Romania: Bran Castle, Padina Ursului and Bucharest

This summer I went to Romania for the first time, a visit I thoroughly enjoyed. The country was an enigma of welcoming openness and hardened reserve. It’s certainly a meeting of East and West; you do feel you’re in Europe but the countryside is reminiscent of a country like India.

Houses in RomaniaTrain from Budapest to Romania

We took a beautiful overnight train from Budapest to Brasov, which is a much more intimate way to first enter a country than in the blur of a speeding car. We could see the houses and the fields and the people, like a movie playing out the window. The sun set on one world and rose on another.

Bran Castle

Brasov, Romania

We got off at Brasov at 8:20 a.m., after a night of many sights and slight sleep. Green mountains surround the well-aged town, and cobblestones, cafes and shops invite you in. After breakfast, we went to Bran Castle, the castle associated with Vlad the Impaler and Dracula, which in itself wasn’t all that besides a great view and an impressively spacious place to live (all the original furniture was removed three years ago when the museum was privatized, and now resides in a nearby state-run museum of a crowded 8 rooms instead of the castle’s 57, explained our guide).

But the visit was well worth it for the tour, given by a volunteer named Ardina, which was honest, informative, interesting, funny and quite charming. Basically, there’s no connection between the castle and Dracula: Bram Stoker, who had never been even remotely nearby, described Dracula’s castle identically (perhaps coincidentally), but the location — and the association of Romania with vampires — was a mistake (this is the land of werewolves).

After movies about Dracula came out in the middle of the 20th century, people came looking for him. “Romanians are extremely smart,” said Ardina, and when visitors asked the few residents if this was where Dracula lived, they said “I don’t know.” Then the movies came to Romania. And then tourists returned, this time with money. And so when they asked if this was where Dracula lived, the Romanians said “maybe.”
“And when you hear ‘maybe,’ to you it means ‘yes,’” quipped our guide, “and to them it meant ‘no.’”

Of course, people come to hear about Dracula, so the tour guides indulge — there’s a whole room dedicated to his story. But our guide was refreshingly and amusingly honest about how far the myth grew from the “truth,” before you even start to consider the existence of vampires.

Along with plenty of stories, both historical and mythical, we also got a sickening description of how Vlad became “the Impaler” by killing people in the cruelest, most painful way possible.

After passing through the village of booths outside the gate selling souvenirs, toys, craftwork and clothing, we sat at a cafe for drinks. A Romanian friend of ours who was showing us around got us a loaf of kürtős kalács (sometimes called chimney cake in English), a delicious, sugary pastry that comes in a long hollow spiral. You peel the thin pieces off like unraveling a giant one of those cardboard tubes at the center of paper towel rolls.

Padina Ursului

View from Padina Ursului in the mountains in Romania

We stayed the night in a lovely hotel up in the mountains, less than half an hour from Bran Castle. The view was wonderful, with mountains and green fields; people were working and building in them while groups of guests sat around the large wooden tables outside. There was a pool table inside, a ping pong table in a small pavilion outside, and a barbecue area where a man cooked meat.

There were many nice places to sit — to think, to write, to chat or eat or drink, or simply to relax. But exploring alone, I felt like I had wandered into a large private family gathering, with no one I knew. I felt unsure of my place, but no one minded my misplacement.

View from inside Padina Ursului in Romania

We had a large enough group that our dinner was in a separate room with a panoramic view of the mountains. It was a traditional Romanian meal, and our quiet server brought course after course, each more lavish and filling than the last. It was a feast.

In order of appearance: Tuica shot Tuica (A strong alcohol [“the Romanian vodka”], which is drank before the meal because then, apparently, you’ll be able to eat more)

Telemea cu ardei gras (Cottage cheese with red pepper) Telemea cu ardei gras (Cottage cheese with red pepper)

Brinza de burduf (Romanian sheep's milk cheese) Brinza de burduf (Romanian sheep’s milk cheese)

Ciorba de fasole cu ciolan (Bean soup with pork) Ciorba de fasole cu ciolan (Bean soup with pork)

Bulz (Specially prepared maize porridge with cheese)

Pastrav la cuptor (Baked trout, on the platter) Pastrav la cuptor (Baked trout, with lemons in the aluminum foil). I had a whole one to myself.

Vegetables Vegetables

Friptura vita, friptura miel, friptura porc, cirnaciori, cartofi la cuptor (Roast beef, roast lamb, roast pork, sausages, and baked potatoes) Friptura vita, friptura miel, friptura porc, cirnaciori, cartofi la cuptor (Roast beef, roast lamb, roast pork, sausages, and baked potatoes)

Placinta cu brinza (Cheese pie) Placinta cu brinza (Cheese pie)

By the end, I was so stuffed I hesitated adding honey to my tea.

