles is in Romania--we have missed him.

As I said before, upon seeing Sibiu, we really liked the old town and felt like we needed more time to explore. Coming back to Sibiu we stayed at Casa Luxemburg located on the middle square of the old city. Restoration of the exterior facade was completed in April.

Hotel Casa Luxemburg
We stayed for two nights and didn't do much except explore more of the city, eat great food, and attend a free classical concert in one of the old churches--perfect. We also watched the storks that were meticulously arranging their nest on a nearby building. Many of these old buildings have "eyebrow" dormer windows in the roof. They seemed to watching our every move.

The clock tower on the cathedral has four smaller towers surrounding the large one. The four small towers are a sign that the town had a judge in it.  It also meant that capital punishment could be carried out in Sibiu.

Only a fragment of the fortifications and three of the tradesmen's towers remain.  The tower in the photo is the Carpenter's Tower.

Leaving Transylvania behind and driving into Walachia, we no longer saw any storks--and our luck ran out. On a detour to the village of Horezu, we had a flat tire. Calling the rental car company, we were made aware of the fine print: the insurance does not cover tires, the bottom of the car, or the interior. We changed the tire and with the miniature spare in place began looking for a tire repair (a vulcanazor). They usually have tires stacked around the entry way so it didn't take long to find one. Unfortunately, the first vulcanazor we found yelled at us in a language we couldn't understand (Romanian) and pointed to the sky. There were clouds, but wasn't raining. It was Ascension Day so maybe that is why he was pointing up.

Carefully and slowly, we drove to the next village where we had more luck. The tire repairman took our tire, plugged the rather large hole almost the size of my little finger. Note that I said he plugged it; he did not patch it. He added some strips of rubber around the plug, put the tire in water to make sure the plug was holding, put the tire back on the car, and we paid him about $6 USD.

We continued on to Horezu. This detour was made because we bought a lovely ceramic platter in Sibiu that was painted in Horezu. Horezu is the home of a 17th-century Orthodox church founded in 1690 by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu with remarkable interior paintings in a style named for him--Brâncovenesc. Brâncovenesc is described as the only true Romanian artistic style. The Horezu monastery was the first church built by Prince Brâncoveanu and the artists who created the paintings were from Horezu. Photographs of the interior were not allowed, but I did take photos of the portico and of the nuns refectory. This is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At the monastery, we met the nun who is the monastery guide.  Her name prior to becoming a nun was Cecilia. Our Transylvanian guide, Cecilia, told us to ask for her.  Two weeks in Romania and three Cecilias.

 The Last Judgment
 The Refectory

The week before we visited the Brâncoveanu Monastery in the village of Sâmbăta de Sus in Braşov County founded by Prince Brâncoveanu in 1696. The portico has a similar Last Judgment painting.
Leaving Horezu, we did stop at a couple of roadside ceramics shops, but nothing compared with what was available in Sibiu.

We drove on to Bucharest and followed our hotel's great directions once we entered the city. We found that there were few street signs and insane traffic in Bucharest. We made one wrong turn and it took a very long time to find our way to the hotel--but we made it, finally.

And, the tire held!!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Viscri, Romania: May 25-27, 2014

We enjoyed our rural stay in Miklósvár so much that we decided to have another rural stay one-hour away in the Saxon village of Viscri. In the late 12th-century a Hungarian king invited the Saxons to settle in Transylvania with the condition that the Saxon population help protect the borders from invaders. The church, which became a Saxon church in late 12th century, was rebuilt and modified in the 14th through 16th centuries. It began as a Catholic Church, but after the Reformation changed to Luthern. Because the church is so well preserved, it is now a UNESCO Heritage site. The church walls are surrounded by the graves of the once large Saxon population.

After the 1989 revolution, perhaps fearing the lawlessness that prevailed, most of the Saxon population migrated to Germany.  In Romania they were known as Germans; in Germany they are known as Romanians. Today, only 12 Saxons live in Viscri.  The rest of the population is Romanian and Roma.

The Saxon houses in Viscri are quite well preserved.  We stayed at Viscri 125 (, a Saxon house that behind its gates, has been converted to a hotel and restaurant. Before Viscri 125 was beautifully renovated, it was vacant for many years, and the townspeople had kept animals in the house and barn without ever shoveling out the manure.

One day we went for a four-hour hike in the hills and pastures surrounding Viscri.

Near the end of the hike, we met the tile maker.  His name is Gheorghi. He told us he is Hungarian.  He makes terra cotta roofing tiles, lime for paint, and is also a blacksmith. He transports nearby clay to his workshop and then mixes it into the correct consistency for roofing tiles. He makes one fish-scale tile at a time with a metal form. Each tile is set on a wooden board that is then slid into a drying rack. The drying rack will hold 5,000 tiles.  When the weather is a good temperature, it takes about 36 days for the tiles to be dry enough to go into his kiln.  Once in the kiln, they are wood fired for one day. Subsequently, he fires one side of the kiln and then the other over a 10-day period.  His tiles are on most of the newly refurbished roofs of Viscri.  The Mihai Emenescu Trust (funded by the Prince of Wales), paid for his fabrication shed and has supported most of the renovation and preservation of Viscri.

