The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)

Ada Kaleh was a survivor, until one day it was not. The island survived World Wars I and II, the collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and a quarter century of communist rule. What it could not survive was progress. Sooner or later the modern world was bound to intrude upon the island. It was a miracle that Ada Kaleh survived as an outpost of Ottomanism for as long as it did. The Danube. which created, sustained, and protected it, ended up engulfing it. The same force of nature that allowed Ada Kaleh’s community to survive and thrive would end up drowning it. Ada Kaleh greatest sin was getting in the way of progress. When Romania and Yugoslavia’s leaders decided that the Danube would be harnessed for hydropower, the island’s inhabitants could do nothing about it.

The idea of progress – Iron Gate 1 hydroelectric power plant

Dammed If They Do – From Rivers to Reservoirs
The sight of a reservoir fills me with sadness. In my career, I have been lucky enough to work along such majestic American waterways as the Missouri, Bighorn and North Platte Rivers. While they are all still considered rivers, each of them was dammed in multiple places during the decades following World War II. The craze for dam building in the United States was in response to floods, hydropower needs, and irrigation projects. While capitalist and communist systems of governments were opposites in almost every respect, dam building was something both east and west had in common. Several of the Soviet Union’s most famous projects, for instance the Dnipro dam in Ukraine, harnessed waterpower. These were part of the rapid industrialization of the country. Many other communist countries believed that they could benefit from damming rivers.

Dams could improve navigation, flood control, and generate massive amounts of hydropower. For these reasons, particularly the latter, Romania and Serbia agreed in 1964 to jointly construct what would become known as the Iron Gate Hydropower Project. It took six years before the construction on the project began. Iron Gate Hydropower project was aptly named since it would be located at the 117- kilometer-long Iron Gate Gorge. A more scenic spot could hardly have been selected. Tragically, construction of the largest dam on the Danube – which would take place between 1970 – 72 – meant that Ada Kaleh’s days were numbered. The mile long, quarter mile wide island, was no match for the 220 square kilometer reservoir to be created by the dam. There was nothing Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants could do about the project. Protests in authoritarian Romania offered a path to imprisonment. The one question looming in everyone’s mind was what would happen to those living on Ada Kaleh.

Lost in time – Women in Ada Kaleh (Credit:

Moving On – Lands of Opportunity
In 1967 the island was visited by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who offered its inhabitants the opportunity to resettle in Turkey. This was an offer many would accept since Turkey offered a more dynamic economy and greater personal freedoms than they could ever enjoy in Romania. On the other hand, Turkey was a foreign country to the inhabitants on Ada Kaleh. While they shared a common language, the Turkish spoken by those living on the island had developed into a distinct dialect. In a sense, they were always going to be outsiders. The cloistered world of Ada Kaleh could not have been much more different than the modern world. A couple of other options were also offered to the island’s inhabitants.

For those who wanted to stay in Romania, they were offered the opportunity to relocate in the Dobruja region in eastern Romania where there was a significant Muslim population. Another option seemed to offer greater promise. Downriver from Ada Kaleh and the proposed dam was Simian Island. It stood within sight of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the largest city in the Iron Gates area. The island was also located across from a town that bore the same name as the island. The idea was to construct a “New Ada Kaleh” on the island by first moving the most significant structures to Simian Island. The inhabitants were then to follow. One of the first structures to be moved was the fortress for which the island had been named. Unfortunately, it would also be one of the last. The resettlement project never happened.

The end of Ada Kaleh was both a slow and swift process. As the water rose, the island which had sheltered an improbable community for two hundred thirty years was slowly submerged. Soon there was nothing left of the island except for memories. Even the towering minaret from the turn of the 20th century mosque, which had been one of the island’s most notable landmarks, no longer existed. Instead of leaving it standing partially above the water line, it had been dynamited so as not obstruct navigation. Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants were scattered across Romania and Turkey. They had trouble integrating into larger societies. An insular, island world was the only life they had ever known. Those who chose to stay in Romania belatedly realized that the promises previously made to them would not be kept. Those who moved to Turkey had more freedom, but soon discovered they had little in common with a fast paced, urban society. The only world in which they truly fit was now buried thirty meters beneath the Danube.
Ada Kaleh was now history.

Floating away – Ada Kaleh in 1966 (Credit: Leo Wehrli)

Latent Ottomanism – The Slow Burn of Memory
There will never be another Ada Kaleh. That distant and mystical world of latent Ottomania which continued long after the empire’s expiration date, that culture of exoticism which organically grew on the edge of the Iron Gates is gone forever. An entire world had once existed in an area smaller than most villages. Customs that had long since faded into obscurity were still obeyed. Coffee and tea houses with the low hum of endless conversations, old men sitting in the streets while smoke rose from cigarettes that burned to the edges of their fingertips, bad teeth and black bread, the habitual haggling in the bazaar, the children hiding within the fortress walls, the unseen women who were the backbone of every family and that society all that would flicker and fade in the slow burn of memory. Ada Kaleh survived for centuries against incredible odds. The island had finally been beaten by the one thing it had passively resisted for so long, the idea of progress.

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Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

“An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island was the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” – Between The Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

A strange thing happened while Ada Kale enjoyed its insular obscurity, World War I. While the island was a bastion of tradition, many other time honored traditions across Europe were being destroyed. As war raged in the nations that surrounded the island, Ada Kale’s sublime existence continued much as before. The island was much too far from the battlefields on which the Ottomans fought for that fading empire to show interest in their subjects. Nine hundred kilometers separated the empire and the island. They empire continue to send gendarmes to the island, but other than that, Ada Kaleh was an afterthought.

