Brasov : Time to strike for the heart of Transylvania

Brasov Travel Blog

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The two women sat opposite me cross themselves three times each as we roll out on the rails to Brasov in Transylvania.  ‘Gulp!’ are we heading into ‘troubled’ lands?!  I’m not ruffled.  Honest.  In myself I am happier now, following my excursion to the seaside but still in a bit of a travel trance.  Back on route.  My route - if I ever had one? - through Romania.  I endure some poor old boy hacking, coughing and phlegming through a tracheotomy hole in his throat, which he dabs with a grubby, slimy hanky periodically, all the way.  That ought to keep evil spirits at bay!

I’m sat now at a table in the Rolling Rock hostel, happy to have arrived and to be still with a hot tea in my hand.

St Nicolae Cathedral in Brasov.
  Diana the over-enthusiastic hostel aide for the day is soft-selling me the activities and sights around Brasov but I’m zoned out mostly and let her babble away good naturedly.  One item in her arsenal is a day trip a little back south to the winter ski-resort town of Sinaia but I’ve been there already on a day trip from Bucharest.  Yeah, I didn’t tell ya about that one peeps.  Sorry gang, I’ve got to start making ‘editorial cuts’ to this journal or I’ll burn out.  (In fact, I fear for now, I already have… ) 

Sinaia’s a pretty place.  You should certainly stop on route through from Bucharest to Brasov and beyond.

  A Telecabina (cable-car) trip into the pretty, scenic Transylvanian mountains and hillsides and a pleasant hike down in 3 hours followed by a trip to the absolutely stupendously presented and ornate (externally but particularly internally) royal Peles Castel(Palace Castle) of King Carol I could all be managed comfortably in a day, your bags left in luggage at the train station awaiting your later onward chug to Brasov.

But Brasov’s where I’m at now.  So may as well go see some STUFF right?  Take some PHOTOS yeah?.  And maybe, if I’m lucky, have some thoughts; spill some ink in the form of words into my little notebook if I so be inspired.  Will I be able to pick some words from the events of my time in town to weave into words of interest for you now?  It doesn’t always happen of course.

"Boo!" Intimidating carved cornice in Brasov.
  Whilst the act of travel exponentially increases the quota of ‘interesting and stimulating sh*t’ that happens in your life on a day to day basis, it’s not the case everyday of course.  And it’s sometimes good that this is so.  And I’m only just beginning to appreciate this truth now, 10 months down the line.  Too much ‘interesting and stimulating sh*t’ in ones life, like any addiction that needs constant feeding, can be counter productive to one’s capacity for enjoying ‘The New‘.

Don’t worry, this rather maudlin tone is no slight on Brasov.  But it’s raining.  Both in Brasov then, and now in Zagreb where I finally pen these words.

As with any town or city of note in Europe Brasov is composed by the inner ring of its historic town centre, encompassed by sporadic, centuries worn stretches of the city’s old defensive walls, all of this being bordered as much as the local topography will permit by the shiny metal, oil-slick sprawl of The New city into the suburbs.

The Black (White?) Tower.
  Ignore the latter - as all tourists tend to do - and keep your eyes to the medieval through to 19th and early 20th Century charms of the heart of Brasov.  Diana, the one-lady Tourist Information Centre has furnished me with a handy map so I head out into the city.

The weather clears.  I head up for some panoramic views of the town which can be had at no expense from viewing platforms at the base of the Turnal Neagre ( The Black Tower but curiously white in colour) and its near associate the Turnal Albu (The White tower but curiously slightly greyish in colour).  The pattern of the city is dominated by the high-spired grandeur of the Black Church.  This shadows the main square with terracotta tiled houses fanning out from there, slanting this way and that.

One of the couple of remaining (and renovated) Old City gates.
  The city’s name sits in Hollywood billboard letters, prominent upon the crest of the opposite hillside.  An ascent up there can be made by Telecabina or on foot but I shall be passing on that particular activity.

Lots more strolling.  The usual charming clustered collection of churches (St.Nicolae Cathedral worth noting) and cobbled backstreets.  Romania’s oldest school and within it (if memory serves) first printed books can be viewed if you so choose.  Brasov also possesses - apparently - Europe’s narrowest street.  Strada Sforii (Rope Street) runs for 83 metres at 1.32 metres wide, which don’t feel so superlatively narrow in my mind as I traverse its length so I’m sure this claim is open to contestation.  It reminds me of one of the only details that I can ever recall of a primary school trip to York in England where one can find ‘Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate‘, the city’s shortest street with the longest name.

