Rupea, a Medieval Fortress located between Fagaras and Sighisoara

On a recent trip to Transylvania, I stopped to visit Rupea Fortress, a recently renovated Medieval fortress with a very old history. According to archeological discoveries, this fort was built by the ancient Romanians, the Dacians, and named Rumidava (“dava” meaning “fort” or “fortress”). Later on, as some of the Dacian territories were conquered by the Roman Empire, the fort was destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans with the name Rupes. During the Medieval times it became Rupea. This fortress was an important military and trading center due to its key position at the crossroads connecting Transylvania to Moldova and Wallachia, the three most important regions that once formed Dacia, nowadays Romania.

In the shadow of Dracula

When traveling to Transylvania, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Dracula. In fact, the myth created an entire industry, from movies to annual festivals, books, hotels, foods. No other Romanian Prince (although Romania has many other quite extraordinary historical figures) was able to match Dracula’s international fame. Of course, part of his popularity is due to Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who made Dracula truly immortal with his pen and a lot of imagination.

Vlad Dracul (Dracul means Dragon in Romanian) whose family belonged to the Order of the Dragon, was born in Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved Medieval towns in Europe. A small inscription mentioning Vlad’s birth date (b. 1431) can be observed in the yellow house next to the Clock Tower, the main gate into the Medieval Town.

Vlad Dracula’s beginnings in life were pretty much similar to that of any other child born into a Transylvanian family of Romanians. But certain events in his early years, such as growing up in Moldavia alongside his cousin Stephen (who was to become Stephen the Great, the Prince of Moldavia), or being imprisoned in Turkey by the Sultan in order to force his father, Prince Vlad II, ruler of Walachia, to obey the Ottoman empire, shaped the personality of the future Prince of Walachia.

His enemies nicknamed him “The Impaler”, not because Vlad invented this type of punishment, which was very common in the 15th century Europe, but because they wanted to paint him as something indestructible, therefore, evil. Hence, the association between his family name, Dracul – the Dragon with the Devil (the dragon has held various significances in different cultures; in Asia, it is the symbol of power and majesty, whereas in Christianity it is seen as a creature of darkness, hiding in underground caves). But what really convinced his enemies that he was “related to the Devil”, was Vlad’s zero tolerance for traitors (usually
the boyars at the Walachian Court) and the expansionist Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was the first king to use deadly germs in warfare, most notably against the frequent Ottoman invasions. One war, in particular, drew the attention of several neighboring countries. In 1462, Pope Pius II sent a special investigator to Buda, to determine the fate of the money that the Vatican gave to Matias Corvin, the King of Hungary (his father was the Romanian Prince Iancu of Hunedoara), who was supposed to join Vlad in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. As the help never arrived, Vlad ended up against the Ottomans alone with his small and outnumbered Walachian army. Niccolo de Modrussa, the Vatican investigator and historian, left a 215 page manuscript detailing his personal meetings with Vlad Dracula, as well as with some of his soldiers. As the Ottoman army waited to cross the Danube River into Walachia, Vlad gathered all the sick people he could find, dressed them up as Turkish soldiers and sent them in the middle of the Turkish army. The sick infected with deadly viruses (malaria, typhoid fever, etc) spread the diseases throughout the Ottoman camp and many Turkish soldiers died before the actual battle. Vlad Dracula and his soldiers also frequently dressed up as Turkish soldiers to carry out blitz night attacks against their enemies.

Modrussa’s writings portray a Vlad Dracula that was loved and admired by his people, a diehard patriot, who would not back down against any threat and would always lead his men in the battle. Many of the German, Hungarian and Slavic Medieval chronicles that describe Dracula as being blood thirsty and evil might have been heavily influenced by the political animosities of the time and the fact that Vlad was in conflict with the Saxon and Hungarian settlers into Transylvania, a territory that historically belonged to the Romanians since the ancient times.

Today, Vlad Dracula’s house is both a museum and a restaurant in the famous Medieval Town, one of the few completely preserved medieval towns in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No visit to Sighisoara would be complete without a glass of wine or palinca (the Transylvanian brandy) paired with a traditional Romanian or Saxon meal in the historic town, in places such as the Stag House (Casa cu cerb), the Tinsmith’s House (Casa Cositorarului), the Saxon House (Casa Saseasca), or Dracula’s House.