Since the Ottoman Empire fought along with the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary, Ada Kaleh made it through the war unscathed. In contrast, two of the nations which were just a short ferry ride from the island, Serbia and Romania, suffered grievously during the war. In 1915, Serbia suffered an invasion from the Central Powers which led to occupation during the war. The same happened to Romania after they entered the war in 1916. Meanwhile, the Danube stayed secured through the efforts of Austria-Hungary’s naval flotilla. By the end of the war, the situation reversed. Serbia and Romania were triumphant. Both expanded their territory, gaining much of it at the expense of Austria-Hungary which dissolved. At the same time, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Ada Kaleh was now alone.

The old guard – Men having coffee on Ada Kaleh

Tourism & Tobacco – An Exotic Outpost
With neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire in existence after the war, Ada Kaleh found itself stranded in a geo-political netherworld. Every side that had fought in the war wanted to either acquire or hold on to territory. The problem for Ada Kaleh is that its former masters had vanished. Whereas Austria-Hungary had willfully ignored it and the Ottomans treated the island as a loose appendage, other rising nation states might see things differently. It was not until five years after the war had ended that Ada Kaleh learned of its new overseer. The successor state to the Ottomans came about through Turkish victories on the battlefield. When the newly formed Republic of Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, it ceded any authority over the island. The residents of Ada Kaleh then decided to join Romania. Unfortunately, this also meant that the residents would be relinquishing their privileges. The latter had played a role in stimulating the economy.

Ada Kaleh was now part of the mainland, at least in an administrative sense. This would cause a high degree of economic hardship. The island would become impoverished, Sadly, this was at least one thing it had in common with post-World War I Romania. Restoration of privileges was foremost on islander’s minds. They were lucky enough to get a visit from King Carol II in 1931. Touched by the suffering that he witnessed, the king decided to restore Ada Kaleh’s privileges. This allowed the island to regain its economic footing. Tourism and tobacco were once again mainstays of the economy. Smuggling also became a lucrative enterprise. The island soon settled into a new existence which was much like its old one. Obscure and overlooked, Ada Kaleh was a backwater on Romania’s western frontier. An exotic outpost on the fringes of a struggling nation. It reminded visitors of what life must have been like when the Ottomans ruled over the Balkans. Coffee houses proliferated, the bazaar sold textiles and jewelry along with other consumer accoutrements, smoking was not so much a habit as a way of life.

Historic rendering – Ada Kaleh drawing from the 19th century

The Literary Vagabond – In The Form Of Fermor
After the restoration of Ada Kale’s privileges, it was not long before the economy picked back up. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors came to the island to shop at the bazaar or along the Eruzia, the main shopping street where a range of goods were on offer. It is the type of tourism seen today in the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo or Old Bar in Montenegro. Unlike those places, Ada Kule was not marketing the past. It was a dynamic, vibrant community. A mystic form of the Ottomans to outsiders, but this was a reality for the approximately six hundred inhabitants on the island. The scent of tobacco mixed with coffee was pervasive, the fetid environment lush with exoticism, a slice of the Orient along the Danube, Ada Kale’s aesthetic resonated with those who visited.

One of its visitors during the 1930’s was none other than Patrick Leigh Fermor, the literary vagabond who was in the second year of his epic journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (Istanbul). He took a keen interest in Ada Kaleh. Fermor read anything he could find about the island prior to his visit. In his book, he relates a bit of legendary background by reciting the story of the Argonauts passing through the island before making a historic portage to the Adriatic. The legend is quite enchanting and patently false which Fermor surely knew. He then provides a rundown of the island’s more recent history, giving the classic description of Austria-Hungary holding “a vague suzerainty” over the island during the pre-World War I era.

Shadows from the past – Ada Kaleh street scene

Atmospheric Rendering – Down By The Danube
After landing, Fermor finds the usual Ottoman aesthetics when invited to partake of coffee with a group of grizzled men. He is a keen observer of these descendants of the Turks. They were unlike any other people he had met thus far on his journey. Fermor’s descriptions are colorful in the extreme with boleros, sashes and fezzes all making appearances in the most eyepopping colors imaginable. Fermor describes the island’s otherworldliness, as though he had set foot on an entirely different planet. The residue of Ottomania wafts through his narrative. In true Fermor fashion, he spends the night sleeping out in the open down by the Danube as fish splash in the river and meteors streak across the sky. That night he has a dream where half a millennium before, King Sigismund’s crusading force cross the Danube at this very same spot while going to battle the Ottoman Turks. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent and atmospheric rendering of an island that would cease to exist a mere three and a half decades after the intrepid wanderer’s visit.

Click here for: The Idea of Progress – Ada Kaleh: Drowned by The Danube (Part Four)

Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

The more I researched Ada Kale, the more I wanted to travel there. Since the island lies beneath the roiling waters of the Danube such a visit would be problematic. The best any tourist can do is take a boat to the island’s pre-1970 location before it sank beneath the Danube. I spent time looking at various river cruise options if someone fancied a journey down the middle and lower portions of Europe’s most famous river. Dreams of approaching the Iron Gates on a late summer day while studying the river’s surface for a hint of the island buried beneath it danced in my head. My dreams of such a journey went temporarily on hold when I saw the alarming costs of “a river cruise.” The most affordable of the options was a seven-day journey from Budapest to the Black Sea which cost thousands of dollars.

Seeing the expense helped me realize the value of name recognition. People are willing to pay a premium for the opportunity to sail the Blue Danube, which is not blue at all. If only Strauss had immortalized the Vistula or the Volga Rivers in a waltz. Exorbitant in the extreme is an apt description of Danube River cruises. However, cheaper options are available. Boat trips from the nearby city of Orsova that take visitors through the Iron Gates area run for as little as nine euros. For that price, I could imagine making multiple trips or even chartering a boat to circle the spot where Ada Kaleh lies buried. Sadly, that is as close as anyone is likely to ever get to the island in the coming centuries.

