You might not have heard of Brasov, and if so, you are not alone. Snuggled tightly in the Carpathian Mountains, almost smack dab in the center of Romania, this town is located in Transylvania, a region of legends. The most popular legend of course is that of Vlad Tepes, also known as Dracula. There is also the horrifying tale of the Rasnov Citadel and the age old story of the Pied Piper who led the children from Hamelin, Germany to the city center of Brasov.
If you watched the mini-series the Hatfield’s & McCoy’s, you may be surprised to know that the filming was done in the lush forests of Transylvania instead of the Appalachians. The absence of power lines and satellite towers made it more like the terrain of the 1800’s. The landscape of Transylvania is pristine with heavily wooded areas and the topography around Brasov has cones and craters from extinct volcanos, offering rugged panoramic views in every direction. The environment provides several areas for year around adventure for outdoor enthusiasts.
Several years ago Brasov landed on my travel radar. I’m not sure exactly what attracted me to the city; perhaps I heard the far away music of the Pied Piper and felt compelled to follow. Before I embark on a journey, I like to be well informed, since I travel with my family. But there are some places you just have to go on instinct and the bits and pieces of information you pick up along the way. Brasov does not have a guidebook like Rome or London. At best, you can find a guidebook on the entire country of Romania. Thus, I resorted to websites like TripAdvisor and searched on some travel blogs. Sadly, the most widely shared information seemed to be the horror stories about the night trains between Budapest and Bucharest, the closest comparative I had to traveling to Brasov. Despite the lack of information, I decided Brasov was a must see.
There is not a direct flight into Brasov, so we flew into Budapest and took a train. I wanted to spend some considerable time in Budapest anyway, so it was a win-win. With the plan in place, my family and I went to the main train station, Budapest Keleti, a few days before our departure and purchased tickets for a three bed compartment. I highly advise traveling light on this journey, leaving all valuables at the long-term hotel or apartment you are staying in at your base location. Also, pay the upgrade for the private compartment if you are traveling with children or teenagers. It is not much more and it will provide you with much better sleep on the journey, and some peace of mind. Do your homework and make sure you buy a full ticket and not just a seat or compartment reservation this is a horrible mistake that we have witnessed naive travelers make.
When we arrived on our night of departure, our train was already sitting in the station and it was one of the longest trains I have ever seen. Sections of the train split off throughout the night, traveling to three different destinations, so it is essential that you make it to the right compartment. The train was old and tired, not sleek and futuristic like many of the trains that glide across Europe nowadays. This one came complete with all the creeks and moans, which would surely whisk us away to another time, to another world.
Often when I decide I want to visit a location, I have a predisposed notion on what the place should look like and how it should feel. Brasov did not let me down. However, there were a few hurdles at the start. We did survive the train and none of the dread stories that I read about became a reality, to us anyway! When we got off the train, I was taken back at first. It had a walk up Pharmacy (that I did not visit, but it looked like prescriptions might have been optional). The station was not elegant and amazing like most European train stations. It seemed to come complete with some intoxicated people, horrid children, plenty of homeless and a few professions that you do not see openly in our area.
After shaking off the initial culture shock, we found the huddle where the taxi drivers were waiting. None of them wanted to take us to our hotel, but in broken English insisted on taking us straight to Dracula’s Castle. When we refused their offers, they were not interested in taking us into the city center. Many train stations in Europe are located in the center of the town, but the more Medieval the village I have found the less likely it is to find the station in the center. It is often located outside of the original city walls. The hotel had given us very exact instructions on recommended taxi companies; however none of them were available when we arrived. Now, stressed, we choose our best option knowing we were going to get ripped off because the taxis were not metered and the drivers were quoting us over twice the amount the hotel told me we should expect to pay. Soon we laughed because after a quick calculation of the currency exchange, we found it was only about $10.00 and not worth the worry. So we piled in and away we went. Our spectacular hotel, Casa Albert was located in the pedestrian center, so once the taxi dropped us off, we still had a walk. It was here that Brasov showed herself!
