Across the Carpathians…in Romania
There’s an undeniable mystique about Romania. Royal Academy Art Tours expert lecturer John Osborne introduces this cultural gem, steeped in tradition and blessed with stunning landscapes.
Romania – or at least the Romanian section of the population – has suffered from invasion, oppression and poverty during its history, but has also benefited from its isolation. Their language is obviously descended from Latin, from the period when Transylvania was a Roman imperial province. Transylvania in the centre and Maramureş in the north are still predominantly rural. The communist regime was never able to entirely collectivise the smallholdings and farming methods: here, traditional horses and carts are still the main means of transport around the villages, and families still mow the hay with scythes.
We are looking at Old Europe.
Things are changing, of course: hard-top roads now give access to the villages and the young emigrate. There’s also illegal logging in the forests, but conservation bodies, like the Mihai Eminescu Trust and the personal lead that HRH The Prince of Wales has given, have demonstrated that the landscape and the rural way of life should be conserved. Thankfully Romanians, including some at government level, have taken this on board.
The forested Carpathian mountains – home to half the population of Europe’s bears – formed the frontier between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the old principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia to the south and east. At the end of the first world war, Transylvania to the north and west of this great range passed from Hungarian administration and became part of ‘greater’ Romania for the first time.
The first Romanian state was a 19th-century amalgamation of Wallachia and Moldavia, tributary provinces of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, to whom Russia, Austria, France and Britain grudgingly permitted independence and unification after the Crimean war. The inhabitants in these regions were – and still are – almost entirely Romanian and members of the Orthodox church.
A hundred years ago, before the process of urbanisation and industrialisation began, the Danube plain was the fourth largest producer of grain in the world.
Bucharest became the capital of this new Romania and at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries acquired fine public buildings, boulevards and green spaces that befitted its new status. Comparisons with Paris were made. Within a few yards of what, since 1989, has been renamed ‘Revolution Square,’ are the former Royal Palace – now the National Art Museum – and the Athenaeum, a rotunda with a classical portico. Just the place to enjoy a concert of classical music.
Public buildings, offices and apartment blocks of the communist period dominate much of the city, and the former Communist Party building fills one side of Revolution Square. Here, from the balcony in December 1989, dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu addressed the fractious crowds in vain. He and his wife made their escape by helicopter from the roof, only to meet a hasty trial and swift execution. The outstanding monument to Ceauşescu’s megalomania is the colossal Palace of Parliament, the second largest building in the world, for which over 25 sq km of housing were razed, including 22 monasteries and churches.
The history and culture of Transylvania is a different matter. Closer to the peoples and powers of central Europe and further from the reach of direct Ottoman rule, it was much under Hungarian influence and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1699. Today there are some 1.8 million ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.
An astonishing survival are the remnants of the German communities, known as Saxons, invited to settle in Transylvania in the 12th and 13th centuries by the kings of Hungary. There were 800,000 Saxons before the second world war, but after post-war deportations to Siberia and emigration to Germany there are now fewer than 50,000.
The impact of the Hungarians and Germans has been remarkable. Until 1918 the Romanians, although approximately half the population, had no status in Transylvania: local government was in the hands of the Hungarian and German communities. The Orthodox church was not recognised among the official Catholic and Protestant denominations. The Saxon cities here – the Siebenburgen or ‘Seven Towns’ – have a feel of middle Europe, with the harmonious baroque architecture of their central squares. Sibiu and Brasov are characterised by their glorious Lutheran churches.
The Saxon population of the villages has almost entirely died out or left, but the layout and the dwellings remain the same. A few hardy, aged Germans maintain the villages’ superb medieval fortified churches, such as those at Prejmer and Viscri, behind whose walls the whole community could retreat when threatened by marauding invaders. A testament to the organisation and discipline that underpinned civic life, the Saxon towns and villages are hugely attractive and wonderful to visit throughout the year.
A day’s drive over the Carpathians leads to Bucovina in the north-east of the country, where the renowned Orthodox painted monasteries survive. They date from the 15th and 16th centuries, some from the reign of Stephen the Great, ruler of Moldavia, who, so they say, founded a monastery after each of his victories over the Ottoman Turks. With a succession of Mongol, Ottoman, Polish and Austrian invaders, these lands at the foothills of the Carpathians were never secure. Now re-established as convents, they are amazing survivals.
With attractive courtyards behind their walls and spires like witches’ hats with broad eaves and pointed spires, the monasteries of Humor, Voronet, Moldovița and Sucevița create attractive ensembles. Their glorious frescoes uniquely cover the whole of the exteriors as well as the interiors of the churches. Among the depictions are the heavenly host, the ancestry of Christ and the life of Mary, and rarer images of the sages of the classical world and of the siege of Constantinople.
John Osborne will lead Romania: Mountains, Monasteries & Medieval Cities, one of Cox & Kings’ expert-led art tours organised on behalf of the Royal Academy of Arts, on 13-22 June 2016 and 15-24 May 2017. (Rowena Loverance will lead the same tour on 3-12 October 2016.)