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On Private View in the Balkans

Visiting Romania and Bulgaria

At ArbanasiOUR GROUP MILLED AROUND outside a building that appeared to be a stone farmhouse, waiting to go in. When I finally stepped through the low door and my eyes adjusted to the light, hundreds of red-winged angels and gold-haloed saints danced across the ceiling and walls of the Nativity Church at Arbanasi. An hour later I reemerged into the sun and knew my last-minute decision to join a tour to Romania and Bulgaria had been the right one.

Vlad DraculaI’ve long been fascinated by these once forbidden lands behind the Iron Curtain, the east west crossroads with painted churches, gypsies, and post-communist struggles, but I knew very little beyond my curiosity. I discovered the two Balkan neighbors are like rival siblings competing to impress the world with their riches—sixteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites between them, treasure-filled monasteries, world-class music festivals, good beer and wine—and even Dracula, if you can find him. And thanks to Europe’s current difficulties, visitors have the countries to themselves.


Romania and Bulgaria sit on the Balkan Peninsula between Hungary and the former Yugoslavian states, and the Black Sea. Greece and Turkey lie south and I tasted their proximity in Bulgaria’s version of Greek salad and juicy kebabs. The Danube River, which winds its way from Germany to Austria and Hungary before turning south, defines their border and a single bridge, ironically named the Friendship Bridge, links the countries.

The frenemies share ancestors—the Thracians who first settled their fertile plains and mountains—and their religion, albeit Romanian Orthodox and Bulgarian Orthodox. They do not share a language. Roman occupation left Romanians speaking what remains close to Latin while Bulgarians speak a Slavic tongue like their neighbors. Despite the two countries differences and historical squabbles, simultaneous accession into the European Union—and the issues that keep them from the eurozone—bind them uncomfortably together today.

In the town of Bietan“Bulgaria is the most corrupt country in the EU,” said our Romanian guide, Neina. But after a pause she added, “Of course, Romania is corrupt too.” The EU continues to monitor their progress in judicial reform, corruption and, in Bulgaria’s case, organized crime—as well as their treatment of their roma or gypsies.

I asked Neina about the gypsy girls I saw begging on a Bucharest street the way they do in Rome. “We are sensitive about the gypsies,” she said. “They go to other countries and commit crimes and the media calls them Romanians. It gives us a bad name in Europe.” Right now Romania and Bulgaria are doing their best to impress the rest of Europe with their Europe-ness.

Ottomans, Saxons and Dracula

Rila Monastery, BulgariaCultural differences beyond language exist between the two countries thanks to Ottoman invaders who terrorized the Balkans for centuries. Muslim occupation sent Bulgarians fleeing to the mountains to avoid persecution and their culture into hiding in remote monasteries. We visited one of these, the Rila Monastery, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three floors of monks’ quarters create an outer fortress and inside, in the center, sits a red-and-cream striped church with its curly-edged cupolas and black-and-white arches. I gasped when I saw the bright frescoes framing the entrance. Neina was explaining the details of the Last Judgment, a graphic admonition depicted in brilliant blues, oranges and blood reds, when drumming from behind the church interrupted her storytelling. A black-robed monk appeared, beating an elaborate rhythm with a mallet on what looked like a wooden oar. We’d seen this method for calling people to worship in Romania and we followed him inside, welcomed to stand as the Orthodox do during the sung service. In dim candlelight, my eyes scanned Rila’s treasure, the carved, gold-encrusted iconostasis, or screen that hides the altar. Bulgaria has a hundred more monasteries to explore as well as the villages that preserve the unique architectural style called Nationalist Revival that exploded when Ottoman rule waned.

Brasov, TranslyvaniaRomania owes a strange debt to invaders as well. Instead of occupation, the Ottomans allowed self-rule in Romania’s Transylvanian principality where Teutonic Knights were invited to colonize and fight off any further invasion. Thanks to these German settlers, the area is filled with fortified medieval cities with clock towers and brightly painted burgher houses that seem plucked from children’s storybooks.