Nun's fiddlin' with their bums and taking photos by the ton ;D

I’ve taken refuge in churches several times from the rain at this point but mostly am happy for the change of it (the rain, that is) and to amble around with my black hood up, obscuring my peripheral vision.  Clouds cleared away again now, the sun comes out all the better to paint the reflections of small, laughing children as they run through the puddles left partially carpeting the old square.  Pigeons seem to be playing the same game.  Running in fright of their own reflections - and the screaming children who chase them back to the skies.  I chew my paper bag of pastries from Fornetti’s, a heavily franchised patisserie that accompanies me throughout my time in Eastern Europe where mediocre pastry products can be bought by the 100gram to fill that budget-conscious hole in your stomach ahead of a proper meal (maybe) at dusk.

Strada Sforii (Rope Street)... not soooo narrow?

On my second day in Brasov despite agreeing with my Polish pal Mike’s advice ‘not to do any of that Dracula sh*t’ whilst in Transylvania, I’ve not much else to do so I actually do hop on a bus for a half day trip to the town of Bran and its famous castle that is almost universally, and misleadingly referred to as ‘Castle Dracula’ for the purposes of tantalising tourists and their purses.  It’s a cheap trip [see below] so “what the hey!”. 

In all honesty it’s a mostly disappointing affair.  Bran, a little tucked away town, once a village with the castle’s original purpose as a fortification for the pass it sits in and for collection of tax tithes is relatively unremarkable.

A reflective pigeon :)
  Firmly and forever now pinned to the map by its, at best, loose associations with the truths and myths of ‘Dracula’ the legend born mostly of Bram Stoker’s novel of the same name and his historical benefactor Vlad ’The Impaler’ Tepes you can imagine the sort of fare that awaits you. 

It’s a sunny ol’ day, not one speck or cloud coloured grey up there so I’m afraid I can’t cast visions of rolling black thunder clouds and lightening bolts crackling down to cleave the castle walls.  All the brightly coloured tourism booths and eateries etc make it feel more in spirit of feeling with a trip to Margate beach.  Closer to the walls of the castle, a large community of darting, screeching black forms swirl about the high stoney walls and - if you want - we can conjure them as clouds of swirling black day-light bats… but sad to say they are merely swifts singing into the breeze.

Brasov town centre square
  So no thrills or chills there.  In fact the scariest thing I see all day, is upon entering a mens public toilet and the first object alighting upon my eyes being a large chain saw propped against the toilet wall!  Such an impressive piece of salami-slicing equipment believe me is not conducive to a comfortable widdle!  Should I check to make sure Ed Gein’s not ‘spending a penny’ in the cubicle next to me?  ’Yelp!  Scooby, Scooby-Doo where are you?…’

Nope, to carry on with the myth busting.  Suffice to say the Irish born author Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker never travelled to Romania, and if he based his fearsome protagonist’s abode on any particular engravings of Romanian castle architecture, it was unlikely to have been the frankly, small(ish) and friendly looking Bran Castle.

Brasov Chainsaw Massacre! not what you want to see when you enter the John!
  Most of the more imposing edifices and more rightful properties of Vlad Tepes’s dynasty reside less accessibly to the north of the country.  Vlad Tepes’s links with Bran are relatively few and historically insignificant as far as I could gather.  Queen Maria of Romania being its chief, and most revered (practically saintly) inhabitant for the time it was given over to residential purposes.

The ’Dracula’ myth in one paragraph?  “Dracula” means ’The Devil’s Son’ in Slavonian apparently and Vlad ’The Impaler’ Tepes was son of the erstwhile and equally feared Walachian ruler Vlad Dracul ( Vlad ’The Devil’ as so named by his subjects and enemies).  To lift directly from the in-castle info Vlad Dracul was decorated by the King of Hungary ’in 1431, with the Order of the Dragon, superior class.