Ottomania – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in the early 20th century

On The Fringes – A Precarious Position
The 20th century began in promising fashion for the inhabitants of Ada Kule. A new mosque went up in 1903. No less a dignitary than the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II, donated a large carpet to grace its interior. He wanted to ensure that his subjects knew that the Empire was still aware of its northernmost outpost in Europe. Ada Kaleh was an exotic point of pride for an empire that had labelled as “the Sick Man of Europe.” The Ottomans were maintaining a tenuous grip on territorial outposts in southern Europe. They had lost their last toehold on the Danube after Bulgaria achieved independence in 1878. Their invasion had of the Balkans and parts of East-Central Europe had followed the Danube. Ottoman power was now in its twilight years. Decline, retreat, and absence, best characterizes the Ottoman influence in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Stagnation, corruption, and ossification all were bringing the empire to is knees. This left Ada Kaleh in a precarious position.

The island’s residents were at the mercy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or newer nations such as Romania and Serbia whose territory was within a short boat ride of the island. Of course, these states had more important internal issues to worry about than a small island of people with antiquated customs speaking a strange tongue. As for those who called Ada Kaleh home, they still enjoyed de facto protection from the Sultan. Its citizens also enjoyed other privileges that made life on the island pleasant, if not prosperous. For instance, they were exempt from military service and taxes. The island’s inhabitants lived a life insulated from much of the modern world.

Headed downriver – Ada Kaleh in the late 19th century

Economic Imperatives – Tripping Out
Just as Ada Kaleh held the distinction of being the last Ottoman territory in Europe (other than eastern Thrace which is still part of Turkey today), it also became the last territorial acquisition by the Kingdom of Hungary. In 1913, Austria-Hungary annexed Ada Kaleh, which should have meant Hungarians would administer it. The Ottomans decided to ignore what turned out to be an administrative maneuver and little else. They continued to supply administrative personnel. This included police sent from Istanbul to help the island manage its own affairs. The annexation did nothing to change facts on the ground. Life continued much as before for the island’s residents. While the rest of Hungary and greater Europe was in the throes of industrialization, A lone cigarette factory was the extent of industry on the island. Tobacco was one of the staples grown on the island. Ada Kaleh also had the status of a free port which helped boost its economy.

Prior to the First World War Ada Kaleh was a destination for both trade and tourism. The latter popular enough to get an entry in the final Baedeker Guide to Austria-Hungary published in 1911. The guidebook devoted a quarter of a page to details of the island and how to visit it. Those who fancied a visit to Ada Kule take a boat from near the Austro-Hungarian frontier guard station on the northern shoreline of the Danube. For the price of four crowns, tourists could not only visit the island, but also take in the Iron Gates. For those looking to just visit the island, they could get a boat from the Romanian village of Veciorova a bit further downriver at a cost of only two crowns. The Baedeker was known for its strict adherence to detail, but there was one notable error in the Ada Kaleh entry. The guidebook stated the Austrians had taken the island in 1878, the same year they occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina. That was not true, but their Austro-Hungarian border personnel did control crossings to it from imperial territory.

A Turkish colony – Citizens of Ada Kaleh in a postcard from 1901

A Turkish Colony – Oriental Exoticism
Baedeker termed the island a “Turkish colony.” Visitors could visit the bazaar, cemetery, and old fortification. They could also enjoy a Turkish coffee, while they perused items for sale in the bazaar. Tobacco must have lured visitors to open their wallets. Baedeker warned prospective visitors that it would be subject to customs duties. Thus, there was no great discount obtained by purchasing tobacco on the island. Surrounding attractions also lured visitors to the island. Since Ada Kaleh was so close to the Iron Gates, those who came to see the natural wonder could also enjoy the island’s exoticism on their way downriver. Those lucky enough to visit Ada Kaleh before the war did not know that they were seeing a community that would soon be subject to the massive geo-political changes to come in the next few years. The First World War would be a turning point in the history of Ada Kaleh.

Click here for: Drifting Away – Ada Kaleh: Refuge on The Danube (Part Three)

The Ottoman Outlier – Ada Kaleh: An Island Apart In The Danube (Part One)

Hundreds of years from now there will come a moment when the dams which hold back the Danube River give way. As the deluge begins to drain downriver, natural wonders long since submerged by manmade reservoirs will reappear. Slowly rising to the surface, these wonders will remind anyone lucky enough to see them of the losses incurred by the dams. These wonders include an island waiting to be rediscovered near the Iron gates of the Danube, that narrow, rocky, river route through which the Danube passed prior to construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. Even today, the area has a commendable degree of natural beauty that recommends it to visitors. The awe-inspiring rock formations of the Iron Gates can still tower above the waterline. Unfortunately, the same is not true for an island that vanished into the depths after the construction of Iron Gate I.

An isolated existence – Ada Kaleh in a 1909 postcard

Creating A Community – A Contested Space
The evocatively named island of Ada Kaleh (island fortress) drowned beneath a rising reservoir in 1970. The island had been one of the most unique communities in Europe. It was the last European possession of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks first set foot on European soil. Up until the late 17th century they expanded their territory in Europe to include the Balkans, a sizable portion of Hungary and on occasion the Gates of Vienna. It was not until after World War I altered the geopolitical map of the Balkans irreparably, that the Turks finally relinquished their hold on Ada Kaleh. Turkey (the smaller successor of the Ottoman state) handed it over to Romania in 1923. The island stood close to the Romanian side of the Danube. Across the river was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

While Ada Kaleh became Romanian territory, it would always be a world apart, a fascinating outlier of ethnic Turks surrounded by the Danube. In a twist of historical irony, the creation of Ada Kule as a viable community occurred due to the same waters which would drown it. A mile long and a quarter mile wide, The Danube churned up enough gravel and sand over thousands of years to create an island just before the Iron Gates gorge. Both the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs coveted the island due to its strategic location. Ada Kule offered an opportunity to control access along the middle Danube. Because of this, the island became a contested space. One coveted by powers both great and small.

