Traipsing through Transylvania

I arrived in Transylvania via night train. Yes, the magical contraption that you’re meant to sleep away your long transit hours on, that is if you aren’t so cheap as to book a second class seat. I’m sure night trains with a couchette ticket are lovely, night trains with a seat ticket always leave me worn down, exhausted, and usually sick. This was no exception.

Our journey through Hungary was rather subdued with a minimum of noise and chaos after the first few stops to let off locals. We crossed the border with no difficulty and manageable waits as the Hungarian border guards came on board, followed a few miles down the line by the Romanians, but then as we entered Romania things got a bit hairy. The train was filled with sound and people and sleep was all but forgotten. I tried valiantly to grab a few hours shut eye, but there was constantly someone shouting or demanding to see my ticket or otherwise precluding any chance of me actually getting any rest. So as we rolled into the Carpathians early the next morning I found myself in possession of a sore throat, a stuffed nose, and all the signs of an impending head cold. Joy.

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BRASOV

When I stepped off the train I was met by beautiful mountains and all the dirty ugly blockiness that I’ve come to expect from old Soviet towns. This was not, however, what I expected from “Beautiful Brasov”. As I walked towards the old town and my hostel, the concrete gradually gave way to old wooden and plaster facaded buildings with tiled roofs and ever more ornate old detailing. By the time I reached the end of the old town it had become clear to me that I wasn’t magically going to stumble across my hostel and since somehow my maps hadn’t actually saved the spot as I thought I had, I had to resort to a bit of data roaming to track down the exact location.

Though the girl that checked me into my dorm was lovely, the extra expenses in the form of a deposit for the locker key and rather expensive laundry services were not so thrilling and my well fogged head did not take kindly to them. I dumped my bag and headed back out into town to attempt to visit some of the main sights. But first: coffee. Sadly I had forgotten that in Romania, restaurants and especially cafes are not only not non-smoking, but in fact are prime places for the locals to sit around and suck down smoke all afternoon. I scarfed down a cappuccino and a piece of cheesecake and fled the toxic fumes from the table of pretty teenagers next to me.

Leaving the cafe I soon found myself in the Town Council Square. It’s quite pretty with all manner of different architectural styles flanked by the large gothic Black Church which did not appear to be open to the public on the one end and a pretty little courtyard orthodox church on the other which was engaged in some form of service when I went by. At the time I didn’t really think about what the service was, but as the day progressed and I found the entire city filled with wedding parties, I began to think that the cluster of people I saw when I peeped into the orthodox church might have been just that.

From the square I headed to the edge of the old town to find the remnants of the old city walls and the lookout towers above them. The first tower I came upon was the Black Tower. Like the Black Church this structure is not named for its colour or its moral orientation but because once upon a time it caught alight and the stones were all sooted up black from the flames. The tower is now a dull grey with an odd pyramidal glass roof which some restorationist must have thought was a brilliant way to protect the structure while alluding to its original peaked wooden roof. Heaven only knows.

Soon after I found the white tower which is in fact white and of semi-circular cylindrical shape. The side facing the mountain is curved as you would expect any round tower to be, but then if you look up at it from the town side you find a perfectly flat smooth face. Given that there is no other development up next to it and so no need to ‘save room’ by trimming the circle, I cannot imagine why they decided to so shave off the inner face, and I really can’t imagine that it did anything good to the structural integrity of the thing, but I’m not an architect so what do I know. It does look quite pretty all snowy and white up on the hillside.

Passing a few more frothy, colourful wedding parties I headed up yet another hill to visit the Brasov Citadel. The Citadel itself is not open to the public—apparently it contains a restaurant and events space—but the views are lovely. 360˚s of Brasov from the pretty little tiled roofs of the old town to the creatively modernist concrete of the communist side. Sadly the general cloudy, hazy character of the day rather reduced the quality of my photographs, so you’ll have to take my word for how nice it was.

My final line of tourist attack was a run past the local “narrowest alley in Europe” and a very charming little synagogue before finding food and dragging my flagging sick self back to the hostel. The alley was predictably full of photo taking tourists but I would venture to say it might be narrower than Victoria’s Fantan Alley, though it also doesn’t have any shops. Stopping next at the synagogue I was delighted by the pretty stone and glasswork of the exterior and was just creeping towards the door when the rabbi himself strode briskly out and shooed me away with an injunction against pictures and a reminded that today was the Sabbath which was delivered rather like “you don’t belong here, especially not today.” So off I trotted hunting groceries. Before finding groceries, I found the local Oktoberfest which was rather quiet mid afternoon but looked like it would be quite the orgy of food, beer, and smoke come nightfall.

