In Plovdiv, we met two Portugese backpackers following a similar route to ours in Eastern Europe, but in less than half the time. They spent one afternoon in Plovdiv, were going to get off the train for a few hours to see Veliko Tornovo, then were off to fly through Romania, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands then home. We did not envy their pace, and for most of this trip, I feel like we've had reasonably adequate time to at least see parts of the countries we've visited. But these last few stops have been undeniably rushed, probably Romania most of all, with only about two and a half days in Transylvania before heading to Budapest.
Once we finally got on the train outside Veliko Tornovo, we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice, cosy cabin all to ourselves. We stretched out, opened the window as pleased us, and had a nice ride to Bucharest, where we changed trains to reach our Romanian destination, Brasov. There, we struggled onto yet another train with our full packs, pressing people up against the windows as we searched in vain for a carriage with room...or at least with people who seemed vaguely friendly. After going through one car and starting through another, I'd had enough of that and pulled Tyler into the first car we saw with seats, with a woman and son sitting inside. Once we were pretty sure the seats weren't taken, we shoved our increasingly weighty packs overhead and settled in. The woman started talking to us in Romanian, as we smiled apologetically and said, "Sorry, English only." But she kept going. Then she said, "Brasov?" and I realized she was asking where we were getting off at, and we nodded. As much as the train has advantages over the bus, the one thing that I find nervewracking is determining when to get off. Some trains stop ever so briefly at certain stations, so if you're not ready and waiting at the doorway, you'll likely not make it. And there's never any official people around to ask. Fortunately, having the woman and her son know when we meant to disbark helped us relax a bit more.
As the train began moving, I was fiddling with the pesky curtain so I could look out past the walkway through the window at the countryside. At some point, though, my efforts pulled the curtain and rod off the doorway and into my lap. I sat a bit red-faced, then Tyler and I managed to re-connect it. I finally looked around at the others in our car (now including the husband) who were smiling in amusement. The husband said, "Romanian!" and we all laughed. Maybe Romania would be OK.
Finally, we disembarked. (After a few false alarms, of course. "Brasov?" we'd ask the young boy. "No, [Romanian city name], [Romanian city name], Brasov," he'd say confidently. It was at least comforting to ask a young boy rather than feeling rather childish asking other adults.) At first blush, I was a little non-plussed with our town of choice. We'd gone past many picturesque, quaint Transylvanian towns and--like many of our initial entrees into strange cities--this one seemed largely industrial and full of ugly, Communist-era structures. But we were here and now needed to find a room.
We've been travelling largely guidebook-free since we arrived in Turkey. Mostly, it works out fine, since many hostels have guidebooks laying around for travellers' use and there are plenty of people to ask for advice. It's mostly inconvenient for first rolling into a town when you need a place to stay. But I'd read that many people met trains to offer hostels or housing, so we weren't too worried. Stepping off the train, a Romanian woman approached us. "Are you looking for information on a hostel or apartment? I have an apartment I rent. Here are pictures. I give you good advice, a city map. Here are comments from other travellers." After conferring with Tyler, we decided to go ahead with it. It seemed nice and we didn't have a lot of other options. It turned out to be a nice one-room apartment in a small complex the woman's family owned, only a 20 minute walk from the train station. But it didn't much improve my first impressions of Brasov, as it was still in the newer, decidedly un-quaint part of town. But we had a room for now, so we had a quick dinner, enjoyed some bad TV for the first time in a long time and called it a night.
The next day we decided to venture out and see some of the nearby sites: Bran Castle and a nearby fortress. Because we weren't in a hostel, Gina, the owner, gave us information on how to get there using public transport rather than trying to sell us a tour (a definite plus), so we took a bus to one station then a minibus to Bran.
Bran Castle has a reputation as being "Dracula's Castle," but the history doesn't hold up, despite all the tacky souvenirs with Dracula-inspired themes (and excuses to include scantily clad women in distress). At most, Vlad the Impaler spent a few nights in the dungeon. And it doesn't feel gloomy at all. In fact, with the white-washed walls and dark wood trim, it feels quite cosy, much more so than I would expect after seeing images of stony, cold castles from other parts of the world. We took the self-guided walk through the castle which has been restored to look as it would have during the beginning of the 20th century, when Queen Marie was in residence.
Bran castle--ignore the power lines
The inner courtyard of Bran castle from one angle
One of the many charming little nooks nestled in the castle walls
Inner part of castle from another angle
After wandering around the castle and then the grounds which included examples of traditional Romanian homes with very badly translated descriptions (many villages were noted as having a "tendancy towards waste"), we caught the minibus back towards Brasov but stopped first in Rasnov, another small town with an old 13th century fortress. After climbing the hill to reach the entrance, we found a restored medieval town. The fortress was only known to be conquered once, and it commands great views of the surrounding plain and Carpathian mountains. We went to the highest point for some lovely panoramic views, then wandered through the lanes and along the ramparts, glancing through the small windows that soldiers would have used for less peaceful means in other times. Then it was back down the hill and back to Brasov.
Rasnov, with the Saxon church below and the fortress on the hill
The outer wall of the fortress with the Carpathian Mountains in the background
Inside the fortress, which was mostly like being in a medieval walled town
View of some of the Carpathian Mountains from the fortress
Once in town, we arranged our onward tickets for Budapest, our next stop, and then finally decided to see the old part of Brasov. While Brasov had proved a convenient place to stop--directly on the rail line, easy access to other sites--I was still a little disappointed in the town itself. But within a 15 minute walk, my opinion started to evolve as we got past the newer part of town into the--finally, quaint!--old part of town. Like Plovdiv or Prague, the old part of Brasov is set around a large square, complete with church and pedestrian walkways lined with shops and restaurants. We headed for the Black Church first, knowing we'd only see it on the outside since we were past opening hours. Then we wandered down to find Rope Street, so called because it is one of the narrowest streets in Europe, less than 2 meters wide. Then we wandered around the darkening streets, charmed finally by the town we were staying in.
Rope Street at night. If you look closely, you'll see Tyler's silhouette reaching across the narrow lane.
A lane, the Black Church and a black cat at night in Brasov's old town
The Council building at night in the old town square
Because of our initial disappointment in Brasov, we had originally planned to head out today to another nearby village. But after our foray last night, we decided to give Brasov its due and see more of its sites. So we walked back into town today to see the Black Church, visit two of the four original watch towers of the city, and otherwise amble about before leaving Romania.
Black Tower, one of the four original watchtowers of the walled city of Brasov
Brasov's old town, with the Black Church in the foreground and the Council building and square behind
More Brasov old town, with the square
One of the old City Gates by the original wall around the city
It's unfortunate that we couldn't see more of Romania, but now we're on to Hungary to spend four or five days in Budapest, tasting wine, taking in a thermal bath, and wandering through another city. A week from now, we'll be somewhere, maybe over the Atlantic, on our way home. It's almost as hard to believe that as it was to think we had nearly seven months ahead of us when we were only one week into the trip.
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