An island apart – Ada Kaleh Bazaar in the late 19th century

Ownership & Occupation – Plaything of the Great Powers
The location of Ada Kule from the 17th century forward straddled imperial borders. It became a point of contention between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Occupation and ownership of the island was tenuous. Ada Kule was the plaything of two great powers. In 1689, the Austrian Habsburgs gained control of the island. This did not last long. Only two years later, the Ottomans took it back. A year later they lost the island. Then in 1699, the Ottomans took it back again. Thus, in a ten-year period Ada Kule changed ownership on four occasions. This pattern continued into the 18th century as the island changed hands another three times. In attempting to secure their hold on the island, the Habsburgs imported labor to build a fortress on it. Expert stone masons from central Europe began work in 1717 to construct an impregnable defensive structure.

A large pool of laborers helped put the Habsburg plans into action. They suffered in the fetid summer heat, failing to fend off insects and disease. In the winter, they subjected to ferociously icy winds that came howling off the river. Despite these climatic extreme, the laborers were able to build the most permanent fixture in the island’s history. The fortress took twenty years to construct. It included bastions, barracks and defensive works built to ensure that the Habsburgs controlled access to the river. The stout defensive works were no match for a four-month siege by the Ottomans. The fortress fell to the Turks a year after its completion. It would stay under Ottoman control except for a brief two-year interlude of Habsburg rule from 1789 – 1791. A treaty handed the island back to the Ottomans, who would hold onto it until the early 20th century.

Stepping into the past – Postcard of Ada Kaleh fortress

Natural Defenses – An Isolated Existence
Despite the Ottoman Empire’s prolonged retreat from the Balkans, Ada Kule’s status remained strangely the same. This Ottoman outlier’s existence became more precarious during the 19th century. Habsburg and Serbian territory would surround it. Nevertheless, it still had the natural defenses of the Danube still protecting it on all sides. The island’s relative isolation allowed it to develop an exoticism that had vanished from the land adjacent to this stretch of the Danube. In 1867, Ottoman troops left Serbia, but the island stayed part of the Sultan’s lands. A decade later, the Ottomans vacated Romania. The Austrian Habsburgs had long since pushed the Ottomans out of the middle Danube and yet the Sultan still held onto the island. It was one of the most unique arrangements of the time. While the forces of nationalism surged across the Balkans, tearing Ottoman possessions from the empire’s grasp, and threatening the implosion of Austria-Hungary, the Turks on Ada Kule continued their quixotic existence.

The Treaty of Berlin, which had granted Romania its independence, failed to mention Ada Kaleh. The regional powers brokered a deal in another treaty allowing Austria-Hungary military control over the island, while those who lived on it continued to be subjects of the Sultan. The island remained immune from the geopolitical and ideological forces which convulsed the latter half of the 19th century. Hidden in plain sight, Ada Kaleh went mostly unnoticed. One person who did take notice was the Sultan in Istanbul. After the construction of a new mosque there in 1903, the Sultan donated a large carpet to cover its interior floorspace. He also continued to appoint civic and judicial officials to administer affairs for his subjects. Ada Kaleh was an island unto itself, an insular world that left to its own devices. In the coming century that would not continue. Ada Kaleh, both physically and politically, was about to experience drastic changes.

Click here for: Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)

The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)

Separating the fuse from the bomb is a difficult task. The same might be said of the effect Elena Ceausescu had upon her husband Nicolae’s reign over Romania from 1965-1989. Nicolae casts such a large shadow that it is easy to forget the importance of Elena’s role. Ironically, the shadow in which Elena stood was largely of her own making. The Ceausescus were a partnership, you could not have one without the other, but there was an odd asymmetry to their power sharing relationship that informed the outside world’s view of them. Nicolae may have been all powerful in Romania, but he was not one of the most powerful men in the world despite his attempt to become just that through the dark art of his personal diplomacy. On the other hand, Elena was one of the most powerful women in the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In continental Europe, no woman in politics came close to the level of control she enjoyed over both her husband and the state. Her wish could be his command. Her jealousy informed his view of allies and adversaries. Her vanity infused his greed. Her megalomania supplemented his own.

Cult of Personality – Nicole & Elena Ceausescu greet a crowd of supporters in 1986 (Credit: fototeca)

Clouded Perspective – “Mother of the Nation”
Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu enabled each other’s behavior. They were a true partnership in every sense of the word. One could not live without the other and in the end, neither of them would have to. There is no better example of this than the fact that the two were executed together. As they were bound together in life, so too in death. In the final moments before their execution on Christmas Day in 1989, Nicolae sang the Internationale and Elena shouted obscenities. Both were true believers, each in their own unique way. Nicolae carried a tune all the way to his grave, while Elena went down with fighting words on her lips. Nicolae invoked a higher cause in his final moments, one of comrades and communism, Elena descended into vulgarity. It was a fitting end to a pair of obscenely strange lives. A bit of unpoetic justice so to speak. Their fall was swift, but it had been a long time in coming.

The latter part of Elena Ceausescu’s life was informed by a personality cult built around her persona as the supposed “Mother of the Nation.” Her version of motherly love did not extend to the Romanian people. Insiders said she was terribly cynical and condescending in conversations concerning the populace’s needs. She derided them as “worms” who could never be satisfied despite the Ceausescu’s generosity toward the masses. While the population stood in lines for food, Elena indulged in elegant luxury products such as jewelry and fur coats. She also had her children spied on by the security services. Her “work” included a mandate to oversee education in Romania. This from a woman who only had an elementary school education, had to repeat the fourth grade, and dropped out of school at the age of ten. Among the many subjects she received bad marks in was behavior. Her educational background did not qualify Elena for any special standing in the realm of academics. That hardly mattered because she was Nicolae’s beloved wife. She was even awarded an undeserved honorary doctorate in chemistry.