After dinner, we went on a slow walk down the road, with a full moon in the sky (in werewolf territory!). The road was dark but the houses seemed lively — lest we forget the pervasiveness of American culture, Flo Rida’s “Right Round” blared from an open doorway. In a courtyard, kids played a rowdy ball game. But for the most part the night was tranquil, and perfect for a quiet stroll, as long as we kept our eyes on the road to avoid the many cow pies, and to step aside for the occasional speeding car.

Back at the hotel, groups still populated the tables outside, and classic rock played softly from a set of speakers by the restaurant’s door. I was feeling more comfortable of my place in the outside area. There was free Wi-Fi if you knew where to sit (outside on the balcony or in the adjacent sitting room both worked for me), but using it more than a little felt like it would cheapen the natural, un-distracting atmosphere of a hotel in the Romanian mountains.

Breakfast at Padina Ursului in Romania

The next morning, we ate a breakfast buffet in the restaurant, of thankfully simpler food: eggs, cheese, vegetables, grilled tomatoes with melted cheese, sliced meats, toast and cereal.

Bucharest

We drove to Bucharest, and the contrast of city and countryside was clear. I would have liked to spend more time in the countryside, because while Bucharest was nice, it was like any city — busy, crowded, modern. I found the culture and antiquity of the mountain more unique and alluring. In Bucharest, everything was big: big buildings, big streets. Big advertisements. The advertising was pervasive; walking down a main road one night, there was more light from a giant electronic advertising screen than from the street lights.

The weather was hot — the hottest summer in decades — and if I were to summarize the sightseeing of summer days in Bucharest, it would be this: short shorts and long legs. And the nights: short shots and long drinks.

A bar in Bucharest, Romania

We went to the Lipscani/Old Town area at night, and the streets were clustered with bars and cafes, with people lounging at the tables outside and dancing to loud music inside. As the night got later, every venue seemed packed, and people flooded the streets, like fleshy tributaries feeding the surging social river. The streets were as crowded as the bars and cafes that lined them; not a meter of space was wasted.

Sitting with a drink at one of the bar’s outside tables, the people-watching was world class. An endless stream of locals and tourists pushed through the corridor left between each venue’s tables and chairs, of many ages, types, and outfits, an unlikely ensemble of late night characters.

Drinks are cheap, and there was a good variety of music between the various venues. And there’s much more nightlife than the area we sampled. If you’re looking to party, Bucharest won’t disappoint.

The food is cheap too, and you can have an excellent meal for the price you’d pay for an average dinner in a country like France.

Palace of the Parliament in Romania

I didn’t do much sightseeing, but I did walk to the Palace of the Parliament (often called the People’s House), a massive, imposing building that dominates everything around it. The scale is absolutely bonkers. Which is not a word I use lightly (or ever). It’s the largest nonmilitary administrative building in the world, and the heaviest building in the world. The inside was closed when I arrived, but it’s worth visiting simply for the sheer scale of it.

To be continued

My time in Romania was fleeting and indulgent, an intriguing, alluring summer fling that left me wanting more. I do hope to return some day, to trek the mountains and partake in the party. It’s a country and a people begging to be discovered and savored.

(Special thanks to Victor for labeling the food)

Ghostly Golden Gate

We went to Golden Gate Park tonight, by a small lake. We were surrounded by fog, the only lights coming from distant yellow street lamps. The water rippled and clouds of cold fog blew across it. It was amazing, mystical, and creepy. I felt a mix of awe and doom.

We sat in the car, and a silhouette walked by the water, with long hair and a long coat. In its hand, an iPhone shone bright white against the night.

At SFAI, George Kuchar comes back to life

I first heard of the Kuchar brothers — George and Mike — in a class (taught by Denah Johnston) earlier this year where we watched portions of a documentary on them and saw clips from their films, and it was interesting. But that was it: just interesting. Weird, unconventional, unique, even inspiring in some parts (but invoking a feeling of pity in others). Certainly interesting — but nothing more. I wasn’t hooked. It didn’t have any obvious lasting effect on me.

Then I visited the Living in Studio Kuchar exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute. Seeing all of George’s work carefully arranged, presented uniquely and interactively in a mesh of multimedia creativity, in the company of ardent fans and others like myself only just discovering his incredible legacy, changed everything. I “got” something more about his work. Arriving in an excellent mood, having a good time even before entering the main exhibit and the free wine and food certainly helped put me in the right place, but it was the awesome set up and the art itself that sealed the deal. I didn’t feel like I was seeing his art and films, I felt like I was experiencing them, discovering them.

The pictures spread askew across all the walls, framing projections of selected films. Brightly colored walls and huge, catchy quotes. Hanging screens with more video. Televisions with more video. A private viewing room with more video. Video tape players attached to the televisions so you could choose what to watch, and a record player where you could choose the record. Benches to sit on to watch the films, or just to take it all in. Paintings. Random curios. A stage with costumes, props and cameras.

