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Travel

DO NOT FEED THE WILD ANIMALS

Romania seems to be full of rules. Having finshed my venison meal in the rain in Sinaia, I wandered on through the woods to Peleş Castle, the spectacular castle built by the first King of Romania in the late 19th century, considered by many the most beautiful castle in Europe. It is indeed beautiful.

It is also, like much else I have seen here, burdened by signs and officials warning you not to do things. First Romanian-speakers and others are marshalled to different doors. ‘Do not enter until you are asked to do so’, reads the sign next to the door for English, French and Russian speakers. On entering, when invited, you are told no fewer than 15 in a group, no bags, no photography without a permit, no publication of any photos even with a permit, and no shoes. Visitors are issued with stretchy slippers to place over their shoes, to protect the carpets. The stiletoes of our guide clearly did not warrant slippers. Oh, and no shopping after the tour, only before, our final instruction before we could get going around the house.

The contrast with the People’s Palace in Bucharest could not have been starker. Peleş is well-crafted with the finest collection of furniture, furnishings and weapons to create a classic European castle. But this was no Rhineland fortress, it had central heating and pipes running through the castle to aid vacuuming. The architects adopted many Germanic styles from through the ages, along with Moorish and Ottoman features, but made them seem ageless. Ceacescu’s Palace meanwhile was derivative, over the top and already aged and crumbling, having been shoddily built.

The two palaces did share rules, however. In Peleş, of course, they were properly detailed – ‘DON’T TREAD ON THE GRASS’ by immaculate lawns. In Bucharest, the lawns looked dangerous in themselves, more weeds than grass. There were no signs where I could walk in the People’s Palace grounds, despite being the national parliament of a NATO member, which had troops in Iraq and secret detention centres on its own territory. But there were rules nonetheless, as I found when I left the grounds to find the tour entrance. “Where had I come from?” asked the guard on the gate. I had not been challenged for 20 minutes anywhere on the grounds, but here, at the very edge, he began to sound difficult. “I didn’t know I couldn’t,” I protested, and he shooed me on, sternly.

Sometimes all the signs and all the rules make sense. In Braşov yesterday, when the rain cleared finally, I approached the cable car building to go up Mount Tâmpa overlooking the town. Just a couple of hundred yards from the central square, the sign read ‘DO NOT FEED THE WILD ANIMALS’. They don’t mean Ken’s pigeons or alien squirrels. They mean bears and wolves and boars. I had heard that a hiker had been killed by a bear close to Braşov and that bears rooted around in the rubbish at the edge of town. So this sign did make sense. I wondered if Braşov had the same letters page in the residents association news as in my area, where there is furious debate about whether to feed the foxes or whether they are vermin making a mess of the bins.

When we ascended the hill and took in the view from the top, I considered the signs that Romania does not have but should, like ‘DO NOT DRIVE AND TALK ON YOUR PHONE AT THE SAME TIME’, ‘DO NOT BLOW SMOKE IN OTHER PEOPLE’S FACES’ and ‘DO NOT DYE YOUR HAIR THAT ODD BRASSY TINT AND PILE IT SO HIGH ON YOUR HEAD’.

And above all ‘IF YOU ARE A CABLE CAR OPERATOR, DO NOT BUY THREE BOTTLES OF BEER AT THE TOP IN FULL VIEW OF YOUR CUSTOMERS AND START TO DRINK THEM WHILE WAITING TO HEAD OFF.’ I decided to brave the hour’s hike back down the hill and leave the cable car to the others.

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