Brave new world in Brasov

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June 16th 2018
Published: August 23rd 2018
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Today we were travelling southeast from Viscri to Brasov (via Bran Castle).

We woke early and headed to the main homestay house for breakfast. We’d dined in an outdoor alcove the night before, but this morning we were under the house in the cellar. It was a very atmospheric setting. We grazed on sourdough bread, cheese, zacusca (eggplant and red pepper spread), scrambled eggs, honey and tea, and it was an amazing start to the day.

We headed back to our homestay, organised our packs and waited on the roadside for our minibus to pick us up. We retraced the incredibly rough track out of the village, turned onto the highway and travelled towards Brasov with bygone castles overlooking us from the hills above. It almost felt like they were granting us safe passage on our journey.

On the way we detoured to Bran Castle under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains. It was impossible to resist the lure of one of Romania’s most popular tourist spots – a place that apparently fits the description of Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name. On reflection, it was not such a good choice. We wandered the narrow hallways and stairwells of the castle, shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other tourists who lacked any semblance of direction or decorum. I couldn’t wait to get out. As I beat a hasty retreat, I found myself in a tiny souvenir shop close to the exit, and I was bemused by two young Americans who were trying their hardest to dissuade a gullible travel companion from buying a garish packet of Vampire’s Coffee. As I left the crowded shop, I could still hear his incredulous pleas: “But guys, it’s Vampire’s Coffee!”. 😊

Once outside, we wandered the tranquil gardens surrounding the castle and took a few photos of the iconic structure in relative peace. We left in the early afternoon and continued our journey to Brasov, sampling kurtoskalacs (chimney cakes) on the way. It was the first time we’d tried this delicacy since arriving in Eastern Europe, and it was fantastic.

After about an hour on the road we arrived in Brasov. The sun was hot and the city was thriving. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the locals were out in force. Our hotel was right in the heart of the city – Piata Sfatului (the main city square) – and we couldn’t have wished for a better location. We dropped our packs and headed out on a walking tour of this beautiful medieval city, taking in the Black Church and Strada Sforii, one of the narrowest streets in Europe. The lure of Tampa Mountain and its Hollywood-style Brasov sign was too much to resist, so we crammed into a cable car and headed to the top. We scrambled along a rough track leading to the ridiculously kitsch (and gargantuan) Brasov sign, which afforded an incredible view of Brasov and its surrounds, including endless Communist Bloc apartments jutting into the sky with boundless functionality but not an ounce of soul or style.

A Moldavian food and craft festival was being held in the Piata Sfatului, so we wandered the outdoor stalls and sampled wines and breads. We were so taken with a crisp and cold sparking rose from one of the stalls that we purchased a bottle and settled at a table with some glasses supplied by the friendly stall owner. It was an incredibly relaxing way to spend a Saturday afternoon – sipping wine and watching the world go by. The only downside was a relentless and loud performance of traditional Moldavian music and dance on a large stage at one end of the square. Every song started to sound the same, and we could barely hear ourselves think.

We continued our tour of the inner city centre, wandering the cobblestone streets and marvelling at the pastel coloured buildings. With evening falling on this picturesque city, we made our way to an enormous underground restaurant for dinner, which was just around the corner from our hotel. I ordered Transylvanian stew and polenta (pork neck and smoked sausages with polenta, carrots and sour cream sauce), while Ren opted for the pork pot roast with chicken liver, smoked sausages, egg, cottage cheese and polenta. The portions were huge and the food was incredibly tasty and rich.

We wandered Brasov’s streets again after dinner, settling at a small bar for a nightcap. This had been another amazing travel day, and we were sad to be leaving so soon. We staggered back to the hotel, organised our packs for an early start and crashed. It was 1am, and we had a 5:30am start – we were catching an early train to Bucharest!

Today was a travel day from Viscri to Brasov (pronounced bra-shov), with a stop at Bran Castle aka Dracula’s Castle!

Given we’d had a big night with the homemade white wine and schnapps (called palinka or horinka in other parts of Romania) at dinner the night before, I was surprised we were up at 6:30am. We had intended to go out and watch the cows going back out to pasture for the day, but I was only barely awake and decided against it.

