around the world – part 17.8 (castle bran)

October 04 2006:

I should probably break this post into at least two to adequately describe the events of Wednesday – but I won’t.

Our tour began at the Parliament Palace and concluded at Dracula’s Castle Bran. Prior to departing on our tour, myself, the Australian and one other took a short half hour walk in the blocks surrounding our meeting site. In that short amount of time and distance I absorbed more pollution than I have in the last year. My throat was burning and I felt out of breath by the time I returned to the coach. I can only imagine what the air must be like here at the height of summer.

On to the Parliamentary Palace:
First a few facts provided by our interpreter to put things into perspective:

– Began construction 1985 and was 50% complete by the time of Ceausescu’s demise in late 1989. Today it is 90% complete.

– From 1985 until 1989 the site employed 700 architect/engineers and 20 000 labourers working in three shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From 1989 progress has been somewhat slower – largely due to the fact that Romania is no longer in the grip of a paranoid wackjob.

– There was never any cost estimated for this project since all property was owned by the state and labour and materials were simply procured by decree. However some have estimated that on opportunity cost alone Romania surrendered the equivalent to its entire economic output many times over.

– It is the second largest building in the world by surface area – approx 285m on each side and is the third largest building in the world by volume.

– All of the materials used in its construction were sourced (extracted) locally – Ceausescu was determined to not have to import anything.

– About 2 million cubic meters of marble of all varieties were used in its construction.- All of the curtains are silk with silver and gold woven through.

– Many of the carpets in the largest halls were woven on site in a single piece rather than stitching together separate smaller pieces. Many of the carpets are custom made for each room – for example one semicircular carpet was woven in a single piece to line the aisle of a circular theatre;

– Photography is forbidden within the palace, although we were able to photograph outside on the balcony.

On with Junior’s observations.  A project of this scope can only be accomplished if at least the following conditions are met – there is an absolute dictator with grandiose vision and complete control over every aspect of the economy (including labour) AND there are enough specialized and educated sycophants to make it happen. Certainly Ceausescu wasn’t the first and won’t be the last politician to conceive and build an immense project to suit his vanity (Mirabel Airport? – Montreal Olympics?). As well, numerous despots in the developing world have constructed immense but by now crumbling edifices – largely because the engineering expertise departed after construction and / or insufficient technical experts were available to maintain them over time. Romania, on the other hand, certainly had plenty of engineering talent thoroughly co-opted by the Communist Regime.

The building is roughly square – although not precisely – but from a distance it does look symmetrical. It dominates the downtown area of Bucharest and is easily identifiable from almost any viewpoint. I t is set apart in a large parklike setting cleared at the same time as the grand boulevard was constructed. Inside, each and every hall completed during Ceausescu’s regime was adorned in elaborate detail. No expense was spared, with marble, gold, silver and silk everywhere. What sets apart this particular palace from other such projects is the degree of detail and effort applied to satisfying Ceausescu’s peculiar vanity. But, curiously and perhaps because of the advanced paranoia which permeated the Ceausescu Regime, many small mistakes were made, but rarely acknowledged. Those responsible simply changed the plan to hide the fact that mistakes had occurred.

For example, in the centre of the palace a large circular hall was constructed, originally intended to be a theatre complete with back stage, risers and wings. Unfortunately by the time it was completed it was discovered that the plan had not accounted for any of the supporting elements of a theatre stage – namely the wings, risers and backstage were missing. Instead there was simply a stage butted up against the circular outer wall. Now the space is used only as conference hall despite the fact that it was built with all of the other aspects of a theatre- main floor seating for 600 in leather bound chairs and at least two levels of box seats extruded from the side (circular) walls.

To give you an appreciation of the efforts made to satisfy Ceausescu’s vanity a couple of examples are conspicuous. Firstly the immense marble staircases on either side of the grand entrance hall were built and rebuilt several times over. The architects were under orders to design and construct staircases which Ceausescu could descend without having to look down to retain his footing. As he was small in stature, his stride was measured minutely to produce staircases with an entirely unique rise and run. At least four attempts were made before the final version was complete.

Secondly, lying between the grand dais (above the entry hall) and the congress of deputies hall there is a somewhat smaller foyer. This particular space was designed to enhance an echo effect. Many rooms in the palace have specific measures to dampen echo, but this space is unique. Once Ceausescu was finished addressing an assembled (standing) group from the dais, he would proceed through the foyer into the congress hall followed by the parliamentarians. As he passed through the foyer, lining either side would be approximately 20 – 30 palace staff, instructed to clap furiously. The hall was designed to enhance the sound of their clapping such that it would sound as if many hundreds of persons were applauding his words of wisdom.

