BALCHIK: PALACE OF MELANCHOLIC QUEEN

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

"Prince Carol pointed the gun at his brother, Prince Nicholas. The Queen jumped at him. The gun went off and wounded her fatally," recounted Georgeta Caloianu, a lady-in-waiting.

balchik palace.jpg

The official biographers kept silent about this shocking incident which led to the death of Queen Marie of Romania several months later on 18 July 1938. Before she died, the fairhaired, blue-eyed darling of Europe's high society expressed the wish to be buried in her favourite palace at Balchik in Bulgaria.

Today, any tour guide will inform you that the queen's heart, preserved in a silver vessel, remained in the palace chapel for only two years. Under the treaty of Craiova, signed in 1940, Romania ceded Southern Dobrudzha and Balchik to Bulgaria, after a 22-year-long occupation.

The remains of the queen, the daughter of Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Maria Aleksandrovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, were removed from the one place where she had found peace after a life filled with passion and love affairs.

When Queen Marie first set foot in Balchik in 1921, it was a humble occupied Bulgarian town, with a few watermills, the remains of an ancient Greek colony and a Bulgarian medieval fortress. Nobody was particularly interested in it, but the naturalised Romanian decided that this place might prove to be the antidote for her depression, the result of her complicated private life.

Besides her husband, King Ferdinand, she had several lovers, among them Canadian air force pilot and businessman Joseph Boyle and Romanian aristocrat Barbu Stirbey, who was even rumoured to have fathered her two youngest children, Princess Ileana and Prince Mircea.

It is no surprise that she had so many men vying for her attentions. Queen Marie was renowned for her beauty and during the 1920's she appeared in advertisements for perfumes by Houbigant Paris, "Parfumeur to Queen Marie of Roumania", chocolates and Pond's Skin Creams.

An easily-recognisable high society figure, she frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines and made the front cover of Time magazine in 1924 as a "regal authoress". Indeed, she wrote many books of poetry and prose, including children's fiction, as in The Magic Doll of Roumania (1929), books about the supernatural, The Queen of Roumania's Fairy Book (1925), and the novel, The Voice on the Mountain (1923).

Queen Marie also told the story of her work during the war with the Romanian Red Cross in My Experiences in the War Hospitals of Rumania. She wrote My Country in 1916 to raise funds for the Red Cross. She won respect and the reputation of being a "Queen of the people" through her efforts in nursing Romanian soldiers. Her role, however, extended beyond that of Good Samaritan and beautiful figurehead.

Queen Marie had become a Romanian patriot, despite being born in Kent in England, and she exercised great influence in her new homeland. Some, such as A. L. Easterman, regarded her, and not King Ferdinand, as the true ruling power in Romania. In 1924, Easterman wrote that Ferdinand was "a quiet, easy-going man, of no significant character... it was not he, but Marie who ruled in Roumania". She has even been credited with bringing Romania into the First World War on the side of the Allies. After the war ended, Marie represented Romania at Versailles, gaining considerable territories for her country at the expense of its neighbours.

It was only fitting that such a multi-faceted personality should live in multi-faceted splendour. Tikhoto Gnezdo, or the Quiet Nest Palace, designed by Italian architects Amerigo and Augustino, and the Swiss Jules Jany, former gardener to Russian Emperor Nicholas II, was completed in 1927. The result is a shockingly charming mix of architectural styles, religious symbols, and archaeological finds, which author Dan Brown should certainly see.

Balchik palace

Queen Mariе created the Quiet Nest as a refuge from her troubled life

The eclectic complex comprises villas with Bulgarian Revival Period chardaks, or verandas; old Bulgarian watermills; fountains and wells; a Garden of Gethsemane and a Garden of Allah; a stone plaque depicting the Thracian horseman-god and another of the Virgin; a Roman bath called the Temple of Water; stone crosses from Bessarabian monasteries and Muslim gravestones; a majolica of Our Lady and a St Martin's Column; a romantic Bridge of Sighs and huge 2,000-year-old earthenware pots from Morocco; a Hellenistic marble throne shipped from Florence; a minaret; a chapel and so on and so forth.

This peculiar "Queen Marie Code" reflects her adherence to an exotic religion. Although her religious background was Church of England and she adopted Romanian Orthodox Christian beliefs, in her later years she befriended Martha Root, a renowned travelling "teacher" of the Baha'i Faith.

Queen Marie became the first member of a European royal family to officially profess Baha'ism. This faith, established in the 19th Century by Baha'ullah, expounds the unity of god, religions, and mankind. Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and all other religious leaders are considered to be prophets of God's will.

Queen Marie sought peace, love, rapport, and serenity in Baha'ism and Balchik. Instead, she died a violent death and her sarcophagus was taken back to her adopted homeland. Her heart ended up in Bran Castle, a Romanian tourism landmark situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. It owes its fame to the myth that it had been the home of Vlad the Impaler. Nevertheless, Marie's spirit lives on in the strange and wonderful home she made in the Quiet Nest of Balchik.

Balchik palace

In the Quiet Nest, symbols of different religions co-exist in a philosophical and aesthetic harmony

 

Balchik palace

Exploring the many, and different, gardens of the palace is one of the best experiences in the Quiet Nest palace

 

Balchik palace

Balchik lacks sandy beaches, but for obvious reasons in the recent years it has become a favourite spot for Romanian tourists

 

Balchik palace

From the rumble of the sea to the murmur of the fountains, water is everywhere in the Quiet Nest

 

Balchik palace

The Nimphaeum is one of the most romantic spots in a place already heavily imbued with romanticism

America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.

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