Centuries before the name “Romania” appeared on maps of Europe, foreign merchants and rulers had heard of Wallachia, the land of the Vlachs or Wallachs, known in Romanian as Ţara Româneascã (“Land of the Romanians”). A distant outpost of Christendom, it succumbed to the Turks in 1417 and was then largely forgotten about until 1859 when it united with Moldavia – the first step in the creation of modern Romania. The region is mainly comprised of flat and featureless agricultural land, interspersed with grimy industrial centres, though as it is home to the nation’s capital, Bucharest, people will invariably find themselves passing through en route to Transylvania, the coast or Bulgaria.
The most rewarding part of Wallachia is its western half, known (after its chief river) as Oltenia, which stretches from Bucharest to the Iron Gates on the Danube. Here, the foothills of the Carpathians are largely scenic and unspoiled, and possessed of the region’s most attractive and historically interesting towns, such as Curtea de Argeş, north of which is Poienari Castle, the latter with its connections to Vlad Ţepeş – better known as Dracula – who once ruled Wallachia, even though modern myth links him with Transylvania. In addition, a string of fine monasteries, such as the one at Horezu, runs along the foothills; most were razed at the behest of “progressive” despots (who otherwise spent their time fighting the Turks and repressing their own peasantry), but were rebuilt in the late seventeenth century in the distinctively Romanian style developed by Constantin Brâncoveanu.
The remainder of the region is dominated by large industrialized centres, such as Ploieşti, Piteşti, Craiova and Târgu Jiu, the last of which does at least have the work of Romania’s world-renowned sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi as an incentive to visit. The most worthwhile of the three major towns north and northwest of Bucharest is Târgovişte, the old capital of Wallachia, boasting several ancient churches, the ruins of Vlad Ţepeş’s court and the barracks where the Ceauşescus were executed. Otherwise, there’s a fine excursion to be had up along the Kazan gorge, where the Danube marks the border with Serbia.
Top image © Cristian Zamfir/Shutterstock
From Ploieşti, the main DN1 road heads north towards the Prahova valley and Transylvania. Thirty-two kilometres along the road lies CÂMPINA, another of Romania’s key oil towns which, like Ploieşti, was heavily bombed during the war. Despite the town’s lack of visual appeal and practical facilities, it has two tourist sights that merit a stopoff if you’re passing by.
Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654–1714) became ruler of Wallachia in 1689 after the usual Byzantine family intrigues, and was instrumental in bringing about a cultural renaissance by establishing a printing press in Bucharest and a school of architecture and sculpture at the monastery of Horezu. He created an architectural style that was a fusion of Western (especially Venetian) Renaissance and Ottoman elements, characterized by a harmonious layout and fine ornamental stone carving, especially on balconies, external staircases and arcades. In the early twentieth century a neo-Brâncovenesc style was very popular, especially in Wallachia and Moldavia, as an expression of the new nation’s cultural identity.
Politically, he sought to distance Wallachia from its Ottoman overlords (partly because he wanted to keep some of the massive taxes they demanded to use for his building projects). At the outbreak of a Russo-Turkish War in 1710 he sought alliances with the Russians, as well as the Habsburgs, while also being prepared to fight on the Turkish side if they seemed likelier winners. However, he was arrested, tortured and (with his four sons and grand treasurer Enache Văcărescu) executed in 1714 in Constantinople. He was succeeded by his cousin Ştefan Cantacuzino, who was soon deposed and executed by the Ottomans and replaced by Nicolai Mavrocordat, the first Phanariot ruler of Wallachia (having already been the first Phanariot ruler of Moldavia).
In 1992 Brâncoveanu, and those executed with him, were declared saints and martyrs by the Romanian Orthodox Church, honoured as protectors of the Orthodox faith against Islam. Nevertheless, to the outside world it is his artistic and cultural achievements that are his lasting legacy.