  This medieval knightly order aimed at defending the cross and destroying its enemies, symbolized by the old dragons, with the help of Saint George.  The symbol of the order was the dragon strangled with its own tail and the cross lying on its back.  If in the pre-Christian world the dragon often had beneficial meanings […], as of the 5th Century it became a symbol of the Devil.  “Dracul” means “the Devil” and people who saw Vlad-the-elder carrying the flag  with the insignia of the dragon interpreted it as a sign that he was in league with the Devil’.  Of course his son’s propensity for kebab-skewering his enemies on tall spiked poles only adds to the aura of blood thirstiness that surrounds both the man as myth and his literary progeny.
View from inside Bran Castle.
  By all accounts he was no better or worse behaved than most other Medieval tyrants roaming Europe at that time… he’s just the one that got the literary ticket to eternal posterity.

…And so gave rise to the novel that gave rise to the infinite movie spin-offs of equal parts grotesquery, humour and campness courtesy of Legosi, Lee, Oldman & Co which in turn gave rise to the ceaseless waves of tourist tack that wash against the walls of Bran Castle today (a place near impossible to get satisfying camera angles on).  I fight my way, fingers raised and crossed in a make-shift crucifix to bare towards, and make back-off the various stall vendors hawking their scary wares.  Postcards, puzzles, mugs, T-Shirts with fangs and dripping blood upon them, all year round Halloween masks and costumes, strange glittery nylon wigs sat next to traditional Transylvanian lace works next to ceramic mugs and Toby Jugs pottered in the form and features of terrifying, presumably caffeine-thirsty vampires ( it’s amazing how red one’s eyes, and how pallid or undead-looking one’s complexion can turn if the craving’s not satisfied regularly right? ) or of Vlad ‘The Shish Kebab-Man’ himself.

Cheesy-grin mugs.
  I fight my way through the throng. I overhear a German tour guide exclaim ‘Everyone is so commercialised here!  Even the nuns are selling plastic sh*t!’.  True enough, but some of their particular wares might just save you on a cold, dark misty night my friend, don‘t you think?  ‘One vile of Holy Water please Sister!’.

[ If when in Brasov you - as I - succumb to the need to visit 'Castle Dracula' don't bother with a tour package that will cost you four times and more than doing it on your own.  Just take the #12 public bus (1 Lei/ 20p) from the main bus stop line just down from the Central Square to Autogara 2 (bus station number 2) from where public buses/ coaches leave almost every 30 minutes to Bran for just 4 Lei / 80p each way.

  Entance to Bran Castle is 12 Lei/ £2.40 and an extra 10 Lei / £2 if you wish to take photos... or for free if you're a cocky b*stard like me fed of paying for such 'privileges'! ;D  enjoy! ]

livelovelaugh87 says:
Dear Stevie,

I have an issue to settle with you...

See, I'm leaving for a 6 month trip around the world in March. Sooo stoked. However, all your writing about all the crazy amazing places you've been to keeps making me feel the need to add more and more countries to my trip. I don't have the time for that (grad school in the Fall) and that makes me sad. So I guess I'll live vicariously through you?

Ok, so not mad at all :) Just jealous...keep posting!

Best regards,
Posted on: Nov 10, 2009
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St Nicolae Cathedral in Brasov.
St Nicolae Cathedral in Brasov.
Boo!  Intimidating carved cornic…
"Boo!" Intimidating carved corni…
The Black (White?) Tower.
The Black (White?) Tower.
One of the couple of remaining (an…
One of the couple of remaining (a…
Nuns fiddlin with their bums and…
Nun's fiddlin' with their bums an…
Strada Sforii (Rope Street)... not…
Strada Sforii (Rope Street)... no…
A reflective pigeon :)
A reflective pigeon :)
Brasov town centre square
Brasov town centre square
Brasov Chainsaw Massacre!  not wha…
Brasov Chainsaw Massacre! not wh…
View from inside Bran Castle.
View from inside Bran Castle.
Cheesy-grin mugs.
Cheesy-grin mugs.
Old architecture, new purpose , Br…
Old architecture, new purpose , B…
Brasov roofscape (detail)
Brasov roofscape (detail)
The White (okay, its pretty white…
The White (okay, it's pretty whit…
Old Boy and The Tower
Old Boy and The Tower
I always knew there was something …
I always knew there was something…
Wish well, wishing well in Bran Ca…
Wish well, wishing well in Bran C…
Interior of Bran Castle
Interior of Bran Castle
Exterior of Bran Castle
Exterior of Bran Castle
Brasov central square
Brasov central square
Clock face of the Black Church (de…
Clock face of the Black Church (d…
photo by: travelman727