Until Death – Transylvania

45261590_10156671588741113_943116896272646144_nIt had been booked for a while, months actually, but I still didn’t believe it was happening until I got in the car. That’s when I started to panic a little. I don’t like to get excited about things until they’re actually happening, having been let down a lot, so when we paid for flights to Bucharest to visit Transylvania, I tried to stay calm.

My fella and I had talked about booking a little holiday for autumn (cheaper, no school children) and he had suggested Transylvania, and why not go over Halloween? It made perfect sense and we could visit ‘Dracula’s’ Castle on the 31st too. We even booked our tour in advance to make sure. I researched spooky things to see and he found some decent looking bars where we might not get stared at (boy, we were wrong). I tried not to get too excited. It was months away.

Finally, in late October, we arrived at our hotel in Bucharest, the plan being to spend a few days in the capital city, then get the train to Brasov for a few days doing castle tours and Halloween things. I had asked in advance if we could upgrade our room, but only if they had a specific one available. This being a boutique hotel each room was different. They were able to upgrade us to my chosen room. The Gothic Room. It was pretty special. Unfortunately Bucharest was not. The city centre was awash with ‘Irish’ pubs, dance clubs and strip bars, some which pounded music until 6am. 7am on Saturday. We found a rock pub ‘Private Hell’ which played music we liked but even here, as with most of Bucharest, people stared at us a lot. It was odd. And we’re not even that odd.

Sightseeing wise Vlad’s palace was undergoing major maintenance, so we couldn’t even see the outside. The church – Biserica Sfantul Anton – in the palace grounds was beautiful however, and contained a relic, of St Anthony I believe. A piece of his bone was displayed in a guilt case at the altar and people waited to see, pray and place their forehead on the case.

45285455_10156671583101113_1154089207430381568_nAround the back of the church there was a memorial area where people placed candles to pray for loved ones. We saw them at a few of the larger churches and eventually worked out that one side of the area was for the living, while the other was for the dead. Considering the gold and opulence inside the churches, the memorial areas looked like pigeon hutches. It seemed a shame worshippers couldn’t light candles inside.

45273646_10156671582016113_3416023176839168000_nWe also visited the famous Bellu Cemetery, but this wasn’t quite as imagined either. In all my years of visiting cemeteries, I have never been to one at the same time as a service. When we arrived at the 54 acre ‘cultural attraction’ there were a few teenage goths hanging around. It turned out that they were part of a larger group of teenagers attending a burial. As more and more people arrived carrying flowers we felt more and more uncomfortable and decided that instead of standing completely still out of respect, we would walk in the opposite direction.

 

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Niki Jones Photography

While keeping our eyes open incase we should accidentally disturb the mourners, we tried to see some of the reportedly amazing memorials and mausoleums. After a few minutes a security guard approached. We didn’t understand what he said but he clearly (but politely) made it clear there was no photography allowed and then pointed to his shoulders. We put our cameras away and I guessed at the rest and put my jacket back on to cover my shoulders. It was so hot and we felt so awkward, even though we were the other side of the cemetery to the service, we decided to leave. I normally feel a mix of excitement and peace after seeing a beautiful old cemetery, but I just felt a mix of guilt and disappointment.

 

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Photo by Niki Jones Photography

We did manage to find the sorcerers arm though, which went a long way to making Bucharest not completely disappointing. A mummified, sorcerer’s arm. In a box. Genuinely. The Zlatari Church it was in was very unassuming, especially because the huge bank opposite looked like a palace. In a box, at the altar, was the relic I had at the top of my list, but there was a queue of ladies waiting to kiss the box and place their forehead on it. I sat quietly and patiently at the front until everyone there for religious reasons had been and gone, then I stepped towards it. It looked like a monkey’s paw. Withered with tight dark brown skin, it didn’t look real. It was covered with glass but there was a hole cut over the hand, with a gilt ring edging it. It was then I realised what the ladies had been actually kissing.