Almost every locomotive on the tracks of Romania originally emerged from the Electroputere workshops of CRAIOVA, while the city is also a centre for the Romanian automobile industry, the former Oltcit works (now Ford Romania) having produced many of the country’s cars. These industries are here because of the ready availability of oil, whose presence is attested to by the derricks surrounding what is now the chief city of Oltenia and capital of Dolj county. Craiova does have a longer history than it might appear from its industrial heritage, having begun life as the Roman town of Pelendava, and Michael the Brave began his career here as deputy governor. Today, it’s a sprawling and hectic place, but you may find yourself breaking a journey to or from Bulgaria, in which case there’s a cluster of impressive museums to while away the time. On the southern edge of the city (down Calea Unirii) is the superb Parcul Romanescu, laid out by French architects in 1901–03, with a zoo and lake and the first cable suspension bridge in Europe.
Curtea de Argeş
Thirty-six kilometres northwest of Piteşti, and easily reached by road and rail, the attractive little town of CURTEA DE ARGEŞ was another former princely capital – Wallachia’s second after Câmpulung and before Târgovişte. While it’s not exactly bursting with excitement, the town does boast some of the country’s most important religious architecture, and is the ideal base for forays up to Dracula’s Castle further north.
Court of Argeş
At the beginning of the main through street, Bulevardul Basarabilor, stands the Court of Argeş, the oldest church in Wallachia. Enclosed by a wall of river boulders, the thirteenth-century complex was rebuilt in the fourteenth century by Radu Negru, otherwise known as Basarab I, the founder of Wallachia. Distinguished by alternate bands of grey stone and red brick, its Biserica Sfântul Nicolae Domnesc (Princely Church of St Nicholas) was constructed in 1352 and its interior decorated with frescoes in 1384; later restoration work has now been largely removed to reveal the original frescoes, which are fully in the Byzantine tradition but wonderfully alive and individual, reminiscent of Giotto rather than the frozen poses of the Greek masters. The early Basarab rulers are buried here.
Arefu, Cetatea Poienari and Lacul Vidraru
Twenty-five kilometres north of Curtea de Argeş is AREFU (or Aref), a long, ramshackle village 3km west of the valley road – if you’re travelling by car, be warned that the surface from the main road to the village is very rough. It was to here, in 1457, that the survivors of Vlad the Impaler’s massacre in Târgovişte were marched to begin work on his castle. Although the tourist industry focuses on Bran castle in Transylvania, which has almost no connection to the Dracula myth (aside from the fact that he may have attacked it on occasion), Cetatea Poienari (Poienari Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle) was once Vlad the Impaler’s residence, and its location in the foothills of the Făgăraş mountains makes for a wonderfully dramatic setting.
DROBETA-TURNU SEVERIN (usually known simply as Severin) lies on the north side of the River Danube, the country’s natural border with Serbia and Bulgaria. The river narrows below Moldova Veche before surging through the Kazan gorge towards Orşova, only to be tamed and harnessed by the dam at the mighty Iron Gates before reaching the town. Dubbed the “town of roses” for its beautiful parks, notably the archeological park around the Museum of the Iron Gates, with its lovely roses and walnut trees, the towns has a modern appearance that belies its origins as the Dacian settlement of Drobeta, more than two thousand years ago. As pleasant as Severin is, there’s not a lot to get excited about, but it does make a decent base if you’re intent on exploring the Kazan gorge.
The village of GOLEŞTI, 8km east of Piteşti just off route 7 (the road running parallel to the Bucharest–Piteşti highway), was once the fiefdom of the Golescus, one of the leading liberal families of nineteenth-century Wallachia – not only were they active members of both the 1821 and 1848 revolutions, but they also worked in favour of Romanian union in 1859 and Romanian independence in 1877.
