The Bolyai Castle

This castle with a rich history is now found in an advanced state of ruin in the out-of-the-way village of Buia (“Bell” in German, “Bólya” in Hungarian) in Transilvania, Romania. I took these photographs in 2009. I don’t know how much of it still stands today, eight years later. The castle isn’t big but it is interesting in its mix of gothic and baroque architecture and it must have looked beautiful when it was in good shape. In its heyday, it had 12 rooms. The courtyard was paved and furnished with stone tables and chairs. Outside, there was a walking alley lined with chestnut trees. Pine trees were planted all around the castle. One source says the castle’s chapel possibly existed even before the castle itself and was integrated into one of its wings afterward. Another source says there existed at one point a particularly gruesome execution room where the guilty were thrown into sickle blades, and that there was a tall linden tree just outside the castle where people were hung and kept there as an example for others.

The full name of the place is the Toldi-Bolyai Castle and its construction dates from 1324. If the name Bolyai sounds familiar to you, that’s because the largest university in Romania is named Babeș-Bolyai and it’s in Cluj-Napoca, about 2 hours away by car from this castle. Another written mention from 1467 says it belonged to Vízaknai Miklós, about whom I cannot find more information, but given that Vízaknai is Ocna Sibiului, which is not far away from Buia, I take it Miklós was the ruler of the region at that time. In 1599, we find the castle in the possession of Mihai Viteazul, a legendary Romanian ruler, to whom it was gifted by Báthory Zsigmond (the ruler of Transilvania at the time) after the battle of Șelimbăr, along with a number of villages in the area. After Mihai’s death, the castle came to the Gálfi family; Gálfi János left an inscription above the castle’s entrance which is barely visible now. It was then gifted to Toldi György (hence the castle’s name) by Bethlen Gábor, who was Prince of Transilvania at the time. The Toldi family kept the castle until the 19th century. In 1920, the castle became the property of the government of Romania. A village dispensary was built there by modifying some of the rooms for the needs of medical personnel. It functioned until 1978, after which the place was left to the winds and was used for the storage of various village goods without any care at all for its state.

The Rupea Fortress

We visited the Rupea Fortress a number of years ago, before the restoration work began. Now the work is complete and it’s amazing to see the difference. We visited it recently and took another set of photos. Those are coming soon. In the meantime, here is a set of the photos taken back when it was still falling apart.

There’s a lot of history packed into that hilltop where the fortress is built. Archeological digs found evidence of settlements dating back to 5500-3500 BC. When Romania was known as Dacia, before it was conquered and colonized by the Romans, the place was known as Rumidava. Afterward, it became known as Rupes, from the basaltic rock of the hill where it’s built. When the Saxons colonized Transilvania, the fortress became known as Castrum Kuholm, the word “kuholm” refering once again to the same basaltic rock. There is more information here, should you be interested.

I hope you enjoyed the photos! I took them with my Canon EOS 5D and the EF 24-105mm f/4L lens.

Canon EOS 5D (front)
Canon EOS 5D
Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

The Bethlen-Cris Castle

The Bethlen-Cris Castle is located in its namesake village, Cris, which is in Southern Transilvania, Romania. The medieval castle has been declared an historic monument. It dates back to the 14th century, having been modified and enlarged until the 18th century. Some say it is the prettiest Renaisance castle in Transilvania.

It has a square plan, having been built as a fortified residence for the Bethlen family. It has towers at all four corners and high walls on all sides. Well, it had high walls on all sides in the past. During Romania’s comunist  times, the castle fell into ruins and some of its living quarters were even used as stables, which was a standard communist practice applied to all aristocratic castles in the country.

When we visited it, in 2010, the castle was undergoing a renovation and restoration process. The caretaker told us there was talk of converting one of its wings into a pension/hotel. At any rate, we’re glad the castle is being restored and will be used again.

Here is a gallery of selected photos I took there.