Looking over his shoulder – Elena Ceausescu applauds a speech by her husband Nicolae (Credit: fototeca)

In The Line of Fire – “They Are Going to Shoot Us”
The cult of personality built up around Elena and her husband clouded their perspective to the point that they had little idea by the end of 1989 that public opinion had turned against them. The dire situation in Romania came to a head on December 22nd when the Ceausescu’s were forced to flee Bucharest by being airlifted by helicopter off the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party building. They barely escaped being lynched by a mob. This only allowed them a three day reprieve from rough justice. The Ceausescu’s were arrested in Targoviste while trying to make their way to a friend who managed a factory. The authorities, who at this point were more like vigilantes, put them on trial and charged them with numerous crimes, including genocide. They were not given due process or a fair hearing The couple had exhausted the patience of Romanians, the majority of whom wanted them to pay for their crimes. The payment would not come from the one billion dollars the Ceausescu’s had stolen from the state, instead they would pay with their lives.

The Ceausescu’s hour long trial made a mockery of jurisprudence, but those who criticized it missed the point. Nicolae and Elena were the fall guy and gal for those still holding onto power. The Ceausescu’s death sentence was used as an outlet for public anger. The combative Elena was infuriated by the courtroom proceedings. Perhaps her show of anger was a sign of the underlying anxiety she felt. She was not going down without a fight, but the only weapons she had at her disposal were words. And some of her most famous last words included the realization that “they are going to shoot us.” This was what she told Nicolae not long before they were lined up against a wall before a firing squad at a military based outside of Bucharest. The executioners were eager to get the dirty work done as soon as possible, lest anyone try to intervene on the Ceausescu’s behalf. They did not have to worry, no one was coming to the rescue. On the contrary, most Romanians were happy with the result. When the smoke cleared, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were dead. It was an ignominious end for the ultimate communist power couple.

On trial – Nicole & Elena Ceausescu before their execution

Rough Justice – End Scenes
The shocking news of the show trial and resulting execution of the Ceausescus was reported across the world on the day it happened. This was December 25th, Christmas Day in the western world. Video of the execution was also widely distributed. The actual moment when the firing squad riddled the couple’s bodies with bullets was missed by those filming the execution. It seems that the gunmen fired as soon as they could. There were unfounded rumors that loyalist Ceausescu supporters were coming to save the couple. The gunmen did their job thoroughly. Later estimates were given of over a hundred bullet holes found in Nicolae and Elena’s bodies. There was never any consideration of whether to spare Elena from execution. Hatred of Elena was just as widespread as it was for her husband. The woman who had helped rule and ruin Romania was now dead. The country would never be the same, it would be better.

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The Mother of All Problems – Elena Ceausescu: Cult of Personality (Part One)

When you live a life based on lies, that is eventually what you become.

The “mother of the nation” allegedly shouted “you’re a motherf%$#er” in her final moments. Elena Ceausescu was never filled with motherly love when it came to her fellow Romanian citizens. Along with her husband, Nicolae, she helped lead Romania to ruin during the 1970’s and 80’s. She was one-half of a power couple that defined the last decades of communism in Romania. Whatever failures are ascribed to her husband, Elena must also share a large part of the blame. Like her husband, Elena was all powerful, until one day she was not.

Funereal Find – Going To Ghencea
Visiting Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest was a must. I had come with my travel companion Tim to visit the Romanian capital on a spur of the moment decision when me for the first time at a hostel in Bulgaria a few days earlier. The idea was to see the ginormous Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world and the most visible monument to the venal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. Listening to stories about Ceausescu’s bizarre behavior was by turns fascinating and frightening. The stories intrigued us enough that we decided to visit his grave. When we did, I was shocked to find that a dignified grave in a nondescript setting among many other graves. There was neither a grandiose tomb nor an unmarked plot, instead it was so normal as to be disconcerting.

Buried beside Nicolae was his wife, Elena. This was not as surprising since they were inseparable in life and from the looks of it, also in death. They were partners in crime, amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of ordinary Romanians. Oddly, Elena was the subject of a personality cult propagated just as vigorously as the one that extolled the supposedly limitless virtues of her husband. This also made her just as hated as her husband when the Romanian Revolution broke out in December 1989.

Forever together – Nicolae & Elena Ceaucescu at Ghencea Cemetery (Credit: Falcodigiada)

A Communist Love Story – Nicolae & Elena
It was said that from the time Nicolae Ceausescu first saw Elena Petrescu in Bucharest he was so smitten with her that he never looked at another woman. Elena had grown up in a Wallachian village and come to Bucharest in search of work. With only an elementary school education she was not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, neither were the communists. She was able to find a job as an assistant in a lab. This would become the genesis of later assertions that she was a master chemist.  Elena joined the communist party in 1939 as it appealed to a woman who was looking to escape the relative poverty into which she had been born. It was through communism that Elena met her husband. This was her big career move, one that would pay dividends when Romania went communist after World War II.

Elena soon procured a position as a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even greater positions, power and prestige would come her way after Nicolae became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. Elena’s prospects soared as Nicolae manipulated the party apparatus to benefit himself and his wife. Many believe that a trip to Red China in the early 1970’s was a decisive turn in her lust for power. It was there that she witnessed firsthand the machinations of Mao Tse Tung’s wife, Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao. Jiang had also been begun her rise to prominence as a secretary, in this case to her much more famous husband. During the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death a decade later, Jiang exercised an immense amount of power. She was highly influential in policymaking. By 1969, she had been appointed a seat in the Politburo. Soon she was surrounded by a cult of personality.

A passion for communism – Elena Petrescu at the age of 23

Red Romania – The Ceausescus Ascendent
In China, Elena had witnessed Madame Mao at the height of her powers. What Elena should have later noted was the fate of Madame Mao after her husband’s death. She fell out of favor and ended up committing suicide. There was a lesson in Jiang’s fall, but Elena, like all people who became intoxicated with power failed to heed it. Back in Romania, she attained one powerful position after another, culminating in her becoming a member of the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee. Elena now exercised more control over Romanian affairs than almost anyone else in the country, other than her husband.

