Bucharest, a non-sentimental tour across 555 years of history

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The risk of knowing well or quite well a city you want to write about as a travel writer is to focus too much on the critical perspectives and writing too much about what not to do in the city rather than what’s really worth to see if you only have a couple of days to spend there. To be very honest from the beginning, Bucharest is by far one of my least favourite cities in Romania, but from a trip to another or a longer stay to another, I learned to know it and for the writing purposes it might be enough.

The city changed a lot – maybe too much – in the last decades, and this can be see especially in the architectural development – and its big failures. However, sometimes completely by chance, some streets still kept some original architecture from the end of the 19th-beginning of the 20th century that the visitor cannot ignore it. My favourite one is situated at the beginning of Popa Nan street and used to belong to a worldwide famous local singer, Maria Tanase, that also used to be the muse of the famous sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

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If your observation is sharp enough, you might see very often these many-plies of cables. It looks exotic, scary, mysterious or threatening, but there is nothing to be afraid of: the technological needs of the city overpasses the technical ingenuity of its urban planners and at least for now, this is how various communication cables are set together – not necessarily in the most elegant way.

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Most often, behind the curtain of cables, traditional architecture can still be admired. The local ‘brancovenesc’ style is integrating folk and religious motives into solid building structures that used to be designed for the middle class entrepreneurs and traders whose development in the inter-war period was stopped by the installation of communism. Many of those villas were lost for ever, destroyed for being replaced by architecture-by-the numbers, but many of the surviving constructions went into new hands and restored.

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As I haven’t seriously visited the city in the last five years, I enjoyed the discovery of new interesting destinations, including shops. The former communist store Eva, from blvd. Magheru, was turned into an interesting exhibition of products created by local designers. Some of them were so good that I seriously resented the frustration of being on a very tight long-time travel budget. My favourite were the works by Adelina Ivan, Venera Arapu – whose pieces of fashion design I’m in love with for a long time and even have some of them in my closet – Stephan Pelger and Carla Szabo.

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Although at the first sight, the Magheru avenue, connecting University Square to Romana Square, might look very contrasting, with new and old-style shops, some neglected buildings, parking lots and hotels, there are many interesting spots and information telling short stories about the city. Like the statue of the Romanian composer of international reputation George Enescu, whose statue is situated close to the entrance to Eva shop. There is also a museum in the city dedicated to his life and activity – at Cantacuzino’s Palace -, hosted in the house where he also used to live, an interesting work of architecture in itself.

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On the same avenue, Magheru blvd. there is a small refuge that both local intellectuals and expats love: Carturesti bookstore, with Romanian and English books and music, as well as different quality design creations.

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Nearby, at Ciclop Parking, I discovered some interesting works of street art when and where I expected less.

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As you visit Bucharest in our times, in the first half of the 21st century, you have the choice of many hotels and nice accommodations, but once upon a time, Intercontinental Hotel used to be by far one of the most famous, as during communist, foreigners were not allowed in too many places – at least not without strict surveillance of the secret services. From the top of the hotel, one can have an overview of the city, with its various – sometimes chaotic – stages of development, but also an expensive drink at the bar.

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The University Square is not only a meeting place of students – the Faculty of Geography, Philology, Architecture and History are hosted in the buildings around – but also a former meeting place of anti-governmental protesters at the beginning of the post-communism era.

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There is another building in this area whose presence cannot be ignored: the National Theatre that this summer was in process of reconstruction. An allegorical installation of statues was recently created, giving to the entire area a certain surrealist touch.

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Going far away, near Unirii Square, the shopping temptations are threatening your credit balance, but you can just change your focus and look instead at the concert of fountains around People’s House. The entire area with many small traditional was almost overnight demolished, creating a lot of personal dramas. In the summer, the fountains bring more life to the communist baroque architecture of the buildings around, on the avenue that for a short time was called – The Victory of Socialism.

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In the central area, you can rarely avoid the profile of People’s House/Parliament Palace, the second highest after the Pentagon, hosting the local Parliament and other public institutions. Special guided tours in English are available and can be booked on their website, at least one day in advance. The construction started in 1984 and was finished many years after the end of communism. The interior looks spectacular, overwhelming and incredibly lavish, especially if you think about the famous chandeliers adorning some of the rooms, some of them using at least 7,000 light bulbs.

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Nearby, the Dambovita river, that was dramatically cleaned up in the last decades and which creates a lot of problems to the metro network during the rainy days. Otherwise, not a spectacular water presence, and not used for tourist purposes.

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Near Unirea square, most visitors will go to the Old Town, where besides lots of shops and hotels mushrooming, there are also some old museums, and galleries, including the old Bucharest citadel, explaining the city history. Another interesting source of inspiration and information for those curious to know more about the city, the Sutu Palace, just near University Square is recommended.

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In the last years, the Old Town, with its famous street Lipscani – a very local translation of Leipzig, a former street of traders from all over the world – went through a dramatic process of reconstruction. The result: a lot of bars, shops and open air restaurants. Due to its high concentration of tourists, the prices might be a bit higher than in the rest of the city.