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Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon panorama

Over millions of years, water flowed and the earth fell away, like an exquisite woman slowly undressing to reveal the naked beauty beneath. Rocks of beige and red, sinuous green water still searching, blue sky backdrop and, in winter, a white blanket of snow, all spread across the vastness of the canyon. Breathtaking in its stark magnificence, the Grand Canyon is a feat only nature could have orchestrated.

Nature, the ultimate sculptor. Tireless and persistent, she is the world’s greatest artist. And this, the Grand Canyon, is her masterpiece.

Photo Credit: Pierre Parent

San Francisco

San Francisco is a city of extremes. Today I saw a woman with red lipstick smeared on her face waving her arms while marching down the street, who turned into a man as she got closer. Moments later I passed a group of businessmen in suits complaining about the dust from construction. A homeless man dozes outside a fancy Starbucks where customers line up for the luxury of $4 coffee. Destitute beggars plead for “any change”, while I see headlines about entrepreneurs recieving million-dollar investments. Scarcity is flanked by plenty.

At 2:10 in the morning, I saw a street brawl break out, while — literally across the street — a model and camera crew stood around waiting to start shooting. “You fucking pussies!” shouted a gaunt man after his retreating assailants, who moments ago were pummeling him as he stumbled on the ground. Across the street, the model and her crew got back to work.

A 2011 survey ranked San Francisco as having the second highest quality of living in the United States. It’s also the city with the highest concentration of homeless in the country.

The weather can be warm and sunny, while across town perpetual fog hangs over grid-lined streets.

Tenderloin to Pacific Heights, luxury to dearth, rich to poor, inspiring to heartbreaking, everything to nothing. San Francisco seems to have it all.

And that seems to be part of the charm — or if not charm, at least appeal. There’s something for everyone. The panhandler living off disability checks and change, the college student eating microwave dinners and going clubbing on the weekends, the budding entrepreneur looking for investors, the business executive in a condo with a view. San Francisco, at the end of the day, is simply a great place to call home.

Withdrawal

(Written August 4, 2011, 9:10 p.m. At “La Taverne du Midi“, just outside Gare de Bordeaux St. Jean, waiting for my night train towards Italy with a cold beer)

Withdrawal.

I know I can get by just fine without my computer; without the television shows saved on it, my notes and drafts and the relative effortlessness of typing; and when I have an internet connection (which, these days, is easier to find than a payphone), access to my favorite sites, instant communication, and immediate information.

I know that, once I adjust, I might not even miss it. It’s almost a relief, not to feel the constant pull of my computer and (more markedly) the internet.

But what I yearn for—what the internet really represents—is distraction.

Distraction. Something to get me out of my mind. Anything to avoid a moment’s ennui.

I’m so used to having something to turn to whenever boredom creeps up, or whenever there’s something I’m trying to avoid. Avoid doing, avoid thinking about, avoid being.

It’s the transition that’s the hardest.

Withdrawal. But then relief. My mind is free. I read. I read to read, not to avoid. I write. Focus comes easier. Ideas feel less urgent, less pressing. There’s no rush. No self-inflicted distractions. No seducing pull.

Freedom.

(9:30. I finish my beer and head back into the station)

The Night’s Turn

(Written Thursday night, June 9, 2011, in Paulden)

What beauty — that long moment when the sky is split between day and night, the fading glow of day meeting the darkening blue of night. The moon shines bright already, a stunning alternative to its even brighter cousin.

Stars begin to appear, like scattered diamond dust, glimmering more vividly every second.

Creatures of the day are silent, the chattering of cicadas replaced by the laughter of crickets. Occasionally, some distant beast makes its presence known with a squawk, croak or squeal. Soon, all remnants of day will be gone — its heat, its light, its sounds. It is the night’s turn now.

The Sounds and Silence of Nature

(Written Thursday, June 9, 2011, in Paulden)

It’s amazing how nature can simultaneously seem so quiet and so alive. Birds chirp and sing, bees buzz, cicadas rattle and the wind gently blows. And yet it all seems so calm and tranquil, like an aura of silence around nature’s constant noise.

Natural Beauty

(Written Wednesday evening, June 8, 2011, on a rock atop a ridge in Paulden as the sun sets on the second night of a three-day retreat)

A truly beautiful sunset is difficult to adequately describe. Of course, an analogy would be best, but at its most incredible, nature is a class of its own, beauty beyond comparison. Nature lends itself graciously as a descriptor of other things, or of other facets of nature. But no unnatural thing can yet match nature’s majesty, in person or on paper.1 Whether the contours of a naked body, the smile of a happy face, or the stunning palette spread by the setting sun, natural beauty is the greatest beauty in the world.


  1. Even when a description or representation comes close, it then creates its own beauty, separate from the natural beauty of whatever is being described.