To possess a home of her own is the dream of every woman’s life. No matter how small, how modest, but she wants it to be her very own, her nest, her refuge, her retreat. Even as a child, in imagination I was always building my home. I saw it in many shapes, for I was always a visionary. Beautiful pictures filled my soul, but I also wanted to create. Visions alone did not suffice me; I wanted to build, to realize, to accomplish. A sister, a year younger than myself, was my constant companion; with her I shared my dreams, and it was together with her that I built my first little dream-house. Absurd as it sounds, we built it out of a cast-away cupboard which an old family servant had obtained for us, I can’t remember how. We stood up this cupboard in a shady place among some bushes, added a thatched roof and painted a large heart upon its green door. The paint ran, so the heart became a bleeding heart, and in this narrow retreat we sat hand in hand dreaming. That was in my childhood.
Princesses and queens are, of course, destined to live in palaces guarded by sentries and policemen – great mansions with many rooms, impersonal because of their size, and overrun with the many servants needed to keep them in right order. Just because of this, perhaps, my dreams were all of cottages, bungalows, tiny dwellings with thatched roofs, surrounded by gardens in which every sort of flower would gaily bloom.
These dreams of my childhood went with me to the country of my adoption; and although Cotroceni had been rebuilt for us and turned into a grand and comfortable house, I saved up a small sum of money and built a tiny gipsy hut in the garden, the exact copy of one I had seen in a village. It was crowned with an overlarge roof of shaggy maize. I planted strawberries, roses and lilies-of-the-valley in its wee enclosure, and there I used to play with my children when they were small. We were very happy in this gipsy bordei, which is the Romanian expression.
But with the years my ambitions grew. My imagination was full of romance (I did not grow up all at once) and my childhood dreams still haunted me; so I planned a house in the tree tops! This was built for me in the forest of Sinaia, where for many years Cuibul Principesei (the Princess’ nest) was the amusement of everyone; a queer little log hut suspended across several giant firs. It could be reached only by climbing the steep stairs of a wooden belfry, from which a drawbridge was let down; once on the other side, the drawbridge could be pulled up and my house became impregnable. It hung on the very edge of a steep incline, and over the tree tops I could look into the valley below. This tree-dwelling had two rooms, a diminutive kitchen and balconies on both sides. I arranged it with loving care, and many a happy hour we spent in it between earth and sky. The ‘nest’ lasted until after the war, when one night it suddenly collapsed during a violent storm; but I must own that I had forsaken my cuib before that fatal day…
I had the real Romanian craving for a bit of ground of my own. No doubt, all that belonged to my husband was mine as well, but it would be different to possess something quite my own, something I could improve upon, change and arrange entirely according to my desires without having to ask anybody’s permission. Having a vivid imagination, I wanted to create.
And it came to pass that one day an old gentleman whom I had never seen suddenly had the wonderful inspiration to bequeath me his little old villa hidden away in a long-neglected park. This was in the time of King Carol I; the King had strong principles and was dubious about allowing me to accept this legacy. For many a day his ‘yes’ or ‘no’ hung in the balance, and I trembled for fear that it might be ‘no’. I think old Mr. Filipescu really had wanted me to take over the half-forsaken place. He was sentimentally attached to Copaceni, had buried the dreams of his youth there. Having no direct descendants, he thought that I, who loved roaming through the weed-overgrown park, would hold the old place in greater esteem than might indifferent far relatives. Finally, Mr. Filipescu’s next-of-kin raising no objection, King Carol allowed himself to be overruled by my passionate desire to possess something really my own, and Copaceni became mine! My joy was indescribable. This was no mere gipsy hut or wooden bungalow suspended above the ground, but a solidly constructed house that I could live in. For the moment it did not look exactly the way I wanted – it was too ornate, too much of a villa; my ambition was to turn it into a real old Romanian conac (boyar’s country house) with shingled roof and squat columns in front of a wide porch. But … I had no money! So I had to wait.
For a princess this may sound queer, but King Carol had severe ideas about education. Young people were not to be indulged, nor allowed to imagine that everything could be had for the asking. So, for the present I had to content myself with my dreams. Luckily my dreams were so vivid that they were almost reality. Sitting on the crumbling old wooden porch with its pretentious ornaments, in imagination I was already seated in front of my solid conac, that really Romanian house I would make of it some day. Some day… But terrible events were to separate us from that day; war, tragedy, suffering, defeat, exile… till finally victory, and our return to all that had been surrendered. With much else, Copaceni had been given up; but during the two years’ exile I had constantly thought of it, and the white house of my dreams would rise before me as a Fata Morgana, cruelly beyond my reach. But God allowed us to return; and very slowly, for even now money was short, I set about building the solid white house with the broad-columned porch in front.
