We woke at 8, but Brașov was still asleep; everywhere we looked for food in the now snow-blanketed town was still closed, except the KFC on the central square. There, the prices were exactly like KFC back home – which is to say, by Romanian standards, insanely overpriced. Possibly even worse than home, as I don’t think KFC in Britain ever dared to charge 2 lei for a sachet of mayo. In the end, our indifferent fried chicken breakfast cost as much as the previous night’s fancy sit-down with wine. We wouldn’t have minded so much if the theft wasn’t so incompetently committed, but the shop was a model of stereotypical gormless fast-food-chain incompetence, with eight staff blithely doing nothing behind the counter while rubbish piled up on the tables, no change behind the till, and having to be reminded twice to give me my cup of tea. In high dudgeon, we proceeded to the Biserica Neagră, the Black Church, where Ionut threw snowballs at schoolgirls while we waited for it to open. The church was thoroughly Germanic and very impressive, huge and squarish, its interior filled with painted box pews sponsored by seventeenth century guilds and war memorials to the lost of a hundred wars; it boasts the largest bell in Romania and one of the largest organs anywhere. It’s not very black any more – a sullen grey gritstone with red roof tiles peeping through the snow – the name is from a fire in 1689 that torched the place, and if you look closely you can kid yourself some of the soot is still there.
We drove on through the mountains, on the road to Sinaia, and our next stop was Peleș Castle. Up a well-maintained cobbled path, with pretty old streetlights and iron railings painted dark green, past sword-sized icicles dangling from alcoves and figures in padded jackets hawking tat from wooden stalls – and then it suddenly appeared, surrounded by snowy Carpathians, an unbelievable piece of fin de siècle architectural decadence. I have a great weakness for over-the-top royal bling, especially that of the modern age, and this was very explicitly an electric palace, all designed to show off the wealth and splendour of the then-new nation of Romania (with its new German kings of the House of Hohenzollern – I recognised their motto, “Nothing Without God”, the same as their cousin Kaiser Bill’s.)
The courtyard where we bought our tickets was OTT enough: ground floor in the Italian style but far more intricate, with wrought iron guards for the windows and obsessively carved marble stuff slapped on to fill any blank spaces more than a foot wide; first floor covered in murals of romantic landsknechts against classical backgrounds; second floor an enormous concentration of dark carved wood, more three-quarters-timber than half-timber. But it was nothing compared to the interior: through a marble hall and up a red-carpeted staircase we came to the main “Hall of Honour”, a dark wood baroque fantasyland of utterly obscene detail and intricacy: electric lights and brass heating vents under marble statues, panelled by marquetry from the finest craftsmen in Romania, oil paintings, marble friezes and hanging tapestries on every free surface, statues and carvings of wood, bronze and marble stuck on plinths or tucked into alcoves, under a fun little wooden spiral staircase and a great stained-glass roof – one, apparently, fitted with an electric mechanism so that it could open in the summer.
There was a “Moorish room” with about as much concentrated decoration as the entire Alhambra, a “French room” of full-on rococo and pretty naked ladies, a library of antique books that had probably never been read and museum-pieces to rival any national museum, and the rest, heaps on heaps of it. Best of all, of course, was the armoury. I’d been excitedly pointing bits of history out to the Cucus to the point that our guide asked me to tell her something about the armoury. I initially thought she was being sarcastic, but she really wasn’t – so I pointed out the different periods of Western weapoins proceeding around the wall and started pointed out a set of Indian blades – pata, talwar, khanda, katar – before she regained control and moved us all on to the next room.
I really, really enjoyed Peleș. It was excess in the grandest Victorian style – the unhistorical, overwrought, thoroughly mawkish sort which runs to the point of downright silliness most of the time, and which will probably never be back in fashion – but which is still wonderful for the sheer concentration of craftsmanship and effort and just plain Amount of Stuff, the perfect playground for a king with unlimited money and an endless sense of fun. It was all beautifully kept – preserved during days of communism, the Ceausescu government apparently not caring for it much but not – in a way we don’t see much these days back home, most of our buildings from that era either still in use (but refitted to more conservative tastes) or gone to ruin.
On the road to Bran, talking about history, in the heavy snow; cross-country skiiers off in the woods to one side. The road wound this way and that, then down to the blank white snowfield of the valley floor. Râșnov, individual village houses with snow on terracotta turning to streets lined with multicoloured buildings of all shapes and a core of pastel-striped communist tower blocks. A castle above it, but that wasn’t our destination – we turned up a mountain road to a car park crusted with fresh snow, and a sign to the Valea Cetatii (“fortress valley”) cave. A sign said the cave was 450m away – 450m away up a steep slope of snow just packed enough to be thoroughly treacherous, which I thought was the most difficult 450m of my life until I had to go back down.
We paid a guide to unlock the door, and the big glassy icicles outside gave way to nubby little stalactites inside. The cave was wonderful – huge, echoing, enormous, filled with fascinatingly discoloured rocks, puddles lined with shining minerals, ash from past fires now half-petrified into the floor; a solitary bat half the size of a hand was curled up and sleeping just above the footpath, someone had carved a horse into the mud at the bottom of the main chamber. Our guide explained that they held concerts here, sometimes, and that the passage we entered through had once been blocked with the cave itself once full of water – the day the blockage came loose and the whole cave emptied out gave the place its other nickname, “Vortex Valley.” Then, of course, was all the fun of going back down again.
Bran Castle has a curious and entirely undeserved reputation as “Dracula’s Castle” – and it’s both very touristy and surprisingly empty of actual stuff. Most of the interior exhibits are actually about Princess Marie, the British royal who married Ferdinand of Romania in 1893 and seems to have more or less run the country for the next three decades, who was interesting enough (and the Romanian newsreels from the 1910s and 20s were fascinating) but not what we, or it seemed anyone else, came for. One note, quite far down in the rooms full of stuff about Bram Stoker and the Dracula legend, sheepishly admitted Vlad Țepeș probably only spent a couple of nights there, and nobody mentioned that Stoker knew nothing about the place. It was a very fine castle in its own right, but quite weak compared to the martial immensity of Hunedoara or the ostentatious glory of Peleș.
We were hungry, and all the food shops were shut, so after 10km of driving through mountains covered in conifers and snow we stopped at a little roadside caff for mici and pink tea. There was a pretty girl standing in the car park, and I thought she was a hitch-hiker until I saw her waving at cars going both ways.
Down the hills in the driving snow, visibility terrible, the best indicator of altitude the exterior thermometer, which gradually wound up from -5°. At -3° the slush on the road disappeared and we could go twice as fast; at -2° the giant grey shadows of other mountains could be seen; at -1°, we could even make out the colour of the ground. At 2°, dusk was falling on a landscape that looked as though the snow hadn’t even touched it, and it was like that all the way back to Severin.
Night Drive through Oltenia – Severin, Iron Gates, Baile Herculane – Roman Sarmizegetusa, Castelul Corvinilor, Alba Iulia – Turda salt mines, Sighișoara, Brașov – A Brief Interlude on the History of Transylvania – Black Church, Peleș, Bran Castle