11 June 2012

The 'Quiet Nest' On The Black Sea

"I never thought about how well the sound of the sea goes with the smell of roses," Rebecca said.  We were walking through a June flood of blossoms, the ground strewn with petals. In the Bulgarian seaside town of Balchik, high up above the beach, a cascading paradise of terraces and waterfalls spills down towards the water.  It's crowded, hot, steep and overpriced - but completely worth it.  Once the private retreat of Queen Marie of Romania, it's now one of the best looked-after and beautiful botanical gardens we've ever seen.  Marie loved it so much she had her heart buried here, locked up in a gold box.  The heart's no longer here, the gardens have been thrown open to the public, it's not even Romania anymore - but the place is still full of stories about the queen, her lovers and love for Balchik.
Marie of Romania began her extraordinary life as Princess Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria on her father's side, a granddaughter of Emperor Alexander II on her mother's side.  She grew up in Windsor Palace and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and, from the beginning, was something of an enchantress.  In June 1900, Cosmopolitan said that "without being regularly beautiful, she is exceedingly pretty and winsome, in addition to which she excels in all the arts of coquetry and flirtation."  Indeed, flirtation became something of her calling card - her own daughter, when trying to dispel rumors of her mothers infidelities said that there had "only" been three men other than her father who had become regular characters in the family's life, but that's mis-stating the accusation.  Marie was a legendary seductress.
The young Princess's first cousin, Prince George (later King George V), proposed to her when she was seventeen, but her mother refused to let her marry him, finding for her instead the somewhat boring Prince Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Romania.
Marie never liked Ferdinand, but she loved Romania.  On a trip along the shore, riding on horseback, she fell especially for Balchik, which wasn't much more than a rocky cove of limestone cliffs and shady vineyards.  She described being pulled into mud huts so that she could bless the children there, and riding past all sorts of character in the villages around.  It was a distant, wild land at the time, far removed from the royal court in Bucharest.
A few years later, in 1926, as her husband's health declined, Marie began work on a garden and "palace" there, to be the seaside residence of the court.  It's a small, understated building to be called a palace, but it's pretty and comfortable and quirky, which is exactly what the queen had wanted (her mountain "palace" in the Carpathians was a treehouse).  On one side is a church, on the other a minaret (Marie had begun following the Bahá'í faith, which recognizes all religions as one), beside it is a watermill, in front is the sea.
At the time, Marie was perhaps more beloved in Romania than her husband - while Ferdinand had abandoned the front during WWI, his wife had worked in Army hospitals and stayed quite close to the action, handing out medals and calling herself an "encourager" - Romanian soldiers were said to have gone into battle shouting "Regina Maria!" instead of the name of their king.
Marie showed up to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles uninvited, to represent Romania against her husband's wishes. While there, she negotiated for Besserabia to be added to her crown lands, which more than doubled Romania's pre-war population and made her a heroine.  In the process, she also shocked Woodrow Wilson with frank discussions about sex - she showed him a photograph of her "love child," and explained to the president why this daughter was darker-skinned than her other children.
In fact, there were a whole host of sensationalized affairs - everyone from Lord Waldorf Astor and Crown Prince William of Prussia to Russian Grand Dukes and a certain Colonel Joe Boyle of the Canadian Army found their way into Marie's bed - including one that would leave a lasting mark on Balchik itself.  Jules Janin, the Swiss gardener, was said to have been lured to the Black Sea coast not only by the position as gardener to the queen, but also as one of her lovers.  She built him a little house, high up in the garden, and entrusted the entire garden design to him.
What Janin created is spectacular.  A playful mix of formality and wilderness, it brought the more modernist English garden aesthetic of the twenties to a warmer, seaside climate.  There are rows of cacti intermingled with boxwood topiary, ginkos and rubber trees, wooded glades of wildflowers and square-lined flower beds.  It's a colorful, eclectic mix that has nothing to do with the court gardens of other royal residences.  Wandering from space to space, the demeanor of the plants changes, from stiffly arranged to almost untended and relaxed.  There are two waterfalls and a few rocky pools, water sounds are a constant.  Views outward over the sea open up unexpectedly, then gets closed off again.  In all, there are about two thousand species planted here.  Hundreds and hundreds of roses fill in the margins, all just reaching their peak when we visited.
There are six main terraces below the parklike upper reaches of the garden.  It's said that Marie wanted one for each of her children (including the "love child"), and the character of each supposedly reflects the nature of her different offspring.  From above, the terraces look sun-burnt and dry.  Lower, one finds ingeniously placed pockets of shade and pools of water.  Stairs meander up and down, it's impossible to find a direct route from one place to another.  Just beyond the lower wall, strolling couples pass by with ice cream cones and sunbathers pay to sit below umbrellas.
June is probably the best month to go garden visiting - the colors are the brightest, the flowers are at their most raucous, the leaves have most of their springtime green.  There is now a winery housed in some of the old buildings, and free tastings are included in the admission price - we tasted some honeyed wines during a lull in the tour-group crush, but didn't linger there long.  All the people made the gardens a bit hectic, but one could sense the peace that it once possessed, when only the sound of the waves would waft up the slope.  Marie called Balchik her "Quiet Nest."
When Marie died, she was to be buried at Castle Bran, in Transylvania, which had become her primary home.  Her heart, though, was buried in her seaside chapel in Balchik, enclosed in a glass jar within a gold sarcophagus.  It was supposedly her last wish.
Not much more than two years later, though, Bulgaria gained control of this part of the coast.  Though the new proprietors promised to take good care of Marie's heart and the chapel, the Romanians decided that they wanted to have their queen's organ remain in Romanian soil, so they reburied it in the Transylvanian alps.  Unfortunately, not long after this, the new communist government dug the sarcophagus up again and put it in storage, where it's mostly remained - it's now scheduled to be part of a temporary exhibition at a museum in Bran.  It's sad - I'm sure the Queen wouldn't have cared who controlled Balchik.  After all, it's still her place.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful story-telling and beautiful visuals....looks divine and i could almost smell the roses...