Today it stands and looks exactly as in my dreams. Its ceilings are vaulted, its walls whitewashed; bright-coloured rugs cover its floors; and pictures, old furniture, china, brass and copper make its rooms gay. Each time I go there its many vases are filled with the flowers that I grow in quantities – in such quantities that in Spring and early summer Copaceni is a sight many come to see. King Ferdinand loved Copaceni and would often drive out with me to enjoy its flowers. Sauntering through my acres of irises, tulips, peonies, lilies and roses, he conceived a desire to do something like it at Scrovişte, where, in the Crown Domain, he possessed a small shooting-lodge deep in the woods. As he had no time to do it himself, the King asked me to set to work and make a real home out of the place for him.
With joy and enthusiasm I set about becoming my own rival, which was easy, as there the budget at my disposal was less meagre. We enlarged and beautified the big house. I planned the garden, making two long grass borders running in straight lines from the house to the woods, and turned the lake’s banks into fields of irises of every possible tint. In the evening, when the sun is sinking, those irises become a thousand small lanterns of light.
Pursuing my passion for miniature houses, I persuaded the King to let me have a tiny fisherman’s cottage that stood at the very edge of the water. He laughingly gave it to me and I turned it into the dearest little habitation-everybody falls in love with it, wondering why they never thought of building one like it. The objects within its whitewashed walls are all quite simple, but the colour-scheme is pleasing and each thing is exactly in the right place and of exactly the right kind to suit the house. Later, just before he died, the King allowed me to build another wee cottage near mine, for Ileana. Having become with the years an expert in small houses, this last little cottage is perhaps the most charming of all. Its floor and curtains are blue, all the vases are blue and even the bath is blue; and blue flowers grow all around it I delighted in making this little dwelling perfect; and once we hoped that Ileana would realize her first dream of love beneath its broad red thatched roof.
It was before I built the blue cottage that Bran came into my life – Bran, that forsaken little fortress beyond the mountains. Many years before, on an excursion across our frontier, I had seen it standing in stolid solitude upon its projecting rock, and had imagined what an enchantment it would be to possess that stronghold and turn it into a home. What romance it would represent – a little feudal castle, verily a fairy-tale come to life!
And the incredible came to pass: About two years after the war the authorities of the town of Braşov came in solemn procession and offered me the castle of Bran, in free gift, for my very own! This was indeed a marvellous event. With the same never-slacking enthusiasm I set about arranging Bran. Each house I arranged was intended for one of my children, for we always like to build into the future. The delight would not have been the same had not their loved faces stood out before me like stars, the very raison d’être of all my work… Copaceni for Elizabeth, Bran for Nicky, and, later on, Balcic for Ileana, who loves the sea…
Bran was a new field of activity, a new dream of beauty to shape into life. Seconded by a faithful old architect as enthusiastic as myself, I set about giving life to the dead walls, lending a soul to the old fortress which had never really lived. I woke it out of its long torpor, I made out of a blind thing a home with many eyes looking out upon the world beneath. Somnolent, aloof, impregnable as it had seemed, it nevertheless allowed itself to be turned into a snug and cosy abode. I did nothing to mar its feudal aspect, modify the steepness of its stairs, heighten the ceilings of its galleries, or straighten its crooked rooms. The doors have remained so low that on entering you have to stoop; the walls are several feet thick; heavy beams span the unvaulted ceilings, and there are so many levels to the castle that it is difficult to know on which floor one is. Bran today is a small museum full of quaint treasures brought from many lands; its courtyard is a mass of flowers, and from every window hang geraniums and nasturtiums. All around it gardens full of flowers have sprung into being, flowers in such profusion that I am able to fill the castle with them; they stand everywhere in huge earthenware or metal jars and bowls, splashing the white walls with their ardent colours. No house loves flowers more than the little castle of Bran. At night, when the lights are lit, it stands against the sky, a fantastic shadow pierced by a hundred lights.
One day, after Bran had become an accomplished dream, as I rambled with my son Nicky through Dobrudja, I suddenly came upon a spot near the sea which awoke in me a quite particular sensation: I had the feeling that this place had always been waiting for me – or was it I who had always been waiting for this place? It was not as if I had come here for the first time. That old tree hanging above the turquoise-blue sea from the top of a high crumbling wall, beneath which flowed a spring of clear mountain water… Somehow this spot was familiar to me, it had something to do with the very foundation of my being; here was peace, beauty, sea and fresh water, and that huge whispering tree bending right over the shore as if listening to the song of the waves. I sat down in the shade of the great tree and gazed out upon the light-spangled sea, watching the play of waves against the shore. A feeling of complete, almost overwhelming, well-being took possession of me – I belonged to this and this belonged to me. Now and again along the long road of life this sensation has come; it is simply the feeling of coming home, of being entirely and absolutely accepted by one’s surroundings. Yes, I must become possessor of this spot; it needed me – I felt this with a force that could not be denied. And verily I did acquire that spot. It would be too long to relate how; but the old tree, the old wall and the crystal-clear water flowing from beneath it into the sea became mine. Immediately the vision rose before me of the house I wanted to build… a white house, strong, simple of line, of Turkish style, a house whose upper story would project over the lower; a house with a flattened roof, and with its feet almost in the sea; a house surrounded by stone terraces which little by little would be conjured into a paradise of flowers.