As we stepped out of the taxi, we all took deep breaths of the clean cold mountain air. The short ride seemed to transport us to an unknown date back in time. With the absence of cars on the weary cobblestone streets, it could have been any year we wanted. I looked down into the pedestrian zone at the enchanting little buildings leaning exhaustedly on each other, as if they were holding one another up in all of their dilapidated splendor. The tile roofs varied from bright crimson to faded brown, to moss covered green, some with tiles missing altogether. Little chimneys, many truncated from years of existence, puffed out small curls of somber smoke against the winter sky. Some buildings had newly refurbished rooflines stood straight and strong without prejudice, next to the ancient ones that had deep sags in the middle of their roofs. The corridors could be easily closed off with thick wooden doors, yet all stood open for curious eyes to peer down. Often, the ceilings were covered with gorgeous old but worn frescos that one might expect to see in an estate, when restored to its former glory. These passageways would sometimes open up to grand courtyards and occasionally to nothing but sad alleys. Yet, all were worthy of a look. It was easy to see how these homes all once stood tall and unsullied in the Austrian-Hungarian style that spilled into this region.
Brasov radiates fairytale appeal full of painted structures, some bright and some faded, several ornately trimmed, some plain, but all radiating conspicuous medieval charm. The city was founded in 1211 by Teutonic Knights and settled by the Saxons. It has not lost the ambiance one would expect to find with this type of history. With little obvious tourism, we walked down the cobblestone streets and anything modern such as cell phones or satellite dishes dissolved from our view as we ate the local food, which was a little odd, but incredibly delicious. We had an amazing dinner at Restaurant Sergiana near our hotel. They served traditional Romanian food in a festive atmosphere, much like a German Beer Garden. Each morning we had scrumptious breakfasts at the Albert Bistro. The bistro was located down in a vaulted brick basement that had been beautifully remodeled with stunning art work. The romantic décor was a mix of antique and modern resulting in a visual delight. We had coffee and pastries in the local cafes, shopped for treasures in the little antique stores and explored the village from one end to the other.
There are several sights and attractions within walking distance including the impactful Black Church in all its Gothic magnificence, the storybook looking Yekaterina’s Gate, which was the entrance to the old Saxon town dating back to the 1600’s, and Bastionul Graft the remaining part of the defensive structure from the early 1500’s. In the city center, you will find Council Square. This is where you must take a moment to listen for the Pied Piper’s song to see if he is still playing. The people were friendly and incredibly helpful. Many spoke some English, or possessed excellent pantomime skills.
We took half a day and made a complicated journey by a bus to Bran Castle, also known as the infamous Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Castle. It was very inexpensive for the trip and while it was the one place that felt gimmicky and touristy, it was still a worthwhile site for castle enthusiasts like us. The weather was perfectly fitting for this celebrated place, complete with a light dusting of snow, gray skies and sharp cold winds. The castle is perched (as most) high on a hill with an uneven cobblestone path leading up to it. The area is surrounded by old dark leafless trees, and plenty of pine and blue spruce, giving you the feeling that if there were a Dracula, he might in fact like this place. Please keep in mind there is no evidence that Vlad Tepes ever lived or even visited this castle, however, he was from this region. Also, there is nothing to verify that Bram Stoker was ever at this castle either.
When it was time to leave, as with most places, I wished I had planned a day or two more. There was so much more that I wanted to do and in the winter season some things were closed. On our last night, the hotel front desk attendant was going past the train station and offered us a ride so we could return to Budapest. Overall, I loved my experience in Romania. Brasov was a fantastic place to visit. I would not recommend someone new to travelling starting in this country; it is a place that I would recommend working your way up to. However, I would not recommend leaving this world without visiting Romania at least once or maybe twice. There are many places in Romania I would like to return to visit on my way to somewhere new.