20181211_192800.jpgThe legend goes that the arm belonged to a powerful sorcerer Ciprian, who was asked to bewitch a Christian woman for a pagan man who desired her. This woman, Justina, was too strong in her beliefs to be bewitched and her strength convinced Ciprian to convert to Christianity and renounce the Devil. Apparently. Information about St Ciprian is so scant however, that the Roman Catholic religion has actually removed him from their official list, but some Orthodox churches still celebrate him. People pray to him to remove curses and charms, despite him renouncing his sorcery ways.

After this, a few bars, Romanian sausages and hotel cats, we caught the train to Brasov for the second half of our adventure. The station had no platform, as the rails are not electrified, but it also meant it was three feet from the ground up to the door. A few men tried to take my bags, which I declined, or to sell me English magazines (mostly National Geographic which confused me). After finding our seats we were pleased to see the £6 upgrade to first class for our 3 hour journey had been worth it. The big red reclining armchair style seats, albeit still in hardwearing train seat fabric, were comfy and spacious and the tray tables were huge. We had coat hooks, plug sockets and curtains. Not what I was expecting from the outside of the train. A conductor walked with ease through the rocking train carrying a tray of hot black coffee in plastic vending machine cups, not seeming to care whether anyone bought one or not, followed by another carrying a shopping basket with crisps and snacks.

45233641_10156671584116113_5407170522070908928_nAlmost as soon as we escaped the outskirts of Bucharest the landscape became breathtaking. In a ‘Carpathian mountains that I’ve seen in the movies’ kind of way. The towns we went through looked just like I had imagined. Dogs and chickens in the yard and Bavarian looking lodges and turrets and solitary old ladies in headscarves sat by the road. Memorials on top of mountainsides and no one speaking English. It was immediately much more what we had wanted. And Brasov itself was no different.

 

 

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The Black Church, Brasov – Photo by Niki Jones Photography

The town had a more historic feel to it. People stared much less (if at all) and we immediately felt more at home. We were grateful to ourselves that we had planned our visit to finish at Brasov rather than the capital city. We had part of a day before Halloween to explore Brasov (we mainly explored pubs) and got an earlyish night. On the morning of the 31st of October I changed my outfit three times and we left our apartment to meet our tour guide. After being put with two different guides we were finally introduced to our third, and correct, guide. Our group was small and cosmopolitan. Two French ladies, an American couple, one quiet lady from Mexico and us.

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Bran Castle – Niki Jones Photography

We visited Bran Castle first and were overwhelmed at how busy it was. Our guide explained that it was a special time for schools to visit historic places and that was why there were so many children. We shuffled from room to room trying to hear our guide as hoardes of pre-teens swarmed around us. We got some amazing pictures and I spent the whole time grinning but the castle was not as expected, more small country home inside, than grand medieval castle. I bought a toy bat, a bat bookmark and some local artwork. Of a bat. Despite the school children it was already shaping up to be the best day.

We went on to a fort, which was being prepared for a film shooting so parts of it were being covered up (like the safety hand railings), then onto a Bavarian stately home and then Peles Castle (which I later discovered was used as the setting for a nauseating film ‘A Christmas Prince‘). We finished by eating schnitzel and cold potatoes at a very Bavarian ale house, surrounded by woods and a bear ontop of a fountain.

After our tour guide dropped us off we headed home for a quick refresh and change of clothes (despite it being almost November the temperatures were in the mid twenties). It was now dark and we were thinking about where to spend our Halloween night, not fancying any nightclubs or fancy dress parties. My fella Niki suggested we walk passed the Black Church, a tourist attraction just off the town square, to see if it was lit up at night. As we rounded the corner to the main door there were two slightly drunk chaps having a chat and holding a takeaway. I stared at the opening times to see if we could go into the church the next day, then up at the roof. The takeaway chaps wandered off and I began to say something about would I die if someone dropped something off the roof onto me and as I turned around Niki was kneeling down. And holding out a ring. He said ‘Lauren will you marry me?’ in the most serious voice I’ve ever heard him use.
I found that I had to go down to the ground too suddenly, and that I had started crying. He asked if that meant yes and I nodded. The rest of the evening involves no spooky things, just large drinks, calls home and relief. And tears. Lots of tears.

