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A visit to Brasov

Today we visited Brasov. Though the excursion was listed on the schedule, it came as a bit of a surprise because it was mentioned so casually. I’d read interesting references to the town in a travel book and though I can’t say for sure whether I saw any of those items—I’m afraid I forgot what I’d read—the visit was a highlight. Brasov, pronounced Brashov, is a city in the Transylvania region of Romania, some 30 miles from Sinaia, the town where we are staying.

Sinaia was so named because an impressed Wallachian nobleman returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land founded a monastery late in the 17th century and named it after Mount Sinai—the biblical site, not the hospital. The town grew around the monastery.

It had been raining heavily all night and into the morning, with a bit of a chill which is common around these parts, when we left for our first stop. The Sinaia monastery, a three towered structure entered through impressive arched doors, remains a working church and indeed we found a couple parishioners praying while a monk—Greek Orthodox, the predominant religion in Romania—prayed out loud in a manner that brought to mind Jewish davening. I’ve noticed that the repetitive cadence of prayers is often similar regardless of religion. This was on the new section, dark inside except for the scant illumination provided by some candles and a few small stained glass windows.

I wondered if light plays a role in ceremonies. The chapel had a couple enormous candelabra which if lit would stun those present with the splendor of walls covered with icons, paintings, gilded columns, statuary, paintings and frescoes. As it is, in the dark and quiet interrupted only by the monks chanting, the chapel felt small and intimate and the rich adornments could only be discerned one at the time, on close inspection. No photos were allowed and I can see why. It would disturb what is a nice spiritual refuge—except for trampling tourists of which we were but the first busload. The monastery charges four Lei per visitor which allows them to do their work and stay afloat. This was by far the prettiest of the churches visited.

As we resumed our trip, the intermittent rain eased off, and by the time we reached Brasov the sun was out and the weather had turned summery hot. Brasov was founded by Teutonic knights in the 12th century at the bequest of the king of Hungary in part to serve as a frontier town and perhaps as a reward for those coming back from the crusades. Though the crusaders were expelled in the 13th century, their accompanying settlers stayed and Brasov (originally known as Kronstadt or city of the Crown) became quite prosperous, partly because it was at the crossroads between the Ottoman empire and the Western Europe Christian states.

As is common in these parts, different peoples controlled the area at different times. With all these comings and goings and inescapable intermingling, one would think great tolerance would exist among the inhabitants, but the savagery of the recent Balkan wars tells us different. Nevertheless Brasov is considered a tolerant town though, while the Germans controlled the city, Romanians were excluded and prevented from practicing their trades or crafts. Eventually everyone got in, even the Jews, starting with a man named Aron Ben Jehuda, early in the 19th c. Some 4 to 6,000 Jews lived in Brasov in 1940 but only ten families remain today. Jews were either deported to camps during WW II (Romania was a Nazi ally) or left for Israel soon after the Soviets took over. Germans too were gone after the war. Though as plentiful as Romanians in 1840 (40% each), either the Soviets shipped them East or they left to relatives in Saxony and similar. Less than 1% remain today.

As usual a central square constitutes the town’s focal point, albeit this square is triangular in shape and features the former mayor’s office in its center. (There is also an incongruent fountain in the square featuring abstract tile constructions, maybe a Soviet leftover.) The square is surrounded by diverse buildings, all with red roofs and interesting architectural details, many with a Teutonic influence. A few of them serve as restaurants where a reasonably priced lunch can be enjoyed. Ruth and I did.

A bit off the square we found another interesting structure, the black church, so named because it was blackened by a fire a few centuries ago. (I doubt they have plans to clean it; for one thing they’d have to rename it). The building itself resembles other Gothic churches but is unadorned, by church standards, lacking the exuberant architectural features that distinguish other churches. Other than being black. Based on shape and style I guessed it was a Catholic church, which it is, but didn’t learn till later it’d originally been an Evangelical church. Inside, the black church houses a collection of antique Anatolian rugs left over from the Ottoman empire and rescued from an island on the Danube prior to it being flooding as the large Danube dam was built in the late sixties. Alas, I didn’t see them: I didn’t go in. But I didn’t go into St Nicholas church either—sometimes one gets ‘churched’ out in Europe, the abc syndrome, as I’ve been told—in spite of its impressive multyspired beauty and its impressive iconic St Nicholas facade rendering. I chose to wander around its adjacent cemetery instead.

I did enter into the Schei Synagogue, which can be found a few feet from the Poarta Schei—one of the two remaining city gates—and which in the past demarcated the Jewish quarters. From outside, the Synagogue’s front features an arch within an arch and its stained glass windows make it resemble a church—perhaps, as was the case in Budapest synagogue, the architects were non-Jews whose experience was limited to churches. Even its color scheme is not too different from the Sinaia monastery we’d visited earlier in the day.

Inside the synagogue is white, with the only color accents provided by the stained glass windows and a lit dome above the ark. Moorish arches, a central Bimah, a proliferation of Menorahs and a second floor probably for the women complete the picture. The shul was recently refurbished and can be visited and photographed. The caretaker didn’t speak English. She left after we did, at noon, to eat lunch I presume. Good timing on our part. For once.

The best part came later, as we wandered the streets taking this and that narrow cobblestoned, curving alleyway to emerge onto a plaza or a string of gabled houses—all sort of gables, eyebrow, square, deep, shallow, plain or greatly embellished—with flower pot adorned windows, (red mums being dominant) or filigreed decorations along their painted walls. Brasov wasn’t bombed during WW II which makes it a bit more real than so many other old cities whose charms have been reconstructed.

Later, walking around the plaza, waiting for our bus to return us to Sinaia, we chanced to look through a wide door and saw a small church. We entered and saw a small Greek orthodox place holding services, a pleasant little jewel and, to top it off, outside I found a stand selling ice cream; two Lei a cone. I bought two and surprised Ruth with one a few minutes before leaving Brasov. We’ve had these a number of times—we paid only one Lei at Carrefour’s—but even two Lei isn’t bad for a simple, single small scoop of tasty refreshment.

Even after spending a few hours in Brasov, it is difficult to explain why it is so charming. The city isn’t that small, some 600,000 plus inhabitants make it the third most populous city in Romania as per Mircea, our very knowledgeable tour director—Wikipedia claims it only has 250,000 and it is the eighth largest, which underscores that it’s size has little to do with the enjoyment it provided—but whether it is the town itself, or the dramatic background provided by the surrounding, densely green and fir covered Carpathian mountains, Brasov is just one of those places one has to see in person, that makes you feel good about traveling, about being there and experiencing a place no one—more or less—had ever even heard off.

By the way, the Romanian leu (lei is the plural) is worth about $0.30 or three to the dollar even though we were told that in the good old days—whenever that was—it traded at a par with the dollar.

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Categories: Travel
  1. August 1, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Beautiful story about Brasov! Details make life happy. Colors and lights, well tempered strokes re-modelling an old story and history.

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