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Romania, Serbia & Bulgaria
“The Rise of the Balkan Phoenix from the Ashes of Communism”
May 2022

A Sojourn through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria

This was an adventure through three eastern European countries that were previously located within the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, Serbia to a lesser degree as it was part of the erstwhile conglomerate that was Yugoslavia. This is a region replete with a turbulent history, supplemented with legends of vampires and werewolves, alongside magnificent landscapes of mountains, monasteries and fortresses. The last thirty years have seen these countries emerge from under the cloak of Soviet stagnation as they play catch up with their democratic and more affluent western neighbours. The antecedence of their past remain evident to this day, but this journey also reveals the axiomatic progress these countries have made to modernise and reintegrate back into the European family of nations.

This exceptionally photogenic elderly gentleman strikes a statuesque pose

Romania - A Brief History

For thousands of years, dating back as far as 6000 BC, the region that would eventually become modern day Romania was inhabited by an assortment of Neolithic and Bronze Age tribes. From around the 7th century BC the Greeks established trading colonies, their records show that the indigenous Dacians were resident in the region and were active trading partners. In 106 AD Dacia – the original name of modern day Romania - became part of the expansive Roman Empire, and would remain so for the next 175 years. From the 4th to the 10th centuries waves of migrating peoples - amongst them the Goths, Huns, Slavs and Magyars - swept across the region each in turn leaving their individual mark on the people and the culture. The 14th century saw the creation of the first Romanian principality, Wallachia, soon followed by a second principality, Moldavia.

The 15th century recorded the area subject to the vagaries of the ever expanding bellicose Ottoman Empire. By the 17th century the region was under the influence of the Habsburg Empire, this would last until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Having sided with the Western allies, the defeat of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the war in 1918 saw the formation of modern Romania.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw Romania formally allied with the western powers, but by October 1940 it was occupied by German troops resulting in Romania formalising a pact with Nazi Germany, effectively changing their allegiance. With the war turning against Germany, in 1944 an opportunist Romania changed sides again and re-joined the advancing Allies. The end of the war saw the formation of the Romanian Peoples Republic, a Communist state now firmly within the Soviet sphere of influence. The year 1965 saw the ascent to power of Nicolae Ceausescu, who would hold the country in his iron grip until 1989 when the Soviet Union dramatically disintegrated. Thereafter Romania pursued the path towards a modern democratic system of government, subsequently joining NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

Serbia – A Brief History

The endemic inhabitants of Serbia were Neolithic tribes who peopled the area from around 6000 BC. These early dwellers were superseded by the Thracians, their most famous son was the gladiator Spartacus, portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the eponymous 1960 Oscar winning Stanley Kubrick film. The next to exert domination over the region were the Illyrians, they were then superseded by the Celts around the turn of the 4th century BC who cemented their power through the building of an extensive series of fortifications throughout the region.

By the 3rd century BC Serbia had become a province of the powerful expanding Roman Empire, remaining so until the empire was divided in 395 AD - Serbia then fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Serbian independence briefly flowered between 1217 and 1389 before being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, where it would remain subjugated for the next 500 years. The atrophy of the Ottoman Empire began a process that culminated in Serbia once again achieving its independence in 1878.

At the start of the First World War in 1914 Serbia was invaded by the Austro-Hungarian army, then in 1915 it was overrun by the truculent German war machine. Allied forces liberated Serbia in November 1918, and with the end of the war the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was proclaimed in December 1918, subsequently to be renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

With the onset of the Second World War Yugoslavia was a non-committed nation, but by 1941 it was invaded and occupied by Nazi German forces, the Serbian region being administered by a puppet government. By the end of 1944 Serbia had been liberated by the Soviet Red Army, emerging as a federal unit in a socialist Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Tito. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to break apart in 1991, instigating a series of wars with a mixed confederation of states forming and dissolving, until Serbia ultimately declared independence in 2006. Today Serbia has a pro-European leaning democratic government with the ultimate objective being membership of the EU.

The 19th century Peles Castle in Sinaia Romania was the former residence of King Carol 1

Bulgaria – A Brief History

Bulgaria’s earliest permanent settlers were cave-dwelling Neolithic peoples who date from approximately 6000 BC. They were supplanted by Thracian tribes - these were fearsome warriors and horsemen - who dominated modern-day Bulgaria from around 3000 BC until the arrival of the Greeks in the 7th century BC. By the middle of the 1st century AD the Romans had absorbed Bulgaria into their vast empire, asserting their dominance by building egregious infrastructure projects across their domain. From the 3rd century AD onwards Goths, Huns and other warring tribes wreaked havoc, though their bellicose incursions tended to be somewhat sporadic and ephemeral. The 4th century saw the splitting of the Roman Empire with Bulgaria being absorbed into the eastern Byzantine Empire.

