Visiting the Brasov area in Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania feels like the forgotten corner of Europe. Best known as the apparent lair of Count Dracula, some people don't even realise it is a real place. Instead, in the popular foreign imagination it conjures images of spooky jagged peaks, medieval castles and Gothic dungeons. A place where evil goings on happened. Vlad the Impaler - on whom Count Dracula was based - seemed to be a nasty character. He mastered the art of slow, painful ways to dispose of his enemies. The parts about sucking blood, fangs and fearing garlic were later embellishments to the story.
In reality Transylvania isn't nearly as dark as in the popular imagination. Instead, it is pleasant; the old architecture is unique and almost fairytale cartoonish, the hills attractive, forests deep green and the locals are steeped in regional traditions.
Transylvania sits in the centre of Romania, a plateau almost entirely surrounded by the Carpathian mountains. It is one of the most scenic and interesting places in Eastern Europe.
Transylvania feels like the old world. Crumbling buildings, dusty roads, horse drawn carts, stray dogs and cobbled lanes. Farmers plough the fields using old world technology. Medieval structures and churches dot the landscape. Old trains clunk their way through the green and wildflower meadows.
Tourism is a thing, but it isn't overwhelming. It is slow paced, a little sleepy and low key. Sure, there's no shortage of Dracula knick-knacks and souvenirs, but it's not in your face. In the summer most visitors to these hills seem to be Romanians, escaping the lowland heat.
Visiting Brasov in Transylvania
Brasov is the main city in the region. It's historic heart is in a narrow valley between several hills and at the base of Tâmpa mountain. Old cobblestone streets branch out from the appealing central square, with it's cafe's, Old Town Hall and the Black Church. The architecture is a mix of gothic, baroque and renaissance with the odd bit of Soviet for good measure. Walk in any direction and you will find something interesting.
In the 13th Century Brasov was founded by the Teutonic Knights. Subsequently, Saxon traders became wealthy and powerful due to it's location at the crossroads of old trade routes between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe. They constructed the medieval city that we see today.
Aside from wandering the streets, riding the cablecar up the Tâmpa mountain gets you a good view. It's up beside the large white "Brasov" sign that overlooking the town. You have to fight your way through a horde of selfie takers to enjoy in the vista. But it's worth it. Returning, it's a nice - although steep - walk back down the hill through the forest into town.
Next to the square, the Gothic style Biserica Neagră was built by the Brasov German community starting in the 14th century. It's alternate name "The Black Church" comes from the 1689 fire that charred the building. Inside is a museum and a beautiful collection of old turkish rugs. There is also a mechanical organ that is the biggest still functioning organ in the south-eastern Europe.
Other things to do include visiting the Black and White towers, the Old Town Hall building in the square (Casa Sfatului - pictured below) and squeezing through the narrowest street in Romania.
Two Videos of Brasov, Romainia
In the first video featured, Samuel & Audrey hit the town for 24 hours. Things start inauspiciously when they search out a local Romanian meal but instead end up in a Hungarian restaurant. Still, it looks tasty. About half the video is taken up describing the details of the bread, soup, goulash and more.
Despite this geographic and culinary mishap, they soldier on in their usual exuberant style. Audrey exclaims "my soup has arrived and I'm very excited!"
The trip was unplanned, so after lunch they start by exploring the square and the medieval streets. Next, they locate the other regular attractions; the narrowest street, St Catherine's Gate, a strange sculpture with children suckling a wolf and a fort (which turns out to be closed). The evening winds up favourably in an Irish pub.
These enthusiastic Canadians pack a lot into the day. Their awkward goofy charm is infectious and as you bumble around the town you start to feel like friends. We're a gang on some kind of field trip; on the move, munching snacks and taking silly star-jump selfies.
The next video - This is Brasov - might be better watched with the sound turned off. Visually, it's a stunning birds eye view. The viewer floats effortlessly over churches, castles, landscapes and rolling green pastures. The drone footage is beautifully composed. Aside from the familiar sites, it gives a sense of how intact the historical heart of the city is, it's extent and the fairytale turrets and gates that dot the highest hills and ridges. If wasn't for the occasional block of modern apartments, you'd think this was an artificially created historical animation, like something you might see in a Disney movie.
