Yesterday, I took a day trip north of Bucharest to Brașov, a stunningly beautiful Romanian city in Transylvania. Romania’s Transylvanian Alps are one of the most dramatic territories I’ve experienced in my travels. Brașov’s architectural mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles is spectacular, especially with a backdrop of snow-topped Carpathian Mountains.
I visited Brașov in November, during a tour of Bran and Peleș Castles, but decided to return for a day dedicated to the alluring city. It’s about a 3-hour train ride (depending on the train) from Bucharest, and a popular getaway for Europeans and Romanians.
Weather in Bucharest has been a mixed bag of snow flurries, rain, and sunny unseasonably-warm days. Late December and early January have been mostly cold and rainy. I prepared for sketchy Brașov weather, but it was a cold and mostly clear day, perfect for exploring the city.
The CFR Călători train “seemed” easily booked online. They have international and domestic routes, and a fast train – which unfortunately, I didn’t experience. At the last minute, the seat assignment on the trip from Bucharest to Brașov was changed, causing mild confusion. For the return trip, they swapped trains and departure time the night before. Probably the most surprising was that over half the people on the train didn’t wear face masks, despite assurances that “strict” covid regulations would be followed – hummm….
When I arrived at 7 a.m., the Bucharest train station was chaotic but interesting. It took a few minutes to get oriented and figure things out, i.e., the right departure gate! The person in the information booth spoke zero English, so I had to go it on my own. Glad I factored in some “confusion-adjustment” time!
The train was packed, and I sat in a compartment with a nice Romanian family and their two young children. It may have been the first time the children had heard an American accent. The three-year-old boy stared at me in horror :o) – I winked.
The weather was overcast, hampering views. From what I could see, there wasn’t much snow on the mountain peaks. The train stopped at several Prahova Valley villages and mountain resorts along the way, including Sinaia, Busteni, Azuga, Ploiești, and Cheia. Except for Sinaia, all were new to me.
After arriving in Braşov, it took time to sort out how to get to the areas I wanted to explore. Again, there was zero English spoken at the “information” booth! I asked a young guy (college student) who spoke English the best way to get where I wanted to go. I appreciated his quick and to-the-point response clarifying the obvious – take a bus (25-minute ride), walk 45+ minutes, or grab a taxi and pay ten times the cost of the bus. I’m beyond fed up with being cheated by taxi drivers, and have walked so much my feet ache, so I followed Google Maps and hopped a local bus. It worked!
Tours and My Impressions
After espresso, I toured The Black Church, relishing the massive structure and its medieval ambience. Then, I explored Council House and the Historical Museum. Other than that, it was a lazy day walking around the city. I enjoyed a late lunch and chilled while people watching at several cozy cafés. Braşov is populated by “the beautiful people“. After Braşov, there’s no doubt whatsoever that I’ve reached my limit for learning new locations – my brain is on overload.
In my opinion, Braşov is the Mill Valley of Romania, and maybe Eastern Europe? For those who don’t know Mill Valley, it’s an affluent San Francisco Bay Area suburb in Marin County on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although Braşov is stunning, I prefer higher-energy city scenes and more diversity.
“After Braşov, there’s no doubt whatsoever that I’ve reached my limit for learning new locations – my brain is on overload.”
Poiana and Bucegi National Park
Nearby Poiana ski slopes are popular for winter sports. A day pass for the chairlift, gondola, and cable car is about $35!! Even when I first began skiing in the California Sierras, lift tickets were more expensive than that, and now, they’re over-the-top!
I considered spending Christmas in Poiana, but the pricey lodges were booked up through the holidays. As much as I love the thrill of downhill skiing, at my age, an accident while using unfamiliar rental equipment on unknown terrain would be a disaster. I decided to forego a ski adventure.
Bucegi National Park is another interesting area worthy of exploration, especially a multi-day hiking adventure. It’s considered “Romania’s touristic cradle, with fierce peaks, steep valleys, alpine limestone grasslands, caves, springs, waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the Prahova Valley“.
Not to digress, but an obvious drawback to solo travel is that some activities are safer experienced with a group. This is especially true for two sports I love – hiking and skiing. Joining groups can be an interesting option, but I’ve learned from experience that when connecting with strangers in a foreign country, the unknown dynamics can be both exciting and daunting, making or breaking the experience.
Brașov history and each of the major buildings in the medieval city are subjects worthy of their own blog post. This post is far from a thorough account of the fascinating city. Throughout history, Brașov has experienced wars, rebellions, invasions, and many rulers and governments – Ottomans, Hapsburgs, Saxons, Communists, and more. It’s been known by different names. During Saxon rule – 13th to 17th centuries – Romanians were forbidden from owning property, could enter Brașov at certain times only, and were required to pay a toll to sell goods inside the citadel.
Fortification Walls and Fire
The city is strategically located on “trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe”. Fortification walls were built and expanded to protect Brașov from attack. Parts of the original fortification have been restored using UNESCO funds.
Another part of Brașov’s old defensive complex, Catherine’s Gate, was built in 1559 by local craftsmen of the Tailors’ Guild. Named after St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinaia, it’s the “only original city gate to have survived the medieval period“. Its four small corner turrets “symbolize the town’s judicial autonomy and in particular, the right of the sword,” which is the right to execute. Above the gate is the city’s coat of arms, featuring a crown on an oak tree trunk and roots.
