The quaintest little gem found in central Romania, Brașov was a ideal mid-way pit stop on our Interrail trip.
Tired of bustling capital cities, Holly and I decided we were in need of a break. We’d just spent four drama-filled nights in Budapest and were not mentally prepared for a 14 hour night train. I turned to my interrail map and spotted a little town en route, just two hours off of Bucharest. Lonely Planet promised us luscious green mountains, castles, and vampires – we were sold, and the next day we were on our way to Brașov.
I was oddly anxious about visiting Romania – of all the destinations, it was the one that peers of mine seemed most concerned about me visiting. I suppose the worry stemmed from naivety – Romania isn’t on the top of every traveller’s bucket lists, never mind in the travel brochures at Thomas Cook…As we crossed the border it was clear we were entering the developing world, and when we stepped off the train, we stepped back in time. The clothes, the advertising, and even the phones on sale were like relic’s from the nineties. For this reason, everything felt more foreign than any stop before. As I struggled to navigate the bus ticket machine (I didn’t have a small enough note), a kind local helped me out by buying the 1 leu ticket for me. He rejected my offer of my 10 leu note in return.
Our hostel was located in a little white house on the hillside, about a seven minute walk from the Old Town centre. We were welcomed into the Kismet Dao Hostel by the loveliest hostel receptionist I have ever come across, with cracking sense of humour. She told us all about the tours we could, and informed us each day we could get a free drink – beer included! We felt very welcome, but our nackered bodies were in need of a good mid-morning sleep. Thankfully the hostel wasn’t fully booked and we were able to make our way straight to bed.
Once rested we headed out to explore. Brașov’s old town was minuscule in comparison to the cities we’d passed through before, yet the centre was bustling with locals out to enjoy themselves, and the windy streets were laden with bohemian cafes and places to eat. We stopped for ice cream in the market square and sat down for a bit. 13 days of crazy night trains, parties, a white pasta dinners had taken their toll, and it was time to sit back and indulge ourselves the Brașov way – to chill the heck out.
The beauty of arriving at a destination you only heard about a day or two before is you have no expectations to meet. I recall on my last interrail trip having a much better time in Barcelona on the days I hadn’t intended to be there. As far as I was concerned all Brașov needed to do was split up the journey Bucharest and give us a bed to sleep that night, and yet after a short walk around the teeny tiny town centre we just weren’t ready to leave. Once back at the hostel we booked in for another night, and made plans with three Aussies to visit Bran castle and Râșnov citadel the following morning.
We took a bus from the city centre bright and early. The journey was straightforward enough, we only had to change once and were then dropped right outside the castle. Bran, unlike Brașov, was a total tourist trap and the path up to the entrance was riddled with overpriced souvenir stands. This was all thanks to an Irish man who had never even stepped foot in the country before – Bram Stoker. Although Dracula is completely fictional and Vlad the Impaler’s links with the place is loose, it was still pretty darn cool. The inside was like a time capsule and each room told a different story about the castle’s coloured past. We made our way round within an hour, and stopped for lunch in the estate gardens before catching the next bus down the road to Râșnov.
Râșnov was quite a different story. Without fictitious links to royal vampires, there were not half as many people getting off at the same stop. The town at the foot of the citadel was a barren building site. Tourist centres and souvenir stands were nowhere to be seen, and all we had to go by was that there appeared to be a castle on top of that hill, so we moved in that direction.
Eventually we found the cable cart and were on our way up to the fortress, and oh my was it an awesome surprise. Now I know we’ve got some impressive castles back in the UK, but this was something straight out of a medieval fairy tale. Outside I had a go at archery and learnt that I am terrible at archery. Inside the walls they have restored the courtyard, and you’re free to roam like it’s 1225. Still poor, we couldn’t afford to have a look around the museum and went back outside to check out the view of the Carpathian mountains that enveloped the area. Lonely Planet had promised we’d be enchanted, and that we were.
Back in Brașov we spent the remainder of our evening on the six o’clock Walkabout Free Tour. As much as I had fallen in love with the place, the size of the town didn’t give me the impression there would be that much history behind it. So when our guide Simona said it would take roughly two and a half hours, I felt a tad embarrassed. Turns out it had quite the back story: built by Germans, the city started its life as an important intersection between the western Hungarian Empire the Ottomans from the east. It was home to the first ever Romanian school, the mistress of Vlad the Impaler, and one of the narrowest streets in Europe (quite the claim to fame).
As we walked I got talking to our guide, and she told me how a British couple once asked her why she wasn’t in their country stealing their jobs… News surrounding Romania and Romanians in the UK is frequently laced xenophobic slurs, so that didn’t surprise me. Even my own interest in visiting the country came from the Channel 4 Documentary “The Romanians are Coming” for crying out loud. I apologised on their behalf, but cringed from the inside out. It upset me, but it also reminded me of why I was there in the first place. I wanted to learn more about the ex-soviet states and what was influencing them to leave their homes to work in mine. When I arrived in Romania I was scared for no good reason: we were made to feel totally welcome in their country, and I hated that they weren’t in my own.
To end the tour, Simona took us up to the White Tower to watch the sunset over the city; back in its communist days, the name Stalin could once be seen etched across mount Tampa… The locals were quick to get rid and now the mountain is better known for its Hollywood-esque Brașov sign, the brainchild of some students in the area. The next morning we took a ride up to said sign and were treated to a spectacular panorama of the city. Brașov was perfect, and we were smitten.
Our pleasant experience in Brașov may well have been influenced by madness that preceded it, but even when I try to review it impartially I really cannot find fault with it. It was beautiful, the people had a fantastic self-deprecating sense of humour I hadn’t come across outside of the UK, our hostel was cosy, and it was obscenely cheap. It was our tour favourite, and I believe it taught us both a lesson in the value in keeping our options open when backpacking abroad.
My travel companion Holly has written a much more informative post about on her new blog The Holiad, so if you’d like more information about out visit do check it out!
For more information on where we stayed, and the places we visited: