Dear fellow travellers
Visitors to Bucharest inevitably sweep by the Royal Palace which today houses part of the national art collection. It's an impressive neoclassical building, the oldest elements of which date back to the early 19th century. The original building was a villa with just two dozen rooms, so quite modest in comparison with the palace we see today. But two hundred years ago, the new Casa Golescu won acclaim as one of the most elegant residences in Bucharest.
Its owner was the Romanian aristocrat, traveller and writer Dinicu Golescu. He deserves to be better known outside his home region, for he rates as one of the finest travel writers of the early 19th century. He was a natural polymath. His published works include a translation from Greek of a monograph on moral philosophy and a statistical map of the Romanian province of Wallachia. From 1824 to 1826 Golescu made a number of journeys through the Danube lands and beyond. His itineraries extended as far as Bavaria, northern Italy and Lake Geneva.
Dinicu Golescu's most significant travel narrative is his 1826 book Account of My Travels. It's an interesting romp from Balkan backwaters to Habsburg salons. Golescu's impeccable family connections gave him access to places where other writers might never have ventured. Thus in Pressburg (now Bratislava) on the Danube he observes the interactions in the royal court at close quarters, remarking on the harmonious relations which prevailed between rulers and the ruled.
Golescu wandered the streets of Vienna, noting the street lighting, the investment in public institutions and fine architecture. He was surprised to find that a peasant in a Swiss village on the south side of Lake Constance knew that there were two European towns called Kronstadt, one in Romania (now more commonly known as Brasov) and a second near St Petersburg. Golescu commented positively on such diverse matters as education in Geneva, the neat clothing of farm workers in Styria and the excellent postal system in Vienna.
If there is a leitmotif to Golescu's text, it is the refrain: "We could do things so much better back in Romania." It is no surprise that Account of My Travels was widely ignored in Golescu's homeland. The author's premature death from cholera in 1830 meant that his work slipped from visibility, and his efforts in sketching out the contours of a better Romanian society were largely forgotten. Yet Golescu's book remains important as an account of travels through regions which were being explored by western writers at the same time - as the intelligentsia in Britain and elsewhere exploited a new freedom to travel in the post-Napoleonic era. Golescu's book takes a generally more positive view of Europe than that espoused by his western contemporaries. It is nowadays an important piece in the canon of Balkan travel writing as an account of an early Romanian encounter with the west.
For more on Golescu and other travel writers from south-east Europe, you might like to dip into Balkan Departures, an anthology of essays edited by Wendy Bracewell and Alex Drace-Francis. Balkan Departures was published in 2009 by Berghahn Books.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)