Sighisoara was a Roman fort during the ancient times. In the 12th century, the city was rebuilt on the Roman ruins by a group of Saxon merchants who settled in Transylvania at the invitation of the Hungarian King. Hungarians gained some control of Transylvania at the end of the 11th century after several battles with the Romanian rulers (or, Voievods). The city, originally named Castrum Sex (or, Fort Six) continued to develop during the 14th and 15th centuries. The most important features are its ancient ruins and beautiful medieval architecture. Recommended sites to visit: Vlad Dracula’s birthplace house, the nine towers of the medieval city, the Church on the Hill renowned for its 500 years old frescoes, the Venetian House built in the 13th century, the Gothic Church of the Dominican Monastery built in the 17th century, and the Clock Tower.

Every year, usually at the end of July, Sighisoara hosts a Medieval Festival. The festival is meant to emphasize Sighisoara’s rich historical and cultural heritage through a display of Medieval costumes, traditional foods and drinks, art, shows, music, dances and fighting competitions. During the festival, the tourist filled streets of Sighisoara mixed with Medieval knights, princesses, merchants, historical characters, and street entertainers really feel like a place from another time.

Mud Volcanoes Natural Park – Romania’s lunar landscape

The Mud Volcanoes Natural Park is located on the outskirts of the village of Berca, near the city of Buzau, in the southern part of Moldova, Romania, about two hours drive from Bucharest and Brasov.

This natural geological reserve consists of two areas: Piclele Mari and Piclele Mici. The road passes first through the Berca village and then winds up and down through a hilly area covered in long grasses and shrubs.

There are signs directing travelers to the two separate mud volcano entrances. The cost is 4 Ron per person (about 1 Euro) for the entire day. Once inside, the landscape is pretty much composed of mud dunes, cones, textures, bubbling mud, pools of mud and mud eruptions. A thick smell of gas floats in the air. Please be aware that mud volcanoes are not like lava volcanoes, which are quite big. These are miniature volcanoes compared to the lava volcanoes. The mud erupts from holes in the ground due to natural gases that push mud mixed with water to the surface, similar somewhat to geysers. The bubbling mud flowing out of holes forms cones. The cones vary in size. In time, the old cones  disappear as new ones pop up. The mud dries after a period of time offering some amazing cracked textures.

The best seasons to get the most out of the volcanoes are Fall and Spring. The Mud Volcanoes Natural Park in Romania is the second of this type in Europe. Other places in Europe where mud volcanoes formed on the surface are in Italy, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. In other parts of Europe, mud volcanoes are found under water, like the ones in Norway.

Right next to Piclele Mari there is a lodge called “Pensiunea Vulcanii Noroiosi”, the only one in the area. The restaurant is good when not too crowded and it also serves tasty traditional Romanian food, but the rooms are nothing fancy, just very basic. One can find more upscale accommodation options in the nearby city of Buzau, just 40 minutes away. Other accommodation options are in the village of Siriu (located on the DN 10 road from Buzau to Brasov) in the vicinity of Siriu Lake/Dam and Casoca/Pruncea Waterfall, which are both worth visiting, as well.

Special Effects Photos

Taken literally, the Greek words “photos” and “graphos” together mean “drawing with light”. There is no exact information on how and when photography began, but the first printed photographs were made between 1816 and 1840 continuing on the previous century”s discovery that certain chemicals turned black when exposed to light. Almost as soon as the first photographs came out of cameras, people were using them to manipulate images.

Take, for example, the very famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln, standing with one hand on his desk. Analysis in the 20th century showed that his mole was on the wrong side of his face, and further research turned up a picture of North Carolina Congressman John Calhoun in exactly the same pose. Someone in the 1860s had taken Lincoln’s face and pasted it onto Calhoun’s body, and the resulting fake photo was spread all across the Union.

Through the Civil War, photo staging was much more common than photo editing. It was very difficult to get an “action” shot because of the long exposure times, so war photographers would pose their shots. Later, through the early twentieth century, photo postcards showing monstrous fish, grasshoppers, and crops were very famous, and nearly all of them were made by merging two shots into the same frame. As the Dust Bowl ruined crops, the postcards of apples the size of watermelons and corn cobs as big as fireplace logs showed a very dark humor, almost a sick joke.

The Surrealist photo montage

Surrealism and Dadaism led to some pretty interesting results through the introduction of visual images that were closer to the workings of the unconscious (a theory based upon the psychoanalytical perspective of Sigmund Freud), and later through the experimental and conceptual work of many contemporary artists.

The predominant use of images in surrealism was mostly associated with the post-1925 period, when photography became sort of a complementary object for the surrealist literature. Although Andre Breton used photography purely as an illustrative art in order to eliminate most descriptions from the narratives, Man Ray took his work beyond the camera creating Rayography, his signature cameraless process. Instead of recognizing the camera as a simple instrument and the photograph as a mere reproduction of reality, the surrealists used it as a tool of the imagination and viewed the photograph as a point of departure. The surrealists tried to capture the unknown by exploring the limitless boundaries of the subconscious, a world of psychical reality that could not be separated from the social and political environment around them.