The First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018) flourished under Khan Asparuh, controlling much of south-eastern Europe, including modern-day Romania, Moldova and Macedonia. With the atrophy of the passé Byzantine Empire a Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) came into being, only to be completely overrun by the advancing forces of the barbarous Ottoman Turks, who would hold sway across the region for over 500 years. Amid internal political chaos in the rapidly fragmenting Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria declared full independence from Turkey in 1908.

The First Bulgarian Empire (681-1018) flourished under Khan Asparuh, controlling much of south-eastern Europe, including modern-day Romania, Moldova and Macedonia. With the atrophy of the passé Byzantine Empire a Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) came into being, only to be completely overrun by the advancing forces of the barbarous Ottoman Turks, who would hold sway across the region for over 500 years. Amid internal political chaos in the rapidly fragmenting Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria declared full independence from Turkey in 1908. Bulgaria and its neighbouring states fought the First Balkan War (1912), discontented with its share of the wars spoils, Bulgaria attacked its neighbours instigating the Second Balkan War (1913).

Bulgaria allied itself with Germany in the First World War (1914-1918), the conclusion of which resulted in a loss of territory imposed by the victorious allies. At the commencement of the Second World War (1939-1945) Bulgaria declared neutrality, but by 1941 with Nazi German forces menacingly massed along its border, it once again joined the ultimately loosing German side. The end of the war, with Bulgaria now firmly positioned within the Soviet sphere of influence, the Peoples Republic of Bulgaria was declared. Communist Bulgaria prospered under a Stalinist regime which received preferential rates for oil and electricity from its Soviet overlord. By 1989 with the Soviet Union rapidly fragmenting, perestroika reached Bulgaria where free parliamentary elections were held. In 2004 Bulgaria joined NATO, and in 2007 it joined the EU, giving its people condign optimism about their country’s future and its place on the European stage.

The Journey

This revelatory odyssey began with a city tour of the Romanian capital Bucharest, it’s a Sunday morning and the centre of the city is just deserted. From an architectural standpoint the city centre is full of magnificently inspired neo-classical French style buildings, sadly many are somewhat neglected and faded and in need of an abundance of sympathetic restoration. The Palace of Parliament is a monolithic building – this was once the private mansion of former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu – containing 3,000 rooms it is like the proverbial iceberg, beneath this monumental structure is a labyrinthine concoction of tunnels and nuclear resistant bunkers. This is the world’s second largest administrative building after the Pentagon. A vast swathe of central Bucharest was demolished to build this megalomaniacal example of the architecture of power.

Bucharest has a plethora of churches to visit, amongst the many the standout examples are the tiny bijou Stavropoleos Church which dates from 1784, and the exquisitely proportioned Cretulescu Church which was founded in 1722. The Romanian Athenaeum was constructed in 1888 in the neo classical style, this ornate, domed, circular concert hall is the majestic heart of Romania’s classical music tradition. Just outside the centre of the city is the National Village Museum, this is a wonderful anachronistic open-air exposition of 18th and 19th century traditional homesteads, churches, mills and windmills relocated from rural regions of the country -opened in 1936 it is one of Europe’s oldest and most comprehensive open-air ethnographic museums.


Departing Bucharest and heading towards the Carpathian Mountains, here the scenery is a lushly forested environment, this is the fabled region of Transylvania where Gothic castles and dark fairy-tales of vampires are embedded in the popular imagination. Peles Castle was constructed at the end of the 19th century and was the former royal residence of Romania’s first king, Carol 1. This neo renaissance masterpiece is a sumptuously decorated and furnished stately house, a pure fantasy of the wood-carvers art. The more than 170 rooms contain extensive collections of statues, paintings, tapestries, armour, oriental rugs, alongside gold, silver, porcelain decorative pieces and grandiose items of furniture.

Bran Castle is the stuff of legends, here the myth of the bloodthirsty vampire Dracula has been woven around this castle as a tourist marketing tool, so successfully that the castle is the second most visited site in Romania. Having attained the epithet Draculas Castle, the irony is that Bram Stoker, the author who wrote Dracula, never actually visited Transylvania let alone the castle. Stoker actually based his mythical character on a real person - Vlad the Impaler, a local prince who was famous for beheading, boiling, skinning and burning his enemies alive. Bran Castle, spectacularly sited on rocky promontory, is lavishly furnished in the style that was appropriate when it was inhabited by members of the Habsburg royal family. From a photographic perspective this medieval structure is the epitome of a spooky, spine-chilling turreted fortress.