 

45263854_10156671589051113_1701774439059816448_nI’m not sure if anything I write after this can follow that. We did go inside the Black Church, it was very English and therefore familiar and slightly disappointing. I saw a ‘Heroes Cemetery’ filled with small, sad and very moving gravestones to those lost in war. An old Romanian lady blessed us as we left the small, bright chuch next door. The cable car was closed. There were poor children selling used books table to table and a lot of cute dogs. None of this mattered very much to me.

Bucharest was disappointing, Brasov was everything we had hoped and more.

And I got the gothest, spookiest proposal story in the history of the world.

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The Treasure within the Walls – Dubrovnik

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Photo by Niki Jones Photography

We decided to go to Dubrovnik because it came highly recommended by friends for its history and coastal location, and we could afford to go. No one told us that the Croatian city also held one of the largest collections of relics that we would likely ever see.

After an initial walk around the walled Old Town, some seafood and very welcome cold beers, we researched all the things we wanted to do. None of them involved Game of Thrones or Star Wars (both of which have used Dubrovnik as a backdrop on countless occasions) but most involved architecture and cemeteries. I used to just look for the nearest or most impressive cemetery when going abroad, but after the breathtaking Reliqaury Treasury I now thoroughly research relics too.

Our holiday apartment was on a hill above the centre of Dubrovnik’s Old Town and there were a number of interesting sights along the walk to the city walls. The first was Boninovo Cemtery, one of the largest in Dubrovnik with nearly 2000 graves covering a multitude of religions. It seems that the cemetery was initially founded by the Jewish community in the early 1800s, and subsequently other religions followed suit, acquiring space of their own at Boninovo. The mix of religions – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish – as well as the evolving styles, meant that the sprawling cemetery was infitinitely interesting. The cemetery seemed to be laid out rather like an old mansion, eccentrically built and forever extended. Every gate we went through or edge we reached seemingly revealed another part of the cemetery, in a different style and of a different age. There was an underground columbarium, simple mausoleums with beautifully rusted gates and endless white stone markers. By one road entrance to the cemetery, there was a florist who also sold a variety of memorial candles, the kind that come in religious designs made of red plastic. I’d only ever seen these for sale at Highgate Cemetery (and in their gift shop) so I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to buy one knowing I was just going to take it home rather than place it on a grave. We walked passed the shop twice a day for a week and on the last day I bought myself a beautiful heart-shaped one. The florist didn’t seem to mind at all.

There was another cemetery, almost the polar opposite of Boninovo, we found by accident while talking a walk to the Capuchin monastery and an abandoned pub. After some research I believe it was a Home Guard cemetery, but it didn’t seem like it was still in use.  It was very small, with creaking gates and long grass. There was one, large monument opposite the gates against the wall. I have no idea what it said. It does not appear on google maps and for most taphohiles would not hold much interest, but I like finding places I wasn’t looking for. The cats that sat on the gravestones did not seem peterbed by us being there.

Dubrovnik CathedralThe day after this chance find came another, but in every way more spectacular. As I’ve mentioned before, I go into every Catholic church and cathedral I come across in the hopes of finding a relic. I find the idea of displaying someone’s bones or blood as a kind of talisman in the name of Christianity, fascinating. We were wandering around the Old Town, probably trying to find a hidden bar we’d read about on Tripadvisor, when I saw what I thought was a simple church with its door open. It turned out to be a cathedral, but the outside was giving nothing away. We almost missed what was inside too, as it was covered in scaffolding and plastic sheets. As we walked around Dubrovnik Cathedral, my eyes keen for a relic, I spotted pressed medallions in one of the side altars. They were under glass and seemed to show guilded legs. Recognising these as saintly medals for followers to wear, I began looking for the leg in question. There was some laminated information pinned to a column nearby, thankfully in English, which showed the Holy Treasury, including legs, torsos and heads. It also described its location in the cathedral, which I would have missed. An unassuming lady behind a small table was taking an entrance fee, the handwritten sign did not exactly promote the Treasury, and we followed her gestures to go through the plastic sheeting. An automatic light lit up the small side room as we entered revealing a floor to ceiling collection of saintly body parts. I was in awe.

