University Botanical Gardens & Summer Palace of Queen Marie of Romania – Balchik, Bulgaria
Balchik is a town on the Black Sea coast, some 36 km north from Varna. It is believed that Queen Marie of Romania was so taken by the beauty of Balchik that she commissioned a summer palace and botanical garden in this historic and ancient town during the Romanian occupation of South Dobroudzha in the early 20th century.
Queen Marie’s history is a complex and interesting one. Originally from British royalty, she was raised as Princess Marie of Edinburgh. She was the eldest daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia. Marie’s mother was not keen for her to marry within British court and in 1893 she was married off to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, nephew of King Carol I of Romania. They had three sons and three daughters, however the marriage apparently was not a happy one. The last two children were born after Marie met her long-time lover, Barbu Stirbey, and the paternity of these two children have been the subject of much discussions. There is general concensus amongst some historians that Prince Mircea, who has brown eyes, was the son of her lover while Ileana’s paternity is also under discussion.
On arrival, we walked down a road that was lined with restaurants and street stalls on both sides. Entry to the complex is via the University Botanical Gardens, but before you proceed, ladies – you may wish to check if your husband’s faithful to you. Look down the well through this grill and see if you can see your own reflection. If your reflection is visible and clear, then you’re fine, but if you can’t see your reflection, you may need to keep a closer tab on your husband … so the local belief goes! This Japanese lady was a little worried initially as she didn’t understand what she was supposed to be looking for.
The University Botanical Gardens hold the biggest and most diverse collections of plant species from all over the world and its really pleasant walking around and admiring the various plant displays. One of the biggest attractions is the collection of large-sized cacti species. Balchik’s cacti collection is the second one of its kind in Europe, after the one in Monaco. Our local guide said that the cacti are dug up and brought under cover in winter and I found that hard to belief!
Past the cacti garden, there are various sections with different collections of plants, herbs, flowers and trees. A terraced park takes you down to the lower gardens, and if you choose to be distracted along the way, the first stop along the path is the Queen’s Winery House. You can taste the local wines here and many people did, inspite of it being mid-morning only. If you’re intending on wine-tasting, go it easy as there’s still a long way to go, and you don’t want to miss the palace.
Queen Marie’s Summer Palace complex comprises a main palace with a high tower, many adjacent buildings, a terraced park and paths that take you to the garden by the sea. In the Palace, you’ll get to walk in the various rooms where paintings and artwork, still in excellent condition are on display.
A visit to Queen Marie’s Palace is a full day’s outing, which allows you time to stroll through a beautiful landscaped garden by the sea. Francis Ford Coppola was so inpired by the atmosphere that he spent 11 days in the palace shooting scenes of his movie Youth without Youth.