On our last night in Viscri, an interesting Tractor/camper combination showed up.  The owner is French and he is on a 3-year journey from France to Mongolia.  He parks the tractor/camper during the winter months and flies back to France.  When spring weather returns, he flies back to where he left his RV.  The tractor/camper can travel as fast as 20 kilometers/hour (12.5 miles/hour).  He has 1000 liters of water and 1000 liters of petrol stored in the space between the camper and the tractor. That is also where he keeps his small motorcycle.  Because the tractor noise is loud, he wears ear-protector headphones while he drives. He can sleep inside the camper or he also has a folding two-person tent on top the roof of the tractor.

We went to dinner at Viscri 22 a restaurant in another Saxon house. Gherda, the chef and owner, is a founder of the slow-food movement in Romania ( While we ate our delicious dinner (duck broth soup with polenta dumplings, salad, and slow roasted turkey pieces) we watched the animals come home for the evening.

The dog and cat waited at the front door, turkeys, chickens, geese and their goslings came home and were let into the back yard. Unfortunately, some of the goslings are not too smart and went to the wrong side of the gate.  It took several minutes and human intervention to convince the hysterical goslings to go through the open part of the gate.  Finally, the cows, horses, and goats returned to their homes after their day in the fields.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Miklósvár, Romania: May 22-25, 2014

After the tour, we were ready for a slower paced day and our own schedule.  Also, Dan was beginning to show signs of a cold. Back when we were planning our vacation, we planned to visit the Maramureş region of Romania after the Transylvania tour, but we found Transylvania so lovely we decided to see more of it.

We drove to Miklósvár Village. Miklósvár is a Szekler village which means it was settled by and still occupied by Hungarians. Miklósvár is the oldest documented settlement of Szeklerland dating back to the 13th century. Today, about 200 families live in the village.

The rural pension we stayed at, a "heritage accommodation," is beautifully restored with period furnishings. With a nod to its Transylvania location, there is a cross above the bed and an amulet of garlic above the doorway.

We were the only guests on our first night at Miklósvár.  Dinner was served for us in the wine cellar in the main house.

The menu included locally produced meats and vegetables prepared with either Romanian or Hungarian recipes. Lunch and dinner were accompanied by Romanian wines.  We felt quite pampered.

The guesthouse owner (whom we did not meet), Count Kalnoky, can trace his lineage back to the 13th century. When Romania became communist, his father and other noblemen fled abandoning their properties.  After the 1989 revolution, the next Count Kalnoky returned to Romania to reclaim the family's property. He was able to reclaim all his properties except the nearby hunting lodge called Kalnoky's Castle. The lodge dates back to the 1500s.  Just before his father fled Romania ahead of the communists, he lost the castle in a gambling bet. Although the nobel man who won the lodge has said it should be given back to the Kolnokys, the town council still retains ownership. It is badly in need of renovation, but one of the rooms in the lodge has been made available for overnight guests.

 The Kalnoky hunting lodge and an ancestor.

We did some hiking through the pastures and into the woods near Miklósvár.  The fields were full of wildflowers.

Every Transylvanian town we have been in has storks in residence.  Wire frames have been placed on top of poles to accommodate the stork nests. Storks are believed to be lucky and bring good things to the town.

On our second night, we were joined by a group of four women (UK and French) who had been horseback riding for several days.  We were talking politics, and the French woman told us a joke:
Bill and Hillary Clinton stopped to get gasoline (petrol) in their car.  Bill pointed at the attendant and asked Hillary, "What do you think your life would have been like if you had married a gas station attendant?" Hillary responded, "If I had married him, he would have been the president."
 On our last day, we stopped in to see Miklósvár's blacksmith, Barobaş Gyuri, at work.

Dan and I visited other disappearing traditional crafts in the area around Miklósvár. In the village of Kisbacon we visited a water mill where grain is ground for animals and wheat is finely ground into flour. The aged mill owner also weaves and has passed on this skill to her son and granddaughter Biborka (Scarlet).

In Vârghiş (another Szekler village), we visited a lime kiln.  Making lime is back-breaking work.  It takes 5 kilos of limestone to make 1 kilo of lime.  Lime is used as a whitewash.  The limestone is baked in a kiln for 2 days and cooled for several more.  The resulting product is crushed and strained and water is added.  This is bagged up into 5 kilo amounts that sell for about 4 Euros each.

In the center of Vârghiş we visited a woodcarver who can trace his family back 15 generations.  Two brothers came to Vârghiş over 400 years ago to do restoration work on a castle that had been burned. Since that time, someone in the Şutú family has become a woodcarver.  The front gate was carved in the 1960s to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the family in Vârghiş.

The front room of the woodcarver's house is filled with beautiful pieces made by him and by his ancestors.  The bed piled with pillows is a way of showing guests the family's status. The more pillows piled on top, the higher the status.  The slab of marble used by the many generations to grind pigment for paint is in this room. The family does not use the room it is only to receive guests, and this is where the woodcarver paints.

The Unitarian Church in Vârghiş

In Miklósvár you can relax, hike, ride horses, and at 8:00 pm, watch the cows come home as does the rest of the village. The shepherd job was posted and the applicants were interviewed by the villagers. The women in the village take turns in fixing meals for the shepherd. Every morning about 6:30 am, he walks through the village to gather the livestock and every evening at 8:00 pm he returns with the livestock that seem to know to which house they are supposed to return. Then, it is time for the owner of the animal to take over. That's what "party until the cows come home" means.