Shortly after, with a bag full of fruit, veggies, and other miscellaneous foodstuffs, I skipped visiting the church nearest my hostel on account of another wedding clogging up the gate and headed back to curl up on the couch and nurse my illness.

Day two in Brasov I woke up feeling like death but I was not to be deterred. I was in Transylvania so Dracula’s castle had to be seen. On my way to the station where I could catch a bus over to Bran, I picked up train tickets to my next destination, Sofia, and reminded myself that 13 hours on an international train is never going to be cheap. I also stumbled across a few little wooden orthodox churches with half the congregation observing the mass listening to speakers outside the church. I suppose that’s one way to deal with undersized spaces—I should hope they find more room when it’s raining!

When I made it to the bus station I found myself in a classic dilapidated Romanian bus terminal with a smoky cafe, an old woman selling boiled corn, and about a million (actually three) automatic coffee machines. I perched myself in a windowsill to await the bus and in about ten minutes found my feet had walked me over to one of the god awful coffee machines and by virtue of mechanical curiosity had fed two one lei bills into the slot with the delighted aim of seeing how this monstrous thing worked and just how foul its results would be. The answer to the first is: it drops a cup with a stirrer in it into a brace which holds the cup until the machine is done pouring in the various components. It does not let go of the cup when it’s done or really give you any indication that it has finished. You can open the little plastic flap whenever you are ready and it is up to you to have the wherewithal to not pull the bloody thing out of the little plastic pincers before the fullness of that foul brew has been poured. And as to the second: terrible. Drinkable, but only barely, mostly just terrible.

So there I was, seated in a windowsill sipping the foulest brew I’d encountered in about a week when up wandered a young German couple who attempted to engage with me in Romanian. I do not see how I could possibly look Romanian, but hey, they were delighted to find that my preferred language was English though they were somewhat less pleased to find that I had little more knowledge of the bus schedule/system than they did. I really must stop looking so relaxed and comfortable wherever I go.

When the bus finally arrived I was not so surprised to be quoted a price rather higher than the price listed online but as the total was still less than €2 I hopped on, passed through the veritable hanging garden of air fresheners that the driver had installed in the ceiling and settled into my seat.

Some 45 minutes later we all piled off at the foot of the castle. It’s a rather whimsical little thing perched up on the hill in a mix of wood, stone, brick, tile, and whitewash. I rather liked it. Almost every room featured a lovely painted tile stove and the inner courtyard was ringed with several layers of loggia while the higher reaches facing the outside features lovely little covered terraces. I think if I were to live in a castle, I should like it to be a pretty little one like that rather than some great big beautiful monstrosity like Malbork. Leaving the castle, I found that the base of the hill also featured a peaceful little park which was the last vestige of sanity before one exited and re-entered the cluttered tourist village that spilled out around the entrance to the castle. Nothing like dozens of stalls flogging souvenirs and traditional foods to make me feel like fleeing.

Waiting at the bus stop with an aged smoker and a young tourist, I witnessed another charming peculiarity of Romania. A taxi driver who already had a fare in the car pulled up next to the bus stop and asked if any of us wanted to hop in because he was heading to Brasov now. I’m not sure if the lady already in the car would be charged less or he would just make more, but with a healthy distrust of any cab driver whose language I don’t exactly speak, I politely declined while the smoker shambled over and climbed into the passenger seat.

And then I was on the bus again, driving past all the wonderful advertisements—apparently busty girls with bedroom eyes are the best way to sell everything from carwashes to tool and die manufacturing. Romania is a strange place.

Back in the town, I passed through the city park where I found, in a striking reminder of China, a park full of old men playing backgammon, chess, and mahjong out in the sun. I wish that Canada had a better park culture. I think communal spaces are so healthy (especially for retirees), but then I can’t promise that I’d bite if invited to go play board games with strangers in the park.

Because it was Sunday most of the shops were also closed so my dinner came to me, after a walk along the walls opposite my adventure the day before, via negotiations with a shop clerk in the form of pointing and nodding. All the soups were hidden behind the counter, as if dried goods are the prime target of shoplifting so rather than my usual silent routine of collecting all my goodies, handing over a reasonably large bill, receiving change and fleeing, I had to communicate my need for soup—as if my snuffling and coughing wasn’t evidence enough.

