Saturday, May 27, 2017

Palace of Parliament
The last stop on our Gems of Southeastern Europe river cruise was Bucharest, Romania, a little over an hour’s bus ride from Giurgiu on the Danube.  So, we bade farewell to the river and headed to the country’s center of government.   Although communists took power here in 1947, it was under President Nicolae Ceausescu that Romania steered its own course, refusing to 
On the Parliament balcony
participate in the Warsaw Pact.  (It joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.)  This didn’t mean

Ceausescu didn’t have his own ambitions.  The Palace of Parliament is considered his masterpiece architectural contribution and was named the largest and most expensive civilian administrative building in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records.  It boasts twelve stories above ground and another eight below.  He apparently intended the building to house ministries, Communist Party offices, and official apartments, but that dream disappeared with his subsequent demise and the fall of the party.  Now it houses the senate and parliament, but tours and special events help supplement the enormous funds required to maintain the building’s pomp.  Bart Connor and Nadia Comaneci held their wedding receptions in one of the most opulent halls.  Another interesting fact:  everyone must go through required passport control just to enter the building.Also in Bucharest we bundled up and visited the outdoor National Village Museum, an unusual assortment of traditional dwellings, churches, and other buildings found throughout the regions of Romania in years past.  Before departing Bucharest for Transylvania, we passed Revolution Square; the country’s own “triumphal arch” built in 1936 on Ceausescu’s own Champs Elysees ; and the former secret police headquarters that has kept its original design as a reminder of the secret police work, but touts modern glass upper stories showing that the country was moving forward with democracy.

View from Cantacuzino Castle
The plains outside Bucharest quickly gave way to the hills leading up to Transylvania, and fog soon obscured higher elevations of what were surely majestic views.  En route to Dracula’s digs, we stopped to tour Cantacuzino Castle in Busteni.   Built in 1911 by the castle’s namesake, Gheorghe Grigore Cantacuzino, aka the “Nababul” because of his enormous wealth, the structure features only the best in oak, Carrara marble, Italian ceramics, and mosaics.  The main attraction, however, is the gallery of murals painted on Cordoba leather of twelve prominent members of the family.

One of Bran's narrow stairways
Then it was on to the highlight of our land extension, Bran Castle, home of Count Vlad Dracul, fictionalized by author Bram Stoker in his classic Count Dracula.  Actually, the man wasn’t the blood-sucking villain portrayed in the movies; rather, he simply had a novel way of protecting his revered region from invaders: he impaled them; hence, his nickname Vlad the Impaler.  The castle itself is quite the place—lots of elevations, steep stairs, displays of reproduction costumes and weapons, and incredible views in all directions that almost make up for the cold, biting winds often greeting those who venture to a balcony to see them.  Tourism has made its mark now, with special parties offered at Halloween/All Saints’ Day and more kitschy souvenirs than you can count.  Worth the visit, though?  Absolutely!  The castle was ahead of its time with ceramic heaters and other conveniences.
Ben, Angie, Lynn, Alex
As I’ve mentioned before, Ben and I have now sailed on nine river cruises with AmaWaterways.  We actually began with them when the company was still fledgling after its co-owner Rudi Schreiner left his management position at another leading river cruise line to create what he envisioned a river cruise company should look like.  Now AMA consistently wins the highest awards and accolades from the travel community and continually improves its ships and experiences.  Also from the beginning, Ben has booked our groups with the young woman who headed the group department and who has become a close friend over the years.  Angie Avalos happens to be a native Romanian (now living in Southern California), and she vowed that if we ever sailed this part of the Danube she’d meet us there to show us her country.
Angie's Romanian Family

And so it came to pass that this delightful, charming redhead met us at Dracula’s Castle to escort us around the land of her birth.  Ben, Angie and I said goodbye to our friends and traveling companions and drove in her cousin’s car to a small village above Rasnov in Transylvania to spend the night at the home of some of her relatives.  What delightful, friendly people!  Plum brandy is the national drink, and the home brew came out in force along with lots of traditional food, and interspersed with a sharing of family photos and English and Romanian lessons. 
Bran Castle View

We made the tourist rounds in and around Rasnov first and then Brasov, Angie’s hometown.  We visited Valea Cetatii Cave near the Rasnov citadel (not yet at top tourism standards, but nice—especially, we understand, during weekly classical music concerts) and Rasnov Fortress located on a steep cliff above the town.  The fortress is dotted with numerous small shops and
Gheorghe and Angie
 demonstration/reenactment studios to enhance visitor experiences.  Wouldn’t you know we’d run into an old friend of Angie’s, Gheorghe Samoila, who delighted in a photo session with her and laden Ben and me down with tourist information about his reenactment performances.
Brasov is a beautifully quaint city, and the hotel Angie had found for us was conveniently located right in the middle of the Council Square.  A top tourist destination itself, the city is home to the first Romanian school; the famous 600 year-old Black Church; stunning Saint Nicolae Church; an impressive synagogue; the most beautiful covered bridge I’d ever seen; and Tampa Mountain (though "hill" to the locals) that we reached via cable car for views (on a clear day, no less) of the plains below.  We fell in love with this little city.
Lovely Brasov, Romania
Our last stop in Transylvania was to the mind-boggling Peles Castle near Sinaia, built by Carol I, the first Romanian King, in 1874 to serve as a summer residence of the royal family.  Constructed in the German new-Renaissance style, this stunning castle is filled with some of the finest examples of European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, and Cordoba leather covered walls found anywhere.  Each of the 160 rooms bears of theme beautifully carried out and with modern conveniences inviable at the time, from the first elevator in Europe to a double organ between two concert rooms .  It was the first castle on the
continent with full electrical power and one of the few with central heating.  Thanks to Angie, we were given a private tour of the upstairs rooms.  It will remain one of the most elegant castles we’ve ever seen.  We spent the night in Sinaia, a lovely ski resort town, and Angie and I left Ben behind (okay, so it was cold and drizzling rain) and walked to the Sinaia Monastery where a visiting choir broke into song while we were inside a chapel.  A perfect way to end the trip.
Heartfelt thanks to our friend Angie and her colleague Alex Stan who made this very special time in Romania possible.  Before tourism takes too great a hold on this country, go and enjoy her beauty.

With our Cruise Manager Peter Whitehead
To conclude this travel piece I must give another huge shout to both our cruise directors, Matyas Keresztes on our first Danube itinerary and Peter Whitehead on the second.  As usual, food and service onboard were excellent, and the AmaSonata sailed like a charm—a beautiful ship.  Ama contracts with some of the best local tour guides available and adds special touches to excursions whenever possible.  Admittedly, passport control between some countries was more stringent than usual on the lower Danube, but the ship’s staff ensured smooth transitions in all situations.

Our Southeastern Gems Group!
We look forward to our next AmaWaterways cruise to Bordeaux in 2018!

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