Our walk to house #15 for breakfast took longer than anticipated… there were a few cats and dogs on the way who needed some love! Breakfast was served in the cosy cellar of the house, and it was another fabulous meal with oven fresh sourdough bread, scrambled eggs, fluffy butter, zacusca (red pepper and eggplant dip), tomatoes, cucumber, two types of local cheese, three types of jam and honey. Everything we ate had been grown locally and made from scratch by our hosts – I loved it!

We started our somewhat long onward journey at 9am. Even though we were only travelling to Brasov, which was 80km away, we were stopping off at Bran Castle on route. Just out of Viscri we came upon our first castle – the Rupea Citadel – sitting high on a hill by the side of the road. It was exactly like something out of a fairy-tale. Then, a few kilometres down the road, we passed the majestic Rasnov Fortress. Defensive fortresses and castles weren’t uncommon in the area because we were close to what was once the Transylvanian border. Apparently Bran Castle was built to guard the pass between Transylvania and Moldavia.

Built by Teutonic knights, Bran Castle is a 13th century gothic fortress impressively perched on a rocky bluff surrounded by pine trees. It’s thought to be the inspiration for the lair of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, even though Vlad the Impaler (who Dracula may be loosely based on) never lived in the castle. However, Vlad may or may not have been imprisoned here briefly. The link is hilariously tenuous, but not surprisingly, the commercial potential of vampire fiction outweighs fact. This was life trying to imitate art, which *may have* imitated life! 😊

Before being seized by the communists, in the 1920s Bran Castle was the family home of Queen Marie of Romania, consort of the Romanian King and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The castle has been restored as a museum housing a supposed collection of royal family heirlooms. Sadly, the museum wasn’t very well done (stark furniture, badly made beds, an arm chair with suspiciously modern fabric, a bear rug and not much more). However, I did enjoy the architecture and interior of the castle – with its various conical towers, tangled hallways and beautifully tiled fireplaces.

We’d been warned that this was one of Romania’s most-visited attractions, no doubt fuelled by kitsch Dracula stories. However, I can’t scoff, because that’s why we were there too! As our bad luck would have it, it was a Saturday and even busier than usual. Once we bought our tickets and walked up the ramp to the entrance, the tourist conveyor belt took over. It was probably the most crowded touristy experience I’ve ever had (with Frieda Kahlo’s Blue House a close second). Inside Bran Castle we had to all walk in one direction through narrow walkways and stairwells, often waiting for people in big groups to take multiple photos and selfies, which banked up the already long queue even more. The was no crowd control by staff, and no control of how many people were allowed into small rooms accessed by narrow one-person-wide stairwells which had two way traffic. It caused many avoidable bottlenecks and increased our frustration no end. Inefficient processes really get to me! 😊

Andrew and I got separated when I stopped to take a photo through an open window, and we didn’t see each other again until I exited the castle. I got stuck in the middle of a large family who’d had a load of garlic for lunch – if they’d done it on purpose to ward off vampires, my god, they would have successfully wiped out the entire vampire population on earth!

After finally extricating ourselves from the dreadful mob, Greg, Andrew and I walked to the other side of the castle to see another aspect of the building. Unfortunately, trees obscured our view, and we realised that we’d exited the complex before taking the photos we wanted. Instead of walking all the way back to the congested entrance, Andrew thankfully managed to negotiate with a guard to let us in via a small side gate. I don’t regret that we stopped at Bran Castle, but given the interior wasn’t that well curated, we could have done without the chaotic and frustrating hour or so we spent inside.

The minibus was picking us up from a specific point on a busy road, so we rushed to buy a few snacks from a supermarket to tide us over until we got to Brasov. Our group leader Mattia kindly bought us some delicious kurtoskalacs (chimney cakes) to share. The sweet brioche type bread is cooked on a spit over coals and glazed with sugar and cinnamon. It was deliciously crunchy on the outside and melty soft on the inside!

