One country, three books
Books about Romania you should read
If you are reading this article, it means that you are thinking about traveling to our country soon and you would like to find out which are the highlights of Romania and the experiences you should not miss. The internet and the travel guides are a very good source for your documentation.
But what about getting inspired or why not….enchanted? Usually, the traditional travel guides are giving us some tips and tricks about what to see, what and where to eat the best traditional dishes, where to sleep and some interesting things about the local culture. But, there is another way to get your inspiration for your journey. One can call it travel literature, others can call it simply novels. Either way, in this kind of books it’s not about numbers, statistics, and lists, it’s more about people, traditions and life stories.
As a tour guide in Romania, I always had an unsaturated curiosity and wish to read and discover the story of my country. And I did so, most of all by reading and little by little I managed to “unveil” numerous secrets of Romania. There are 3 books that became very dear to me and I recommend them to my tourists that I am traveling with.
So, here are 3 books about Romania that you must read before visiting this part of the world:
1. Athene Palace: Rosie Waldeck
We can say that “Athene Palace” (“short of one ‘e’ and of accents for no other reason than simplicity and readability” – Rosie Waldeck) is one of the best documentary novels that tells clearly and impartially the story of the tragic year, 1940, in Romania. Don’t get scared, it is not about boring politics or history. It is way much more. This extraordinary document highlights Hitler’s expansionary politics representing, at the same time, a sincere testimony of 1940-1941 life in Bucharest.
This is the period when Rosie Waldeck is a specially sent correspondent for the American Newsweek magazine in Bucharest.
Rosie Waldeck was a German Jew born in a banking family (Rosa Goldschmidt). She later became Catholic and in 1939, an American.
She arrives in Romania on the same day when France capitulated to Germany, 25th of June 1940 and she checks in one of the swankiest hotels in Bucharest: Athene Palace, nowadays known as Athenee Palace Hilton Hotel. She was going to stay here no less than six months.
The novel uniquely captures the complicated political situation of Romania at the beginning of World War I with painful territorial losses and the struggle to take the best decision for the country’s future. But what really makes this novel remarkable is the story behind the political scene: the royal family of Romania, the Romanians’ lifestyle, their beliefs and most of all their prejudices, the situation of Jews in Bucharest, fears, joy, hope, and lots of gossips and sentimental intrigues. These aspects are offering a great inside for those who are visiting Romania and try to understand the people living here. In fact, she manages to capture with great talent unique traits of the Romanians. She says that “the Romanians possess to the highest degree the capacity of receiving the blows of destiny while relaxed. They fall artfully, soft and loose in every joint and muscle as only those trained in falling can be. The secret of the art of falling is, of course, not to be afraid of falling and the Romanians are not afraid, as western people are. Long experience in survival has taught them that each fall may result in unforeseen opportunities and that somehow they always get in their feet again.”
From the lobby of Athene Palace Hotel, Rosie Waldeck reminds us today of a Bucharest in other times, tormented by conflicting and unpredictable political events. She “watches” the city, the country and eventually… the people.
Rosie Waldeck focuses on the Royal Palace located right across the road, where King Carol II lives together with his lover (Elena Lupescu) and his son (today King Michael I, soon to be 96 years old). Each conflict, decision or fear is reflected in the mood of the disgruntled passers-by that are looking at the Royal Palace as if they were expecting a sign from their leader, an assurance that things will go right soon. But the palace is silent… only the lighted windows are suggesting the tense state beyond the walls. These scenes are the perfect set for Rosie to tell the story of the Royal family of Romania and most of all the intrigues of King Carol’s political and love life. The story captures also the character of the young boy, Michael, who will play a decisive role in World War II.
Also, in the lobby of the hotel, she has the chance to discuss with many important Romanian politicians, officers and culture people, each discussion offering a great opportunity to approach topics related to Romanians daily life. As the author says, Athenee Palace was one of the few places in the world where Nazis, French, British, American and Jewish officials were staying at the same table.
For sure an intriguing novel, Athene Palace will draw your attention and will raise many questions.
2. In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond – Robert Kaplan
Robert Kaplan, an American author of 16 foreign politics and travel books, is one of New York Times bestselling author, also included twice by the Foreign Policy magazine in “Top 100 Global Thinkers”. The New York Times even nominated him among the most influential analysts of the post-World War II era, together with Paul Kennedy and Samuel Huntington.
