Brașov changes, but still stays the same

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As travel writers and human beings too, we are caught sometimes between the drive of sharing subjective memories about places we know quite well and the duty to describe, present and explain places mostly unknown to the readers. The memories and secret knowledge of hidden streets are coldly selected for the sake of the information contained, and not for the pros and cons of, maybe, the biased childhood years and distorted memories. However, during my five-day stay in the city of Brasov this summer I could not resist the temptation to run fast on the streets near Cetățuia hills that I always used as a shortcut that I always used without the knowledge of the worrisome adults when coming back on my own from the park to our summer home. This time, from Andrei Mureșanu and Eminescu street on, I climbed up on the hill, for a short tour of the citadel after a short and easy hiking. Built in the first half of the 16th century, the semi-circular citadel was destroyed several times during various fights for supremacy between local princes. The last time when it witnessed serious conflicts was at the end of the 19th century, when it was taken over for a short time by the Tsar’s Army.

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Nowadays, no more blood is shed on the old cobblestone small streets of the citadel, despite the military archery exposed in every corner that makes you feel that some preparations are still under way, although the weaponry maybe needs a fast update. Regularly, tournament shows are organized following the old Middle Age arts, but only for the entertainment. Although the place misses an exhaustive documentary outline, you can still get some small insights about former military fights, the coats of arms of different guilds that eventually contributed with their own financial efforts to the war efforts and who played anyway an important role in the economic development of the city. There is also a small restaurant and a space that can be hired for big weddings and other happy celebrations – events that Romanians love to celebrate with lots of music and food – and a view over the city. As usual, I can only wonder about the many contrasts of this city, mixing old traditional streets, to whom were added layers of industrial constructions, factories and new constructions mostly sharing a strong social statement about the new wealth of their owners.

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The more I was walking the more or less familiar streets of the city, the more I discovered new colours and small doors, leading maybe to welcoming inner yards were people set the table enjoying the summer time with some wine, home-made food and fresh fruits and veggies from the garden. I was not invited anywhere this time, as what I am left from the city are the memories of people who are no more.

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When everyone expects a lot of efforts from the local authorities to preserve and rebuild the old constructions, some of them, I might say, in an advanced stage of decay, I secretly enjoyed the pleasure of still finding the old ads from the inter-war time in a corner of the building, or some old balconies that always made me think about lots of stories taking place behind the big closed windows. When some things stay the same it’s like time stopped, only for bringing peace between me and my past.

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I how could I forget the famous big name of the city set on a corner of the equally famous local mountain Tâmpa that can be seen from the most part of the areas around the center, a permanent reminder where you really are? At the beginning of the communist times, there used to be a statue of Stalin, as the city itself was renamed The city of Stalin, but after the dictator’s death, local communist come to their senses and returned the initial name to the city. As later I climbed to the top – with the help of the telepheric, I’m not that fit – I was disappointed to realize that you can’t practically get very closer to the letter and, who knows, maybe have a special selfie near the city’s name. Couple of time back in the local news was told that a guy followed by a bear – this is their country if you didn’t know yet – saved his life jumping on the top of one of the letter from where he was saved, many hours later by special intervention teams.

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As much as I enjoyed to revisit old places and to hear news from people that used to be my neighbours and my playground friends, I equally loved to be surprised by new constructions, new restaurants and bookstores, mostly situated in the central area, near Piața Sfatului. Due to the intensive industrialisation program launched by the communist in the 1970s, many heavy industry factories were built, producing, among others, tractors, but till today, I haven’t been more than once in those areas, with a predominant architecture-by-the numbers and a local diversity of people from all over the country brought and settled there for economic reasons.

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If I could not take a picture of my smiling near the huge Brasov sign, at least I was able to go on the Rope’s Street/Strada Sforii, a famous city landmark, a very tight path connecting many of the streets and avenues with houses from the old city.

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Mostly destroyed by wars and urbanism plans, the city’s old walls can still be seen in different parts around the old city, very often well integrated into new urban contexts.

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A short hiking visit to Tampa mountain was part of the must-have schedule. Not fit enough to do the climbing on my own, I used the services of the local cable, whose small little ticket counter seems to remain unchanged till the late 1980s. Our small group of tourists – local visitors from other Transylvanian cities speaking Hungarian, some Swiss tourists and us – made it to the top within minutes. As usual, the cable stopped for a short while, a moment when I felt the need to share my knowledge about how reliable this cable is with the little bit scared Swiss tourists. As by many of the unknown paths of my life we had for a while friends among people who built the cable system in Brasov and beyond, we were shared a lot of funny and serious stories about this construction that in just a couple of seconds were back alive.

