In August I spent a long weekend in Romania’s Transylvania with my family. There are plenty of beautiful sights to feast your eyes on over there, as long as you remember to pack your nerves of steel. Otherwise the endless queues might blaze a bright trail in your mind. One that will overshadow all the magnificence of the region.
If you don’t have time for the entire article right now, you can click on one of the subheadings below and read just that 🙂 Enjoy!
- Getting there from Bulgaria
- From the border to Brasov
- In Brasov at last!
- Bran Castle – Transylvania’s busiest spot
- Peles Castle – a true gem
- What to see in Brasov
- What else to see in the region
- The underground world of Slanic salt mine
It seemed ridiculous to me that I’ve been to places like the Amazon jungle and Borneo, but not in neighboring Romania. So, when my mom decided that she wanted a short and easy trip abroad for her birthday, we thought that Transylvania could be the perfect match – it’s reachable by car, from Bulgaria, it’s abundant in historical monuments, and is not particularly demanding in terms of planning. Without further ado we booked an Airbnb and headed towards our northern neighbor.
Getting there from Bulgaria
We chose to cross the border at Kardam, instead of Ruse, because we’d heart that the queues are smaller and there is less border control nonsense. After all, spending the first day of your vacation stuck at the border, in a hot piece of metal, is not exactly thrilling. But as Woody Allen put it: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
I was once again convinced in this man’s genius, when 2 km before the border with Romania we arrived at the end of a long row of cars, frozen in place. Their occupants had gone out and were chilling on blankets, spread amidst more old candy wrappers than grass. They were snacking on sunflower seeds (popular “I’ve got nothing better to do” pastime in our region), while playing backgammon and cards to chase the boredom away. Since my family and I are the worst card players to have ever lived, we chose to instead take a walk to the border and look for a nice, bright and clean refreshment area, or at least a porta potty.
At this point we will deviate from the plot slightly, for the sake of imagery. If you’re not from a Balkan country this could seem a bit incomprehensible but take it as an opportunity for some cultural immersion. If you were waiting to a board a train from a small town in Bulgaria, some 10-15 years ago, and suddenly felt the need to relief yourself, there was no place to go but a structure that will forever haunt the nightmares of several generations. Picture a tiny brick building, with a tin roof slapped on top, chunks of white paint peeling off the walls, and two letters poorly graffittied on either side, in puke-brown, to indicate which gender should enter where. There was no need for a “WC” sign because the noses of everyone within 300 meters of this architectural marvel were getting abused by the stench.
Inside, running water was a scarcity and the flies were feasting. But even in this “lovely” little refreshment area there was some reminiscence of hygiene. Every now and again a grumpy old lady in the Soviet version of Crocs would throw in a bucket of water and pretend to mop a bit. Not at the border between Bulgaria and Romania, two EU countries, in 2018. The guild of grumpy old ladies has forsaken this place and what is happening on the floor, walls, and in the whole perimeter, cannot be described in words. Or at least I don’t want to describe it. I’ll just say that never have I ever seen such misery, not even in the deepest crevasses of “third world” countries. There should definitely be more exposure of this, if we want the local government and border officials to do something about it.
From the border with Romania to Brasov
No more complaining though – we waited at the border, crossed, and some sort of story emerged out of the experience, so it’s all good. We proceeded to head straight to Brasov, 430 km away from the border. It was going to be our base for touring Transylvania and its famous castles.
On the way, we stopped at the first large gas station we saw in Romania, to load up and wash the border from our hands. We had to wait for 40 minutes here, before being able to get our hands on some fuel, but I won’t linger on this. Just make sure that you if you follow in our footsteps you avoid the first station after the border, as it seems to gather the most traffic.
Gradually, the scenery started to change. Endless cornfields turned into tall, proud pine trees and majestic mountaintops. The villages acquired an alpine character and dogs the size of sheep started popping up. We were getting excited – soon we’d trade in the car seats for charming cobbled street and were combing through TripAdviser for the best goulash spots. At this point God must have felt like he was at a stand-up comedy show because a few kilometers before Sinaia we once again found ourselves at the tail of a huge traffic jam. Literally inch my inch, we crossed a distance of 50 km in over 2 hours. Of course we thought that something had happened – a bad accident or perhaps the arrival of Elizabeth II, but no – the locals later told us that this is how it usually is around Sinaia during the summer. As there is no alternative route you have no choice but to try and make the best of it. Remember – I warned you to pack those nerves of steel (and maybe add a deck of cards)!
In Brasov at last!
Brasov itself turned out to be a gorgeous little town, sprinkled with a few hipster joints, delicious fresh food served on handmade wooden tables, arranged around the sides of cobblestone alleys, a few moderately remarkable historical monuments, and more people than I would have expected. We were staying on Postavurului street which seems like a great choice, as it is both central and quite – no cars allowed. Our apartment building had a lovely little inner courtyard, which allowed us to witness the daily rhythm of local life. Besides, the owner Lavigna and her daughter Karla had secured a semi-legal parking spot nearby, so we were happy. While the two of them were absolute sweethearts, most other Romanians at restaurants and shops had stone-faced responses to our smiles. It made we wonder if foreigners have a similar experience in Bulgaria. If you have any observations on the topic, please share them in the comments below. The only exception were there Romano-Hungarian waitresses at a Hungarian restaurant. They were super sweet and told us how young people with Romanian and Hungarian background live happily and peacefully side by side, despite any political conflicts between the two countries. It was interesting to hear about the culture of the Hungarian ethnic minority in Romania. Although I can’t be certain that everything is as rosy-colored as they made it seem.