Robert Kaplan came for the first time in Romania in the 1970s, during the cold war. He was back then a young and enthusiastic journalist arriving in a Communist country located in the dark corner of Europe. Reflecting the mix of the Latin West and the Orthodox East, Kaplan considered Romania the key of understanding Eastern Europe. After this, there were other visits that followed: in the 1980s and 1990s and more recently in 2013 and 2014.
In Europe’s Shadow is a very complex book having features of a travel journal, journalistic essay, and historical analysis. He starts from the history of Romania and then carefully carries on with analysis of neighboring countries, such as the Republic of Moldova, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Thus, Robert Kaplan approaches larger topics such as the reasons of important decisions made by the great powers, the Cold War, the Holocaust and of course, the role of fate in international relations. The result is the discovery of an ideological frontier of the European continent, a centuries-old crossroads between great powers and a great book to understand the crisis which today Russia and Europe pass through.
The novel mentions many essential names for the history of our country, like Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s chief foreign officer during World War II and Nicolae Ceausescu, the most known Communist president in Romania. About this topic, Kaplan says that “if one thinks of Marxism-Leninism as a replacement for Orthodox Christianity, then Ceausescu’s relationship to his subjects, his style of public leadership, and the nature of the political system under him are vaguely similar to those of a Byzantine emperor. Communism is itself indirectly derived from Byzantium.”
The late visits were marked by other important names such as historian Neagu Djuvara or writer Horia Roman-Patapievici as well as the discovery of important Romanian authors as Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, and Mircea Cartarescu.
Kaplan also travels to picturesque places in Romania and describes them very beautifully capturing in the same time the daily life of the people: scenes with people waiting in line for bread during the cold war in Bucharest, the impressive Gothic churches of Transylvania, the wooden convents of Maramures region, the tough labor camps along Danube-Black Sea Canal and so on.
In 2013 and 2014, when Robert Kaplan returns to Romania, he finds the country changed, more “Westernized” and cosmopolitan, though still bearing the marks of the communist regime, struggling to finds its way “In Europe’s shadow”…
3. Along the Enchanted Way: A story of love and life in Romania – William Blacker
Well, if the above books are more pragmatic, history and social oriented, this time you will get the chance to discover a love story in Romania.
The “victim” is William Blacker, a simple man from the United Kingdom who sets off to explore the newly “liberated” countries behind the iron curtain, in January 1990. After all, as William himself quotes Cocteau “The purity of a revolution can last for as much as two weeks”. With this thought in his mind he heads East crossing first Berlin, then Dresden and in Prague, opposite the Romanian Embassy, he watches protests against the killings that took place in Timisoara on 17th of December 1989 and later on in other Romanian cities.
That was the moment when he wondered if continuing all the way to Romania could be an option or not. Eventually, he carries on towards East again and soon he reaches the Romanian frontier. From now on, William confesses “I entered a country frozen in time”. He stops first in the city of Satu Mare where he detailedly describes the gray and literary dark atmosphere from the streets, the long queues, empty stores, the lack of food, heat, and light in the hotels and then continues to Maramures rural area reaching even the painted monasteries of Moldova and Bucovina. His curiosity was sincere making him discover bucolic places, picturesque villages, and simple people, moreover an unexpected lifestyle that he read about when he was a child and he thought to be lost for good: “the Eastern Europe of wooden peasant cottages on the edge of forests inhabited by wolves and bears, of snow and sledges and sheepskin coats, and of country people in embroidered socks and scarves. I thought I had been born too late to see anything like the peasant life about which Tolstoi and Hardy had written, but I was wrong.”
William continues South, to the legendary land of Transylvania where he discovers other villages and a German culture, a totally different one. Here, he meets a local family from whom he finds out the story of the Saxon people who settled here in Middle Age coming from a region of today’s Germany. Unfortunately, after the fall of the communist regime, the Saxons chose to leave their lands and head to Germany. Now, only their houses and majestic fortified churches remind about long gone times of thriving and peace. Their legacy remained nevertheless one of the most important tourist attractions that Romania boasts. This is also the episode when Blacker brings forward a subject that unfortunately is still treated with prejudice in Romania: the story of the Gypsy people, where they are coming from, how they reached Eastern Europe and why they are considered not to be trustworthy. He reveals their culture and lifestyle with understanding despite the rumors he gets from the locals.
