August 3. Since I didn’t make the tour of Peleș and Pelișor Castle, a stone’s throw apart, the day before, I decided to try again. It was worth it, even though I had to sit through horrendous traffic snarls coming and going from Basov. I learned that King Carol I, under whose reign Romania first gained its independence, first visited the site of the future castle in 1866, he fell in love with the nearby magnificent Bucegi Mountains. In 1872, the Crown purchased 500 square miles of land near the Piatra Arsă River. The estate was named the Royal Estate of Sinaia. The King commissioned the construction of a royal hunting preserve and summer retreat on the property, and the foundation was laid for Peleș Castle on 22 August 1873.
Pelișor was built after Peleș between 1899 and 1902 by Czech architect Karel Liman and decorated by the Viennese Bernhard Ludwig, Pelisor was, starting since 1903, the summer residence of Romania’s second king, King Ferdinand of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Several auxiliary buildings were built simultaneously with the castle: the guards’ chambers, the Economat Building, the Foișor hunting lodge, the royal stables, and a power plant. Peleș became the world’s first castle fully powered by locally produced electricity.
The first three design plans submitted for Peleș were copies of other palaces in Western Europe, and King Carol I rejected them all as lacking originality and being too costly. German architect Johannes Schultz won the project by presenting a more original plan, something that appealed to the King’s taste: a grand palatial alpine castle combining different features of classic European styles, mostly following Italian elegance and German aesthetics along Renaissance lines. Works were also led by architect Carol Benesch. Later additions were made between 1893 and 1914 by the Czech architect Karel Liman, who designed the towers, including the main central tower, which is 66 metres (217 ft) in height. The Sipot Building, which served as Liman’s headquarters during the construction, was built later on. Liman would supervise the building of the nearby Pelișor Castle (1889–1903, the future residence of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania), as well as of King Ferdinand’s villa in the Royal Sheepfold Meadow.
The cost of the work on the castle undertaken between 1875 and 1914 was estimated to be 16,000,000 Romanian lei in gold (approximately 120 million USD today). Between three and four hundred men worked on the construction. Queen Elisabeth of the Romanians, during the construction phase, wrote in her journal:
Italians were masons, Romanians were building terraces, the Gypsies were coolies. Albanians and Greeks worked in stone, Germans and Hungarians were carpenters. Turks were burning brick. Engineers were Polish and the stone carvers were Czech. The Frenchmen were drawing, the Englishmen were measuring, and so was then when you could see hundreds of national costumes and fourteen languages in which they spoke, sang, cursed and quarreled in all dialects and tones, a joyful mix of men, horses, cart oxen and domestic buffaloes.
By form and function, Peleş is a palace, but it is consistently called a castle. Its architectural style is a romantically inspired blend Neo-Renaissance and Gothic Revival similar to Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. A Saxon influence can be observed in the interior courtyard facades, which have allegorical hand-painted murals and ornate fachwerk similar to that seen in northern European alpine architecture. Interior decoration is mostly Baroque influenced, with heavy carved woods and exquisite fabrics.
The castle has a 34,000 square foot floor plan with over 170 rooms, many with dedicated themes from world cultures (in a similar fashion as other Romanian palaces, like Cotroceni Palace). Themes vary by function (offices, libraries, armories, art galleries) or by style (Florentine, Turkish, Moorish, French, Imperial); all the rooms are extremely lavishly furnished and decorated to the slightest detail. There are 30 bathrooms. The establishment hosts one of the finest collections of art in Eastern and Central Europe, consisting of statues, paintings, furniture, arms and armor, gold, silver, stained glass, ivory, fine china, tapestries, and rugs. The collection of arms and armor has over 4,000 pieces, divided between Eastern and Western war pieces and ceremonial or hunting pieces, spreading over four centuries of history. Oriental rugs come from many sources: Bukhara, Mosul, Isparta, Saruk, and Smirna. The porcelain is from Sèvres and Meissen; the leather is from Córdoba. Perhaps the most acclaimed items are the hand-painted stained glass vitralios, which are mostly Swiss. In something remarkable in comparison to most recent-era royal families, the monarchs shared a bedroom.
