After an underwhelming and overheated week in Bucharest, we were dying to escape to Brasov where we were promised the fresh, cool air of Transylvania would improve our image of Romania.
SPOILER ALERT: It did.
We enjoyed it so much, we wish we had skipped Bucharest altogether and given ourselves more time to visit places in the north like Cluj Napoca and Sibiu. Next time, I promise.
Brasov, a city of nearly 300,000, was founded by German Saxons on orders of Hungarian King Geza II in the 12th century. These craftsmen established industry and trade routes between Europe and the Ottoman Empire while the native Romanians laid the foundations for the country's cultural development. When the Saxons were driven out after WWII, they left their well-constructed Old Town which feels a bit like a movie set-- pretty to look at, but lacking the substance of the people that once worked within these walls.
Despite that glitch, the Romanians have not wasted the potential of this naturally beautiful city. Ringed by the Carpathian Mountains, Brasov is known for its Medieval walls and bastions, the Gothic-style Black Church and Piata Sfatului (town square) surrounded by colorful Baroque buildings.
The real star of Brasov, however, is Tampa Mountain and its majestic pines, which tower 960 meters (approximately 2700 feet) over the town square. Cementing its celebrity status, the city even installed a BRASOV sign in letters ala Hollywood at the top.
After dropping our bags at our heavenly Airbnb (thanks, Florin!), we made our way down Strada Republicii (Republic Street) to Piata Sfatului.
We found the spirit of the Old Town to be cheerful and inviting. Yes, there are tourists, but it doesn't feel overly crowded. There are several historic sites nearby, including the White Tower and Black Church. Also adjacent to the Old Town is the historic German Prund-Schei with characteristic Saxon buildings and Catherine's Gate, the only original surviving gate from Medieval times.
Excited by the sight of the mountain, we dedicated Day Two to climb it. Our lunch tucked away in our packs, we headed to the foot of the mountain where the remains of Brasov Citadel Fortress stand.
The cable car departs for the top at the same point as the walking trail and we had fun waving at the passengers when we crossed under it as the trail zigs and zags switchback style to the top.
After an hour, we reached the top and were rewarded with outstanding views of both the town and the valley where it lies.
Because we had such a fabulous apartment, we spent a lot of time relaxing and checking out the local neighborhood. For more things to do nearby, there is a retirement home for about 80 brown bears, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti which takes in mistreated bears from circuses and private homes. Sad fact: people used to go into the woods and capture bears for pets until the government made illegal in 2005. We did not make it, but have heard it's worth checking out if you go.
Food in Romania is very good and after all the exercise that day, we ate well that evening with a traditional Romanian dinner (bean soup starter with hearty portions of meat and potatoes for the main) at Bistro Millennium, just around the corner from our apartment. In the Old Town, we had mostly good experiences from coffee at uber-modern Hof Cafe, to enormous ice cream sundaes at Coffeol and an elegant dinner al fresco at Casa Albert.
We should have left well enough alone. Our stay in Brasov was nearly perfect in every way, until we made the mistake of visiting Bran Castle, aka Dracula's Castle.
I acknowledge there are probably worse ways to wile away a day, but the experience getting there only to find a horribly crowded tourist trap requiring Herculean patience was far more trouble than it was worth. You really must be a huge Dracula* aficionado to overlook the crush of people. I mean, if you have seen one castle, you have seen them all!!
While there are tour groups you can book, they are a bit spendy for what you get. It's only 35-40 minutes away so we figured the local bus would be perfectly acceptable. Ah, there is that naivete again! The bus 'station' where you catch the bus to Bran is just a parking lot with a couple of kiosks. There are no signs for a ticket office or timetables indicating where and when to get on a bus. Is it so much to ask that the term 'station' should at least have both of those basic amenities?
We started asking around and luckily, a young Romanian couple that spoke English helped us out. I've got so many pay-it-forward moments, my debts won't be full paid until the end of time.
Being on a local bus, I certainly didn't expect luxury, but at least windows that opened in 85F heat. Of all the days we chose to make this trip, it was the hottest of our week in Transylvania. Trying to take my mind off the sauna-like conditions, I looked around and noticed the man sitting behind us was carrying an enormous scythe. No, it wasn't the Grim Reaper, just a local farmer. Nothing to see here folks! Just a guy on a bus who looks like he's late for an execution.
At least the chill down my spine helped cool me in the heat.
Drenched in sweat, but finally off the bus we got our first view of the castle. To be sure, it's super impressive.
We queued for 30 minutes at the bottom of the hill to get into the grounds, which I'm inclined to believe is pretty fast for the middle of the week. The entrance fee is only $8, so not ridiculously expensive, but once we got to the castle entrance at the top of the hill, I knew we had made a terrible mistake. It was sheer chaos. There were simply WAY too many people for the size of the rooms and castle management does a poor job of roping off sections to prevent two-way traffic in hallways that fit one person at a time. The result is gridlock of LA magnitude.
I became claustrophobic in the first two minutes so that I hurried through as fast as I could- snapping a few random photos when there was a slight break in the action.
I can look at the photos now and see it is very pretty place, but after only five minutes, I needed a drink to forget all the sweaty stranger body contact. Once outside, we sat down at a restaurant in the town and ordered a couple of Greek salads which we hoped would be revive us, but instead, contained sad, wilted vegetables that matched my demeanor.
The whole experience was incredible depressing.
It was our last night, so we put the madness behind us as we sat on the deck of our apartment with a couple of Strongbow Ciders, our new summertime fave. We breathed in the silence and pine-scented mountain air while watching the Brasov sign light up as the sun set.
It was a view Dracula himself would approve.
For more photos of Brasov, check out the complete album here.
*Sorry to break it to you, but while the castle is named in Bram Stoker's book Dracula, there is no evidence Stoker knew anything about the actual place as there are several locations linked to the legend, including Poenari Castle and Hunyad Castle. Additionally, the original inspiration for Dracula, Vlad Tepes, 'The Impaler' didn't actually live there and may have just stayed overnight while passing through.
Thanks for reading! Next time on Gobsmacked: Beautiful Bulgaria.