Coming back to Maramures, William spends a couple of years in the house of Mihai and Ana, an elder couple from the village of Breb. They welcomed him with pure enthusiasm, got fond of him and treated him like their son. Living in Breb and making friends among the Romanians represented the perfect set for William to describe in vivid colors the traditional clothes of the people, the typical works that follow the cycle of seasons, funny superstitions, ancient beliefs that intertwined with the strong faith in God, funeral and wedding customs, the local food and crafts. William learned Romanian language and he literally lived like a “Brebian”.
Furthermore, he returns to Transylvania, in the Saxon villages where he interacts more with the Saxons and Gypsies. This is probably the most surprising part of the novel. William makes friends among the Gypsies but also gets to know their unwritten laws that most of the times are not accepted by the Saxons and the Romanians. William seeks not to judge them or change them but to understand them and in some moments even encourages them to get over the prejudice they are treated with by the others.
He successfully creates a genuine portrait of the Gypsies with their good and bad and eventually falls in love with a Gypsy girl. Today they have a beautiful young boy, Valentin Blacker that still lives in a Saxon village in Transylvania. You might saw him already, but you did not realize it. You can picture him while embracing Prince Charles of Wales during his official visit in Romania, end of March 2017. It was quite a touching view according to The Telegraph.
All the places William saw (villages, fortresses, churches) and the people he met, made him write the book we are now talking about. Through William, Prince Charles of Wales discovered the Romanian villages and got involved in supporting through Mihai Eminescu Trust, the local traditional lifestyle, education and protection of natural environment. Prince Charles owned several peasantry houses in Romania among which 4 were located in Breb.
These settlements that Blacker visited back then are nowadays among the most appreciated sites that foreign tourists are looking to see in our country thanks to the simple rural life, colorful houses and local outfit, traditions, and locals living in accordance to nature. After all, we don’t say that “Romania starts where the asphalts ends” for no reason. You can read more about the Saxon villages in Transylvania here.
The book has also a special dynamic. As William spent in Maramureș and Transylvania couple of years, he had the chance to make a before and after portrait of the village. He captures how little by little the villagers are in danger to be enchanted by the shiny “gifts” of the West, embracing the modern change but without making it theirs. The result is not always a happy one as the small wooden houses are slowly replaced by concrete and strident colors. William says it is just a matter of time until the world he got to know would be lost. Yet, today one can still see the hidden gems of Maramureș where people are stubbornly trying to keep their traditional lifestyle, saving the derelict wooden houses from becoming a ruin. Take a ride in a horse-driven carriage or a sleigh, take a long walk in the nearby quiet forests, great the locals, taste the delicious traditional dishes, but most of all the fiery plum brandy, palinka, that eventually will make you speak quite fluently Romanian. As the saying goes, “One can say that is in Maramureș when palinka is served at breakfast.”
I confess that I went many times to Maramureș but I had never been to Breb village before. Ever since I read William Blacker’s book I really wanted to see this place. All of the sudden, Maramureș was revealing itself in a totally different way to me and I started to see the Romanians with a critical eye but understanding, as well. I got fond of Mihai and Ana very easily thanks to the beautiful words of William as they were also reminding me about my dear grandparents. As Blacker says at some point, they embodied the unwritten laws of life through their kindness, innocence, and strength of character, being at the same time the last “Mohicans” of a world where time seemed to still be patient.
At last, this winter I got to Breb. I was recalling the wide meadows, the road, the houses, the food, even the smell from the book. Unfortunately, the house where William lived with Ana and Mihai does not exist anymore. Its place was taken by a larger one not quite respecting the local style of the architecture. Still, it was probably the visit that will remain in my heart forever and I hope I will come back there as many times as possible.
“Along the enchanted way” is, at least for myself, the most beautiful and unexpected surprise, an “Eat, Pray, Love” Romanian version that will for sure inspire the way of your steps and feed your curiosity to get to know Romania.
I hope these books will help you be more like a traveler and less like a tourist as in these pages you will read about hidden gems of Romania and experiences you should not miss while you are in our country.
Also, let’s not forget the words of Patrick Kavanagh that William Blacker followed and I think that could very easily become a travel creed:
“I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way, And I said, let the grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day”.