In 1689, a great fire almost entirely destroyed the walled city and killed thousands of people. Rebuilding lasted several decades. Following the disaster, “local authorities forbid the construction of wooden buildings, and the city was rebuilt with today’s picturesque stone structures”.
Brașov’s original defensive fortress and best-known fortification, Brassovia Citadel, is situated on Tâmpa Mountain. Built in 1524, the Citadel was a key protection point. An interesting hiking trail leads from Brașov up the mountain to a nature reserve. If you don’t want to hike, a cable car runs to the top.
The strong walls, massive towers, and imposing defense gates of Braşov’s fortifications were built for protection from invading Mongols and Turks. These imposing structures include Graft Bastion, White Tower, Black Tower, Blacksmiths’ Bastion, Catherine’s Gate, Weavers’ Bastion, Schei Gate, and Râşnov Fortress.
Formidable Brașov Citadel was never subdued. The fortress was “replaced with a stone structure in the 16th century, and abandoned during the 17th century, after technology made cannons stronger than the buildings where they were housed”.
Râşnov Fortress is situated on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains, above the town of Râşnov. The fortress links the provinces of Transylvania and Walachia and was built in 1211 by Teutonic Knights. It was a refuge for villagers in times of war and attacks by Tartars and other merciless invaders. Fortresses were “the only chance of survival for many inhabitants of the area”. They were “compelled to stay there for decades, and turned the fortifications into their long-term home”.
Council Square (Piata Sfatului) is the “heart of old medieval Brașov” in the center of town. Built in 1420, Council House is the “most visited and controversial building in Brașov”. Once the city hall, it’s said that a “torture and execution chamber functioned inside the building during the 16th century”. Today, the building houses Brașov’s Historical Museum.
Council House exhibits Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles of architecture. Medieval trumpeters used the tower to announce important events, a tradition that’s still followed today. Council House hosts the oldest bell in the city. Dating from 1520, the bell was destroyed in the fire of 1689, but rebuilt a year later.
Black Church and Religious Diversity
Black Church (originally named Saint Mary’s Church) is the largest Gothic church between Istanbul and Vienna. Also known as Biserica Neagră, the church was built between 1385 and 1477 by the German community. The building survived several attacks and sieges over the ages, but was damaged by the 1689 fire, when its walls turned black.
Besides the Black Church, there’s religious diversity and many places of worship in Brașov. The magnificent structures include the 13th century medieval Church of Bartolomeu – oldest monument in Brașov, the 14th century Orthodox Church Saint Nicolae, and the 18th century Catholic Church of Peter and Paul. Orthodox Jews founded their religious organization in 1877, and the Neolog Synagogue was built between 1899 and 1905.
1 December 1918 Proclamation
Following the collapse of Austria-Hungary, the 1 December 1918 Proclamation of the Union of Alba Iulia declared the Grand Union of Transylvania with Romania. Finally, Romanians were unified into a single state. Brașov was permanently occupied by Romanian forces on 7 December 1918.
“In Romania, everything was brought to its peak by Nicolae Ceausescu’s ambition to pay the country’s debts in full, placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of the populace.” Radio România Internaţional Steliu Lambru and Călin Coţoiu
Industrialization and Rebellion
Braşov’s Civic Centre was built during the communist period – 1947 to 1989, when “industrial development was vastly accelerated”. On the train ride from Bucharest, evidence of industrialization in the area was shocking. Mile after mile of ugly, abandoned industrial buildings are strewn along the railroad tracks.
For ten years (1950 to 1960) during Romania’s “long decades of communism,” the city’s name was changed to Stalin City. In November 1987, during a climate of economic depression and devastating food shortages, a Brașov rebellion erupted. It was labor’s response to communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu’s “draconian economic policies to curb food and energy consumption and reduce worker’s wages.” The labor uprisings occurred in the industrial centers of Cluj-Napoca, Nicolina, Iași, and Brașov. The strike was brutally repressed by communist authorities, and workers involved were imprisoned.
During this solo travel adventure, I’ve had good and bad experiences interacting with locals. Most were warm and friendly, and I learned from them and thoroughly enjoyed the interaction, others, not so much. When you choose to place yourself in an unfamiliar foreign environment, it’s your responsibility to think things out in advance and be prepared. Relying on strangers to have your back or bail you out of a dilemma is a dangerous and risky option – don’t do it. Local customs and major language differences need to be factored into every setting. In the end, surviving a challenging situation is empowering. At the same time, you may feel like screaming. :o)
I attribute some of the unfriendliness encountered to the horrific and seemingly never-ending covid pandemic. I’ve learned not to belabor this and move on, but I’m human, and it affected my concept of some countries visited. To those who are clearly unkind and hostile to unthreatening lost and confused travelers, I have one karmic wish. It’s that someday, they find themselves alone, disorientated, and severely lost in unfamiliar foreign territory where no one speaks their language, i.e., the bowels of Mumbai or Istanbul, and they’re met with a mean or unfriendly reaction when seeking help. Just saying… Although this trip has been a fantastic, enriching experience, it hasn’t always been easy – but then, that’s what adventure is all about! I truly hope my next trip is less covid infected.