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Hiking on Tampa mountain is very easy, especially if you have the proper shoes – it rains often up there and it can be a bit muddy from time to time. There are arrows and signs everywhere and unless you don’t want an adventure off the beaten path – not recommended – you arrive back in the city in less than one hour. From the top, I made short recordings of another faces of the city, available on YouTube here and here.

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In the late summer, the nature is in full bloom and with a bit of luck and observation you can find a lot of wild berries. It’s usually quiet as most tourists rather prefer to walk around the cable station, where it is also a restaurant – probably state-owned – whose waiters are still dressed and look like forgotten from the 1980s time.

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There are two ways you can chose to come back in the city, out of which I decided to take the one called ‘Gabanyi stairs’ which is a bit complicated, with a lot of stairs, and stone-made stairs requiring a lot of attention and physical concentration. We crossed paths with many serious joggers, well-equipped and trained, running fast to the top after changing a shy ‘hello’ – always loved this social interaction of the mountains, when you greet completely unknown foreigners and eventually share some thoughts about the next water supply or refuge before continuing your way.

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Near Tampa, there are again some old citadel walls, with small shops selling traditional handwork and some small exhibition spaces of local artists. The towers bear names of various guilds – Draper’s Bastion, Rope Maker’s Bastion, Weaver’s Bastion – another reminded of the strength the guilds used to have here, as in most big cities in Transylvania.

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Very close nearby is the former Universal shop turned into a shining capitalist store, with expensive products and other luxuries, close to a very good farmer’s market, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables mostly cultivated at small and medium-scale by the locals.

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On Alexandru I. Cuza street, at no. 6A, near the Teatrul Dramatic, a sign mention that here was born the famous journalist and photographer Brassai, the pseudonym of Gyula Halász. Born from a Hungarian father and Armenian mother, he grew up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, before moving to Budapest, Berlin and finally Paris the city how made him famous. In this part of the Europe, such biographies are rather the rule than the exception.

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Early in the Sunday mornings, the city streets are almost empty, and except the busy VIPs and tourists hosted at the local Aro Palace hotel, you can hardly see anyone on the street. In such moments, the city reveals its full colours and quiet beauty.

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The city does not have too many cultural attractions, and the small art galleries are still missing, although there are quite many local artists living here. In one of my last days, I am heading to the small local Ethnographic Museum, where one can see an exhibition of local folk costumes from the region, accompanied by some visual and photographic explanations. Although most of them are in Romanian, one can simply enjoy the beautiful colours and textures without too many words.

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Nearby, there is the Art Museum, that thanks to some local collectors and art lovers hosted many many years back impressive Salvador Dali and Miro exhibitions. This time, I visited an exhibition of the most famous local artists Friedrich Miess, together with Arthur Coulin. Both, mostly unknown to the rest of the country, played an important role in the development of the local art school. The paintings were mostly portraits, in various local contexts as well as women in traditional costumes. At the first floor, one can visit a permanent exhibition of Romanian painters, among which Theodor Aman, Ion Andreescu, Nicolae Grigorescu, Iosef Iser or Nicolae Tonitza.

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The streets in themselves are one my favourite exhibition spaces, with their different architecture and styles, colourful – maybe too colourful sometimes – walls and green venues.

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Close to Poarta Schei – created in the 19th century in order to better organise the traffic in the city – the houses kept mostly their traditional style and old patterns, with many old wooden gates that were mostly kept in their original shape.

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In Poarta Schei can be visited the first Romanian school, a very small old-time classroom where children learned the basic of language. The entire area is very beautiful, near the mountain, without too many shops and restaurants and less traffic.

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Back in the central area, near Piata Sfatului, with the old city hall and events taking place all round the weekend, the city is always alive. There is the action, the high-tourist traffic and the new life of the city, but also the historical houses and some newly design fashion and art shops. As I have to say ‘good bye’ without a clear return date but hope sooner than 12 or more years as it happened last, I am glad that I was back for such a long quiet time without anything else to do but roam around taking pictures and notes about new destinations. But I grew up enough for not being delusional: some places will always have their own special memories in our heart that are endangered by the everyday contact with the reality. That’s the risk of the travel writer that I fully assumed already.

For more insights from Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/brasov-romania/

 

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The mysterious stories of the houses in Cristian, Romania

??????????Less than 20 minutes away from the big city of Brasov in Romania – watch this space for two posts about this city coming up this week – there is a small locality, Cristian. If you like hiking and you are trained enough, you can find a way to go there through the hills around. Or stop there and explore the place hour by hour for more than one day. A small train is coming up once in a while, and the cars are coming and going very fast.  A bus or a taxi can bring you faster in this little quiet paradise. Travellers visiting the area cannot be indifferent to the quiet beauty of the place and they usually stop for a long photographic trip wandering on the small streets or the hills around.