Brasov is the most visited city in Romania, the pedestrianised centre of this beautiful city is festooned with numerous houses built in the Saxon (German) architectural style. The Black Church, built between 1385 and 1477 is Romania’s largest Gothic church, its bell tower rising to 65 metres high is Brasov’s totem landmark. Brasov was once enclosed by mighty fortified walls - supplemented by a series of defensive towers – built in stages between 1400 and 1650 these structures can still be evidenced from various viewpoints around the city.

The city of Sibiu is a 2 hour drive from Brasov, the journey passes through picture postcard countryside of lush green forest, with snow- capped mountains as a spectacular backdrop. Sibiu is a city resplendent with aristocratic elegance, Saxon history emanates from every art nouveau façade and gold embossed church. The city also has a rich cultural heritage, world renowned composers Brahms, Strauss and Liszt all performed here in the 19th century. The Gothic St Mary’s Evangelical Church completed in 1520, and the 18th century Baroque Roman Catholic Cathedral are prime paradigms of ecclesiastical  architecture, handsomely proportioned and gleaming with gold decoration and bright frescoes.

Surrounded by an uninviting stark industrial landscape of steel mills, Corvin Castle is Transylvania’s most spellbinding fortress. This enigmatic 15th century Gothic structure with its pointed red-roofed turrets, bastions and vaulted ceilings has been the location for a number of big budget films. This beautiful building features a sumptuous Knight’s Hall, a chapel, an impressive drawbridge and over 50 rooms resplendent with medieval art and furniture.

Romania is the largest of the three countries to be visited, it has the biggest population and the largest GDP, its main export products includes cars and engineering components.

The 19th century Peles Castle in Sinaia Romania was the former residence of King Carol 1

A boat trip on the Danube River affords a welcome break from the ardours of touring, the river here forms the border between Romania and Serbia. Heavily forested limestone cliffs rise dramatically skywards; carved into the rock face is a gigantic statue of the head of King Decebalus, over 40 metres high and 30 metres wide it took over 10 years to carve. Decebalus was the last king of Dacia, he fought against Roman dominion to preserve Dacia’s status as an independent country.

Baile Herculane - named after the mythological strongman Hercules – was a former Roman town famed for its hot springs. The Neptune Baths are the original Austro-Hungarian era spa buildings, today they stand in a state of magnificent dereliction, the subject of a fundraising exercise aimed at restoring these once grandiose structures to their former glorious splendour.

Crossing over the border into Serbia, it’s a 3 hour drive to the former Roman garrison town of Viminacium. The town’s apogee was between the 1st and 6th centuries AD, its location on the Danube River afforded it a natural home for the Imperial Navy Fleet and was garrisoned by 7,000 soldiers. Among the ruins – only 5% of the site has currently been excavated - are some 4th century tombs embellished with frescoes, one of the largest amphitheatres discovered in the Balkans, and over 30,000 various artefacts appertaining to everyday Roman life. During the excavations the most unusual item discovered was the skeleton of a 5 million year old woolly mammoth.

Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, is a somewhat edgy and audacious metropolis. Here brutalist Soviet architecture collides with graceful art nouveau buildings and with relics from the city’s Ottoman past. Café culture is a vibrant entity here, chic coffee houses and ice creameries line Belgrade’s pedestrianised main thoroughfare. As befits a capital city Belgrade has its ubiquitous share of museums and churches. The city’s crowning glory is the Kalemegdan Citadel, originally dating back to Roman times much of what stands today is a product of 18th century refurbishment. The citadel walls offer spectacular views over the Danube River and the sprawling conurbation of Belgrade.

Located 8km northwest of central Belgrade is the district of Zemun. Narrow cobbled streets are lined with wonderful Austro-Hungarian architectural jewels, the sparsity of tourists here facilitates a recherché opportunity for wandering around and photography into an absolutely benign pleasure. The Tower of Sibinjanin, built in 1896, stands guard over the surrounding area like a misplaced lighthouse, whilst the extremely photogenic baroque Nikolajevska Church dating to 1731 is a repository for many fine icons from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Laidback Novi Sad is Serbia’s second largest city, the penchant for enjoying a cup of coffee here on the banks of the Danube River appears to be most locals’ favourite pastime. Impressively perched atop a mighty volcanic rock with splendid panoramic views overlooking the Danube River is Petrovaradin Citadel, completed in 1780 it was constructed to protect the city from Ottoman invasions. Located beneath the citadel are 16 kilometres of labyrinthine tunnels which also incorporate dungeons, Josip Tito the former Yugoslav president was once imprisoned here. The 19th century neo-gothic Name of Mary Church dominates the main square with its imposing architecture and lavish decoration. Projecting dramatically skywards the 72 metre high bell tower is crowned with a golden cross, this lodestar is the most recognisable building in Novi Sad. 