The Kazan gorge
Some 40km upstream of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, on both sides of the village of DUBOVA, the sheer cliffs of the Kazan gorge (Cazanele Dunării) fall 600m into the tortuous river. Rather than attempt to cut a path through the rock, the Romans bored holes into the side of the cliff and added beams and planks to roof over the road and discourage Dacian ambushes. The first proper road was created on the northern side of the gorge on the initiative of the nineteenth-century Hungarian statesman Count Szechenyi, but had not long been finished when the 1920 Trianon Treaty transferred it to Romania, whereupon it was neglected and finally submerged in the 1970s by the rising waters. Since the building of the dam, modern roads have been built on both sides of the river, and the dramatic landscape makes this an excursion not to be missed. The authorities aren’t keen on tourists canoeing down the Danube (mainly because of the industrial barges using the river and the proximity of the border with Serbia), but it’s a great drive.
The Olt valley
The twin settlements of Călimăneşti–Căciulata mark the entrance to the Olt valley, a deep twisting gorge of great beauty and the site of several monasteries, the most notable of which is Cozia. While the main road runs along the Olt’s west bank, a lesser road (as far as Cozia) and the rail line follow the other side of the defile.
Situated 100km northwest of Bucharest, PITEŞTI is another of Wallachia’s industrial towns, and in truth it’s one of the grimmest, though it does make a useful base for forays up into the Argeş valley. Much of the town’s architectural charm has been lost to earthquakes and subsequent rebuilding, and these days it’s dominated by the woodworking and petrochemical industries, and by the Dacia factory (now owned by Renault) – origin of most of Romania’s cars – 11km north in Mioveni. If you do find yourself with a couple of hours to spare here, there are a couple of unusual museums to occupy your time.
An oily smell and the eerie night-time flare of vented gases proclaim PLOIEŞTI as Romania’s biggest oil town. In 1857, the world’s first oil wells were sunk both here and in Petrolia, Canada; the first ever refinery was built in Ploieşti, and in 1858 Bucharest became the first city in the world to be lit by oil lamps. By the outbreak of World War I, there were ten refineries in the town, all owned by foreign oil companies; these were wrecked in 1916 by British agents to deny them to the Germans, and patched together again only to be destroyed once more, this time by the retreating German forces in 1918. However, it was the townsfolk who really paid the price, when Allied aircraft carpet bombed Ploieşti in 1944 – hence the town centre’s concrete uniformity today. That said, you could spend quite some time exploring the town’s disproportionately large number of fascinating museums.
The River Olt runs south from its source in Transylvania through the Red Tower Pass below Sibiu, carving a stupendous 50km gorge through the Carpathians down into Wallachia, where it passes through RÂMNICU VÂLCEA, 34km west of Curtea de Argeş, and continues south to the Danube.
Sprawling across successive terraces above the River Olt, Râmnicu Vâlcea is a typically systematized town, with many communist-era apartment blocks and more modern malls, but there are half a dozen attractive old churches as well as an excellent open-air museum here. Just about everything of interest is on, or just off, the town’s main street, Calea lui Traian, which runs along the western side of the main square, Piaţa Mircea cel Bătrân.
Muzeul Satului Vâlcea
A fifteen-minute walk south from the Bujoreni train station, the superb Muzeul Satului Vâlcea (Bujoreni open-air museum) comprises a fine ensemble of some eighty structures laid out as per a typical village from the Vâlcea region. It’s possible to enter a good cross section of these units, including a splendidly preserved inn (1899), one of the village’s largest buildings and its social focus, a perfectly furnished village school (1904), complete with period books and maps, and a cula or watchtower, dating from 1802. The two oldest buildings are wooden churches, one dating from 1785 complete with a candelabrum featuring wooden eggs hanging below wooden birds, and some original icons, and the other – a relatively new addition – dating from 1655, whose roof slopes almost all the way down to the ground.
TÂRGOVIŞTE, 50km west of Ploieşti on the DN72, was the capital of Wallachia for more than two centuries, vestiges of which can be seen in the old Princely Court complex, the town’s principal attraction. In recent times, the town has been best known as an industrial centre, producing equipment for the oil industry, but it gained notoriety when Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu were executed in its military barracks on Christmas Day, 1989.