Bran Castle – Transylvania’s busiest spot
One of the driving forces behind the flourishing tourist industry in Romania’s Transylvania is the Bran Castle, which Bram Stoker used as a setting for his novel “Dracula”. Curiously, the writer never stepped foot in the region, before creating what became one of the most popular tales in the history of literature. We learned this on the Brasov Free Walking Tour – a pleasant stroll through the city, filled with historical facts, though perhaps they could add a bit of contemporary culture to the mix.
The legend and stories surrounding Bran Castle is undoubtedly curious, but more importantly, you should know that tickets are available online. Buying them this way would allow you to skip the hour-long queue and strut through the entrance, before the eyes of all the poor souls who’ve been sweating in line. You just need to show the ticket bar-code at the entryway. As we figured this out too late, we joined the sweating souls. But even if you manage to skip this initial queue don’t get too cocky, as there is another one – to enter the castle itself. If by this point you’re feeling a bit claustrophobic and annoyed, I would encourage you to throw the 40 lei you spent on tickets to the wind, and look at Google photos of the castle’ interior, while you chill on the nice meadow at its foot. Otherwise, as you enter the castle, you will be carried by the crowd, totally unable to choose your own pace or even take a second look at whatever royal artifact attracts your attention. Everyone moves together, pushing and shoving through the tight passageways and honestly, the interior is not quite worth the trouble. It might be better during the low season though.
Peles Castle – a true gem
The other group of castles we visited in Romania was around Peles – a true gem with a Disney appeal. Even though its architecture couldn’t be called organic, Peles Castle is in perfect harmony with its lush wide grounds and a dramatic mountainous backdrop. Almost surrealistic, like a post-modern collage. We were lucky to arrive there when the castles were closed to visitors, which meant no crazy crowds, and enjoying a chilled out picnic of local cheeses and wine in peace.
What to see in Brasov
During our last day in Brasov we walked to the city’s fortress called Cetățuia de pe Strajă. It’s perched on a hill, reachable by a picturesque forest pathway (as well as a paved road, if you prefer to go by car). Inside you’ll find a few grapevines, cannons, and peaceful, if slightly rundown and unimpressive inner walls. The sunny terrace reveals a lovely view to the city. At first, the guards claimed it was closed but soon agreed to let us in. As we weren’t the only visitors, my dad thought that the guards were simply playing “good cop, bad cop” to make a few extra bucks.
The other two famous historical attractions within Brasov are its White and Black Tower. There is also a cable car, which takes you to the top of the city, a café, and a park with nice views but prepare to wait in line for around an hour on weekends.
What else to see in the region
In the wider region there are two nature reserves I was hoping to visit – one for brown bears (I later learned that it’s quite heart-breaking as the bears are kept in enclosures and treated poorly – all the more reason to go there and bring more exposure to the “sanctuary”) and the other – for bison. Sighisoara also looks like a gorgeous town and there are a few small medieval fortresses and citadels around Transylvania. However, the constant heavy, unpredictable inter-city traffic made us give up on those attractions and instead we chose to take it easy, stroll around Brasov and soak up the city’s vibe.
The underworld of Slanic salt mine
On the way back to Bulgaria we stopped by the Slanic salt mine. Just to purchase tickets we had to wait for 40 minutes and then another 15-20 more, for the specialized minibus transportation that takes you down to the mines. Still, we powered through as we had heard reports of the mine’s exquisite interior. As the minibus entered the dark tunnel that leads to the underground heart of the mine, my dad smiled tentatively and said he felt like we were descending into Hades (the kingdom of the dead from Greek mythology). As one could expect from the underworld, the mines get pretty cold, even on scorching hot days, so make sure you have layers. Still, what you’ll see down there makes putting up with the cold worth it. The roof in the biggest gallery soars tens of meters above your head and the walls are a display of how our planet has changed over the centuries – you can literally see the marks and layers. All I could do was walk around in a trance, amazed by the core of our beautiful planet and the power of Mother Nature. A look into the heart of Earth, or at least a piece of it, is well-worth any trouble, at least to me.
At the same time though my mind was filled with a piece of lyrics from “Sound of Silence”: “and the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made”. Rather than letting the mine shine in its natural glory, the owners have added an obnoxiously loud planetarium, a light show, kids playground with plastic toys, a huge shiny cross, and a bunch of other “enhancements”. It made me wish that we’d finally learn to appreciate nature’s beauty in its pure form. Throwing in Walmart’s full inventory doesn’t make it any better.
The other main issue with the mine was the poorly organized transportation. It seems that there aren’t enough minibuses to go around and on the way back we waited for an hours and a half in a tight, closed, cold space, dozens of meters underground. This part of the experience is a less-than-pleasant opportunity to test your patience and resilience. It was especially difficult for the families with small children, who were understandably throwing tantrums by the end of the wait. It’s hard to believe that such a popular national attraction would be so poorly run. Once again, I asked myself if tourists in Bulgaria have a similar experience. If you can offer any insight on the topic, please do so in the comments below, I’d really curious 🙂
As beautiful as Transylvania is, I feel like I’ll need some time to forget the endless queuing, substandard organization, and the grumpy people, before I can go back to Romania. Perhaps next time a train adventure is due and I would also love to include more natural, rather than historic sights.
Have you been to Romania? What would you recommend? Please share your tips with me in the comments below and if you enjoyed this text, please share it 🙂
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