On my last full day in Brasov, despite an early night and lots of healthy soup the night before, I woke up feeling congested and exhausted. I was not, however to be kept from my mountains. I had set my heart on hiking in the Carpathians (partly as compensation for missing the Alps) so by 9:30am I was wrapped up in warm clothes and set out on my way to higher altitudes. I had been given a route that involved walking to the next town over and then climbing up a ski hill. What I did not realize was that every single step of that walk would be at an incline. About 30 minutes in with my heart racing and my breath coming in gasps I seriously considered turning around and letting the mountains win. But I am notoriously stubborn, especially when it comes to endurance tests, so on I plodded. At the ski town I stopped for a rest and a snack on a bench before setting out to conquer the hill.

Somewhere between the wheezing and the cold sweats I contemplated just taking a seat and becoming a part of the mountain on a permanent basis but again, my determination won out and I hauled my hacking, coughing carcass up another few metres. Somewhere between noon and 1pm I reached the cabana about 3/4 of the way up the hill. When I reached the porch I was met by a friendly local fellow asking what I wanted. The answer was “food”. So he lead me inside where we had to confirm that I wasn’t seeking the toilet but in fact wanted to eat. “Something to drink? Espresso?” “Yes, but also FOOD.” Didn’t I want anything else? YES, FOOD! I was sensing that they mightn’t have any food for me but at the point I would have taken the jug of cream and a handful of sugar packets if that was all they had on offer. The negotiations continued sometime during which my young assistant had a chat with the old fellow behind the bar about what they could offer me. I caught the word “zuppa” and pounced. “Yes, I’ll have the soup please.”

Out on the patio in a rather chilly breeze but with an unbeatable view, I sipped my hot coffee and awaited my soup with anticipation. What arrived at my table was a basket of dry bread and a bowl of warm chicken broth peppered with the hardest dumplings I have ever eaten. A gourmand I may sometimes be, but when shaking and shivering somewhere on a mountain with another half an hour of hiking between me and the peak, I will eat just about anything warm and call it heaven.

Reinvigorated by my broth, I set off for the ridgeline. When I reached it, I found the justification for my madness. On one side it was all low, flat farmland spreading into the distance, while beyond the ridge in the other direction there was nothing by arching mountains and steeply plunging valleys. Despite the misty haze that once again foiled photographic proof of the majesty, I was queen of all I could see and it was wonderful. I scrabbled over the rocks and finally made it to the summit. 1199m higher than where I’d woken up that morning in less than five hours. From the summit the view was nearly 360˚ and I could even see Brasov down in the distance wrapping itself around the now quite puny looking Tampa mountain that I had originally intended to climb.

Filled with triumph and somewhat afflicted by a swollen twitching right eye, I made my back down to Brasov where I found a hot sunny day had slipped in while I was away. I strolled through town under the guise of grocery seeking and eventually returned to the hostel for more curative soup and rest.

Back at the hostel, I met two German girls travelling in Romania for 3 weeks. Predictably we had that same old conversation that happens between Europeans and North Americans everywhere “Wow! You’re travelling so fast!” This time, however, I had a damn good response: “Schengen 90 days.” If Europeans want to give us flak for travelling through their wonderful nations too quickly, then I propose they should lobby their governments to exchange the charming Schengen system for a rather less restrictive tourist visa system. Most places I travel to give me 30days (at least) upon arrival, so logically, 20-some countries should give me 90 days for all of them, right? The Germans had had no idea about these restrictions but I could tell from their demeanour that they still thought I was giving their continent an unfairly brief perusal. Mia culpa.

I spent the late afternoon reading in the sun in the Town Council Square and then headed back to the hostel for an early night. How fortunate that the whole rest of the dorm stayed up all night talking and laughing loudly. even more fortunate was the moaner who turned in sometime around 12:30 and proceeded to moan not so softly all night. Hostel dorms are a treat.

In a flash of sleepless frustration and fury, it was morning and I was off to the station. I caught my train to Bucharest where I sat in the station clinging to sparse wifi and purchased a pair of unpleasant (but still edible) pastries before climbing onto a cyrillic covered train to Bulgaria.

Sick but satisfied,
The Canadian

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