“Are you done?” Sister Parascheva inquires with a metal-crown-accented smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “I thought you joined us to listen in.”
Guilt welled within me, a Pavlovian response after a childhood spent in schools run by nuns, until I realized she was addressing a man who had joined our tour and was busy snapping photos instead of attentively listening. And while I inwardly smirked at the man’s misfortune, I couldn’t blame him, for we were inside one of Romania’s most picturesque secrets—Miclauseni Palace.
The palace is an idyllic place, a Gothic Revival manse where nature, design, and fate have enhanced the romantic aspirations of the architectural genre. A verdant oasis for members of the region’s most illustrious families, it was ravaged by Russian soldiers and decades of Communist rule. While the exquisitely detailed exterior is in good condition, the interior is a stunning gallery of ruin porn, and the nuns who now run it are in a race to preserve and restore it.
The palace is also a prime example of one of the biggest surprises about Romania. Our image in the 21st century is that of an impoverished country on the periphery of Europe, yet its cities and towns are full of magnificent houses, apartments, palaces, and churches reflecting the region’s once-wealthy past.
Miclauseni Palace is roughly 45 minutes by car from Iasi, Romania’s second-largest city and the long-time capital of the Principality of Moldavia (one of the major kingdoms that make up present-day Romania).
The place is wonderfully sited, appearing at the last second out of the dense thicket of trees surrounding the long driveway (a view slightly marred by newer administrative buildings). Its Gothic exterior is playful and exuberant—a beneficiary of its owners’ similar characteristics and the Romanian predilection for exterior frill. Yet its fantastical elements—towers, crenellated parapets, decorative crowns above pointed arch windows—don’t verge on silly the way some Gothic Revival works can, such as two of the region’s best known examples, Iasi’s iconic Palace of Culture and its central train station. Perhaps it’s because the palace is completely immersed in a forest, or thanks to its state of decay, or even its tragic history—for whatever reason, it just feels right.
George and Maria Sturdza constructed the palace from 1880 to 1904. Members of two of Romania’s most influential political and intellectual families, they lived a life of immense privilege. The Sturdzas could count princes of Moldavia, pashas in the Ottoman Empire, and prominent statesmen as members of their line. Maria was a member of the Ghica family, a Phanariote family (while complicated, essentially one of the ancient Greek families that ruled Danubian territories under the Ottomans). She was born in Constantinople and her father was the governor of Samos Island, an Ottoman territory.
They built their home on a 30 hectare park along with a private church on the site of a former family home. While originally intended as a country retreat, it eventually became their year-round residence. The two of them formed a curious couple for the time. George was uninterested in the family business of politics—he loved books and Latin. And so he accumulated one of the largest private collections of books in Romania (60,000 volumes) and wrote all his letters in Latin. He even looked eccentric, most closely resembling Belle’s father in Beauty & the Beast. Blown-up photographs dotting the various room show him in the knee-high leather riding boots he wore every day.
A severe-looking woman in photographs, Maria was an artist who hand-drew and painted illuminated manuscripts, and the elaborate decorations covering the walls of the house were her designs.
And though faded, cracked, painted over in parts, or clinging on despite water damage, what fabulous designs they are. Mixing floral, geometric, and family crests (lion, cross with snake, fleur-de-lis), the once colorful walls reminded me of those photos of the interiors of Detroit’s once glorious buildings. Every room had a stove from Vienna, each unique and adapted to the aesthetic of the chamber. All of the doorways, windows, and furniture in the piano nobile are in the Gothic style, but they are more on the fairy tale side of the style’s spectrum, rather than scary and somber, perhaps because the house is drenched in natural light. That light is not the only thing that gave the house a more modern feel. It also had running water, and nifty design elements such as bathroom ceilings shaped in a way to minimize steam.
To this day, the centerpiece of the house remains the second floor hallway, with its vibrant ceiling that resembles a giant illuminated manuscript—all that remains from a room that once housed the famous library in floor to ceiling bookshelves. Sadly, those books, which attracted the likes of Alexandre Dumas fils to the house, could not survive Russian soldiers who needed something to burn to stay warm in World War II. Gone too are all the valuables, works of art, and the intricately patterned wood floors.
George died in 1909 and Maria in 1936. They had only one child, Catherine (Ecaterina), who in turn married a member of another distinguished family—Sherban Cantacuzino. The Cantacuzinos were descended from a Byzantine emperor, and one branch had been sent to rule one of the principalities that now make up Romania. The couple had no children of their own, and so they adopted a nephew, Matte (Matthew) Gikha.
The house became a temporary hospital during World War I, but remained with the family until 1944, when Russian soldiers occupied it. During World War II, Matte became an aviation hero, and after escaping the communists, Sister Parascheva says, he worked for CIA until he died in Venezuela.
In 1947, just before she died, Catherine became a nun and left her property to the church as a nunnery. However, shortly after that, the new communist government vacated her decision and seized the palace as public property. Over the next five or so decades, it served as an orphanage for children with disabilities, usually around 150 at a time. This was the time period when most of the damage happened, as walls were painted over and floors torn out because of children without control over their movements. In 1980, a fire broke out on the roof and the water used to put it out damaged all of the magnificent ceiling paintings, the ruin still visible today.
With the fall of Communism in particularly stunning fashion (Romania’s long-time dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were executed by firing squad), the property was returned to the church for the nunnery in 1990. Over the past three decades, the nuns have tried to maintain and partially restore it as best they can.
A sentimental part of me wishes it could be preserved in its state of decay, as so much of its allure is due to its vitiated state. But imagining that hallway library with its dramatic Gothic doors, its floor-to-ceiling volumes of rare books, and its illuminated-manuscript canopy, I’m convinced that a complete restoration would also render the palace unforgettable again in a different manner.
It’s utterly fitting that perched above the entrance and underneath an oversized family crest, carved into a rippling stone banner the family motto reads, “beauty shines everywhere.”