This dream-house, too, became reality. It was to have been an artist’s caprice, a little shack to which I could escape for a few days at a time. But my love for the place grew and grew; besides, the problem of painting into its surroundings my living picture exactly as it should be was so fascinating that the artist within me could not resist. This was not merely the adaptation of something already existing; this was creation, the modelling of stone, earth, water, trees and flowers into a harmonious whole. Proceeding slowly through lean years, it was created on a small scale, modest, rustic, in no sense monumental, but perfect in its way.
There was also this about Balcic – it was my return to the sea, my first love. Born on an island, I have in my soul an eternal deep craving for the sea. Ileana has inherited this love for the sea. She belongs to Balcic and Balcic belongs to her. I cannot think of Balcic without Ileana, and it was together with her that I developed my dream. No joy being complete unless it can be shared by others, my child and I set about creating in the villages of Bran and Balcic homes for the poor, for those whose lot is hard work in airless places. And the joy of being able to provide for them large, sunny houses was like adding light to one’s soul. Copăceni, Scrovişte, Bran, Balcic… dreams of mine come true, modest dreams, no doubt. Others have achieved more greatly, but I did what I could, according to circumstances and to the possibilities of my time.
I do not wish to close these pages without saying a word about Cotroceni and Pelishor, for it would seem like ingratitude. Although neither of these houses is actually mine, they have been my principal homes that I have lovingly remodelled year after year, as much as I could, in accordance with my taste. From the very first I fell under the spell of Romanian architecture, and always regretted that Cotroceni had riot been built in the style of the native monasteries; but at the time it was reconstructed the love of national art was at a low ebb. For many years I was unable to make any improvements on Cotroceni, but had to content myself with what I had found: very comfortable in part, even luxurious, but without that personal touch which gives character to a home. When at last the day came for additions and improvements, with King Ferdinand’s consent I began modifying Cotroceni according to what, through the years, I had learned of Romanian architecture and decoration.
Thus took shape the great White Room which, with its domes and columns, its plain white walls, its old pictures and artistic lighting, is today the admiration of all who visit Cotroceni. Thus also gradually developed the quaint dining-room with its round table beneath a round cupola – a table that can be enlarged or diminished according to the number of our guests, but always remains round. The stone stairway leading down to the garden likewise was built at my direction; it is a copy of the stairs at Horezu, the convent I love best. Everything Romanian in style at Cotroceni is my work, as are the roses that in early summer turn our terraces into a sea of colour. To one coming upon Cotroceni when they are in bloom, the house looks like the Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted palace, reached only through a maze of flowering thorns. Even at Pelishor I managed to make two Romanian rooms which carry Bran over into my more official home—two white, vaulted rooms with low ceilings, old stone columns and that indefinable something about them that has become known as ‘my style’.
At Mamaia also there is a little house which bears my stamp. It stands in the same grounds with a much bigger house which King Ferdinand and I had built on the great beach that runs for miles and miles and was always such a joy to us all. But Fate had decreed that King Ferdinand should never inhabit this house, and to live in it alone was too saddening. It had become too big for me; so I gave it to Michael’s mother. Remembering my own craving to have something of my own, I wanted her to have a house indisputably hers. Cara-Dalga became her possession, while I kept for myself the small annex we had prepared for Michael. Today Michael, no longer a little boy who plays about on a beach, lives in palaces. I made out of the tiny building he was to have occu¬pied another dream-habitation where Ileana and I have just enough room – for she and I have always shared everything. Around this quaint little building I designed a paved garden with large spaces between, in which we planted bright pink petunias. The result was a joy to the eye: the house seemed to have dropped from the skies upon a carpet of brilliant hue. Their perfume reached down to the beach and was with us as we bathed in the sea. The little annex of Cara-Dalga is also a dream-house.
Yes, they are all small houses… dreams come true, dreams that have crystallized into realities. But though I love small houses, I once had the vision of a great white house resembling an old Romanian cloister.
I called it Fata Morgana and it was to have been built in the valley of the Bistriţa. I saw it standing on a height, snow-white against the Ceahlau (our highest mountain). There was talk of a wonderful dam that would turn the waters of the Bistriţa into a huge lake; Fata Morgana would have throned above this lake. On one side, from the sheer height on which it stood, it would have mirrored its white face in the lake far below, while in front broad flowering meadows in spreading terraces would have led gradually down to the water’s edge. So vividly could I conjure up this white palace before me – with its beautiful colonnades and secret gardens, its vaulted halls, marble chambers and mosaic floors, its wide windows opening upon fantastic vistas of mountain and lake – that it seemed as if it really existed.
Seated on the site of my dream-palace, in glowing words I would describe my vision to my children, evoking so clearly the picture in my imagination that it seemed as if I were leading them by the hand through every room…
Dreams . . . Some come true. But this last vision will remain always a Fata Morgana… Even if better years come back, I will not be there to build the white palace by the lake, for even the lake is but a dream… [Source: RNA]
©Diana Mandache and https://royalromania.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.