I had been looking forward to visiting the medieval walled city of Brasov, in the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania, since I arrived in Bucharest. Everyone I have met has told me that Bucharest is nothing like the rest of Romania, and that in order to appreciate Romania properly, I need to also get out of the city and explore the countryside. I am as enchanted by the mystique of Transilvanian castles and mountains, home to wild boar and bears as any other tourist.
Last weekend I was invited to Brasov by my new friends Louisa, Tim and their eleven year old son. I was lucky to be the guest of the most easy-going, genial of family trios. They kindly showed me some of the historical sights even though they had most certainly seen some of them before. They may well have known what was just around the corner of the next cobbled street with russett, higgledy-piggledy roofs and the faint mist of Autumn wood-smoke, but they seemed as delighted as me, at each new sight. Brasov appears as a dusty, more quaint version of a Disney fairy-tale with its defensive castle gates and Gothic church spire, but as my hosts informed me, this is the real medieval deal.
This was a whistle-stop weekend tour, starting with an exciting slow, train-ride. I arrived exactly on time at Bucharest Gara de Nord station to meet my friends. I felt as if I had gone back to the 1940s and this did not feel like the main train station in Romania. It only has eight lines serving the whole of the country. The huge letterinig on the arrival and departure boards looked Art Deco inspired and there were black and white images of Bucharest through history, hanging on boards in the station, which added to the vintage ambience. All around people were bustling outside the main departure boards. There was a throng of people waiting for the Brasov train. I had the feeling of being slightly at sea, due to the unfamiliarity of the experience, but my excitement was piqued on seeing the old fashioned heavy looking train.
Tim and Lousia had booked our seats in advance, and we found ourselves in a wooden, separate cabin, within the train. We were sharing with a polite Romanian man. I had the feeling of being in Hitchcock’s, “Strangers on a train,” 1950s set, the train was warm and comfortable, but it lacked the glamour of the dining car in Strangers on a Train. I was invited to sit at the window seat, and the train meandered through the towns, villages and mountains. An hour before our destination, we saw snow on the tracks and the air started to cool down despite the sunshine.
As soon as we arrived in the centre of the old town, we saw a local craft market selling the usual countryside produce, honey, local crafts and on this occasion an abundance of real fur coats, hats and gloves. This was something of a shock to my veggie sensibilities and I instead admired the lovely cloth structured tents and thought about the sheep-skin slippers. I used to dismiss slippers as the bourgeois and homely symbol of the unadventurous, but now those furry slippers look really inviting. But dash, they are still made from real sheep-skin.
After lunch, in a modern vegetarian restaurant chosen by Louisa with tofu on the menu, (quite surprising) and impatient, bass-heavy funk on the sound system, we made the long climb up a small mountain to our hotel. We watched the old town, getting smaller, next to the mountain behind and we puffed our way up the hill. The hotel was peaceful and quiet, and it had a large lobby full of wide ranging succulent plants and three scruffy kittens playing in front of the hotel.
On our walk back down to the town in the afternoon, we drank in the beautiful views and then walked around the walls of the town investigating the towers and bastions. Each of the defensive towers was looked after by a craftsmen’s guild from the town, this was apparently a medieval tradition. The town of Brasov was established initially by German Saxon colonists, and they were invited, (according to Wikipedia) by Hungarian kings to establish the towns, build mines, and cultivate the land of Transylvania at different stages between 1141 and 1300. Tim informed me that the spired Gate at the East of the city, was to keep out potential invaders, as it was at the intersection of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe but it also marked a physical border between the adjacent Romanian settlement of Schei, and the Germanic settlement. (Apologies to any history buffs for a lack of detail here.)
We also visited the Gothic spired cathedral named the Biserica Neagra, as it is a blackish colour as the early evening descended. We stood in front of a statue of Johannes Honterus, an imposing pointing statue and Tim delivered a little potted history and told us that this figure was apparently the founder of the Lutheran evangelical protestant tradition. We walked off up the cobbled streets, chatting a bit about different types of protestant and catholic Christianity, and I wished that my memory for historic detail was better, when it comes to contributing to conversations like these. We also ate and drank very well in a restaurant until around 10pm before climbing the lung squeezing hill, once again to the hotel.
We had a few other lovely experiences in our short visit, as we also went up in a cable car to Tampa mountain in the Carpathians the following day, where we looked out at the city of Brasov sitting within the impressive landscape of mountains. We rested at a look-out point, sitting quietly, and we noticed that throughout the valley the sound of numerous individual dogs barking was echoing. This was a curious experience and we exchanged our views on this.
I also enjoyed just walking in the old town square, seeing the colourful clowns with balloons, the high quality street musicians, two mandolin players and a guitarist, playing a Goran Bregovic tune and sitting on a bench sharing Charlie’s chimney cake. I have learnt about chimney cakes from my friends, you buy them at quaint wooden street stalls. They are a Hungarian street food snack, something like a long skinny hollow doughnut, with a crisp and sugary exterior and a soft doughy inside.
I look forward to having some visitors next year, so I can return to Brasov and visit some of the other medieval towns and cities which are also apparently equally beautiful.