Poenari Castle

Poenari Castle is a medieval stronghold used by Wallachian rulers over the centuries of the Middle Ages. It’s perched on top of a cliff just off the Transfagarasan Road and the only way to access it is to climb 1,480 steps. It takes about 30-45 minutes to get to the top and a little less to get down, though I have to say it is a serious physical effort and particularly taxing on the knees as you climb back down. Keep that in mind if you plan to visit it.

The castle is supposed to have been built in the 13th century, used for a while, abandoned, then restored during the rule of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula), in the 15th century. Stories are told of it being Dracula’s main castle but they have no historical basis. Having visited it, I can tell you it is a small castle with little space for a ruler and his courtly entourage. It is more of a stronghold than a castle and the inherent difficulty in accessing it makes it ideal for defensive purposes but hardly suitable for living quarters (food and water would have to make quite the long trip up the mountain) on narrow paths or stairs, as there is no road.

It is quite possible that Vlad the Impaler used it as a stronghold when attacked by the Turks sometime during his rule. As legend would have it, the Turks managed to drive him out after dragging cannons up the adjacent cliffs and shooting the walls full of holes. He escaped, supposedly, with the aid of three brothers, who mounted horseshoes backward on the hoofs of their mules and thus fooled the Ottoman soldiers as they got away.

Poenari Castle offers impressive views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and it is worth the trek, if you’re in good physical shape.

I would have liked to see it restored to its former glory — perhaps at some point in the future that will happen. This is an artist’s rendering of what it might have looked like. Impressive, isn’t it?

Poenari Castle sketch-frontgate

Castelul Grofului din Pribilesti (Boyar’s Castle)

In the village of Pribilesti, province of Maramures, in Romania, there’s a beautiful little castle called simply “Castelul Grofului”, or, roughly translated, The Boyar’s Castle (see definition of a boyar).

As the story goes, when the Austro-Hungarian empire invaded Romania and took over most of its lands, a ruler was set over that region. The Hungarian boyar built two castles, one in Pribilesti, and another, a larger one, in the mountains. At the time, his castle was the only structure around. He was surrounded by tens of square kilometers of open fields, which were tended by the peasants from the surrounding villages.

Nowadays, houses have sprung up around the castle, and the boyar’s land has been divided and subdivided, sold, and resold,  so much so that there’s no land around the castle anymore. It’s surrounded by the villagers’ houses, all around. It’s an odd sight — a castle with no land around it, but it is what it is.

During Romania’s Communist regime, the castle was taken over by the local farm cooperative, and it was used as a barn for animals. The upper floors were used as offices for the cooperative’s leaders — the members of the Communist Party. The castle’s extensive library was (naturally) burned, the paintings stolen, and everything else of value looted.

Don’t feel too bad for the boyar though. It turns out he was one mean s.o.b. He used to yoke the peasants like cattle and force them to till his land, because he thought they weren’t obedient enough.

After the Communist regime fell in 1989, the boyar’s family got the castle back, but the details are fuzzy. I spoke to a few villagers, and it sounds like either the family’s still got it, or some other foreigner’s got it, but they’re not doing anything with it, and they’re not putting money into renovating the place either. It’s falling apart. It has a new roof courtesy of the Romanian government, who paid for it. Hens and local urchin climb through it every day. Drunks pee on it and inside it. Nobody knows how much longer it’ll stand.

It’s a beautiful place, but what are you going to do? A castle with no land around it isn’t worth much these days. You’d have to sink at least 500,000 Euros into renovating the place, then a few hundred thousand more into buying back some of the land around it, so you’d have a bit of space to breathe.

I do hope someone renovates it. If I had that kind of money, I’d do it. It would be a pity to lose it.

I’ve got more photos from Castelul Grofului in my photo catalog.

Arch

Arch

The arch is a common architectural element at Histria. They seemed to love using bricks in conjunction with field stone, layering them on top of each other in interesting ways. 

Photo taken among the ruins of Histria, the oldest documented city on Romanian territory. Histria is located on the shore of Lake Sinoe, a salt-water lake with a direct link to the Black Sea, near Constanta, in the region of Dobrogea.