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In the morning, the cows are slowly going to their pasture places, for coming back late in the evening. As within the small locality, you can easily find a lot of recluse corners, but also open areas with people grilling or enjoying the sunny weekends, close to disaffected communist constructions whose initial destination was long forgotten since.

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There are the houses, each with its own story not easy to be told. In most of them used to live members of the German minority in Romania. At the end of the 1980s, while the communist dictatorship was reaching higher levels of absurdity and oppression, they left, bought by the German state, one by one, and I remember how from a summer to another, we drove through empty cities, with deserted houses, with an deep sadness in the air of a place – and country – where you were unlucky enough to stay, for too complicated reasons to understand to a child’s mind.

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After the end of communism, some people returned and were able to buy back their former properties, some new owners took them and changed them according to their non-local tastes. Some unlucky houses were just destroyed to the ground and in their places, new post-communist villas were built on their place not necessarily following the good architectural taste but rather displaying the joy of unexpected money abundance.

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More or less repainted or rebuilt, most houses are still the same: parallelepiped elongated shapes on the fringes of the streets, with their half-circle entrances leading to large interior yards. Children are playing around or go walking with their grand parents, while their parents are working in the city or who knows, abroad in Spain or Italy.

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The German minority settled on the territories of nowadays Romania starting from the 12th century, for economic reasons. They used to live in compact communities in Transylvania till the end of the 20th century, when the same economic – plus political – reasons brought them back to the Germany of their forefathers. Called ‘Sachsen’ or ‘Schwaben’ depending of the region they were originally from, they speak an old German dialect that used to be for a long time for me the only German language that I knew. (No excuse for my clumsy German language skills, I bet).

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From a  political and architectural stage to the other, the houses can be read as an approximate history book. Some style mixture leads to completely unexpected results, when shapes of Greek columns, eventually coloured, are attached to old river stones and metal framed windows.

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In the area near the city hall though, most houses were rebuilt keeping in mind the original 19th century local German architecture. Early in the morning, the windows are open and the careful investigation of the street life can start. Some Transylvanian houses do also have benches in the front of the houses where the old ladies can sit comfortably keeping an eye to all the social interactions and news. However, the street observation from the high of those windows looks more dignified and discrete, don’t you think?

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Caught between small streets and rows of houses, the square near the city hall looks like a perfect observation point too for understanding the secret life of Cristian.

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In the middle of the day, the open windows look like embracing the visitor while keeping you in the front of the gates. When the evening comes, everything is slowly closing and the center of life moves indoors. The life of the streets, except the speedy trucks and cars outside , is getting quieter too after 8-9 o’clock in the evening. There are a couple of small shops open – most of it is done in Brasov anyway – and a pizzeria with a late night program, but without a hotel or proper accommodation, most tourists have left already. Renting rooms by locals is possible though, especially if you want to experience a perfect retreat experience, with good local food and healthy sleep after long walks in the middle of the nature.

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The longer you stay, the more intrigues one might be about the local stories of the houses. Asking the locals about can lead to an interesting conversation, but doesn’t mean that you will get too many revelations about the secret histories.

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One afternoon, I spend my free time just walking the streets trying to catch on the camera the different styles of the houses and especially their windows. With local funds, most of them were introduced part of an open air exhibition offered to the visitors, but without too many details about their full history.

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Near the city hall, there is also a small citadel, serving as a local protestant church, with some library resources.

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The choice of the new colours for repainting the houses or only some details of them is sometimes hilarious, and the explanation should be either mysterious – maybe some colour combination can bring luck to the new entrepreneurs that decided to buy a property here – or clearly economic – those neon paintings are probably the cheapest ones on the market.

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In most cases though the decent light pink shades were kept, with various decorations that are the trademark of the well kept houses in the Transylvanian villages. People living here are more careful to keep their face showing up well kept walls and entrances.

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My short visit to Cristian was my last leg of my two-week trip to Romania – the longest stay in more than 5 years (more posts coming up this week as well). As usual, a mixture of more or less happy memories accompanies my stay there, but my visit to Cristian, after more than 20 years, reminded me of my inner child who will always keep asking lots of questions, ready to explore new territories and discover the mysterious stories hidden behind the wooden doors. As the houses are still reluctant to share their secret, I told to myself that maybe one day will spend more time listening more stories. Maybe a next time.

For more pictures from Cristian, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/cristian-romania/