Brasov is wedged between the mountains of Transylvania, and the drive there was beautiful. At the foot of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, the 13th century city was established as a major medieval trading centre by the Saxons. Given it was settled at a similar time to Sighisoara, I had been expecting something similar, but I was mistaken. Our Hotel Casa Wagner bordered the iconic Brasov Council Square – Piata Sfatului – right in the middle of the Old Town, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see an elegant and welcoming city before us. Brasov felt quite modern, with open airy spaces, and an immediately apparent lively cafe and restaurant culture.

We set off to explore the city, starting at the colossal gothic Biserica Neagra (Black Church), just off Piata Sfatului. The church is named for its blackened walls which resulted from the city’s Great Fire in 1689. The church was also attacked multiple times, starting with the Ottomans, and continuing through all the conflicts the region had seen. The exterior walls bore evidence of being patched up multiple times, over a long period of time. Parts of the roof were still being repaired.

In December 1989, this was the second city after Bucharest to rise up against Communism and Nicolae Ceausescu. Apparently, there are bullet marks from that day inside the church. We initially couldn’t enter the church, as there was a wedding going on, and when we doubled back later the little portico entry was full to bursting with big tour groups lining up. I had a quick peek through the open door and was disappointed that there was nothing gothic about the interior (I guess the fire and conflict damage had been extensive). It didn’t inspire us enough to go back a third time.

We continued walking the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, all beautifully lined with a mosaic of soft pastel coloured Saxon houses with red tiled roofs. We walked down Rope Street – Strada Sforii – the narrowest street in Europe with a width of only about 1m. Luckily we didn’t have to negotiate anyone walking past us in the opposite direction. And just like that, a mere block away from the tourist crowds at the Black Church, we were in a beautiful residential pocket of the Old Town.

Mount Tampa acts as a forested green backdrop to Brasov, and we couldn’t help but notice the Hollywood-esque large white ‘BRASOV’ sign on the side of the mountain. Mattia mentioned that the view from the top was quite good, so Narelle, Cheryl, Andrew and I walked up to the foot of the mountain and caught the cable car up. On the way there, we saw the remnants of the Saxons’ fortifications around the Old Town. There were also two watch towers – the White and Black Towers, which apparently had good views, but we didn’t make it to them.

The cable car ride up Mount Tampa (which sits at 940m) was interesting, but the complex where the cable car ended felt really badly planned. The complex comprised tatty shops, cafes and a bar facing away from the view! It just didn’t make sense.

We walked a few hundred metres on a very uneven dirt path to the giant Brasov sign where there was a small viewing platform. The view of the red tiled roofs and spires of the old city directly below us was quite beautiful. We could also see the newer houses beyond the old city walls, and communist-era housing blocks on the outskirts.

We rode the cable car down and gravitated back to Piata Sfatului, as we always seemed to do. I loved that our hotel was on the huge open square which featured the baroque Old Town Hall in the centre, surrounded by beautiful buildings and bustling outdoor eateries. It had an enchanting feel and was always full to the brim. A Moldavian food and wine festival was being held in the square, which further added to the festive atmosphere. Naturally we sampled all the free Moldavian food and wines on offer! We made plans to catch up with Narelle and Cheryl later in the day and continued exploring the little lanes and tiny hidden squares radiating out from the main square.

When we were up on Mount Tampa, Andrew had noticed the domes of an interesting looking church, and after some examination of our photos, we realised that it was the building two doors down from our hotel. The entrance to the beautiful Byzantine Orthodox church (Catedrala Ortodoxa Sfanta Adormire a Maicii Domnului) was hidden in plain sight between the large buildings. We tentatively walked down a dark passage which opened out into a courtyard in front of the church. The small church was beautifully lit and adorned with lovely frescoes. The serene atmosphere made me want to linger, but there were people constantly trickling in to pray and we didn’t wish to impose.

We regrouped with Narelle and Cheryl in the square at 6pm and shared a bottle of sparkling rose we’d sampled from one of the promotion stalls earlier. We sat in the middle of the square, listened to the evocative Moldavian folk music being sung on a stage (which quickly became repetitive) and people-watched until we had to get ready for dinner.