A towering statue of King Carol I by Raffaello Romanelli overlooks the main entrance. Many other statues are present on the seven Italian neo-Renaissance terrace gardens, mostly of Carrara marble executed by the Italian sculptor Romanelli. The gardens also host fountains, urns, stairways, guarding lions, marble paths, and other decorative pieces. The castle shelters a painting collection of almost 2,000 pieces. Angelo de Gubernatis (1840 –1913) was an Italian writer who arrived in 1898 in Sinaia as a guest of the Royal Family:
Inaugurated in 1883, Peleș Castle is not only a pleasant place during summer time; it has been conceived to be also a national monument, meant to keep the trophies of the Plevna victory, which explains the simple but majestic style. The castle’s courtyard – Bramantes type – with a fountain in the middle, in the most accurate Renaissance style, pleasantly surprises the visitor. The courtyard has a merry decoration, made out of plants and flowers; all round, the building’s facades are animated by elegant drawings. The interior of the castle is a true wonder, due to the beauty and richness of the sculpted wood and the stained glass windows. As you get in the vestibule, you are on the Honor Staircase, in front of the most important rulers of old Romania: Holy Stephen the Great, and Michael the Brave. In a proud attitude, wearing whether a fur cap or with the gold crown on their heads, they impress through the brilliant dressing, in which the white of ermine blends with the emerald green or the red of the large mantle. On the right and on left side of the two rulers, as servant knights, four shield bearers carry the Romanian Provinces escutcheons. Inside the Queen’s library, over the groups of children symbolizing poetry and science, there is the image of Ulfilas (311–383 AD) a Goth religious ruler, from the northern side of Danube River, translating the Bible in their language and bringing his contribution in spreading Christianity, a Christian apostle of the Romans, and the image of Dante Alighieri, the creator of western poetry. Passing the library and getting into the dormitory, we will meet the image of Genies and Allegories of Painting and Music, as well as a series of legendary themes. Inside the apartments reserved for the honor guests, a number of coat-of-arms were shining through their heraldic abundance, speaking about the ancestors of the Royal Family. But among all, the glass paintings from the Peleș Castle are, beyond any doubt, the most profound and shining. Here, the subjects are taken out of Alecsandri’s poetry.
The most notable grand rooms are:
Holul de Onoare (The Hall of Honour) which was finished completely only in 1911, under the guidance of Karel Liman. It spreads over three floors. Walls are dressed in exquisitely carved woodwork, mostly European walnut and exotic timbers. Bas-reliefs, alabaster sculptures, and retractable stained glass panels complete the decor.
Apartamentul Imperial (The Imperial Suite) is believed to be a tribute to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, who visited the palace as a friend of the Romanian Royal Family. Hence, decorator Auguste Bembe preferred the sumptuous Austrian Baroque in the style of Empress Maria Theresa. A perfectly preserved five-hundred-year-old Cordoban tooled leather wall cover is the rarest of such quality.
Sala Mare de Arme (The Grand Armory or The Arsenal) is where 1,600 of the 4,000 pieces of weaponry and armor reside. One of Europe’s finest collection of hunting and war implements, timelined between 14th and 19th century, are on display. The king added pieces used in his victory against the Ottoman Turks during the War of Independence. Famous are the complete Maximilian armor for horse and rider and a 15th-century German “nobles only” decapitation broadsword. Also on display are a wide array of polearms (glaives, halberds, lances, hunting spears), firearms (muskets, blunderbusses, snaphaunces, flintlocks, pistols), axes, crossbows, and swords (rapiers, sabers, and broadswords).
Sala Mică de Arme (The Small Armory) is where predominantly Oriental (mostly Indo-Persian, Ottoman and Arab) arms and armor pieces are on exhibit, many of them made of gold and silver, and inlaid with precious stones. Included are chain mail armor, helmets, scimitars, yataghans, daggers, matchlocks, lances, pistols, shields, axes, and spears.
Sala de Teatru (The Playhouse) is decorated in Louis XIV style, with sixty seats and a Royal Box. Architectural decoration and mural paintings are signed by Gustav Klimt and Frantz Matsch.
Sala Florentină (The Florentine Room) combines revived elements of the Italian Renaissance, mostly from Florence. Most impressive are the solid bronze doors executed in Rome; ateliers of Luigi Magni; and the Grand Marble Fireplace executed by Paunazio with Michelangelo motifs.
Salonul Maur (The Moorish Salon) was executed under the guidance of Charles Lecompte de Nouy, and is meant to embody elements of North-African and Hispanic Moorish style. Mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, fine Persian Sarouk and Ottoman Isparta rugs, and Oriental weapons and armor are perhaps the most expressive elements. The salon has an indoor marble fountain.
