Brasov, one of seven ‘fortress towns’ built by the Saxons in the 12th century, is incredibly well preserved – you can walk down some streets and almost feel like you’re in the middle ages – at least, if you ignore the fact that the insides of a lot of the buildings have been transformed into artsy little bars, opulent dessert cafes and the same chain stores (Accesorize, Clare’s) that abound in every European city.
I wasn’t sure I’d like it when my bus first pulled in. Actually, that’s a lie – I honestly thought I would hate it. I’d gotten out into the station to be mobbed by gypsy kids begging for money, the area around the station was kind of ugly, and when I went to catch a taxi, they all tried charging me 40 Euros, even though my hostel had emailed me specifically stating that I could catch a taxi for the 10-15 leu – around 3 Euros.
Just as I was ready to give up and walk the whole way, my third taxi driver finally gave in and agreed to drive me to my hostel for 12 leu. I took a deep breath and hoped desperately that Brasov would be better than its first impressions.
As it turned out, it really was – in part due to the city, in part due to my hostel and the people I met there.
The place I was staying at was called Kismet Dao, which a friend of mine – Joe Wareham – had recommended. The place you end up staying at can always make your experience of a town better or worse, but sometimes you get an experience that just goes so far above what you expect, and that was the case here.
Kismet Dao felt like a home; whoever was working there didn’t treat you like a customer, they treated you like a friend – I’m not just talking about good customer service here either: they’d hang out, share stories, and genuinely become friends with you.
Not to mention that they had an adorable house dog named Zara, who had a red bandana around her neck, a perpetually doleful look on her face, and who you could take out for walks if you so desired.
As if that wasn’t enough to make me like it, Bianca, who was on duty when I first arrived, also handed me a bunch of free drink tickets for each of the nights that I had booked, and asked me if I’d like to stay an extra night without charge because if you pay for 3 nights you get the fourth one free. I was sold.
Kismet Dao became my home away from home. They had an eternal supply of fresh, drip brewed coffee, and everyone would gather in the kitchen for breakfast (which was free) and then to cook together in the evenings.
I’d walk down to the local Billa supermarket every day to buy fruits and various bits and pieces from their hot food section to reheat later, so I could pretend I was cooking too. This poor lady in the hot food section was unfortunate enough to keep getting stuck serving me; she knew absolutely no English, and I would try to mime questions about what was in everything. You could see her getting stressed out trying to understand me, although she was super sweet about it and always tried her best to give me some sort of response.
We’d play music while cooking and everyone would be sharing stories about their day, and it all felt very homely. My favourite night was when two lovely Argentinian guys cooked me dinner and then we all went clubbing to this surprisingly really good techno night at a club called Tripping Cafe.
Another night we watched a movie (actually 3 movies in a row), after which I fell asleep in the common room; instead of waking me, Sebastian, the receptionist for the day, came in with a blanket and pillow and tucked me in on the couch. What a darling.
Other evening activities included doing an Escape Room – Dracula themed, of course, which we managed to solve and get out of just in time.
We also went for a lot of late night kebab runs, this place around the corner doing chicken kebabs with a huge assortment of veggies, pickles, chips and feta cheese in them for under $2.
In case I’m giving you the wrong idea, it wasn’t just the hostel that was amazing, it was Brasov itself, and the hostel was just a great base from which to explore it – and provided me with some good company to do it with.
For a city in a former Soviet country, I expected Brasov to be a bit more grim but it was actually super chilled. I took regular breaks from my wandering to sit in cafes drinking tea or eating desserts and would then look up at the time to realise that what I thought was 5 minutes was actually 45.
It never felt like there was any hurry for anything though, and everyone I came across was smiling and cheerful, and very patient. It was really easy to talk to the locals – the ones who could speak English, anyway.
The Old Town, I thought, was particularly gorgeous. I loved Catherine’s Gate and the Şchei Gate, the former of which is the original city gate from the medieval period.
I wasn’t quite so impressed by The Black Church, which is always listed as one of Brasov’s top attractions. It had this creepy story about how, when it was built, they believed that you had to make a sacrifice – and so the architect’s wife offered herself up to be buried alive in it’s foundations. That was the most interesting thing about it though; I peeked inside and didn’t think the interior was fascinating enough for me to pay the entrance fee (or waste the time) examining it closely, and it’s only called the Black Church because a fire turned its stones black.
Far more fascinating was Biserica Sfantu Nicolae, an Orthodox church – also surviving from the middle ages – with its walls and ceilings covered in beautiful frescoes by the famous Romanian painter and muralist Mișu Popp. That was breathtaking.
