Looking Down From A Great Height – Rasnov Citadel (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #8)

It is one thing to see the painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich. It is quite another thing to have an actual experience that mimics the painting. Friedrich’s painting is a hallmark of romanticism. A lone man stands atop a rocky promontory, he has back turned away from the viewer while staring out at a series of majestic rocks and mountains which can be seen rising above a sea of fog. The man appears to be standing on the precipice of beauty and oblivion. He is shown in a moment of intense contemplation, pondering the scene before him and at the same time, pondering something deep within himself.

For some unknown reason, I have always felt a kinship with the painting. Perhaps it is because I sense a hidden inner struggle going on within this man. He is contemplating not only the world, but also his life. I was lucky enough to have that same experience while on a trip to Transylvania. By a bit of serendipitous camera work, my wife unwittingly captured me in a somewhat similar moment. This happened in Transylvania, at a place we had known nothing about before our arrival. It would turn out to be a serendipitous and unforgettable experience.

From a great height – At Rasnov Citadel

Between Bran & Brasov – A Sublime Setting
Bran and Brasov in southeastern Transylvania are a mere thirty kilometers apart. The former is a town with one of the most famous castles in Europe, the latter is a city with an Old Town par excellence. Hundreds of thousands of tourists travel between Bran and Brasov every summer. They come to take in the scenery of Brasov’s medieval town center. They then travel to Bran by the busload to visit “Dracula’s Castle”, a rather ridiculous and quite successful marketing ploy that has driven hordes of tourists to Bran Castle. The real “Dracula”, Vlad the Impaler, never made his home at Bran. His only relation to the castle was when he may have besieged it in the mid-15th century. Bran Castle is one of those seeing is believing kind of experiences. This, despite the unsightly tourist schlock being sold just down the hill from the castle.  The roadside kitsch on offer does little to detract from the experience. It is still worth taking the time to visit, if for no other reason than to view its impressive battlements and traverse a dizzying array of spiral staircases.

Back in Brasov, the Old Town is full of charm and the setting, close to a mountain side, only adds to its aesthetics. My wife and I visited Brasov and Bran several years ago. It did not take us long to fall in love with the area. The air was crisp and clear, the climate invigorating, the medieval architecture worth its weight in stone and a near fathomless depth of history permeated everything. The interesting thing was that neither Brasov nor Bran was the most impressive place to discover in the area. Instead, it was at the midpoint between the two where we discovered Rasnov, a medieval hilltop citadel cloaked in a sublime fog. The ruined citadel stands high above the town of the same name. Those who make it to the citadel enjoy a spectacular view over the surrounding mountains and the town far below. It is a scene that imposes itself on the memory. The kind of experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Beauty and Oblivion – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

A Lone Conquest – Taking The High Ground
Rasnov has an interesting way of advertising the ruined citadel. Just outside its walls, large white lettering that can be easily seen from the town below spells out the name. It is a bit reminiscent of the Hollywood sign. I have been to both and it is my conviction that nothing in Hollywood can quite compare to Rasnov Citadel. Perhaps that is why some of Hollywood’s brightest minds decided to film parts of the movie Cold Mountain at the citadel. There could scarcely be a more evocative setting. A movie can only do so much to convey the place’s power. Firsthand experience is necessary if one wants to get the full Rasnov experience. On the day of our visit, there was a feeling of chill in the air as a thin veil of fog had settled over the site. The scents of dirt and stone were palpable. The narrowly defined walkways among the ruins can be ankle breakers. There is nothing forgiving about the citadel or the ruins that have been left behind.

Everything inside the citadel, which was as much walled town as defensive fortress, was constructed to withstand a prolonged siege. There is little doubt that the fortress did that job quite well. From when it was first constructed by the Teutonic Knights in the early 13th century, until when its final usage during the 1848 Revolution, the fortress saw off every potential conqueror except for one. The lone conquest occurred in 1612 when Gabriel Bathory, Prince of Transylvania at the time, and his troops were able to take the citadel. They were lucky enough to secure knowledge of a secret route that the citadel’s residents used to procure water. At that time, the citadel lacked a water well. Once this lifeline was cut, it was just a matter of time before surrender. One conquest in five centuries is a testament to just how formidable an obstacle the fortresses walls and the imposing terrain was for an army to overcome.

Spelling it out – Rasnov Citadel (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

A Journey Within – The Joys & Sorrows Of Travel
Speaking of terrain, the best way to get a feel for the citadel’s natural defenses is to walk there. The trek took a half an hour. During that time, I got a greater appreciation of the citadel’s natural defenses. I could not imagine an army loaded down with equipment trying to make this same climb. Most potential conquerors were likely defeated by the time they made it to the walls. I was certainly feeling the effects of the prolonged climb. Ultimate satisfaction only came when I was able to take in the breathtaking view from the top. Looking down from a great height, the town of Rasnov looked more like a miniature set piece. The town was tiny compared to the surrounding landscape. The roadways were ribbons with vehicles moving silently across them.

The world below Rasnov Citadel was one of peace and tranquility, distance brought a new perspective. Later I would regain that perspective from the photo my wife snapped of me looking out over the landscape beyond the citadel. Much like The Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog, I was looking inward as much as outward. I had done something previously unimaginable by coming here, conquering not only a mountain, but also myself. Travel was about more than the Brasovs or Bran Castles of the world, it was about pushing onward to find a greater truth, one that is hidden within. Rasnov was not on any agenda or itinerary. As a matter of fact, I had never planned to visit it. That was how I arrived at Rasnov Citadel. Looking at that photo now, makes me wish I had never left. Such are the joys and sorrows of travel.

Click here for: The Kindness of Strangers – Keszthely: An Unexpected Guest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #9)

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