Monday, 28 March 2016


23rd - 25th Mar 2016

Bran Castle
Customs formalities on the train out of Hungary and into Romania were fairly cursory. I expect they are a bit more thorough dealing with passengers travelling the other way nowadays. I nearly made a cock-up at this point because I had forgotten that the time zone goes forward an hour in Romania. Nobody mentioned it but something must have triggered my memory at the last moment before turning in...otherwise I would have set my alarm clock a bit late. As it happened, I woke up at 7am (local time) and anyway the carriage steward banged on my cabin door with a cheery greeting 30 mins before arrival (0920) at Brasov. My first peek out at the Romanian countryside was a bit of a revelation. I thought we had time-warped back to the middle ages. Tiny wooden, wattle or white plaster walled single storey houses, some in a state of considerable delapidation, with postage-stamp sized fields, often rather scruffy, were the norm. Old horse-drawn carts and piles of logs were scattered around them. Very rustic and poor looking. Not much sign of life either; so quite a change of scenery from Budapest and the West. OK, approaching Brasov a few roads and cars and garages etc. appeared to herald the arrival of the 20th century.  

Brasov, in southern Transylvania on the edge of the Carpathian mountains, is an ancient fortified Roman town with inner surrounding walls still in existence. It has an old, cobbled and very picturesque centre with outskirts fashioned in the grey, cheap, functional and gloomy Soviet style. Surrounded by wooded hills with one big one, Mt Tampa, prominent, it is in a most attractive setting. 
The railway station (left) is nothing to write home about but was clean and serviceable.

I couldn't help thinking that 'Brasov' suggests a most apt location for a Nudist Gathering, even if a bit chilly at this time of year.

My hotel, the Kronwell, was located only 50 yards from the station which, in turn, is about a mile from the town centre (a 10 Lei, £1.60p, taxi ride), and conveniently near to the bus station. The hotel was a revelation. I hadn't paid that much for it but it boasted amazing facilities; really hi-tech and comfortable. Considering the standard of the surrounding countryside, I was now well and truly back at the forfront of the 21st century. The bedroom had all mod-cons including a complimentary i-pad, a device that could connect my laptop to the large flat-sdreen HD TV (which I didn't understand), Western TV channels, extraordinary lighting and even a heated bathroom floor! Plus a really comfortable bed. Strangely, it had a clear glass-walled bathroom (just visible above) which, although I'm sure very trendy, resulted in me inadvertently and painfully smacking nose first into it on a couple of occasions.  The room lighting system was very sophisticated and I never really mastered it. However there were slightly luminescent light switches next to the bed. This is a very sensible idea as most hotels don't have them, so you wake up in the middle of the night, in a strange room, desperate for a pee and end up thrashing around knocking things off tables and generally trashing the place trying to switch a light on. I really can't think why this is not a more common feature. However it didn't stop me from piling into the clear glass bathroom walls. The hotel also boasted a very upmarket and popular spa, fitness centre and swimming pool which I investigated and merely mention. Great breakfast, bar and delightful Romanian staff, which made me feel quite at home. They haven't all gone to UK. Yet.  I was truly impressed.

Downtown by taxi and had a wander. It was a pretty place with cobbly streets and some smart shops. The main square housed a big church. There were several churches dotted around. I think the Romanians are keen church-goers. I was trying to recall what else Romanians are noted for, and I could only think of wrestlers and weight-lifters. 

Right: There was a very long queue lined up at the door of another church on the side of the square. When I returned after a long lunch it had vastly increased and now almost lapped the square. It had also started to drizzle so these queuers were pretty damned keen to get in for whatever reason, and it can't have been just to get out of the rain. I asked a young lady, about centre queue, what was going on. She told me, in reasonable English, that they were waiting to pay homage to a belt (or something), which had been worn by the Virgin Mary (a chastity belt?) and was on loan for a few days from some religious establishment in Greece. Unbelievable, I thought. I asked how long she reckoned she would queue for, "probably about 3 hours", she said. Well, whatever turns you on I suppose. I expect someone was making a bit of money out of it.

Left: A rustic Romanian snack wagon dispensing rustic Romanian snacks, and wine.

Right: ....and of course there had to be the ubiquitous 'Oirish Bear'. This one, Deane's Bar, on the main shopping street......

......which is quite homely inside and did actually have Guiness on tap, so I forced myself to have a pint of the stuff. Jolly music was being played and in the snug at the back were little cubicles in which student types were busy on their computers.