I’d never learned or heard much about Romanian history before, but I picked up little bits wandering around Brasov, just because so much of it’s past is so visible and accessible in the architecture within the Old Town: Romania’s first school, Brasov Citadel, a house that one of Vlad the Impaler’s mistresses supposedly lived in (the guy must have had a lot of them all around Eastern Europe, if all these stories are to be believed), the Rope Street (the narrowest street in Europe) – and so much more that survived through the centuries, which I frankly found astounding given that it had spent the last few decades under Soviet rule.
I only really saw evidence of Brasov’s communist past when I took the cable car up to the top of Tampa, this little mountain in the middle of the city. You can see all around for miles, including, outside the Old Town, blocks of utilitarian looking Soviet-style apartments, all in a neat grid – so contrary to the look and feel of the Old Town. I also learned that Brasov, under communism, had been renamed Stalin, and that they’d actually spelt out the name in trees on the side of the mountain.
Those trees aren’t there anymore – or if they are, they’re well blended in with others on the mountain. Instead, today there’s a Hollywood-style ‘Brasov’ sign on the side of Tampa. Apparently it was put there by some design students from the university, who’d done it all by themselves, but when it started to fall apart the town decided that they liked it enough to put in a more durable, official, Brasov sign.
There’s a very slippery, icy trail from the top of the cable car to the sign, and I was incredibly worried that I’d fall off the side of the mountain trying to make my way there and back. The two Argentinians from my hostel, Lucas and Federico, however, figured out that instead of walking carefully – which just ended up with you slipping every which way uncontrollably – you actually had to slide along the ice with enough momentum to ensure that you could make it safely to the trees and avoid the edge.
On my last day there I decided to venture a little further afield, and a few of us staying at the hostel got driven through the countryside to visit the Zarnesti Bear Sanctuary, Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress.
The Bear Sanctuary was a little heart rending.
In 1998 a Romanian woman, Cristina Lapis, saw 3 bears in a small cage outside a restaurant in central Romania where they were used to attract customers. She later found more bears used in a similar way in other areas of the country. Her dream was to rescue these distressed animals and to change public attitudes to stop this cruel and illegal exploitation of one of Romania’s magnificent native animals.
Now that dream is being realised, with over 70 bears enjoying a new life in the Libearty Bear Sanctuary – 70 hectares of oak and hazel forest in the Carpathian Mountains above the Transylvanian town of Zarnesti.
Here, the bears climb trees, swim in the pools and forage on the vegetation. For many of them, having been caught from the wild as cubs, this is a new and stimulating experience.
Apparently, Romania only recently changed their laws to prevent bears being kept as pets and entertainment, but before that restaurants and petrol stations would often keep bears – usually drugged and injured so they couldn’t escape – to draw in customers.
The bears had really sad stories, like this one named Max who’d been blinded and fed beer with sleeping pills in it all of his life so that he couldn’t escape and who was now an alcoholic, but it was lovely to see all the bears playing together and looking happy in the Sanctuary, regardless of the abuse they’d suffered in their previous lives.
Bran Castle, I’d heard, was highly overrated – but when I went there I thought it was great, although I haven’t seen a lot of castles to compare it with so maybe that was why I reacted with such awe. It was full of information about Vlad the Impaler, which was hilarious given that it didn’t really have anything to do with it, but the name just gets associated with Dracula.
It was very cosy though, and if I ever become rich and decide that I want a mansion (which I probably won’t because I dont’t believe in that kind of opulent materialism), I would build an exact replica of Bran Castle.
Rasnov Fortress was more impressive still – I mean, it’s literally an ancient fortress that you can wander around and that’s more or less preserved the way it was, with a little village inside.
We tried our hands at axe throwing, which I was not amazing at but which one of the guys I was with, Benjamin, absolutely killed, hitting the bullseye with his axe on his first throw. We’d pooled together a few leu, at Ben’s behest, to go to whoever managed to get their axe closest to the bullseye, but he was very gracious about winning and refused to take the money.
When it was time for me to leave I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go; in fact, if I hadn’t already asked a friend of a friend in Bucharest if I could couchsurf with them, I would have changed my plans and stayed in Brasov for longer. I’d started getting a routine, I had my favourite tea house and kebab shop, I was trying out all the sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with minced meat and served with yoghurt or sour cream) in town to see which was the best…. I didn’t want to leave yet! And I hadn’t even gotten around to going hiking or rock climbing, both of which Brasov is renowned for.
But go I did, and I’m glad because meeting Christian in Bucharest was another wonderful experience, whihch I’ll tell you all about it the next time I blog. As for Brasov though, it’s safe to say that I left with a very different impression to what I’d had when I arrived.