At the same time her own personality cult began to grow. It reached critical mass with Elena being feted as an academic genius. For someone with an elementary school education, Elena had done very well for herself by rising through the party ranks. That was not enough for her expanding ego. She was awarded a doctorate in Chemistry. Scholarly works from her began to be published. Many at the time did not believe what amounted to patently false claims of Elena’s scientific genius. After the Ceausescu’s fall, the truth came out. These works were ghost written on behalf of Elena. No one dared to protest if they valued their life. If she turned against someone, they were doomed.

Dark ambitions – Elena Ceaucescu

Darkness Deified – Taking The Fall
Elena Ceausescu was a different kind of mother for her nation. One who was extremely vulgar and vain. She was notorious for being overtly concerned with appearances. Her rise went in lockstep with Romania’s fall. While Elena worried about such frivolous matters as published images showing her prominent nose, the country was being bled dry of resources by the Ceausescu’s policies. Unbeknownst to the population at large, the Ceausescu’s were secreting away huge sums of money in secret bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile, the shops were empty of consumer goods, the heat only worked part time in the winter and food became increasingly scarce. The entire time, no criticism could be voiced against either Nicolae or Elena.

The Ceausescu had reached the realm of near deification in public discourse. While the economy collapsed, public discontent began to simmer. Life in Romania was intolerable for almost everyone not connected to the regime. There were even murmurings of discontent among Ceausescu’s fellow cronies. The situation exploded after the military attempted to put down an uprising in the city of Timisoara. Someone was going to have to take the fall for the disaster Romania had become. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu would be the prime candidates.

Click here for: The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)

Bordering On Obsession – Curtici Railway Station: Further Down The Line (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #28)

The day I first set foot in Eastern Europe opened up a whole new world of possibilities to me. Ten years ago, when the aircraft for my flight from Paris to Sofia, Bulgaria landed, a mental barrier had been breached. Suddenly anywhere in the Balkans was within reach. On this same trip, I made my first foray into Hungary. This allowed me a window into the world of East-Central Europe. Suddenly, traveling around the entire region offered an endless array of opportunities. A decade later, those opportunities continue to present themselves. Even when I am thousands of kilometers and an ocean away, new places are still to be discovered.

Waiting On A Train – Curtici Railway Station (Credit: Radufan)

Lines On A Map – The Great Divide
Sometimes discovery comes in the form of an image. A photo and a few descriptive words are enough to set me on a mental journey, long before an actual physical one takes place. This was the case with a Romanian railway station just over the border from Hungary. I captured my first glimpse of it on page 161 of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan. A photo showed the outside waiting area of a large railway station. This was the place where passengers wait for trains to arrive. I noticed that the station looked much larger than what might be expected at a relatively remote border crossing. But this was no ordinary station. As O’Sullivan says, “it is still an important railway junction between Central Europe and the western part of Romania and a major crossing point between Budapest and Bucharest.”

One could make the case that the railway station at Curtici, Romania lie on one of those geopolitical fault lines between the eastern and western halves of Europe. Depending on a traveler’s direction, they are either arriving or departing from the eastern world. It depends less upon perspective and more about direction. The Austrian diplomat, Prince Klemens Von Metternich once said that the Orient begins at the end of the Ringstrasse. Meaning that anything east of Vienna (aka Hungary) was the wild east. Well for me, the Orient begins just over the Hungary-Romania border at Curtici. This border was imposed upon the map by diplomats and bureaucrats in smoke filled rooms at a post-World War I peace conference long ago. So long in fact, that everyone who was in those rooms is now dead, but the lines they drew remain. In essence, they created facts on the ground which have proven largely unalterable. Visiting the station at Curtici would be a reminder that borders can be the makers and breakers places.

Curtici takes on an outsized importance because it is located at a major railway junction. A midpoint, straddling the divide between East and West. Other similar places in Europe have disappeared. For instance, the city of Berlin, where east and west really did meet for close to thirty years. The sides have now been unified into a larger whole. The same goes for many areas along the old Iron Curtain. One day the differences between the eastern and western halves of Berlin might become imperceptible. There is little chance of this happening at Curtici. Romania and Hungary are likely to keep each other at a distance. This ensures that Curtici will continue to be part of a frontier. As for the railway station, it will serve as a reminder of Curtici’s importance as a first and last stop. A meeting point, as well as one of divergence. It acts as a portal to the past, an arbiter of the present and harbinger of the future. A place that I must visit, even though I have already been there.

The Great Convergence – Railway Lines at Curtici

Sozzled Slumber – Someone Else’s Problem
I never saw Curtici’s Railway Station during an initial visit. At that time, I failed to realize that me and my wife were passing by the railway station. The oversight was for good reason because we had other, more pressing concerns. While traveling on a night train from Budapest to Brasov we left Hungary at Lokoshaza. The Hungarian border officials who boarded our train carriage had a heated conversation with a man in the berth beside us. From what we could understand, the man was extremely inebriated, to the point where he became uncooperative with the officials. He had trouble producing his passport or communicating in anything other than drunken words. I felt for sure that he might get taken off the train, but the officials decided to let the man become someone else’s problem.

That someone else turned out to be the Romanian border officials at Curtici. Rather than belligerence, the Romanians were met with loud music. The man refused to open the door of his berth. Whether he was ignoring them or could not hear their full throated demands to open the door, I have no idea. There was a good chance that he had passed out. Border personnel were eventually able to access the berth, but only after a great deal of rancor. The increasingly noisy activity did not bode well for getting a good night’s rest. Rather than looking out the window as I usually do during border stops, I was consumed by the drama occurring in the berth beside of ours. The Romanian officers demanded that the man, who turned out to be Ukrainian, produce his passport. From what I could ascertain, this was impossible since he had passed out.