The ancient city of Histria

On the shore of Lake Sinoe in Romania, very close to the Black Sea, lie the ruins of the oldest documented city on the territory of modern-day Romania: Histria. (See satellite view below, or go to Google Maps to explore the full map.) We visited it in September of 2008.

It started its life around 630 BC [reference], built by Milesian colonists from Greece, to trade with native Getae tribes (Geti in Romanian). The Getae were Thracian tribes that occupied Dacia, whose territory is matched in smaller proportion by modern-day Romania. They, and the other people who settled in Romania at later times (like the Romans) are the ancestors of modern-day Romanians — my ancestors.

When Histria was built, its port was literally on the shore of the Black Sea. Over its approximately 14 centuries’ existence, silt deposits from the Danube River blocked off its access to the sea and formed what is now Lake Sinoe. This meant that the city’s importance as a port and trading post slowly diminished as the silt deposits grew to become the current land border between the Lake Sinoe and the Black Sea. It must have been painful to try and salvage the city’s livelihood by finding routes through the growing silt, hoping that ships stuck in the increasingly shallow water would somehow want to come back, should they manage to get away. Little did they know that in modern times, a canal would be cut through the silt shore at Periboin, not far from them.

By 100 AD, the city, who had resisted countless attacks and rebuilt its walls time after time after time, could only rely on fishing as a source of income. It managed to survive another 600 years or so, until it was destroyed one last time in the 7th century AD by the Avars and the Slavs. Its inhabitants moved away, and the once bustling and prosperous city, who had forged an important trading link between the Greeks and the Dacians so many centuries ago, began to decay, unoccupied.

Its name forgotten, it didn’t even appear on maps. Its memory swallowed whole by time, its walls covered by the ground itself, it lay in wait until it was re-discovered by a Frenchman, Ernest Desjardins, in 1868. In 1914, Vasile Parvan, a Romanian, began the first excavations of the site. The archeological digs continue to this day, conducted by various multinational teams. This was how we found it a month or so ago.

It was a warm, sunny, late-summer day when we visited. The heat shone down oppresively while we drove through the flat Dobrogea landscape. Yet a soft, cooling breeze from Lake Sinoe met us as soon as we stepped onto the grounds of the city.

There was a peace and quiet at Histria that I can only find when I visit certain ruins. I stood among the remains of the walls, and thought of the people that lived there before I set foot on what used to be their homes. They were born, lived and died there, making a living the best way they knew how, in a famous city by the Black Sea. The breeze must have been stronger then, since the waves of the sea beat against the city’s very shores.

What an adventurous spirit those Greek traders must have had, to get in their boats and travel far off, in hope of establishing a little colony of their own in an unknown land. How did they choose the site? Likely because it sits on top of a slight hill. Just think, the first few families built little homes out of field stone (there are very few trees around), and through hard work applied over time, grew that little settlement into an important port of trade and a fortress, one rich enough to attract the attention of countless attackers.

As I sat there and listened to the lull of the waves, I understood why they rebuilt after each attacks. The peace between each bout of violence was worth the effort, and the surroundings themselves invited (and still invite) company. Had their direct access to the Black Sea not been cut off, I believe Histria would survived to this day, and perhaps the city of Tomis (Constanta) might have had a different fate.

If you walk slowly among the houses or on the streets at Histria, you too will understand why it survived for so long. It’s hard to leave a place like that. It’s so peaceful, so quiet, so welcoming. You want to spend more time there, looking toward the horizon, hoping against hope to spot your ship, which is making its way slowly but surely toward the small port, bearing goods that will replenish your warehouse and provide for your family for another year.

The full set of photos from Histria is available at my online photography catalog. You’re welcome to view them all there. Mircea Angelescu, a Romania researcher, developed a 3D model of Histria which can give you a detailed idea of the city’s layout over time. More info on Histria can be found at Wikipedia.