Right: The Oxford Street' of Brasov. Some high quality shops and, of course, unavoidably, a MacDonalds.   

There were several decent looking restaurants and I picked one for lunch recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook, the 'Casa Romaneasca', which was in the south of the town. Yes, it was excellent ; of typical Romanian style with  very good nosh and service. I recommend it too if you happen to be passing by. The views from the town were most attractive. This one (left) taken from outside my lunchtime location.
A popular area for hiking, I was told.

One of the tourist draws to the area is the Gothic style Bran Castle (right). This is alleged, without any evidence, to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker's book Dracula. Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania and it is thought he got his inspiration from Whitby Castle, where he was living at the time, or Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire. They also make a big play on the fact that Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), or Vladislow Dracul to give him his real name, was active in this area when he was busy impaling people in the 15th Century. More recently, in the 19th Century, Queen Marie of Romania lived here. It is now owned by her great grandson, Dominic Habsburg, who lives in New York. It is a privately owned museum and of course makes great play on, and profit from, the Dracula story.

It was a 40 minute bus ride north-west to Bran. It was gently sleeting when I got there. On the approach to the castle there is a large bazaar selling 'Dracula' style tat and other clothing and nic-nacs. There were few visitors and the stall-holders spent much of there efforts just keeping their wares dry. I expect business improves with better weather.

Within the castle labyrinthine passageways led from room to room, some of them quite small, and nothing of enormous interest on display as far as I could see.

Left: Two security guards.

I think a lot of the stuff on display was left over from when Queen Marie was in residence including , inexplicably, some Dinky toys and a Monopoly board game (right). There were no explanations..........

.....and this eclectic collection of junk and toys (left) carefully laid out but with  no obvious provinence or purpose. Not very Dracula like, certainly.

Right: The occasional tunnel-like stairway led to a succession of other fairly nondescript rooms.......

.........such as this sparsely furnished drawing room (left) and others with framed and rather obscure family trees hanging on the walls..........

....and this one (right) contained inexplicably  odd items which might have been torture instruments, or conceptual art perhaps. It was not made clear. Lots of other rooms with things of little interest in, so I won't bother printing them.
Goodness knows who designed the layout of the castle interior, but it was very higgledy-piggeldy and, I would have thought, not very resident friendly.

Left: There is a pretty little central courtyard and, on your way out, a castle shop selling mostly Dracula trinkets and T-shirts, but also Chateau Bran wine. I might have bought some as a souvenir but at £20 equivalent a bottle it was rather expensive, and  would probably have broken in my suitcase at some point, so I didn't.


Back outside the castle, amongst all the stalls, their is a 'Haunted House' to walk through. I decided to give it a try; why not. Quite amusing I suppose with lots of skeletons and corpses leaping out at you, dark little passageways with cobwebs to tickle your face, rattling chains and banging door sound effects and, inevitably, the bit you step on which blows a jet of cold air up your trouser leg. I felt I was being followed, and indeed I was by some little chap wearing a Dracula mask and a monk's outfit. He rather spoilt the effect when I turned around to face him and he took his mask of and asked "where you from?".
On exit the sleet had turned to a mere fine drizzle and I went for something to eat in the nearby cafe and tucked into some Dracula soup accompanied by Dracula beer. I can't help feeling they are overdoing the Dracula bit slightly.
Back on the bus (they run evert 30 mins back to Brasov). Nothing to mention there except, perhaps, the ceiling of the bus which was festooned with no-smoking signs (right). It was interesting to note that the driver was smoking. Talking of which, I have noticed that in both Hungary and Romania, as members of the EU and therefore obliged to conform to EU rules and regulations to receive our taxpayers' money, they punctiliously display all the correct 'elf and safety warning signs. Actually to obey them is quite another matter. I also noted that the wearing of seat belts in cars (my taxis for example) and helmets on motor bikes, is a matter of personal choice. For some reason the anarchist within me rather approves of this 'finger' to authority.

At some point I was introduced to the local drink, Tuica, a plum brandy. This stuff fair takes your breath away as, being 60% proof, it has every right to do. It doesn't taste too bad, but is served and drunk from a 'traditional' vessel (left). This rather reminded me of something you normally only see when you go for your medicals and therefore somewhat off-putting.

Back to the hotel and that, basically, was all I did in Brasov. I rather enjoyed myself and was most impressed by the friendliness of the locals. 

Off, by train, for more Romanian hospitality in Bucharest tomorrow. Pip pip. 

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