Salonul Turcesc (The Turkish Parlor) emulates an Ottoman “joie de vivre” atmosphere—a room full of Turkish Izmir rugs and copperware from Anatolia and Persia. It was used as a smoking room for gentlemen. Walls are covered in hand-made textiles like silk brocades from the Siegert shops of Vienna.
Needless to say, the rooms were grand. Photos were only allowed for a steep fee, which they didn’t mention at the ticket desk. So I snuck photos, and got chastised many times, but perservered. The tour in Peleș Castle was very chaotic, and I ended up going back through the 2 floors because there had been over 70 people in the English tour. I’m pretty weary of large groups now. On the Pelișor Castle tour, which was self-guided, I met two nice young women who were able to translate a bit of the Romanian. Like many museums, the English translation was often very scant compared to the in-depth explanation provided in Romamian. They were impressed that I could make out a fair bit of the Romanian. It is a Latin-based language, and being familiar with Spanish, French, and Italian helped a lot.
When we left the castle it was raining hard. The 100 F heat was probably due in part to the presence of storm clouds. I could use the cooling rain, but the temperature quickly climbed again. It went from 100 to 74 and back up to 95 in a matter of ten minutes.
I decided to head back to Brasov, only to be daunted by the traffic snarl. After sitting in one place for 30 minutes, I flipped the car around and headed back to Sinaia. Anything was better than sitting in the car for hours. I followed signs to the memorial home of George Enescu, who was a Romanian composer, violinist, pianist, conductor, and teacher. He is regarded by many as Romania’s most important musician. He was born in the village of Liveni (later renamed “George Enescu” in his honor), in Dorohoi County at the time, today Botoşani County. He showed musical talent from early in his childhood. A child prodigy, Enescu began experimenting with composing at an early age. Several, mostly very short pieces survive, all of them for violin and piano. The earliest work of significant length bears the title Pămînt românesc (“Romanian Land”), and is inscribed “opus for piano and violin by George Enescu, Romanian composer, aged five years and a quarter”. Shortly thereafter, his father presented him to the professor and composer Eduard Caudella. On 5 October 1888, at the age of seven, he became the youngest student ever admitted to the Vienna Conservatory, where he studied with Joseph Hellmesberger Jr., Robert Fuchs, and Sigismund Bachrich. He was the second person ever admitted to this university by a dispensation of age (there was a regulation that stipulated that no person younger than 14 years could study at the Vienna Conservatory), after only Fritz Kreisler (in 1882, also at the age of seven), and the first non-Austrian. In 1891, the ten-year-old Enescu gave a private concert at the Court of Vienna, in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph.
Hellmesberger Sr., one of his teachers and the director of the Vienna Conservatory, hosted Enescu at his home, a place where the child prodigy met his idol, Johannes Brahms. He graduated before his 13th birthday, earning the silver medal. In his Viennese concerts young Enescu played works by Brahms, Sarasate and Mendelssohn. In 1895 he went to Paris to continue his studies. He studied violin with Martin Pierre Marsick, harmony with André Gedalge, and composition with Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré. He then studied from 1895 to 1899 at the Conservatoire de Paris. André Gedalge said that he was “the only one [among his students] who truly had ideas and spirit”. In February 1898, at the age of only 16, George Enescu presented in Paris his first mature work, Poema Română, played by the Colonne Orchestra (at the time, one of the most prestigious in the world) and conducted by Édouard Colonne.
Many of Enescu’s works were influenced by Romanian folk music, his most popular compositions being the two Romanian Rhapsodies (1901–2), the opera Œdipe (1936), and the suites for orchestra. He also wrote five symphonies (two of them unfinished), a symphonic poem Vox maris, and much chamber music (three sonatas for violin and piano, two for cello and piano, a piano trio, two string quartets and two piano quartets, a wind decet (French, “dixtuor”), an octet for strings, a piano quintet, and a chamber symphony for twelve solo instruments). A young Ravi Shankar recalled in the 1960s how Enescu, who had developed a deep interest in Oriental music, rehearsed with Shankar’s brother Uday Shankar and his musicians. Around the same time, Enescu took the young Yehudi Menuhin to the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, where he introduced him to the Gamelan Orchestra from Indonesia.