Josef Stalin made photo editing famous, as those who fell out of favor simply “ceased to exist.” There are numerous examples of pictures where people standing beside him have simply been painted out and forgotten.

Even the magazines and newspapers of today are not immune. One magazine over-darkened OJ Simpson’s mug shot for it’s cover, making him appear much darker and more menacing than he was in real life. And a number of photojournalists were caught using Photoshop tools on their photos to either merge two scenes into one or increase the smoke and battle damage far beyond what was really there. Photo faking goes beyond simply posing a scene, because it’s a blatant attempt to lie to the viewer.

At the other extreme, if you just want to let loose and get creative, there’s no limit to what you can achieve with a DSLR camera and some basic photo editing software. A quite popular and widely used technique nowadays is “painting with light” in a dark environment. The photographer uses a flash light, sometimes covered in colored gels to paint certain portions of the landscape or people.

Here’s a short video showing some amazing (but relatively simple) photography tricks and special effects…

If you’d like to learn the secret to these photos special effects, plus a whole lot more, be sure to check out the tutorial package below…
Trick Photography & Special Effects.

Why you should turn your vacation photos into albums

Who doesn’t take pictures while on vacation? We want pictures of family and friends or we want to capture the beauty of the landscape we are in. Some are interested in the architecture; some are interested in the flowers or wildlife. Photography can have either a documentary value, or it can be a very personal interpretation of reality. A story can be told in a single photograph or in multiple photographs, often called a photo essay. More photographs may lead to a more complex story.

It is only so much one photograph can capture in the strict space of a frame. What really matters is what is in that frame and how those elements relate to each other. In the words of Stephen Shore, “the photograph has edges; the world does not”. A photographer can go back to the same spot several times, and every time will come home with different images. Every photographer will see the same thing differently because the “eye” becomes the “I”, as poet Paul Valery famously said it. The true power of a photographer consists in his/her ability to “see”. Light plays a key role in how we “see” things. In photography, the eyes replace the words, and light replaces the pen.

Next step is to define clearly what the subject is and what the story is all about. The story can be anything, people, things, light and shadow, shapes, places, an abstract idea (emotions…), a photographic technique, colors, textures, and more. More images grouped together may tell a more complex story, like, for example the story of a place, its people, their traditions, foods, etc. To do that easily, images can be grouped into albums.

Pictures of a past vacation that represent everything one saw on that trip, make sense to that person, but not to everybody else. If those images are separated into categories such as, pictures of gardens and flowers, pictures of people, architecture, or favorite sunsets, then they will make more sense. Better yet is to add small captions to indicate the location (if this is not a famous place) and other details related to that image. Whether you have visited a particular place or several places, categories with captions make it a lot easier.

The beauty of themed albums is that new photos can be added to them over the years. They are beautiful and easily understood by all. There are so many categories one can think of. The only limit is one’s imagination.

Themed albums are easy to organize, understand and make great conversation pieces! Give them a try!

Visiting Maramures – A place like no other…

Maramures is located in the Northern part of Romania, a land rich in myths and traditions that date back to the times of the Dacians (ancient Romanians), ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire.

According to archeological findings, Maramures was inhabited since pre-historic times. The first Indo-European settlements (Dacian, Celtic, Sarmatian and Germanic) discovered in Sapanta, Sighet, Saliste, Ieud, Tisa, Rozavlea, and other places, date back 2,000 years BC. During the ancient times, Dacians built several fortresses at Sighet, Oncesti, Slatina and Calinesti. Maramures became famous in the 1st century BC under King Burebista, one of the most important Dacian kings.

During the early part of the middle ages, Maramures was part of Moldavia. Later on, it became part of Transylvania. This province was ruled by Maramures’ noblemen until the 11th century. After that it was ruled by the Huns/Hungarian Empire, and in 1867, by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI, Maramures was split in two, and the Southern part came back to Romania. The Northern part was first given to Czeckoslovakia, then during WWII it was again controlled by Hungary, and after WWII was taken by USSR and given to Ukraine.

Geographically, Maramures occupies one of the biggest depressions in the Carpathians (approx. 10,000 sq km), and it is completely surrounded by mountains. Its deep forests are home to several protected species of plants and animals, such as yew, larch, swiss pine, edelweiss, chamois, lynx, alpine marmot, brown bear, European bison extinct since 1852 (a symbol of Maramures), and lostrita, a rare type of salmon that still lives in Maramures’ rivers. Pietrosul Peak (2303m) in Maramures’ Rodnei mountains is also the highest peak in the Eastern Carpathians.