Located just a few paces up from the train station, the military barracks where the Ceauşescus met their grisly end was finally opened up to the public in 2013. The small room to the right as you enter (the Commandant’s room) was where the couple underwent medical checks before the trial, which took place in another, not much bigger, room just across the way; it’s arranged exactly as it was during the trial, with the very same tables and chairs, and signs indicating where the main protagonists sat. Down the corridor is the room where the couple spent their last four nights, sleeping on hard, iron-framed beds and eating off metal plates, as ignominious an ending as it’s possible to imagine for a couple who were used to dining off the finest silver. From here, you head out into the grubby courtyard and the execution site; two, rather comedic, white painted outlines mark the spots where they fell, and a volley of bullet holes pepper the wall – apparently, the Ceauşescus were shot too quickly for the event to be captured live on video, so many of the holes you see were actually fired after they had been executed.
Forewarned about TÂRGU JIU and the surrounding Jiu valley – with its grim coal and lignite mines – visitors often decide to ignore them completely. Although Târgu Jiu has no links with coal mining itself, it still suffered the gross “modernization” imposed by Ceauşescu on Romania’s coal-mining centres, with homes knocked down to make way for unattractive and impractical concrete blocks. However, this busy, dusty town does merit a visit on the strength of the monumental sculptures that Constantin Brâncuşi created in the late 1930s as a war memorial for the town of his boyhood. He offered a series of twelve sculptures, but completed only four before he died – indeed, these were the only large-scale projects by Brâncuşi to come to fruition anywhere.
The most iconic of Brâncuşi’s works is the stunning Coloană Infinita (Endless Column), a vast 30m-high totem pole of seventeen (fifteen whole) smooth rhomboidal blocks, cast in iron and threaded onto a carbon steel post embedded into the ground; the column’s rippling form is echoed in many of the verandas of the old wooden houses throughout the region. Brâncuşi actually began working on variations of the column in 1918 (the original, oak, one is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York), though this structure wasn’t installed until 1938, following a request from the local authorities to create a memorial for those killed during World War I. It is, without question, one of the most striking – and recognizable – pieces of architecture not just in Romania, but anywhere in Europe.
Set amid apple and plum orchards, sweet chestnut trees and wild lilac, 16km east of Polovragi on the main road to Râmnicu Vâlcea, is the small town of HOREZU – so-called after the numerous owls (huhurezi) that reside here (the town is also shown as Hurez on some maps). Although wooden furniture and wrought-iron objects are also produced here, Horezu is best known for its pottery, especially its plates, which by tradition are given as keepsakes during funeral wakes. The Cocoşul de Horezu pottery fair, held on the first Sunday of June, is one of the year’s biggest events in the area – though if you miss it, you can still see many wares displayed in dozens of roadside huts just east of the centre. There’s also an exhibition of local pottery in a large hut by the car park leading up to Horezu monastery, where you can view and buy items.
Built between 1691 and 1697, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mânăstirea Hurezi (Horezu monastery) is the largest and finest of Wallachia’s Brâncoveanu complexes, and is the site of the school which established the Brâncovenesc style. The complex is centred around the Great Church, built in 1693 and entered via a marvellous ten-pillared porchway, its capitals adorned with stone-carved acanthus leaves and its doors of carved pearwood framed by a beautiful marble portal; to the right of the entrance, and largely protected from the elements, is a still vibrantly colourful Last Judgement fresco. Inside, the late seventeenth-century frescoes, once tarnished by the smoke from fires lit by Turkish slaves who camped here, have been restored, and you can now make out portraits of Constantin Brâncoveanu and his family, Cantacuzino, Basarab, and the monastery’s first abbot, Ioan, as well as scenes from Mount Athos and the Orthodox calendar. To the right of the church as you enter is a vacant tomb, which was Brâncoveanu’s intended resting place – as it is, he is buried in St George’s Church in Bucharest.
The monastery actually held a community of monks until 1872, at which point it became a nunnery. Opposite the church is the nuns’ domed refectory, which contains some more but poorly preserved frescoes and, to the left, another Brâncoveanu porch, featuring a splendid stone balustrade carved with animal motifs. In one of the upper cloisters, there’s a collection of sacral art, mainly seventeenth-century icons.