On January 8, 1923 he made his American debut as a conductor in a concert given by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and subsequently made frequent visits to the United States. It was in America, in the 1920s, that Enescu was first persuaded to make recordings as a violinist. He also appeared as a conductor with many American orchestras, and in 1936 he was one of the candidates considered to replace Arturo Toscanini as permanent conductor of the New York Philharmonic. In 1932, Enescu was elected a titular member of the Romanian Academy. In 1935, he conducted the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris and Yehudi Menuhin (who had been his pupil for several years starting in 1927) in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major. He also conducted the New York Philharmonic between 1937 and 1938. In 1939 he married Maria Rosetti (known as the Princess Cantacuzino through her first husband Mihail Cantacuzino), a good friend of Queen Marie of Romania. While staying in Bucharest, Enescu lived in the Cantacuzino Palace on Calea Victoriei (now the George Enescu Museum, dedicated to his work). He lived in Paris and in Romania, but after World War II and the Soviet occupation of Romania, he had to remain in Paris.
He was also a noted violin teacher. Yehudi Menuhin, Christian Ferras, Ivry Gitlis, Arthur Grumiaux, Serge Blanc, Ida Haendel, Uto Ughi and Joan Field were among his pupils. He promoted contemporary Romanian music, playing works of Constantin Silvestri, Mihail Jora, Jonel Perlea and Marţian Negrea. He considered Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin as the “Himalayas of violinists”. An annotated version of this work brings together the indications of Enescu regarding sonority, phrasing, tempos, musicality, fingering and expression. In addition to the house in Sinaia which he had built to be close to Queen Marie of Romania, his patron, Bucharest houses a museum in his memory; you can also visit his house in Dorohoi; likewise, the Symphony Orchestra of Bucharest and the George Enescu Festival—founded by his friend, musical advocate, and sometime collaborator, the conductor George Georgescu – are named and held in his honor. Recently, Bacău International Airport was named George Enescu International Airport.
Pablo Casals described Enescu as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart” and “one of the greatest geniuses of modern music”. Queen Marie of Romania wrote in her memoirs that “in George Enescu was real gold”. Yehudi Menuhin, Enescu’s most famous pupil, once said about his teacher: “He will remain for me the absoluteness through which I judge others”, and “Enescu gave me the light that has guided my entire existence.” He also considered Enescu “the most extraordinary human being, the greatest musician and the most formative influence” he had ever experienced. Vincent d’Indy claimed that if Beethoven’s works were destroyed, they could be all reconstructed from memory by George Enescu. Alfred Cortot, one of the greatest pianists of all time, once said that Enescu, though primarily a violinist, had better piano technique than his own. Eugène Ysaÿe’s Solo Violin Sonata No. 3 “Ballade” was dedicated to Enescu.
Needless to say, being in his modest but lovely home was inspiring. His room was more like a monk’s cell, a narrow camera with a single bed and a trunk where he stored his compositions. I returned to the road, and sat in traffic for 2 hours. I decided to head to Poira Brasov, the ski resort above the town of Brasov, as it had been recommended to me. I arrived at dusk and parked near the ski lift, then started walking up the slope. A group of three folks were also making their way up the hill, and I was to spend the next hour or two with them. David is a pediatrician who lives in North Carolina. He met Ligia, a Romanian, at a conference where she was a translator and they hit it off. Simina is Ligia’s daughter from a previous marriage. They were delightful, bright, and very learned in the esoteric arts. They announced that they were Bahai and knew how to do Reiki, reflexology, essential oil therapy, and acupuncture (David had taken a 6 month course). They were searching for a traditional Romanian restaurant where Ligia had taken her father years before.
It was called Coliba Haiducilor, outlaw’s hut. Romanians cling the myth of the good outlaw, who like Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives tp the poor. We couldn’t find it at first, but Simina was on a mission and determined, and we finally got directions. It was a lovely ambience, a traditional mountain hut. Pickled veggies sat in huge jars, corn and herbs hung from the rafters, and hunting paraphenalia lined the walls. The bread was soft as angel food cake, and I used it to mop up the Cioba di pui (chicken soup). I also ordered cucumber, onion, and pepper salad, but couldn’t finish. I helped Simina finish the fried donut coated in sour cream and blueberries. Yum! David recommended the autobiography of a gypsy pianist Georges Czifra, Canons and Flowers, and we talked about life in Romania. David is planning on moving here once he retires, as he can’t stand being away from Ligia. I was moved by their love. She said she met David when she was 48. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!
We stayed till late into the night. About 11:30pm Ligia was getting sleepy, as was I. We left listening to the musicians playing traditional Romanian folk songs on their fiddles. I felt lucky to have met such remarkable people. Liggia is a published poet, and Simina is a visual artists. I bid them farewell and headed to find a place to camp for the night. IL ended up listening to persistent dog barking for hours. Not the best place I’d stayed.