After several minutes marked by a series of increasingly firm demands, the passenger was awakened from his sozzled slumber. He was in no shape to be cooperative or coherent. At this point the officials began to bark orders at him. This dressing down went on for quite some time and was punctuated by one official shouting, “You don’t come into Romania drunk.” This did not elicit a reply, perhaps because the passenger was already in Romania and would likely be there for some time in one state or another. Not that he had any idea where he was. From what I could understand, the officials finally procured and stamped the man’s passport. After they left, the man must have fallen back into a dead drunk sleep. Never to be heard or seen from again, at least not by us.

The First & Last Stop- Curtici Railway Station

Back To The Future – A Return to Curtici
It was a strangely unsettling experience, one that kept us from realizing we were in Curtici. I never saw the railway station or even knew it existed until reading about it in O’Sullivan’s work. Only then did I realize that I had been within a stone’s throw of it for over an hour. Of course, on that occasion I was deeply distracted. This makes me want to revisit Curtici railway station during the light of day and better understand its role in facilitating travel across borders. I want to wander around the station and soak in the atmosphere of a place that acts as a dividing line between east and west, countries and cultures, history and mystery.  

Click here for: Declarations of Independence – Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #29)

Waiting For Sibiu – Brasov Bus Station: A Transylvanian Tale (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #20)

What was I thinking? The answer was that I was not thinking. At least that was what I thought when reflecting upon a bus trip my wife and took to from Brasov to Sibiu in Transylvania. The quickest way to travel between the two cities was by bus. At least that was what I believed before we headed to Brasov’s Bus Station (Autogara 3) on our final morning in the city. Brasov had been a delight, the kind of place that filled me with memories. The city was flanked by mountains and home to a hilltop fortress. It had an Old Town replete with evocatively painted pastel houses, a massive Gothic Church that towered over the surrounding structures and a 15th century Town Hall fronting the pristinely kept Council Square. Brasov’s public transport facilities were another story altogether. For instance, the railway station was an experience we did not care to replicate.

While the station was along one of the same lines that plied an Orient Express route, it had none of the fin de siècle feeling to be found at other places found on that historic railway. The main problem with the Brasov Train Station was that it had been rebuilt during the communist era and still looked the part. It was functionalist, impersonal and unavoidable, at least for anyone arriving or departing from Brasov by train. Looking to avoid a repeat visit to the railway station we explored other options. Due to schedule constraints, we decided that it was best to take the bus from Brasov to Sibiu. This led me to wonder what the bus station would be like since we had not seen it since setting foot in the city. Surely it could not be that bad, after all this was Brasov. Then again, the railway station had taught me not to allow hope to triumph over experience.

Busted up – Brasov Bus Station

The Worst of Times – Decades With A Dictator
To say that Romania had a hard time of it during communism understates the ghastly period scarred by the reign of Nicolae Ceaucescu. His dictatorial regime robbed the country of its resources, both natural and financial. It also robbed the Romanian people, as well as minority populations, of their dignity. While the nation was managed for the benefit of Ceaucescu and his wife Elena, the country deteriorated to an unbelievable extent. The population was spied upon and brutalized by the Securitate (Secret Police), an entity that was one of the state’s largest employers. By the end of the 1980’s, the Ceaucescu regime was the vilest in Eastern Europe. It would go to any lengths in carrying out the Ceaucescu’s increasingly whimsical policies. One of these was to pay off all debt owed by the country. If saving money meant cutting off electricity in the winter, then so be it. While most of the population froze, store shelves were empty from a lack of imports. This was a classic case where the people’s paradise was really a house of horrors.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the Ceaucescu’s were arrested, subjected to a mock trial. and summarily executed on Christmas Day in 1989. It is surprising that it did not happen sooner. This speaks volumes about the iron boot that the regime kept on the people’s throats. To this day, Romania shows signs of the ruinous economic policies that brought about the Ceaucescu regime’s collapse in 1989. While I have been to Ceaucescu’s grave and what might be considered his spiritual tomb, the sublimely megalomaniacal Parliament of the People in Bucharest, the one structure I find indicative of his regime is the Brasov Bus Station (Autogara 3). Let me be clear, this is not because Ceaucescu had anything to do with its design (at least not that I am aware of), instead it is because of the station’s condition and less than appealing aesthetics. It is a fine example of the lack of investment put towards infrastructure during that period. To say the station was down at the heel does not do it justice, downright seedy was more like it.

A real beauty – Brasov with the Black Church (Credit: Anton Stanley)

Random Strangers – The Experience of Loitering
Approaching the bus station was an unforgettable experience. There were no ticket sellers, at least not on this day. Potential passengers were left out in the cold, quite literally, as the platforms were open air with a minimal amount of cover. The pavement where we waited was broken and busted. We showed up half an hour before departure so we would not miss the bus. That was not as much of a problem as finding a bus. The platform area looked more like an abandoned lot, than it did anything resembling a public transport facility. It did not look safe, but in this case looks were deceiving. The station would have been a great stand in for a set piece in Samuel Becket’s classic absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot.” Rather than the two main characters waiting in a post-apocalyptic landscape for Godot, my wife and I were waiting for a bus to Sibiu in a derelict lot that looked like it had been through a war.

Trash was strewn about, a random stranger or two loitered and buses were few and far between. One of the more fascinating strangers was a man who kept going in and out of the actual station building adjacent to several of the bus platforms. The man never approached us, but he did go to others. It looked like he was trying to sell some sort of cologne. After scrutinizing his behavior, I wondered what he was doing here. Pretty soon, I began to wonder what me and my wife were doing here. We were lucky to have his presence to distract us. Watching the man’s activities gave us something to focus our attention on rather than the time we spent waiting. Soon we were joined by a young lady who looked like a university student. She stood silently, staring straight into nothingness. For the first time in my life, I knew what loitering must be like. Time had a different meaning at the Brasov Bus Station, as it barely seemed to exist at all.