SighișoaraAt Brașov, one of Transylvania’s most visited cities, I sat in the sun with an ice cream cone and watched kids play in the giant square home to annual music and theater festivals. At Sibiu, our group wandered through its squares lined with Baroque merchant homes and ornate churches. Tiny and vertiginous Sighișoara, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, claims nine towers. I climbed 175 wooden steps to town’s highest point and was treated to an impromptu tour of the church by a lonely ticket taker. The village is also Vlad Dracula’s birthplace. Standing in front of the ochre-colored house, our guide admitted Romanians are sensitive about more than gypsies.

Bran Castle“Bram Stoker took Dracula’s name and twisted everything to make a story,” Neina said. We learned the real Vlad Tepes was a prince who fought Ottoman expansion and was considered a hero. “He impaled people, but he wasn’t a vampire.” The next day at Bran Castle, she told us more. The actual Count may have spent a night or two there, but Romanians huff and puff up to the turreted fortress to see the summer home of their Queen Maria, still appreciated for her contributions to the region. Dracula’s story is given a closet-sized display.

Communist era

Shipka Church, BulgariaThe communist era’s lasting impact on Romania and Bulgaria, visible today in the abandoned factories, crumbling apartment blocks and struggling economies, was like the Ottoman experience—similar and different. In 1989 Romanians executed Nicolae Ceaușescu in a violent revolution while Bulgarians watched their leader quietly resign. Both countries crashed hard after the fall, but Bulgaria took a second belly flop in 2008 thanks to real estate speculation. We passed shuttered real estate offices and faded “for sale” signs in mountain resort towns.

Villages across Bulgaria are empty, people gone to find work elsewhere. At Shipka, we stopped to see the memorial church whose golden domes would look at home in Moscow and found we not only had the brightly painted church to ourselves but also the adjacent village.

Capital adventures

Romania’s and Bulgaria’s capitals are alive, although lacking the glitter of Budapest or Prague. I loved eating in their outdoor restaurants on warm nights after days packed with sightseeing.

Sofia, BulgariaBucharest’s broad, tree-lined boulevards cut through a crazy medley of art deco, Bauhaus, modern, and neoclassical buildings—including an Arc de Triumph—mixed with hideous communist-era monoliths. I started my visit at Revolution Square where Ceaușescu gave his final speech and escaped by helicopter. The rioting crowds nearly destroyed what is now the National Museum of Romanian Art on the square. A short walk from the memorial commemorating those who lost their lives in the revolution, I visited a happier place and another of Bucharest’s landmarks. Inside the Athenaeum, the city’s neoclassical concert hall, I was treated to a demonstration of the hall’s extraordinary acoustics as a Celtic band warmed up for an evening show. I’d planned walk around the lake at nearby Cișmigiu Gardens, but dinner called.

Bucharest StreetOur group headed to Lipscani, the medieval neighborhood that somehow escaped devastating fires and communist-era building frenzy. Cafes and restaurants line the cobblestone lanes and beer pubs pipe American pop onto the street. We ate at Caru cu Bere, one of Bucharest’s oldest beer houses with stained glass and murals from the time Bucharest was called Little Paris. If it hadn’t been for the locals filling the place, I’d have thought the folk dancing was for tourists. I tasted the Romanian beer (good) and ordered my tasty Romanian standby, smoked sausage and beans (very good).

By the time our group reached Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, at the end of ten days, my eyes no longer noticed the communist-era buildings. Instead I found another city with a beautiful center and tree-lined parks. With only a Sunday to explore the Sofia, I walked backward through Bulgarian history starting with this city’s icon, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting for freedom from the Turks. Next stop was the city’s namesake, the Byzantine St. Sofia, and finally Sofia’s oldest building constructed by the Romans, the St. George Rotunda, tucked behind the Sheraton Hotel. Worshipers had packed each church, expressing a freedom they don’t take for granted. 

Sofia, BulgariaBut the sunny day called for more than chanting and incense. At the Sofia City Garden old men played chess and roadies set up for an afternoon concert. I stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace. Obviously not as well known as the guards at Buckingham Palace, these guys were equally well dressed—and again I had them all to myself.

Go now

Romania and Bulgaria will no doubt regain their momentum and attract tourists back to their cities and resorts, but right now their treasures are open for private viewing. In a few years time, I can imagine instead of the hour we had with the angels at Arbanasi, having to reserve my fifteen-minutes with the frescoes.



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