Dinner was at a meat-heavy subterranean restaurant called Sergiana. We both chose local specialties of pork, smoked sausage and polenta. Andrew’s white sauce stew was superb, as was my rich paprika spiced stew with chicken liver and fried egg. However, the sausage made my dish a lot saltier than I would have liked. We realised that we were favouring larger restaurants on this trip. Even though the food had been traditional and consistently good, they were mainly aimed at tourists, so we needed a change of plan.

There was a small but potentially disastrous incident at dinner when one of the group started chocking on a piece of chewy meat. Thanks to the very quick reflexes (and first aid training) of Mattia, a disaster was averted, but it could have ended so differently.

Later on we went out for drinks with Mattia, Narelle and Cheryl… to debrief about a long and eventful travel day. The pedestrianised Strada Republicii (Republic Street) was full of outdoor eateries and bars that were consistently busy throughout the day, and given the Soccer World Cup was on, there were also lots of giant screens set up – adding to the commotion. Thankfully we were able to find a quieter bar on a side street. We got back to the hotel very late again… and for the third night in a row, we were going to get less than five hours sleep.

For a place that’s promoted as a small medieval city with baroque architecture, I was genuinely surprised at how contemporary and self-assured Brasov was. Not only was it friendly and very walkable, it also had many other things I look for in a city – beautiful architecture, a relaxed vibe, a great mix of traditional and contemporary culture, and plenty of cafes and restaurants. I loved it very much and wished we had another day or so to get to see more of it.

Next we travel south to the capital Bucharest, our last stop in Romania.


23rd August 2018

We enjoyed Brasov more than any other city in Romania. It made a good base for day trips around Transylvania (Bran Castle, Rasnov, Sighisoara, etc.). Your description of Bran Castle was perfect and exactly like we saw it. You almost have to go, but wish you didn't. Looking forward to where you go next!
23rd August 2018

Re: Brasov...
I'd missed your Brasov blog the first time around, and just checked out :) We really wished we'd had more time in this gorgeous city and have plans to re-visit when we make it back to Romania at some point. I know exactly what you mean about Bran Castle... if we hadn't seen for ourselves what a circus it is, I'm sure a small part of me would have regretted not going :)
24th August 2018
view of brasov council square

Lonely Planet Guide
Did you know that this photo is the cover of the Lonely Planet Guide? I’ve just got it for a trip in early next year! :-)
24th August 2018
view of brasov council square

Re: Lonely Planet Guide
Romania has a lot to offer, so I'm sure you will enjoy your trip very much. The LP guide is our guidebook of choice too, and I can see why they chose to put Brasov on the cover - it's a beautiful city :)
24th August 2018

Romanian Vampires
Sorry it was so crowded but as you pointed out you were there for the same reasons everyone else was. I"m sorry you got separated in the castle. Garlic before going to the castle is not a bad thought. ha ha. The stew looked great.
25th August 2018

Re: Romanian Vampires
They really have perfected the art of comfort food in Romania! I wish we'd been switched on enough to remember it was a Saturday before we bought tickets to Bran Castle... oh well, we lived to tell the tale. And I should probably be grateful that I was 'kept safe' from any vampire attacks by that cloud of garlic breath I was enveloped in :)
24th August 2018
bran castle

I reckon I'd visit Romania even if just to visit Transylvania...bringing imagination into reality...brilliant
25th August 2018
bran castle

Re: Transylvania
We were totally unprepared for how beautiful Transylvania was... I suppose it was because we went with no expectations and it over-delivered in every way. We highly recommend visiting this region! :)
29th August 2018
bran castle

A tourist got to do what a tourist got to do
I agree with you that Bran Castle is a bit of a tourist trap. But then again, you have to see it when you are there, right? Imagine this conversation "Your friend/relative/neighbour: 'Oh, you went to Romania. Did you see Dracula's castle'. You:'No". Visiting Romania and not see some Dracula-places is like going to Paris for a week and not see the Eiffel Tower. Some places you just have to visit even though they are not nearly as interesting as they are supposed to be. /Ake
30th August 2018
bran castle

Re: A tourist got to do what a tourist got to do
Haha yes I think you're spot on... regardless of all the information, some things you just have to see for yourself. And as kitsch as all the Dracula themed things were, the tale has certainly stood the test of time :)

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