Serbia like its neighbour Romania is extensively forested, both countries having approximately 30% of their land covered in woodland. Located an exhausting 5 hour drive southeast of Novi Sad is the lively city of Nis. Along the route there are voluminous amounts of new road works under construction, financed essentially by loans from China. To break the journey there are a couple of fascinating stops along the way.

Devil’s Town is home to over 200 towering red stone rock formations, the tallest being 15 metres high which have been sculpted through erosion by the local waters that are abnormally acidic and high in mineral content. Most of the towers have caps of andesite which protect them from further erosion. Devil’s Town was a nominee in the Seven Wonders of Nature campaign. Similar formations to this can be observed in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Bubanj Memorial Park is an intensely emotive shrine that commemorates the execution of more than 10,000 Serbian, Jewish and Roma people of the region by the Nazi occupiers during World War II. The primary element of the memorial complex consists of three monumental concrete stylized-fist monoliths reaching skywards, representing hands expressing defiance of the perpetrators and the memory of the lives lost in the massacre.

The spectacular Byzantine layer cake edifice of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral in Bulgaria's capital Sofia

Nis is one of the most important economic centres in Serbia, being known for its electronics, engineering, textile and tobacco industries. The main pedestrianised street in Nis is lined with cafes and restaurants all packed to the rims, located at its far end is Tvdava Citadel. Built by the Turks in the 18th century, today just remnants of the defensive walls remain. The citadel grounds are now a recreational area where locals come to play and patronise the cafes and trinket shops, here archaeological vandalism falls prey to populist culture. Protected from the elements by a benign looking chapel, the Tower of Skulls is an eerie spectacle. This gruesome monument was constructed by the Turks after they defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Cegar in 1809. The Turks beheaded, scalped and embedded the skulls of the dead Serbs in this tower; of the 952 skulls initially placed here only 58 remain today, a token reminder of how ghoulish this sight once would have been.

Crossing over the border into Bulgaria some more stamps are added to my passport. Here in Bulgaria there are also extensive new road construction projects in progress, a new motorway is now set to link the border with Serbia to Bulgaria’s capital Sofia. Bulgaria’s main industries are the production of textiles and engineering products. Arriving in Sofia its straight into the city orientation tour. Sophia has a fairly new metro system, just 10 years old, this makes navigating the city sights a more manageable experience. Being formerly behind the notorious iron curtain the city is awash with Soviet style architecture; government buildings, former secret police offices and monuments to the Red Army fallen of the Second World War are all evocative reminders of this past. Other paradigms of previous influences can be seen in the preserved Roman ruins of Serdica, the eye-catching Banya Bashi Mosque built in 1576 and the Moorish-style synagogue dating from 1909.

The standout church amongst Sofia’s ubiquitous miscellany is the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral - built between 1882 and 1912 – it is named in honour of the eponymous 13th century Russian warrior prince. This massive awe-inspiring Byzantine layer cake of a building, adorned with mosaics and a multitude of gold-laden domes, make this aesthetically pleasing structure photographic nirvana.


If there is just one must-see visitor attraction in Sofia then the Museum of Socialist Art is it. This magnificent venue is the repository for much of the discarded statuary from around the country after the Soviet era came to an end. Numerous statues of Lenin, including a caped Lenin and Lenin hailing a taxi are scattered around the site, as are many wonderful examples of Socialist Realist art forms alongside a unique chance to view stirring old former Soviet propaganda films.

Rila Monastery is a 2 hour drive through beautiful countryside with tree clad slopes and gushing crystal clear streams. Originally founded in the 10th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the country’s premier tourist attraction and an important religious and cultural centre for the Bulgarian people. As such it is completely overrun with local and foreign tourists, the only such site in Bulgaria where this antitheses was the case. The monastery’s magnificent church, completed in 1837, has distinctive elegant black, red and white colonnades and three yellow-painted domes. Richly coloured frescoes depicting apocalyptic biblical scenes dance across the church walls, inviting the visitor to evaluate the punishment awaiting sinners in the afterlife. Rila’s museum houses a priceless collection of frescoes, gilded iconostasis and religious artefacts. All of this splendour, set against the backdrop of mist- swirled mountains has made Rila Monastery Bulgaria’s must-see visitor attraction.