Once through the congress hall you step out on to a large balcony overlooking a park and semi circular plaza and away down the grand boulevard. It was intended that Ceausescu should be able to address the masses from this balcony – but he was never given the opportunity as he met his unfortunate end in the aftermath of a popular uprising. To imagine this balcony you have to dredge up images of the old Soviet politburo reviewing parades from the Kremlin – then magnify four or five times the size. In fact the only person to have addressed a crowd of any size from this balcony was Michael Jackson. I imagine that if Ceausescu was still alive today he would cringe at the depths to which his beloved palace had sunk to.


Castle Bran:
In recounting our visit to Dracula’s castle I should first describe the surrounding countryside and our ride across it.

Romania is divided by a mountain range with the plains province of Wallachia to the south and the mountainous region of Transylvania to the northwest bordering Hungary. Wallachia is very much a gently rolling steppe with broad horizons – with the largest cities, Bucharest and Ploesti sprawling out into the farmland. One of the things which struck me as we rocketed through Wallachia to the north was just how much of the land with agricultural potential was out of production. In some cases, as far as the eye could see, the land was simply covered with grassland. Every so often one could see a cluster of oil rigs off in the distance, nodding their heads slowly as they extracted compressed dinosaurs. Of note, as we departed Wallachia and enter Transylvania the neater and better kept up the houses became. In fact the general level of prosperity was acutely different in those areas settled by the Austro-Hungarian empire than those areas which have been under the grip of the Ottoman empire.

National Route 1 heading north from Bucharest quickly becomes a badly rutted, undivided single lane highway almost immediately upon leaving the city suburbs. Our convoy rocketed along at breakneck pace lead by our Military Police escort who drove straight down the middle of the road forcing traffic on both sides of the road off onto the shoulders. Good fun although no doubt a bit of a panic for those having a large motorcoach bearing down on them at 120km/hr. I have remarked on it before but I felt again a little uncomfortable as we barreled along forcing every other unsuspecting traveler off the road. I can’t imagine that Romanians are in the least impressed by this ostentatious show of privilege. About 3 hours after departing Bucharest, with our driver handling the coach like a sports car, we arrived at Castle Bran.

Castle Bran – also ‘Dracula’s Castle’ – is supposedly on the ‘list’ of places one must visit before you die. It was built in the 1300s on the very southern border of Transylvania facing south towards the plains of Wallachia. It controlled the silk road from the southeast to the northwest into Central Europe and the owners extracted a 3% tax on all goods (taken in kind) passing through the border. At various times the castle was held by either the Austro Hungarian Empire or the Ottomans. Culturally and physically the southern edge of Transylvania marks the zone where medieval Christianity met with and fought for supremacy against Islam. To this day the wall and customs house marking the border exist – literally at the foot of the castle mound.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but many 14th century castles look very much alike and there is nothing singularly unique about the design of this castle. Instead its fame rests on its rather dubious connection to Count Dracula. Dubious firstly because Bram Stoker never set foot in Transylvania or Bran Castle. Secondly it is unclear who ‘Dracula’ actually was. It is often stated that he was Vlad the Impaler – but it is not so clear after all. While Vlad was certainly a bloodthirsty and thoroughly naughty boy – given over to murdering folks by the hundred, he certainly didn’t seduce young virgin girls to drink their blood. He apparently enjoyed killing many at a time and preferably Turks. To complicate matters further, there have been at least two other Vlads, each at times assigned the epithet/title ‘the Impaler’. However it has stuck in the public imagination and so it must be.

The castle as it is now, was largely renovated by Queen Mary of Romania from the 1880s onward. The interior spaces were plastered, electricity installed and various other comforts acquired. She is revered to this day by Romanians as she very successfully negotiated Romania into formal existence at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is said that she successfully convinced US President Woodrow Wilson to change his self determination plan to include Romania. It is a very pretty castle, in very good shape and small enough to see most of it within an hour and a half.

After our tour of Castle Bran we were brought to a nearby Ski Resort, lifted it seemed right out of Bavaria. In fact much of the housing in the area had a distinctly southern Germanic flavour – the steep pitched roofs with deep overhangs, second floor balconies overlooking the entrance etc. There we were feasted in great style, complete with roast pig on spit, many rounds of schnapps and beer culminating in a great outdoor bonfire. I have not researched it, but it strikes me that if one wished to go ski-ing in Europe, you would be hard pressed to find a cheaper location offering good ski runs and modern amenities. Look into it before the hordes arrive. Filled to bursting, we gently settled back into our coach and with escorts leading we blasted back along the highway towards Bucharest.


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