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Published: October 13th 2016
Probably the most impressive thing I saw in Transylvania.
Trains work better than buses here in Romania and thus I found myself on a fairly old-school one from Bucharest to Brasov; it was one of those classic trains with a side aisle and individual cabins of six seats each, of which mine was shared with three old Romanian ladies. The 10€, 2 1/2 hour ride was comfortable.
Now I've visited enough cities around the world to know that the bus network works differently in almost every one of them.
In some places you buy your ticket before boarding, in some you buy from the driver and in others you have a dude on the bus who sells you a ticket. Arriving at Brasov's train station, I knew I had to catch bus no.4 and the bus was just about to leave when I arrived so I jumped straight on it. I ask the bus driver for a ticket but he says "no", so I go back to my seat on the bus. I then notice that most people have electronic cards or tickets before they get on board and that they then swipe or validate these cards or tickets on a machine on-board the bus. Not everyone did this
This was my first sight of gothic Brasov - and it blew me away. Note half of the Brasov "Hollywood Sign" top left.
mind, so I thought that perhaps the policing of bus fares here was fairly lax. In any case, I had no idea where to get a ticket. Just as the bus pulls away, I notice that there is a ticket office from where you buy the tickets. I had just seven stops to make and the bus was already moving so I thought that I'd be OK not paying. At the fifth stop a plain clothes ticket officer suddenly appears in front of me and puts on his badge before asking me for my ticket. I don't have one of course, so I try to explain to him that I didn't know I had to buy a ticket before getting on board, feigning ignorance and playing dumb tourist. He doesn't speak any English though unfortunately so my protests fall on deaf ears. He then points at a book of fines and starts saying "60 lei! 60 lei!". Technically, I'm in the wrong so I have to painfully cough up what is about 13€. It is the most gutting and frustrating thing because you work so hard to save money as a backpacker and then suddenly in slightly unfortunate circumstances, you
View From Mt Tampa
Looking down over the old town of Brasov and beyond.
have to needlessly waste money like this...it's heart breaking. 13€ is almost half a day's budget and most definitely one night in a hostel. Grrrrr! I do feel I was set up a bit though - the driver didn't exactly point me in the right direction and the way that the plain clothes officer just suddenly showed up smelled of authorities looking to take advantage of clueless tourists. It's not cricket and it stinks. Classic Eastern Europe?
My mood was soon lifted however, once I arrived at the hostel and got talking to Jane, a retired Korean-American lady in my dorm. She had quite the story; she has basically been travelling for one year and has visited every country in Europe in that time bar some of the minor ones such as Andorra
and San Marino
- but apart from the fact that she was doing this at her age (at least 60 I'd say), was the fact that she had done this all without taking a single plane. She crossed the US in four days from San Francisco to Miami where she then took an 11-day boat to Spain. She is not the first retiree I have met
Main square in Brasov. The almost 600 year old council house stands in the middle.
doing long trips such as this; anyone willing to travel and put themselves outside of their comfort zone is brave, but someone doing it - and doing it her way - at her age, is truly inspirational. You're never too old to follow your dreams!
I met up with the Kiwi brothers (I still can't believe they're actually brothers) I had travelled over the Bulgarian-Romanian border with
again at the hostel and we went out for a beer in the evening. Brasov definitely isn't a party place - more a place for couples and older folk who prefer a relaxed coffee or drink at one of the many cafes along Str Republicii. The one place that promised the best party in town seven nights a week, was pretty quiet - so we decided to call it a night.
Despite still seething after being fined, I could not help but be impressed by what lay in front of me when I got off the bus. While Bucharest was mostly Communist apartment blocks, suddenly I had walked into a medieval Transylvanian wonderland. Evoking Prague
with its colour and architecture, Brasov is wonderfully old and pretty - definitely the prettiest town I have visited for some
Main pedestrian drag in Brasov's old town.
time, perhaps the prettiest since Verona
. The pedestrianised streets are a pleasure to walk around even if you are far from the only tourist doing so - this definitely seems to be the most touristy place in Romania.
After wondering around the town, I decided to walk up the hill/mountain right next to the town - Mt Tampa, which comes complete with its own hilltop Hollywood sign. Joining me for the hike up was English girl Eve, who was a funny chat. The climb was fairly easy compared to many I have done before but the view looking right over the town was pretty impressive.
On the way back to the hostel we then happened upon Restaurant Transylvania which did local food at surprisingly low prices. Along with a glass of Brasov lager we had mamaliguta
- polenta with cottage cheese and sour cream. I will have to admit there wasn't too much taste to it but I do like my polenta. We then followed it up with wine and papanasi
, the best dessert I have had on the trip. How could I not? We again popped our heads into the "best party in Brasov" and again there
Known as the residence of Vlad The Impaler - the inspiration behind Dracula - and thus known as "Dracula's Castle".
was hardly anyone in there. So again, we decided to call it a night.
After reading Dracula and watching various shows and movies about vampires as a kid, vampires freaked me the f*ck out. The idea of going to Transylvania was a non-starter. Much of it has to do with the various connections that Dracula and Irish author Bram Stoker, made between the famous vampire and Romanian folklore, the former Romanian ruler of Wallachia, Vlad The Impaler, (whose real name was actually Dracula) and the actual region of Transylvania. As a kid, such associations threw up the possibility that vampires might actually exist - it was kind of my worst nightmare.