Brasov at its best – The Old Town Hall and Council Square

Obstacle Course – The Power of Indifference
I grew increasingly impatient, to the point where I asked the lady waiting with us when the bus would arrive. She said it would be soon and pointed out that the buses were rarely on time. There was a hint of resignation in her voice. Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable length of time, a vehicle that was more van than bus arrived. It felt like a mid-day miracle. The station had looked like the place where nothing works right, but somehow it did. Sometimes I think the greatest thing about Romania is how the people overcome their circumstances. It takes a maddening amount of indifference to live with the endless obstacles and inefficiencies. Meanwhile, the driver sold us our tickets and helped pack the luggage. It was a relief to leave the Brasov Bus Station, but memories of the station have never left me. It was a memorable experience, one that I would not want to repeat again.

Click here for: A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #21)

Beyond The Point of Exhaustion – Deva: A Transylvanian Lassitude (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #15)

We had a whole day’s travel ahead of us and I had already reached the end of my line. I have very few photos taken of me near the end of a journey. That is for good reason. As my wife has reminded me countless times, I always manage to book our trip a day or two longer than I should. This was certainly the case on a spring journey to Transylvania. We had already spent the night on a train, four nights in Brasov, three in Sibiu and a final one in Deva. Deva had been a mixed bag, with thrills and travails. There were two stunning trips to the old fortress ruins above the city, one by vehicle and the other by foot. The one by foot came courtesy of a morning run where a dog leapt out at me from its owner’s leash and managed to bite a hole in my sweatpants. Fortunately, I escaped without so much as a scratch. The dog’s owner and I exchanged a smile, then I proceeded to continue my scramble up the hillside towards the citadel. Once there, I was left gasping for breath and ready to go back to Hungary. It was all downhill here from there, both literally and figuratively.

The end of the line – At Deva Railway Station

The Downside – A Sense of Finality
The Deva Railway Station reminded me of the 1970’s with its bland colors, bad style and down at the heel atmosphere. Standing inside was only an option for those who style themselves sadists or paleo-communists. There was nothing likeable about the place. It was a concrete concoction badly in need of a good whitewashing. The station’s appearance was a shame because it frames most traveler’s first and last impressions of the city. Deva is a fine, modest sized city, that just so happens to have a fascinating history. It has a handful of fascinating attractions, unfortunately the railway station will never be one of them. At least not in its current form. One does not part from the station, as much as flee from it. Unsightly should be the standard definition of its style, an architecture that evokes a dreadful lassitude. My first and last impressions of Deva were of the railway station, a blight on the memory. The best thing I can say about my experience was that it turned out to be mercifully short.  

My wife helped immortalize my mood a few minutes before our departure from Deva. That was when she snapped a photo of me sitting outside the station, in a chair close to the main platform. At that moment I was not so patiently waiting on the train that would take us back to Hungary. In the photo, I am surrounded by luggage and dressed in a blue leather coat. I am looking away, probably in the hope that our train to Budapest will soon arrive. I look haggard and irritable. The photo shows a different side of travel than the one I usually find in old photos, it might be termed, “the downside.”  The final stage of any journey in Eastern Europe usually means just getting it over with. In this regard, the trip had already ended. These multi-day journeys do not end upon arrival at home, they end at the point of exhaustion. I was beyond this point when my wife took the photo in Deva.

Above the clouds – Deva Citadel at sunrise (Credit: Neighbor’s goat)

Enervating Experiences – The Last Legs
I will never be able to quantify the time I have spent waiting on transport in eastern Europe. It must be considerable. Waiting at these places was necessary and often memorable, but that did not make it fun. In many cases, it has been the exact opposite. If something memorable happened while waiting, it was usually not good. The photo from Deva sums up the general experience. Looking grumpy keeps the beggars at bay and seedy types know to keep their distance. If not for the photo my wife took in Deva, I doubt I would have remembered that departure, mainly because it was like so many others. Public transport facilities in Romania have a great deal in common with other eastern European countries I have visited. It almost always involves waiting in unsheltered conditions, at the mercy of the elements or fellow passengers.

The photo from Deva brought back memories of journeys when I was beyond the point of exhaustion. The last legs of journeys when I was on my last legs. There was the morning arrival by train on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, drinking the strongest and worst cup of coffee ever. It left me wide awake with a perpetual dark brown taste in my mouth. There was the screaming drunk in Warsaw riding the city bus that took me to my hotel for a final night in the city. I feared for his life, rather than my own. There was the broken wi-fi connection in an Austrian hotel just outside of Vienna. Everything in the hotel had the sheen of Teutonic flawlessness, but the wi-fi would never work despite the front desk attendant’s protestations to the contrary.

There were so many departures from Debrecen that I have lost count of them. Standing amid a sea of students, I felt pangs of envy that they would be home in a few hours, whereas I would not be home for two days. There were airport food courts in Kiev, Budapest, and Bucharest, everything was clean and crowded. Everyone was well dressed. The peasantry must never be allowed to set foot beyond passport control. Nothing could have been further from the way most people in Eastern Europe travel. I found the experience enervating.

A dreadful lassitude – Deva Railway Station (Credit: Dezidor)

End of The Line – Summoning The Strength
Deva was the proverbial “end of the line” for me on that trip. Other stops down the line in Arad, border control and Budapest were a blur that vanished somewhere into the vagaries of my memory. All trips, good and bad, must come to an end. When and where that happens has less to do with geography and more with mentality. Once the joy of discovery and sense of adventure fades so does the will to carry on. Summoning the strength to finish off a journey is much more difficult than what it takes to start one. The “end of the line” is not a place, but a feeling. One that I dread and one that I hope to be lucky enough to have again and again. 

Click here for: Inspirations & Aspirations – Subotica: The Destination, Rather Than The Journey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #16)

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)