Maramures is famous for several things: its unique hand crafted wood works, the Merry Cemetery at Sapinta, where death is dealt with in a very humorous way (the only one of this type in Europe so far), the traditional way of harvesting and small scale farming that have vastly disappeared in most European countries, its foods, its drinks, and its music and traditional clothing that still preserve elements dating back to the ancient Dacian culture.

Maramures is the place with the greatest number of wooden monasteries, all of them with a very distinct style, such as Birsana Monastery, or Surdesti Wooden Church. Equally beautiful are the wooden gates and fences that adorn Maramures’ houses. Wood started to be exclusively used in constructions a few centuries ago due to very strict rules imposed by the Hungarian & Habsburg empires on the Maramures people to prevent them from building strong fortifications that withstood foreign invasions. Over time, people in Maramures turned wood work into an art form. Maramures is also the birth place of many famous Romanian freedom fighters (or “haiduci”) somewhat similar to Robin Hood, the most famous of them being Pintea Viteazul (Pintea the Brave).

Other recommended attractions: a trip back in time with Vaser Valley Railway (or “Mocanita”) through the breathtaking landscape of Rodnei mountains, a visit to Sighetu Marmatiei Prison (“Memorialul Durerii”) – the most infamous communist prison in Romania, which has been turned into a museum after Ceausescu’s death, the Mineralogical Museum in Baia Mare, the Museum of Ethnography and Folk Art in Baia Mare, and Horses Waterfall (or “cascada cailor”) located near Borsa ski resort in Rodnei mountains.

Those who want to spend a day or two vacationing in Maramures, will be surprised to find a variety of traditional guest houses and small hotels that serve  Romanian dishes using fresh ingredients from privately owned local farms. My favorite places to stay in Maramures are: Alex Villa and Trout Farm, which is located in a beautiful natural setting just outside the Mara village on the DN 18 road to Baia Mare; Gabriela Hotel, located in the small town of Viseul de Sus, near Mocanita rail road; and The Suior Hotel located in Gutai mountains, about 18 km away from the city of Baia Mare.

Voronet Monastery, the most famous painted Medieval monastery in Romania

In the Northern part of Romania, between Moldova and Transylvania, lies Bucovina, a beautiful countryside sprinkled with forested hills and small mountains. It is the home of some of the most beautiful monasteries in Eastern Europe, the painted monasteries of Bucovina. These Byzantyne style religious monuments were built during the 15th and 16th centuries and their most impressive features are the intricate and vividly colored frescoes painted on the exterior, as well as the interior walls, the murals, and the overall architecture. The frescoes are a way to visually tell various stories from the Bible.

The most famous of all is Voronet monastery built in 1488 by the Moldavian Prince Stephen the Great. According to the legend, Stephen was on the brink of losing a big war against the Ottoman Empire. He was in a bad mood and sought advice from a hermit who lived near Voronet village. Daniel advised the prince to continue the fight. This was one of the most impressive and hard won battles in Romanian history, known as the Battle of Vaslui. Stephen built and dedicated the Voronet monastery to Saint George to celebrate his victory. Daniel became the first abbot of Voronet monastery and was buried inside it.

The monastery can be accessed through the city of Gura Humorului. A sign indicates to turn onto a pretty narrow and sometimes bumpy road. After passing by Moldova river and leaving behind a crossroad, the picturesque Voronet village emerges. The village is older than the monastery. Many residents of this area are skilled in hundreds of years old traditional arts and crafts, visible not only in the architectural style of the houses, but also in the art that villagers put out on display.

Voronet monastery is surrounded by forested mountains and a high-walled fence. The entrance fee is 10 Roni (approx. $2.50) per person. The first thing your eyes will experience is the beautiful balance between the dominant blue color of the exterior frescoes and the blue sky (… on a clear day). Voronet church is famous for this special hue of blue named “the Voronet blue” and for its Gothic style architecture.

In addition to scenes from the Bible, the frescoes also include a painting of Prince Stephen the Great and several symbols, such as the Moldavian coat of arms. The inside of the church was painted during Stephen’s reign, while the outside was painted at the request of Stephen’s son, Prince Petru Rares.

Petru took his father’s concept even further and is credited with turning all monasteries of Bucovina into works of art, by adding exterior frescoes. He built the monasteries of Humor (1530) and Probota (1530), while his father built Putna (1466), Patrauti (1487), and Voronet. This became a tradition during the Middle Ages. Every time a prince came out of a battle victorious, he would build a monastery dedicated to a Christian Orthodox saint. The painted monasteries of Bucovina are so unique that have been included on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list since 1993. The other three are: Sucevita (1584), Moldovita (1532), and Arbore (1503-1541).