And Stoker had obviously done his research. For example there are the Romanian mythological spirits of strigoi
, troubled spirits who rise from the grave and drain human victims of their blood. Vlad The Impaler was famous for his habit of impaling his enemies through their rectum and out the back of their neck with a stake that was then pushed into the ground, leaving their bodies on display for all to see. The very fact his name is actually Vlad Dracula all adds to the myth. And of
Courtyard Inside Bran Castle
Things arguably look better inside Bran Castle than outside.
course, the novel itself was set in Transylvania. So the fact that this fantasy horror novel was so inextricably linked with real facts and legendary myths, a certain aura was created; and to my ten-year old self, the seed was planted in my mind that Count Dracula may very well be real. This is perhaps why Dracula as a novel was so successful.
It has certainly been successful for Bran Castle, which is the purported home of Count Dracula, although in real life, Vlad Dracula only visited the castle once or twice. Perhaps. Yet it draws tourists in their droves and for Jane, Eve, myself and Aussie-Spaniard Mel, it was the most touristy place we had been to for some time. It was annoying.
The castle sits majestically on top of a hill and the self-guided tour of the castle is pretty comprehensive and you almost get to see the whole thing. The castle's tower and the half-timbered courtyard are pretty cool pieces of architecture and the castle's last important function was as a residence for the Romanian Queen Marie (who was actually of English royalty and married into the Romanian monarchy) in the early 20th century. Much of
Cute town just down the road from Brasov that also has its own "Hollywood Sign".
the furniture and objects used by the queen are now on display, as tourists make their way through the castle.
After our visit to the castle, Jane treated us to some kurtos
- sweet, soft, large 'tunnel bread' with a crispy cinnamon coating. It is something I have seen before in Budapest
. It was also delicious!
We then said farewell to Eve as we got off the bus halfway back to Brasov, in the town of Rasnov. A cute but fairly generic, old, central European town, Rasnov is famous for its fortress for which you have to pay 12 lei (2.60€) for the cable car up to it; only for us to annoyingly discover that the price didn't actually include entrance to the fortress itself, as we had thought. This was another 12 lei and left me completely out of cash. Romania is still cheap by Western European standards but I haven't been saving as much as I had in Bulgaria and all the little expenses kept adding up.
The fortress itself is pretty cool - it is somewhere in between Shkoder's completely ruined hilltop fortress
and Berat's lived-in one
, with the former houses inside it now souvenir shops. The shops selling authentic, traditional,
Peles Castle Up Close
"This is what a castle should look like" said Mel.
Romanian wares added to the general ambience of the fortress; those selling selfie-sticks did not.
I decided to extend my stay by a further night and on my last day in Brasov, Mel, Jane and I did another day trip mission to Sinaia, where Peles Castle is located. The town itself is very well groomed and had many a gothic and many a baroque masterpiece as well as manicured lawns and gardens. Peles Castle itself is up a shaded path through the forest where hawkers still don't manage to spoil the peaceful ambience.
Sitting atop a small hill, Peles was probably the highlight of my stay in Transylvania.
"This is what a castle should look like ", remarked Mel.
She wasn't wrong. With haunting gothic spires and half-timbered walls, this wouldn't have looked out of place in Germany. The inside was well-impressive too though the 32 lei charge to take photos was ridiculous. I liked the fact that most of the castle was intricately decorated with wood so it didn't feel so ostentatious. It was something a bit different to other palaces and ensured it fitted in perfectly with its forested surroundings. There were rooms of different styles too,
Gardens At Peles Castle
The castle has a magnificent backdrop as well as manicured gardens.
including an Ottoman style sitting room that would have been a perfect place to smoke some shisha. Overall, a really lovely place to spend an afternoon.
I have observed that the German/Austro-Hungarian influence is strong in Transylvania although this is no surprise - the region was under Austro-Hungraian rule for about 900 years. This influence is reflected in the architecture; Romanian churches are mainly Orthodox yet the style of them is mostly Gothic rather than Byzantine. It is also reflected in the food; sausages are big here as are pretzels - or covrigi
in Romanian. Meat is generally overcooked here in Romania unfortunately although it is saying something that I am actually am eating enough meat to know that; a combination of treating myself and value for money means that I have eaten well here in Romania.
In terms of people, I have a mixed opinion of Romanians. Some were really friendly and would ask you if you needed help in those moments when you were looking like a lost tourist; others were extremely rude and I encountered more of the latter unfortunately. Romanians aren't as outwardly passionate as I expected them to be either; I was expecting
Large gothic church just off Piata Sfatului that is used by German Lutherans. It is named after its apperance following a fire in 1689.
them to be more like the Turks and the Greeks. There's definitely a B.O. problem here too.
There was also a general air of dodginess in Brasov...people aren't afraid to ask you for stuff, whether it be some spare change or 10€ in exchange for 50 Emirati Dirhams! What the hell am I going to do with 50AED? Asking for stuff seems a little ingrained in the culture here and as a result you get the impression that Romania's reputation as a land of gypsies and pickpockets is not wholly undeserved. I've certainly been more vigilant here than in any other country I have visited in Europe on this trip, although things don't feel nearly as dodgy as some places in South America.
Anyway, I don't know whether I'll need to continue keeping my guard up so to speak, in the next place I am going to; Moldova. Seeming that it is the poorest country in Europe, one would probably suggest that I do.
But have you even heard of the place? I'm really not sure what to expect and there is definitely a feeling here that I am stepping into the unknown - all part of the fun
Hilltop fortress above the town of Rasnov.
and excitement of travelling.
Pe curând...in speranta...
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