Five days after Romania joined the EU I visited Bran Castle. I was sadly disappointed by the incredible kitsch on display in the carpark, the ruination of the village by uncontrolled banner advertising and an interior that has been ruined by bad restoration. What was an intriguing fifteenth century castle has been reduced to a centrepiece of the kitsch capital of Romania. The Habsburg’s asking price of 60 million Euro is laughable; they would be lucky if they could get 10% of that over inflated value.
There are some essential rules about restoring old properties which, if ignored, can result in the building being transformed from old (and valuable) to new (and worthless). The main rule is to use the original building material that was used by those who built the place; another one is to research the building carefully and to try and find elements of original frescoes, stonework and anything else that has been covered up by careless builders from years gone by (builders were just as careless in medieval times as they are today).
In terms of skills and approach you need the advice of archaeologists and art historians, not just builders and engineers – and definitely not the grotesque Romanian architects who are doing so much to destroy the aesthetics of this beautiful country. I once asked a leading restorer “where can you find the best building restorers?” and without a moment’s hesitation he replied “Poland”. Indeed, the Poles did an incredible job of transforming the centre of Warsaw – which had been completely demolished by Nazi and Soviet artillery in 1945 – into the beautiful old centre that had existed before the war.
One of the mysteries of Bran Castle is its relationship to Vlad Tepes: did he actually stay there? The answer is irrelevant but it provides enough of a link to brand the place as “Dracula’s Castle” and pull the tourists in. A more puzzling mystery is that of its restoration: why didn’t the Romanian state listen to the advice of leading international restorers before spending tens of millions of Euros on building work?
The first thing I noticed was a fresco above Bran’s front door. Original frescoes on these castle walls are perhaps the most valuable thing they have to offer; original fifteenth century art could be uncovered by a slow and careful process of restoration, a process that is incredibly difficult as these ancient walls are liable to crumble into dust at any moment. The restoration of such a fresco would be an international sensation.
Unfortunately the fresco above Bran’s entrance seems to have been ignored; it is discoloured by the grey effect of damp and barely visible to the naked eye. The fact that Bran’s “restorers” completely missed one of the castle’s main assets is sadly typical of their approach. It was obviously treated as a standard building job and not done with the care, microscopic attention to detail and personal commitment that is the trademark of any great restoration job.
Wood is the main feature of the castle’s interior. Each room has thick wooden beams and there are extensive internal balconies, all done in wood. Unfortunately all this wood seems to be brand new. What happened to the original woodwork? Were they thrown out in the same wasteful manner in which Romania’s antique window frames are being rubbished in cities across the nation? The one saving grace of Bran is that they haven’t installed thermopan windows, but the window frames all look like they were made recently.
The internal walls have been restored with a total disregard for history, tradition and culture and the paint seems to have been purchased from Bricostore. The walls are all straight and the edges sharp; presumably those working on it wanted to smooth out all those annoying imperfections that the ancient builders had made. Let’s hope that the ancient frescoes have been covered up – in which case they can be rescued – rather than destroyed.
Rather than listen to outsiders who know about restoration and who have learned to curb the excesses of advertising and building development – the Romanian state has followed the instincts of those whose aesthetics were deformed by Communism.
This article was also published in Romanian in Cotidianul.