Tag Archives: History

Throwback Thursday – The Durrës Amphitheatre

During our Summer trip of 2015, Lars and I spent one week in one of the biggest cities of Albania, Durrës. Most of the time we enjoyed a lazy life on the beach, but we did make time to visit one of the biggest attractions of the city: the Amphitheatre.

Built in the 2nd century, it was one of the very few amphitheatres in the Balkans and the only one in Albania. It had a capacity of 20.000 spectators and performances took place until the 4th century.

In later centuries, chapels with frescoes and mosaics were added. In the 16th century, the amphitheatre was covered over.

The story goes that in the 1960s, a man grew a lemon tree in his garden that simply did not bear any lemons. He started digging and that is how he discovered the ruins. Today, only half of the amphitheatre has been excavated.

Note how close some of the houses are to the ruins!

You have to pay a small entrance fee and a guide will accompany you during your visit. Wear some good shoes, because you need to do a lot of climbing! And unlike us, don’t visit the amphitheatre at noon: in summer it can be very hot and the light is harsh.

Albania would like to have the Durrës Amphitheatre featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List, in order to obtain more funding for the further excavation and restoration. So far, they have not succeeded.

Exploring Roman Ruins in Romania

The last place where we stayed in Romania last year before heading back to Belgium, was Sarmizegetusa (county of Hunedoara). Lars and I had chosen the place by accident, not knowing that it actually harbours Roman ruins.

Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa was the capital of Roman Dacia in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, until Goths destroyed the city.

According to Wikipedia, the remains include:

You can visit the ruins at the outskirts of the town. As always, you need to pay a small fee for the entrance. There is a small restaurant there as well.

As you can see on the pictures, these ruins are not as spectacular as the Colosseum in Rome for example, but if you are interested in ancient history, you should really have a look at this place.

You need 1 – 2 hours to see the whole site. It is a lot bigger than you think.

There is another place where you can see parts of these ruins. Locals looted them in order to build their houses and churches. Luckily, nowadays, the ruins are a protected national monument. Anyway, the church of Densus – a handful of kilometres from Sarmizegetusa – is the best example. So, off we went…

It had started raining when we arrived at the church. The churchyard looked quite neglected.

Densus Church is one of the oldest Romanian churches. It dates from the 7th century and in the 13th century, local inhabitants added stones taken from the ruins.

Sarmizegetusa is quite a small town and only has a handful of hotels. Lars and I stayed in Pension Zamolxe – a very nice place – and we can also recommend Pensiunea Sarmis, because of its very good restaurant. You can find all hotels on Booking.

In The Footsteps of Vlad The Impaler – Oratea Fortress

First, let us do a bit of recapitulation. In our last post, we stated that John Hunyadi at one point in history captured Vlad Tepes. That is a proven fact. What is not a proven fact is that Vlad was a prisoner in Hunedoara Castle. But historians are convinced that he was locked up in Oratea Fortress, which is located near the village of Podu Dambovitei, in the south of Romania.

There is only one problem… The fortress is really hard to find. Luckily for us, Lars knows some Romanian and the local population is really willing to help. Especially when it concerns Vlad Tepes! Indeed the Romanians still consider the man to be a hero.

Anyway, there is a beautiful National Park here as well. Try some of the local produce on sale here: delicious and cheap!

Just outside the village is a hill with a parking lot. If you stand on the edge of the hill, with your back towards the road and look down. you will see ruins.

These ruins are everything that is left of Oratea Fortress. Contrary to other places that are linked to Vlad Tepes, this one is not taken care of and I suspect it will gradually disappear.

Actually, since Hunyadi was Hungarian, it is highly probable that Vlad Tepes spent some time as a prisoner in Hungary as well. And although the Hungarian leader was responsible for the capture of Vlad and even for the execution of Vlad’s father, the two became allies and fought against the Ottoman empire.

There is one more post of Vlad Tepes coming up. And it is actually one of the most beautiful places in Romania!

In The Footsteps of Vlad The Impaler – Hunedoara Castle

Unfortunately, this is another post where it is difficult to distinguishing fact from fiction. But first a word about Hunedoara Castle, one of the biggest of its kind in Romania and in Europe. Prepare to be blown away by this Gothic-Renaissance castle; not only because of its size, but also because of its number of bastions and towers!

When you enter the castle, the first place you can visit are the torture chambers. The vivid illustrations and explanations make clear that torture was serious business here. And yes, impaling was popular here as well…

On the ground level, you can explore the remnants of a.o. the kitchen and gaze at numerous utensils and weapons.

Make sure to have a look in the artefact chamber, where you can see the results of recent excavations.

Roam around in the bedrooms on the first floor…

In the documentary of Ghost Adventures, one of the guards claimed that paranormal activity was going on in the chapel, because he had allowed satanists to come there and perform some of their rituals. Interesting story, but when we were there nothing sinister happened. Or maybe the ghosts prefer to stay quiet during daytime…

So what is the link between this castle and Vlad Tepes? Hunedoara Castle belonged at one point to John Hunyadi, an important Hungarian political and military leader, who held Vlad prisoner for 7 years, after Vlad Tepes had been deposed in 1462. Some people believe that Hunyadi imprisoned Vlad in this castle. Again, when you look at the documentary of Ghost Adventures, some of the guides confirm this, but the official website of the castle does not mention Vlad at all. We will come back to this in our next post.