Like Rome, Plovdiv straddles seven hills and is Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited city, its cobblestoned lanes are lined with colourful 19th century mansions that now function as museums, art galleries and guesthouses. Plovdiv’s foremost attraction is its stupendous 2nd century AD Roman amphitheatre. Built during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, it originally was able to accommodate 6,000 spectators, now largely restored it is the spectacular venue for plays and concerts. The 2nd century Roman Stadium of Philippopolis is mostly hidden under a pedestrian mall, stairways allow nebulous glimpses of this once enormous structure that was the venue for gladiatorial spectacles. The city’s oldest religious building is the Church of St Constantine and Helena, the original structure was built in 337 AD, the building was destroyed and rebuilt several times, the current edifice was constructed in 1832. Magnificent frescoes, a colourful carved ceiling and religious artefacts adorn this splendid ecclesiastical structure.

The final stop of a hectic days touring was to visit an excellent reproduction of the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak. The original 4th century BC tomb of this Thracian nobleman is not open to the public to preserve the sensitive paintings. An exact full-sized replica was commissioned nearby and here the   beautifully reproduced frescoes depicting battle scenes and a funeral feast adorn the walls. The tomb was discovered in 1944 and is acclaimed as one of the archaeological finds of the century.

An iconic statue of Lenin at the Museum of Socialist Art in Bulgaria's capital Sofia

It’s an hour and a half drive on twisting turning hairpin roads and over the 1150 metre Shipke Pass that heralds the arrival at the quaint Etar Open Air Ethnographic Museum. Nearly 50 shops and workshops coalesce to showcase historical Bulgarian customs and craftsmanship; this twee museum almost feels like a movie set with its costumed performers, traditional handicrafts and gaily painted buildings. Etar’s 19th century style buildings house the workshops of bakers, masons, cobblers, furriers, weavers and more, they provide a fascinating insight into these sometime lost skills.


The packed itinerary of the tour continues in Veliko Tarnovo with its fortified walls, cobbled ramshackle lanes and the majestic Tsarevets Fortress. Within the fortress grounds are an agglomeration of more than 400 houses, 18 churches and a royal palace. In the evening the fortress morphs into a psychedelic spectacle with a magnificent Sound and Light Show. The fortress walls are bathed in florid coloured lights, laser beams penetrate the sky, and traditional choral music envelopes the entire scene; an absolutely spectacular event the undoubted highlight of the entire trip.

Next stop Varna, an interesting and cosmopolitan port city, come naval base and seaside resort located on the Black Sea coast. Varna’s premier attraction are the 2nd century AD Roman Baths of Odessos, these well preserved ruins are the largest in Bulgaria and the fourth largest of their kind in Europe. Varna also boasts a fascinating Naval Museum which is a repository for a vast collection of weaponry including artillery pieces, planes, helicopters, tanks, and of course boats. The 19th century Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is the most famous Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral in the country. This Byzantine-cross church is topped with sparkling golden onion domes, its interior contains vivid murals and colourful stained-glass windows. For a city with many visitor attractions as well as pedestrian thoroughfares crammed with cafes, restaurants and innumerable outlets dedicated to retail therapy, Varna was surprisingly devoid of tourist footfall.

As distinct from the customary overnight hotel stops this penultimate stop in Balchik was a real gem. The accommodation was in one of the old villas that forms part of the Black Sea Summer Palace of Queen Marie of Romania, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The estate is set within a large botanical garden complex which contain over 2,000 different plant varieties.

As this fascinating tour nears the end its one more border crossing back into Romania, the final destination a return to Bucharest for the last day. The concluding attraction of the tour was a visit to the private residence of Romania’s former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Sumptuously decorated with patterned wooden floors, large handmade carpets, glass chandeliers, silk wallpaper, Italian marble and gold-plated everything. There was a sauna, his and hers hairdressers rooms, statues everywhere you looked and the most outrageous swimming pool complex; how the other half once lived!

Three attractive ladies happy to pose for the camera

An Overview

This revelatory foray through countries that once were concealed behind the infamous iron curtain was a fascinating blend of the old and the new. Brand new industrial units, angular in design with floor to ceiling glass curtain walls, sit side by side with old abandoned and crumbling archetypal Soviet-era concrete units. Thoroughly modern pedestrianised shopping areas existing cheek-by-jowl with narrow cobblestone lanes lined with heritage buildings. From the sprinkling of Dracula cinematic stardust to the hedonistic residence of a brutal dictator and spectacular Roman ruins in conjunction with iconic statues of Lenin. Old communist ideals tossed aside in the race for capitalist modernity, this was a most enlightening journey full of elements that made for a mesmerising and fulfilling holiday experience.

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