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Am I Still in the Balkans?

Brasov, Romania

overcast 14 °C

Crossing the Danube felt like one giant leap into a completely different part of Europe. Though technically grouped with the Balkans, and most often joined at the hip with Bulgaria, it feels hundreds of miles apart, divided by much more than Europe’s widest river. It feels much more Central European, much more akin to a rustic Germany than its Southern neighbors with their strong Turkish roots. This sense of leaving the Balkans was only aggravated when I crossed the mountains separating Bucharest and the southern plains from the never-ending, undulating hills of Transylvania. Its a pleasant reminder of the influence geography can have, that there was a time when we – or to be more precise, invading armies - didn’t have the capacity to cross mountains and rivers with such ease, and that whole communities – separated by mere miles and an imposing natural barrier – could develop in completely distinct ways, with completely distinct results. That is not to say it was a leap forward or backward. Each nation has its own checkered past, its own struggle for independence, its own scars of modernization, its own development challenges. The economy here may be a little stronger, things may cost a little more than in Bulgaria, but it’s not an easily discernable difference.

And to be honest, though pleasant from the perspective of a student of geography, as a traveler the change wasn’t welcome, and in many ways forecasted my ongoing disappointment with Romania. We were like oil and water, with new issues arising on an almost daily basis which fortified the walls of resistance between me and what is otherwise a pretty fascinating country, with varied landscape, pleasant towns, and its share of unique history, both in the short and long term. I presume that things would have been different if the country had seemed Balkan in nature, that I would have been far more forgiving if I felt like it was part of the quirky, endearing nature of the region. Perhaps it would have been different if I had been traveling from the other direction, from Poland or the Ukraine, even Serbia. But I expected an extension of Bulgaria, a far more inviting country whose sunny disposition welcomed me with open arms. I was not prepared for the unforgiving nature of Romania – where Tourists wear giant targets on their back and moving only a few hours down the road can be a discouraging, all day event. My patience was short when it all began and it took all my resolve to resist sprinting back to Bulgaria, a craving that only swelled with each passing day. I lead with this message only in so much as I’m sure the writing that follows will obscure this impression, as I do my best to recount the country’s best qualities and interesting sights. There are some of those as well.

Brasov via Bucharest Pit Stop

Anticipating a return trip in a little less than two weeks I spent only one confusing night in Bucharest – and therefore will save my impressions (and criticisms) for a later entry. I took an early morning train from the Gare du Nord station – a veritable den of iniquity – to Brasov, a notoriously picturesque town situated little over three hours from Bucharest, right over the Carpathian Mountains which separate Wallachia – Southern Romania – from Transylvania. Be certain to count your change when buying a ticket as the women behind the counters are known to, and tried, to short me my change. When I pointed the difference out to her she didn’t even question my math, or show an ounce of contrition. She simply reached for the additional five lei bill I was owed – just over two USD – and passed it my way without batting an eye. This “tourist tax” is a recurring problem, and appears to be perceived as an entitlement of sorts, a job perk for those who face the inconvenience of interacting with tourists.

The trip to Brasov is a pretty one. To get there one must travel through the valley separating two mountain ranges, passing a number of pleasant resort towns that provide a good base for exploring the mountains or skiing come winter time. The approach to Brasov conceals the inner beauty of the town. Tall concrete slabs saturate the landscape in and around the modern train station. For a moment I questioned the suggestion of those who urged me to visit the small city but once the bus began moving toward the heart of the old town it quickly became apparent that Brasov had much more to offer than my first glances led me to believe.

Passing from new to old parts of the city feels like taking a trip in a time machine – from concrete jungle to renaissance Germany in a blink of an eye. The decaying, pastel paints which peel away from the two story homes that constitute the downtown remain the most distinctive, and endearing, quality of the region. No matter the weather – and the sun doesn’t appear to shine too much – it brightens the landscape in a way that is far more pleasant, far more bearable. The old town is nestled against the hills; with its giant Hollywood-esque “Brasov” sign – as tacky as it might be - looming high above. The town square might be one of the best I’ve seen on my trip, with the old town hall and its impressive clock tower sitting awkwardly in the center, surrounded by a colorful barrage of buildings. All of the main arteries of the town depart from here.

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In terms of activities, there really isn’t much to do in Brasov. It is a pleasant place to walk around, with a few nice churches/monasteries, a few hills worth climbing for better views of the city and mountains, and an eclectic mix of bars to grab a drink in. More so, it is used as a base to explore some of the castles that are located in the immediate vicinity of the city, notably Bran and Peles Castle. Bran castle is the more famous of the two, or perhaps the more touristy of the two – allegedly belonging to Vlad the Impaler, the ruthless warlord whose story served as a basis for the popular vampire story Dracula. Though not a vampire, he was a pretty mean dude who is remembered for once having constructed a wall of impaled Turkish bodies as a deterrent to an invading Turkish army. Though the truth of this story is questionable - the Ottoman army is said to have taken one look at their fallen brethren and turned back. Needless to say, this castle has turned into a giant tourist trap, one which I decided not to visit in hopes of sparing myself of the crowds, and more so, the hordes of peddlers looking to make a profit selling Dracula t-shirts to the ‘invading’ tourists.

Instead, I decided to head to Peles Castle – a short walk from the town of Sinaia (one of the cute mountain resort towns located a little short of an hour from Brasov). It was a great decision. Though there were quite a few tourists the castle did not disappoint and is a suggested visit for anyone who ever finds themselves in the neighborhood. It was built in the late 19th century as a summer residence for the Romanian King and no expense was spared in creating an eclectic architectural interior which reflects many foreign styles of the time. I am usually not one to get excited about design features – preferring the history of the room over its architectural merit. Merely standing in the hall of mirrors or bedroom of Louis the Fourteenth at Versailles was too exciting for me to pay attention to the gold plated bed he had once slept on. That said, this place was cool, really well put together with lots of thought and care. Not too flashy, not too decadent like one would encounter during a visit to one of the Western European counterparts. Perhaps the difference is those palaces always seem to have an awkward sense of history, spanning many generations and thus forced to withstand multiple iterations, multiple attempts to remodel the interior to the fashion of the time. It creates a confused environment, lacking consistency – in particular, Schonbrunn in Vienna comes to mind – as an empire grasps to the last vestiges of its greatness, stumbling to the finish line. Here that isn’t a problem. It has a sense of vitality, from a time in Romanian history when there was a sense of optimism, no sense or expectation that it could all come crashing down with misguided alliances in the world wars and then the crushing weight of communism. It serves as a great symbol of a recent time when Romania exuded strength and for that reason seems to be a popular destination for the Romanian people. Meanwhile, foreigners head to Bran for their vampire fix. I wish I had some pictures of the interior to share but unfortunately, like most places in Romania, there is an exorbitant picture taking fee - about 10 euros – which seemed a little steep.

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Sinaia itself was pleasant enough though was undergoing significant construction projects during my visit, something quite common in all of Romania and for which there will be more pictures to come. The EU has recently opened its coffers generously to Romania to improve its infrastructure and the government has not hesitated to put the available money to good use. Meanwhile, Bulgaria has made little use of its funding. It is a green place, surrounded by dense woods and mountains and would be a quiet place to stay for a bit if you wanted to be closer to the mountains. Brasov is quaint, but it’s the area which matters, not the town in this instance. Just depends on how quiet you like it, what your price range is, and if you like antiquated German style hotels which reminded me a lot of what I saw in places like Interlaken in Switzerland.

Next stop: Sighisoara – the “Pearl of Transylvania”

Posted by AAY 10:42 Archived in Romania Tagged backpacking

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