The inauguration of Ion Iliescu as president of Romania, and the violent pre-inauguration break-up of a gathering of Iliescu-opponents in the capital city of Bucharest has turned the eyes of many in the West on this heretofore little-known Balkan country.
Mainly, Romania has been known as the land where the myth of Dracula began, but this country where Roman conquerers left their language, is also the site of Europe's richest migratory bird sanctuary and of 14th- to 16th-century painted monastery churches that art historians acclaim as among the great artistic monuments of the world.It was in Tirgoviste, in the Carpathian Mountains of south-central Romania that Vlad Tepes - Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Walachia and prototype for the legendary blood-sucking Dracula - ruled and killed in the 15th century. Today, there are only ruins and a watchtower standing where he is said to have invited 500 local lords to a banquet; then accused them of plotting against him and impaled them on spikes beyond the city walls.
Similarly, the fiendish historical prince invited the beggars of his realm to a royal dinner at his palace, inquired if they would like to be free of all cares, boarded up the room in which they were wining and dining and burned them alive, remarking that they would be no further burden to his land.
The 19th-century English writer Bram Stoker, reading of the prince's cruelties, transformed Vlad the Impaler into the vampire, Count Drac, in his harrowing Gothic novel "Dracula," set in the "lofty stepps ... among the jagged rocks and painted crags" of Romania's Transylvania.
Dracula-hunters who visit Romania today are generally taken beyond the deep green valleys where white-faced black cows serenely graze around Tirgoviste to the more imposing 14th-century Bran Castle in that neighboring princedom of Transylvania. This castle is said to have been built by Knights Templar to guard the valley leading to Wallachia. Perched high on a rock by a bubbling stream, with turrets and parapets aplenty, Bran is filled with nooks and crannies, monumental fireplaces and secret rooms and stairways and will fulfill the fantasy of anyone seeking an appropriate residence for a blood-thirsty vampire.
Finally, about 22 miles north of Bucharest itself on a quite little island in Lake Sangov, where today only a priest, a nun and a housekeeper live - is the monastery church Vlad Tepes is said to have helped to build and where, legend has it, he is buried before the altar.
That way each time the priest crosses his burial place during a service, he says a prayer for the salvation of the wicked prince's soul. Defenders of the historical Dracula insist that, though he was harsh (in the Snagov monastery he would have his political prisoners kneel before an icon and, while they were praying, a trap door would open and send them hurtling into a ditch where stakes impaled them), he was always just.
In these more recent days of Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship, the forest of birch and evergreens around Snagov was set aside as a private domain for the use only of the Ceausescu family and guests, but now some of these lakefront properties are being opened to the public as hotels and restaurants.
Romania's recent dictator's most memorable monument, however, is the sprawling 900-foot-long white stone government palace - the House of the Republic - in downtown Bucharest. The 11-story, 1,500 room structure with marble mosaic floors, cherry and oak paneled carved walls, gold leaf on its ceilings, and pillars and pilasters everywhere had 27,000 workers - many of them soldiers - employed in its building.
Also of interest to visitors to the capital is the rich collection of golden jewelry in the History Museum of Romania - much of it dating from Roman and pre-Roman times - and the Village Museum of more than 70 structures moved from all over the country to a lakeside setting in Heriastrau Park. And, those who followed the bloody events of the December revolution that deposed the Ceausescu regime will find harrowing reminders of those days of firing from building to building in the heart of the city. Bullet-pocket structures, and burned out buildings are everywhere while floral and candle tributes are on street corners.
But once one leaves Bucharest for the countryside, one finds a Romania of a quite different aspect. The easiest, though not the most interesting way, to see this nation's highlights - its Danube Delta and the monasteries of the northern area of Bukovina - is by air. Flights to Tulcea, the starting place for Danube cruises, and to Suceava, where one sets out on monastery tours, leave early each morning from the capital.