DSC_7696Behind a plastic screen there were gold guilt legs, arms, craniums, whole torsos, enough to make up several complete bodies. Carved wooden boxes held scraps of cloth and bone and other things too small or dusty to see. There were reportedly pieces of the cross and baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth among the collection. We stood there for several minutes just trying to take it all in. With the protective screen so close to the entrance door it was difficult to get a good view of everything and being a well behaved tourist I adhered to the sign that said ‘no photography’. Thankfully no other visitors came in while I was craning and crawling around to see as much as possible. The only photo I took was one of me outside the cathedral grinning like a loon (above), it really was one of the highlights of the trip and my spooky little life. I’ve included a photo from the Atlas Obscura however, as descriptions do not do it justice. It was odd though, that a room filled with saintly parts didn’t feel moving in anyway, other than the shock at seeing so many in one place. It was almost as if the more there were, the less rare and special they seemed. It was still amazing.

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We took the obligatory island boat trip (well worth it) and were rewarded with remote chapels and untouched cemeteries. On Kolocep Island, we discovered a small cemetery and a tiny church, Crkvica sv. Nikole na groblju, which only opens one day a year – All Saints Day, the day after Halloween. It being September all I could do was peek inside and imagine what it looked like.

The only let down on this holiday, macabre sightseeing-wise, was that we didn’t make it to the haunted island. Nobody lives on the island of Daksa and locals refuse to go there after the massacre in 1944. According to reports, and forensic investigations, suspected Nazi sympathisers in Dubrovnik were rounded up and taken to Daksa to be shot and left to rot where they fell. They had no trial and their families were warned not to ask questions or risk the same fate. They have since been buried and a memorial raised. On our boat trip to the other, inhabited islands, we asked one of our crewmen about the possibility of going to Daksa. He simply said no boats went there, and the only way to get there was to swim as there was nowhere for a boat to moor because of the rocks. He said he had swum out there but seemed reluctant to say much more. We saw it from our boat but got no closer to my dismay.

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Photo by Niki Jones Photography

I have no doubt that I will go back to Dubrovnik. Apart from the amazing seafood and breathtaking views, there are relics I have yet to discover and, more importantly, a haunted island I have yet to set foot on.

 

(I have since found out that a tourist has managed to get to Daksa island and their account is a good read).

The Circus in the Cemetery – Norwich

Just before I left Norwich, and on a weekend when I didn’t have a major hangover, I decided to take a walk to the Rosary Cemetery. It was a grey, drizzly day. The kind of day that looks miserable, unless you like walking around cemeteries, in which case it is perfect.

 

The Rosary Cemetery was the first non-denominational cemetery in the United Kingdom, but was still founded by a minister, albeit a non-conformist one. Norwich has never been a city to do things the same way as everyone else. Even when it comes to our dead.

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The Rosary Cemetery, off Rosary Road, is a beautiful space, even more so with mist made by the rain when I visited. Despite the non-demoninational nature of the graveyard, a flint chapel marks the entrance, complete with carriage archway, making the slightly rambling grounds feel a little more grand. It was designed by prominent Norwich architect Edward Boardman, who also worked on the gaol and hospital. The cemetery is spread over different levels with steps and mounds to climb and corners to hide in. It feels like a secret garden among the headstones.