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Some old shops, including the one selling wedding dresses were still there.

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Hidden close to the National Bank building, Villacross Passage offers a oasis of quietness and a couple of Oriental shisha lounges.

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Nearby, the Museum of History which has, besides interesting historical information that you might not know about Romania, the National Treasure, of old jewels mostly gold and precious stones, testimony about traditional handicrafts and traditions.

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The Old Towns abounds in foodie offers, including the iconic ‘Caru’ cu bere’ or ‘Hanul lui Manuc’. I rather decided for something more exotic, like the Shushiko, whose main disadvantage was to have the outdoor space situated just opposite some big garbage collection corner. As the summers in Bucharest are very hot, expect some flies coming up and down your food very often due to this. Otherwise, the service was unexpectedly fast and indoors there is air condition and clean. The veggie tempura – carrots, zucchini – was tasty, although the dough was a bit too much, but was brought warm and combined with the soy sauce tasted better. The edamame were well cooked and the avocado tamago sushi not spectacular, just the usual taste expectation.

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From there, the trip continued in other parts of the city, still keeping close to the central area. The Military Circle is another historical reference, with an outside terrace serving beers, among others. Just 10 minutes of walk from there, the Cismigiu park is a recommended destination for the summer time. Another famous and bigger park, Herastrau, with a huge lake where you can rent boats and make bike tours around, is situated on the other side of the city.

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Even after more than one visit in the city, the cocktail – not always successful – of architectural sizes and building heights is unusual. Sometimes, the old-new school of architecture succeeded to change the perspective, as it happened in the case of Novotel hotel, whose glass wing was politely and naturally added to the old structure, dramatically reconstructed.

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The mother of all contrasts is the Revolution Square, just in the front of the building where the communist dictator Ceausescu had his last speech. Controversial statues with ambiguous artistic messages and highly disputable artistic choices co-exist with the classical building of the Central Library or other statues of ante- and post-communism political personalities.

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The former Royal Palace, currently the Museum of National Art is the aesthetic refuge against the overloaded discourse of the street. It hosts an impressive collection of traditional Romanian art and collections by world painters that necessarily should be on the priority list of any visitor in Bucharest. During the anti-communist riots from December 1989, part of the museum, including some valuable works of arts, were partially destroyed.

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On the other side of the street is the statue of the former King Charles I, and close to it was installed a sign reminding, in the colours of the national flag, that the city is celebrating this year 555 years since is documentary mention.

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The streets around are always busy, with the high traffic coming and going to Calea Victoriei. Inside the Romanian Athenaeum the noise stops leaving the floor to the classical music. Every two years, in the autumn, here it is organized the international classical music festival ‘George Enescu‘ and very often, you might encounter free open air concerts organized in the front square. When there are no concerts, a short visit inside is recommended for admiring, among others, the historical fresco explaining various historical moments.

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The streets and small shops on the streets around are charming and with a stylish yet youngish air. With a revolutionary selfie mirror installed on one of the doors of the shops near Hilton Hotel.

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But I did other interesting things instead of taking my selfies. Like, for instance, visiting (finally) Theodor Aman Museum, dedicated to the work and life of the founder of the Romanian school of Fine Arts. Besides the valuable works of arts exhibited – many influenced by the French culture, as in the case of the literature as well – the architecture of the house tells its own story about the living habits and costumes from the end of the 19th century as well.

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Nothing compares, though, with the pleasure of meeting fellow travel bloggers while on the road. At the cosy Infinitea, hosted in a classical garden house in Cotroceni area,  Vlad, from Eff it, I’m on Holiday shared with me some tips and thoughts about the city and travel blogging. Tea houses were introduced in the city a couple of good years ago, but remain a stylish option to spend some good quiet time with a flavoured cuppa and friends in the city, both during the summer and in the winter.

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At a terrace close to the statues from the University square, late in the evening, I quenched my thirst with a rainbow non-alcoholic cocktail at Infusion. In the vicinity, during the summer, an open theatre is playing various movie hits of the year(s).

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At the recommendation of Vlad, I checked the next day some more street art, this time on Arthur Verona street and was not disappointed by the diversity of works and styles, as well as the insertion of the work within the urban narrative.

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From there, I arrived to one of my favourite parks, Gradina Icoanei and Ion Voicu, discrete islands of green quietness in a city of busy and sometimes too nervous people.

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On Blv. Dacia, where a lot of embassies and diplomatic representations are situated, I paid a short visit to the classy French Institute – closed during the summer – where I spent a lot of time in the company of French literature and the special ambiance of a place where it looked there is no place for the outside world.

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After long days of explorations of the city, getting lost without a proper map other than the language, in the most far away areas, meeting a lot of young people and discovering new artists and designers and writers, I left the city with an enriched impression. I still don’t love Bucharest very much, but getting to know it more is my polite way to show my availability for more understanding at least. With so many histories and its rich architecture, this city will always have some secrets challenging me to discover.

One day, will be back.

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

For some live videos of the daily life, have a look at my YouTube videos here, here and here.

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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/

 

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/