Brasov is in central Romania about 2.5 hours by train north of Bucharest. We decided to take 3 days here and regroup a bit since our 2:45AM bus ride was eventful and exhausting.
We had taken a 9am train. It wound its way through tall firs, thick spruce, and bristly pines. Evidence of a higher altitude was seen in pockets of snow lining the hills adjacent to the train tracks. It had felt like an eternity on the bus, but the train ride was pleasant. During the ride, I watched as a shepherd leaned on his hook, while his flock grazed among plastic refuse littering their pasture. Endless green grass was marred by the opaque white and grey. I could not help but reflect on it being a symbol for humanity, wantonly ignoring the plight of future generations of an earth whom its duty is to protect. I closed my eyes and tried to doze with softer thoughts for the remainder of the ride, trying not to think about how the train I was using was also probably adding to the damage.
Brasov is used often as a central base for travelers to take day trips to various smaller cities and castles. First on our list was Bran Castle. We got on a bus leaving Brasov and began watching the urban buildings become less frequent and countryside begin to fill the view. The bus seats were grey with a subtle brown dirt crawling from the suppressed fabric. The sweet, sour odor akin to week old garbage hit my nostrils in waves throughout the trip. Like much of Eastern Europe, recycling and waste management is an issue. I tried to concentrate on the view outside the window to pull my attention from the olfactory assault. As we picked up speed, the ride became better as the smells blew elsewhere. Hannah and I each shared an earbud and laughed listening to some good old country music while crossing the countryside of Eastern Europe. It seemed so out of place compared with our present situation. As the next song started, the plains began to gradually roll up to distant grey mountains with snow capping the peaks. The castle made its way into our view.
Bran Castle is situated near the lines of Wallachia and Transylvania, which were historically different countries with separate cultures and demographic representation inside a later united Romania. At different points, Austria Hungarians and German Saxons both heavily influences different parts of the country. This makes sense when looking at some of the trademark architecture seen in different parts of Romania.
The castle’s legacy has some controversy. It has been tied to Vlad Tepes, the original inspiration for Dracula. In reality, he likely only stayed there a day or two, as it was actually a customs stop, but never lived nor impaled anyone there. Bram Stoker, the author of ‘Dracula’ had done a fair bit of research surrounding Transylvania and thought the castle would be a great setting for his story. Vlad Tepes was a real historical character, and a brutal one. His home and fortress are just situated in a different area of Romania. Sorry to be a buzzkill! It was still an old spooky, castle. One placard highlighted the deep mysticism and folk stories that seem to heavily influence Romania, despite its structured Orthodox religion being a central compass for the country.
From the foot of the castle, the wind picked up substantially. I immediately regretted not bringing gloves, but my ever careful wife brought hers. When entering the castle, the stairs were vary narrow. The castle proved to be functional, with some luxury for the time period. As we crossed through rooms decked in history, a rough stony passage hewn out of the wall appeared beside a sign stating it was a secret stairway. My shoulders abreast barely fit inside the passage. The light clay brown jutting stone brushed my polyster synthetic jacket with a soft whistle as I ducked my way up and through passage. We wound our way through several more rooms before finishing our tour and having a small bread, cheese, and salami lunch at our bus stop. I tried to share some bread with a stray dog, but he was having none of it.
We spent the remainder of the day in Brasov. It was similar to Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria in that it was a smaller town and less busy. There were a few monuments and churches to see, as well as an “Old Town” that Hannah wanted to visit. For dinner that evening, we ate an equivalent of Romanian fast food. Hannah had chicken tenders and fries, while mine was sausage and fries. The sauce provided was an orangish red. It tasted like ketchup and mayo mixed, but with some chunky onions and paprika. It reminded Hannah of a sauce she has with crawfish boils back home. Though diet is different, we have both lost weight so far due to the amount of daily activity and sharing most meals.
During dinner, I watched an old man and his wife sit side by side, eating the mounds of chicken and fries together without much conversation, but years of experience and understanding between them. Based on their age, they had lived through difficult years of Soviet satellite communist influence and reemergence from it. The table directly behind them sat a young 20 something couple having dinner together, but in animated conversation. These difference generations likely have a large gap in perspective as it pertains to worldview and outlook on life. With a full stomach and a happy wife in tow, I walked back to the apartment soberly musing how the events of history had changed the old couple’s lives and wondered what current events will shape ours.
Our second day trip was to Sinaia Romania. Inspiration for the name comes from Mount Sinai. It was about 60 minutes from Brasov by train. We stepped out onto a large train station etched in stone. From the start, it presented an ambiance of luxury not seen in the prior stations. A white plastic banner in Romanian and English explained it is the only dual purpose train station that also serves as a stop for the royal family. Stepping foot onto the train platform, what felt like my first deep breath of fresh air in weeks left my lungs and nostrils stinging with the refreshing and familiar cold. Hannah and I slowly climbed the 1.5km of curving switchback roads, surrounded by white capped mountains clothed in deep forested green.
On the way, we intersected several times with another traveler who had been on our train. His name was Ash, and he was sight seeing on his way home to Australia for Easter. He was 3 years or so older than us, and had been using a work visa in London. He didn’t share my love of rugby, but he did enjoy motorsports and explained he used to own a business in Australia. When discussing the reactions to working and traveling abroad, he laughed and said his father suggested he see a psychiatrist rather than shutter his business. He kindly offered to take a picture for us once we reached the castle and we did the same for him. It was nice to share the walk to the castle.
Peles castle was incredible. It blew Bran castle away. The castle was a palace summerhouse for the royal family and is now a museum. Upon seeing the breadth of the building, we elected to take the extended tour, and I am so glad we did. Much like Bran castle, the gothic German influence was readily apartment in the white building façade with bordering and crisscrossing dark wood. Some Romanian royalty were actually German appointees, hence the architectural influence.
Upon entering the castle, the effect was almost breathtaking. The detailed dark wooden carvings inhabit almost every room. The building had bright gold and white veiny marble in almost every room. There were at least 3 hidden staircases built into bookshelves and wardrobes throughout the residence, and there was no way we would have known had the tour guide not indicated them. I wish I could describe the experience in greater detail, but it is an experience best done on one’s own. Our pictures do not do it justice.
As we were descending to the train station, the familiar thick smell of burning firewood hits me in waves as I gaze up at the beautiful nature surrounding the town. It reminds me of home in Imperial, MO and my parents’ firepit that sits on their back patio. My wife reminds me to watch where I am going. My head is constantly angled up, rather than watching my feet beneath me. I might stumble here and there but I think I will still walk through life this way. I like it better.