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Although the wikipedia page mentions surgeons, novelists, artists and war heroes among the notable graves, it leaves out Jeremiah Colman, part of the Colman’s dynasty (known only now for mustard) who’s funeral stopped traffic in Norwich and turned out over a thousand Norwich folk to mourn his passing. The Colman’s, still a name hugely associated with the Fine City of Norwich, were reportedly staunch non-conformists, so it is no surprise that their memorial is here. The most interesting memorial for me however, is the one of John Barker. His memorial was interesting in itself, but his life, and death, were also unusual. A bust on a plinth, with gothic pillars and canopy, standing tall among other, more modest, headstones it is hard not to spot. The inscription not only tells of his life but also, uncommonly, of how he died. Mr Barker was a ‘steam circus proprietor’ as detailed on his stone. Following in his father’s footsteps John Barker was a travelling showman, but despite being successful in his trade, as evidenced by the grandure of his memorial and the clothes his bust is dressed in, he was well respected by the circus community thanks to his efforts to help less fortunate members. He was also Vice-President of the Van-Dwellers Association. Next to his grand marker is that of Charles Thurston, ‘Amusement Caterer’ and part of Thurston Fairs which still tour England today.

John Barker died doing the thing he loved. While he was setting up a ‘circular railway’ ride at Norwich Cattlemarket to entertain the crowds, he was crushed between two carts, suffering multiple greivous injuries. He was reportedly dead before he reached the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. As another prominent figure in the city, his funeral brought around a thousand mourners.

Despite being tucked away in a rambling cemetery just outside the city centre, John Barker’s unusual grave remains one of my favourite discoveries. Actually, that is exactly why it is one of my favourites.

 

 

The Toe in the Memorial – Kent

Yes you read correctly. A Toe Memorial.  An unusual marker by anyone’s standards.

We (myself and my equally darkly-fascinated chap) had a rare weekend free of other people’s birthday celebrations, work commitments or musical interludes. We decided to visit something spooky.

The Cobham Mausoleum is a National Trust property but is free to enter (donations welcome) and like any macabre gal, I love a mausoleum. This one was a little unusual however, in that it contained no bodies and never had done.

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After their family vaults had been filled in Westminster Abbey, the 3rd Earl of Darnley built his own in Cobham (or left instructions for someone else to do so in his will). No one is sure why, but the mausoleum was never consecrated so, despite it costing £9000 to build (around £1 million today), it never housed a single corpse. The volunteer guide on the day we visited suggested it might have been because the clergy objected to the design of the building itself, resembling an Egyptian pyramid rather than a more traditional churchly design.

Our guide was wonderfully chatty and clearly happy that people were taking the time to visit and enjoy the quirky building. It certainly stood out in the woodlands, in a clearing surrounded by trees and the occasional Highland cow (seriously). Despite not being home to anyone’s final resting place, the chapel above and crypt below were beautiful, as were the accoustics. In one of the coffin shelves I spotted some laminated information pages. The print wasn’t especially clear but I could make out a photo of a woodland gravestone. Not being able to take the pages away, I took photos of the directions with my phone and we set out to find the forest memorial.

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After walking a little further than I had imagined, and taking a couple of turnings at the wrong Yew tree, we spotted a large stone, broken and worn and partially hidden by forest. This was the Toe Memorial. The National Trust page about Cobham Mausoleum does not mention the memorial at all, and there is very little online about it. Apparently Edward Bligh, the 5th Earl of Darnley, chopped off his toe with an axe in 1835 while demonstrating how to cut a tree. I found this account on a local website – ‘Now I’ll show you how to cut a root in halves’ the Earl said, and he took the woodcutter’s axe, struck hard upon the root when the axe glided off and just caught the little toe of his foot and part of the next thro’ his boot. He started and said ‘I have just harmed myself, I fear! But it might have been worse and I ought to consider myself fortunate’. The next day he wrote to a friend saying : ‘ We are all well here, barring that I almost cut off a little toe with an axe yesterday : providentially it is a matter of no consequence, but might have been a serious accident.’

It may have been a minor accident but he contracted lockjaw as a consequence and died three days later. The memorial to his misfortune was erected by Lady Darnley and seems to have been mostly forgotten.

The mausoleum was very interesting, but the Toe Memorial, despite it’s minor stature and major state of disrepair, was by far the highlight. I love finding hidden things. If they are hidden in forests, so much the better.