Anyway, there is another legend attached to Hunedoara Castle:

In the castle yard, near the 15th-century chapel, there is a well 30 meters deep. According to the legend, this fountain was dug by twelve Turkish prisoners to whom liberty was promised if they reached water. After 15 years they completed the well, but their captors did not keep their promise. It is said that the inscription on a wall of the well means “you have water, but not soul”. Specialists, however, have translated the inscription as “he who wrote this inscription is Hasan, who lives as slave of the giaours, in the fortress near the church”. (Source: Wikipedia)

Next time, we’ll take you to a destination that is completely off the beaten track!

In The Footsteps of Vlad The Impaler – Bran Castle

This is without any doubt the most famous castle of Romania! Thanks to its location – on a high rock formation, overlooking valleys – and its interesting history, this is a fascinating venue indeed. Don’t like crowds? Then visit Bran castle on weekdays, before or after the touristic season. Nevertheless, everything in Bran focuses on its castle and Vlad, so it is as good as impossible to avoid the tacky souvenir shops or the vampire menus.

The castle was built in the 14th century and played an important role in the fights against the Ottoman empire.

Is there a link between Bran Castle and Vlad the Impaler? Although historians are certain that he fought in nearby Brasov and passed the Bran Gorge, they cannot actually prove that he visited this castle, let alone lived there. The official website claims otherwise – there is even a whole room in the castle dedicated to the man – and lots of Romanians tend to follow this belief as well.

What about this castle and our good friend Dracula? That’s an easier question to answer. In a former post, we already stated that writer Bram Stoker located his castle in a completely different region of Romania and moreover, he wasn’t even aware of the existence of Bran Castle. It is furthermore possible that the author had an English castle in his mind for the description of Dracula’s home.

In the 20th century, Bran Castle became a royal residence and the favourite retreat of Queen Marie (Wikipedia). It is her collection of furniture that you can see in this location.

Since there is no direct link between this castle and Vlad Tepes/Dracula, is it still interesting to visit it? That depends entirely on you. If you are interested in local history and architecture, Lars and I think it is indeed worth a stop. To be honest, we hadn’t actually planned to visit it and changed our plans at the last minute. And now we are happy we did!

In The Footsteps of Vlad The Impaler – Poienari Castle

Back to business. Targoviste was not the only place that Vlad the Impaler called home: he also lived in Poienari Castle. The original castle dates from the 13th century, but its rulers abandoned it and soon the whole structure was in ruins.  When Vlad’s brother was assassinated, the infamous leader took revenge; he had the elite of Targoviste murdered and forced the young men to repair his lair. From here, Vlad the Impaler would launch a lot of attacks against the Ottoman Empire. Given the location of the castle on a very steep rock formation, Vlad’s enemies could hardly fight against him.

Even nowadays it isn’t easy to access the remains of the building; 1500 steps are waiting for you. And I have to say that we didn’t make it. Lars and I had underestimated the distance between our point of departure and the castle and moreover, the rainy weather had slowed us down considerably. When we arrived at our destination, the sun had returned, but we did not have enough time to climb all the steps. So you have to make do with some shots of the exterior.

By the way, you can combine your visit to Poienari Castle with a trip on one of the most spectacular roads of Romania (or even the world). The castle happens to be located on the plateau of Mount Cetatea. Have a look here for our version of this adventure.

Finally, you could ask yourself if this castle was the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in the novel by Bram Stoker. But it wasn’t. Historians have proven that the author was not aware of its existence; Poeinari Castle is quite far way from the Borgo Pass, where Stoker locates the action. There is another contender however, but more about that in another post.

In The Footsteps of Vlad The Impaler – Targoviste

After having spent his childhood in Sighișoara, Vlad, his father and his brother Radu moved to Targoviste, which at that time was the capital of Wallachia. Here they lived at the Princely Court, where the boys received an education in martial arts, science, arts, history and philosophy. The Princely Court still exists and is one of the most important sites of Targoviste. You have to pay a small fee for the entrance and a bigger fee in order to photograph; take at least two hours for a visit.

Although most of the court is in ruins, it is still a very impressive place.

The first building you can visit is the Princely Church, with its  beautiful frescoes. This is where Vlad and his brother attended church.

Next comes a vast complex of court buildings, including ceremony and council rooms. In total, there were three floors here and the two princes probably lived on the first one. There was a connecting gallery between this part of the court and the Princely Church.

In 1442, things changed enormously for the two brothers. The Turks imprisoned their father and Vlad and Radu continued their education in Constantinople, where they started to grow apart. The Turks favoured the gentle Radu, who eventually converted to the Islam; on the other hand, they (sexually) abused Vlad, who started to hate them. This is where he developed into a bloodthirsty man.

Vlad first escaped to Moldova and in 1456, he regained the throne of Wallachia and returned to Targoviste. For another 7 years, he stayed here, fighting against the Turks and impaling and torturing all of his enemies. During this bloody reign, he had the Chindia tower constructed, which has now become the symbol of the town. Nowadays, there is a small museum in the building and you can climb to the top, from where you have a beautiful view of Targoviste.

By the way, Targoviste is also the place where Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena Ceaușescu were tried and executed. There is no need to look for the exact spot, since it is closed for the public.