To see something of the wildlife of the 800,000-acre Danube Delta once one has reached Tulcea, both small tour boats are available anda ferry that makes excursions down the Danube itself to the Black Sea. At fishing villages along the way, it is possible for the adventurous to hire rowboats and guides to go quietly up into the delta's patchwork of shallow, narrow channels.
Silence is an important part of these delta journeys, where willows sweep into the green-gold water; egrets stalk in the reeds ducks bob and swan flocks and wild geese streak overhead. Gnarled tree trunks rise like stark sculpture from channel banks, songbirds chirrup. Fishermen's dogs in thatch-roofed villages race the passing boats. Three hundred species of birds pass through this watery wilderness, a main stopping place on migrations from the south.
Wild boar, deer and wild cats are among mammal residents of the delta, and it is in the Danube near the Black Sea that the sturgeon that produce caviar come to lay their black gold eggs. (Buying caviar there, however, is virtually out of the question. All caviar is state owned and all fishermen are required to sell what they find to the state which, in turn, preserves and exports it.)
The visitor eager to see the monasteries will find it essential to rent a car, or a car with a driver-guide, once he or she has arrived at the starting point of Suceava, (unless they are part of an organized tour) for the monasteries are far apart. Most date from the 15th century when they were built by Stephen the Great, a ruler of Moldavia who, whenever he was blessed with a victory against invading Turks, had a new monastery built in thanks to God. In the reign of his son, Petru Rares, most of the vivid painting on the interior and exterior walls of these structures was done.
Set, invariably, among gently sloping green hills where shepherds graze their flocks on velvety grass, the roofs of these stone convents swoop gracefully below their towers. It was to instruct illiterate parishioners that these church and monastery and convent walls were painted with Biblical and historical tales. At Sucevita, one of the most renowned of the monasteries, angels climb a ladder to Heaven on a teal-blue walls.
In the villages of the Moldavian countryside, farmers drive shallop-shaped horse-drawn wagons down linden-lined roads. Latticework gazebos perch over well houses. Geese and chickens feed by green and brown picket fences.
Also worth seeing, here in Romania are the tall 17th-century wooden churches of northwestern Maramures near the border with the Soviet Union, and the charming Merry Cemetery of Sapinta. There, a local resident for decades painted the crosses that stand in the graveyard, decorating them with primitive pictures of the deceased and writing gay mini-obituaries in verse, in the first person.
If a translator from the Romanian can be found the visitor can learn, for example: "My name is Tite Anuta. As long as I lived, I liked just one thing, to work the whole day so I could offer my husband Georges, turkey soup. Let God bless him and let him live longer than I do since I died when I was 70," or the obituary of a farm wife who advises, beneath a primitive painting of her with her cow, "Who wants to get rich must raise cows and get up early in the morning as I did all my life until I died when I was 78."
The painter of most of them, Stan Patras, died in 1977 and the apprentice who has followed him wryly wrote, "Many leaders of many countries used to come to see me. But when they come again they will not find me anymore."
Visitors to this poorest of the former Socialist countries will find even first-class accommodations outside the capital woefully lacking in amenities, though clean. After mid-day, there is unlikely to be hot water. Window panes, as often as not, are cracked. Showers and sinks leak. Restaurants are smoky and crowded and obtaining a table can be difficult if one is not part of a tour group.
But the Romanian countryside is rich in delights: the soaring snow-capped Carpathian Mountains with pasturelands on the lower slopes, tile-roofed houses nestled in valleys vie with Switzerland's Alps, the Danube Delta. The monasteries and churches inspire.
Long-outmoded farming methods and the characterless housing developments that were erected in the Ceausescu regime to displace picturesque villages are surely dismaying. Dollar-hungry black marketeers will get on travelers' nerves, but the adventurous will find much to be seen in this land of Dracula.
IF YOU GO: It is wise to consult Capati, the Romanian National Tourist Agency at 573 Fifth Ave., New York 10016, N.Y. (212) 697-6971 for information about package tours to Romania, but even package tours are unlikely to live up to Western expectations. Independent travel is possible, but expensive, and dollars - not travelers checks or credit cards - are demanded.