While this chocolate box video is a visual treat, the only downside is the narration sounds like a blockbuster movie trailer. Additionally, the cheesy homilies are a little hard to make sense of or actually swallow. But don't let these things put you off. If the audio grates, hit the mute button and plug in your own favourite uplifting or inspirational sounds.
In another video by the positive pair of Samuel & Audrey, they visit Bran Castle. This was the setting for Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Set up high on a windy rock, the pair explore hidden tunnels and torture rooms, the latter filled with gruesome looking implements, knights armour and other horror related paraphernalia.
As you would expect, the castle's malevolent vibe feeds a healthy appetite, so once they've descended from the castle they grab a hearty lunch. This includes an "amazing sausage". Finally they check out the market's spooky halloween style trinkets, something every tourist is pleased to unpack when they return home.
Bran Castle is about an hour by bus from Brasov, or faster if you travel by car. Although quite brief and a little old, the World of Wanderlust gives a good breakdown of the practicalities of the trip. Another more historical and detailed blog is by the excellent (great photos and theme) The Bohemian Blog. It's called A Tour of Count Dracula’s Transylvanian Lair.
Sinaia and Peleș Castle
Sinaia is a small town on the main train line between Brasov and Bucharest. It sits in a narrow valley alongside the Prahova River, just east of the Bucegi Mountains. Although the main street is a bit pot-holed and there seems to be a lot of stray dogs, the town is a local tourist centre. There is good downhill skiing around here. Most of the houses are spread across the hillside, and some appear to be empty or abandoned.
The main attraction in Sinaia is the Peleș Castle (pictured below). An ornate and grand Neo-Renaissance structure built between 1873-1914. Nearby in the same lavish grounds is the slightly smaller Pelișor Castle. These were first commissioned by King Carol I of Romania and took many years to build. During Communism and the Ceaușescu years the castle was closed down and unused.
The castle is now open to the public, but you must take a guided tour and there is an extra fee for photography. Inside the building you can wander through the various halls, suites and armouries.
Not so much informative, but more an epic drone montage, is the video Beautiful Romania. Here we get a flyby of Brasov Square, The Black Church, Peleș Castle, Bran Castle and more. While the shots are a bit mixed up (you jump around all these locations) it does give you a sense of the different places on offer, and the titles tell you where you are.
Built by Transyalvanian Saxons, Sighisoara is a compact fortified medieval town. Due to a perfectly preserved historic old town, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here you will find narrow cobbled and winding streets, red tiled roofs, turrets and hilltop churches. It was also the birthplace of Vlad Ţepeş, famous and revered in Romania for defending the country against the Turks, and famous elsewhere as the basis for Count Dracula - or as he was known to his enemies - Vlad the Impaler.
Departing Brasov by train to Sighisoara the protagonist of Seven Wanders of the World describes his "typical method of travel" is that he does no research - he has no idea what he will find. "People just said it's awesome" - so he was going. It is an interesting approach, very appealing in that it allows for surprise, adventure and unexpected encounters. Certainly the explorers of old couldn't just jump on Google and read up on Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet.
The concern, of course, is that aimless wandering throws up a somewhat shallow experience; pretty houses and nice vistas. The depth and richness that background research can add to an experience gets lost. If travelling is about broadening horizons, then perhaps understanding something of what you are seeing and experiencing can be of value too.
But back to the video. Seven Wanders frames the town nicely. His signature shot is walking purposefully past a well placed camera; in the alley, by the church, up the hill, though a tunnel. Sometimes this is sped up. There are interesting observations, the room where Vlad/Dracula was born (he doesn't seem to go inside), a nice little building by The Church on the Hill and an appropriately spooky cemetery.
Towards the end of the video he illustrates the merits of his random travel method by stumbling upon an impressive but unidentified large Russian style church. It is somewhere down near the river.
Overall it is a nice meander through the town. The Euro-techo soundtrack seems an odd fit and a bit dated, but otherwise you are in good hands travelling with The Seven Wanders of The World.