Beating the European heat wave by leaving Bucharest and heading to the mountains of Brașov and Bran Castle in the north turned out to be a great decision. Brașov ended up being our favorite city in the entire trip and the Carpathian mountains were both ominous yet comforting to Colorado mountain people like us. After a long day of travel the previous day to reach Brașov, we were glad to have a day and a half of adventure ahead of us and time to explore at a not to intense pace. We opted for Bran Castle because we already had Peleș Castle in Sinaia on the itinerary with Gate 1 on the guided tour portion in a few days.
We woke up early by our standards at 8:15AM and found the weather forecast has changed overnight, with rain now showing in the early morning forecast. As a result, we decided to flip our plans and head to Bran castle first and do a city walking tour at 6PM rather than in the morning.
We arranged a private driver though the hotel for 11AM, and headed out into the city for a quick bite to eat and to get some Romanian Lei from an ATM. Even though we went to a bank ATM, the fees were a bit high for the cash, but we were in Romania long enough to want a bit and didn’t want to shop around. Many of the quick grab and go food offerings were the same around the old city, consisting of pastries or bread pockets stuffed with meat and cheese. We eventually found a stand that had English explanations of the items and chose a ham and cheese type pretzel stick and also bacon and cheese one. They were cold and just okay, but successfully curbed our hunger for the morning.
We connected with our driver at 11AM and were then off to Bran Castle, which was a competing tour opportunity to the bear sanctuary which we ultimately opted for due to the weather. Total cost for a private driver that would wait for us for 2 hours in Bran was €85. A bit steep, but time was more precious to us than money with our limited time in Brașov. The drive was pleasant in a well air conditioned Mercedes. We passed Rasnov and were able to see the fortress on the hill, and the Rasnov side (similar to Brașov) which was quite spectacular. We would have visited had it not been under renovation.
As we came into Bran Castle the kitsch started to increase, and there were a few tourist trap type things, but honestly not as many as we expected and not as much as you’d find in the USA. You can see Bran castle on a hill throughout the town so it’s hard to get lost. The driver dropped us off at the entrance at the bottom of the hill and we set 115PM for a meeting time after explaining that we wouldn’t be able to text him without wi-fi (we are still on a cheap T-Mobile plan).
Once dropped off, we entered through a “village” of little shops selling hokey Dracula items primarily. There were easy automated kiosks for tickets that accepted credit cards and cash. We then began the ascent up a relatively steep hill to the castle entrance. Bran castle is an imposing presence built on a jutting stone hill that easily inspires the imagination.
While the castle was less busy than during high season supposedly, there were still people everywhere and it was difficult to move throughout the house and read all the exhibits. So many people were also needlessly taking pictures and videos of every minute detail, clogging up hallways and rooms, more focused on the technology that experiencing the exhibit. No different than anywhere now.
Bran Castle was a Germanic castle built in the 13th century in wood, and it was destroyed and then rebuild again with stone in the 16th century. It offered a strategic defensive position in the valley as castles always do, and Transylvania was dominated by the German Saxons during medieval times as defense against the Ottoman Empire. During the Romanian War of Independence, which was the localized version of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78), the King Charles (Karol) began his rule of Romania as an independent country in 1881 and the subsequent royal family came from his line.
When Hungary lost Transylvania in 1920 in the aftermath of World War I, the castle became a royal residence within the Kingdom of Romania. Most of the rooms were dedicated to learning about the Romanian royal family who occupied it in the 1900s, including Marie of Romania (from Edinborough) and her daughter, the famous Princess Ileana, who also used it as a hospital during World War II. Marie was married to King Ferdinand of Romania, some of King Charles. During World War I, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romanian and Queen Marie were forced to enter the war against her native land of England as part of the Central Power alliance. Both Marie and her daughter Ileana were beloved by the citizens. Princess Ileana later, after losing her daughter in a place crash, moved to Pennsylvania and established a Romanian monastery that stands to this day. Bran Castle, therefore, was a working castle until it was later seized by the communists in 1948.
There are several vantages for viewing the interior castle courtyard from up high as well as the surrounding town of Bran, and here are a few photos:
Vlad Țepeș (from where the myth of Dracula arose) actually never lived at Bran and was maybe only there once for a couple of days as a prisoner by the Ottomans (allegedly). He was the ruler of Wallachia (the southern province of Romania) 3 times between 1448 and his death in 1476, and is considered as a national hero by the Romanian people due to his fierceness against the Ottomans (heads on spikes, invented tortuous contraptions on how to best impale his enemies, etc.) as well as his sense of justice and fairness in governance. This sense of justice and crudely in enacted it gave him the nickname of Bran the Impaler. Vlad is also known as being the great uniter, bringing various territories that later became modern Romania.
Obviously vampire’s aren’t real, and Vlad wasn’t one. Any association between Țepeș, Bran Castle, and Dracula (as he is thought of today) was purely a loosely stitched fabrication invented by Bram Stoker. There was a large upper exhibit in the castle associated with the Dracula mythology, even the history in cinema, as well as other mythological demon creatures like vampires (striaga), werewolves, grim reapers, and ghostly apparitions. This part was a bit silly and of course the most crowded – it was also hard to access via the narrow stairs that only allowed passage one way, and individuals often had to yield to very large groups exiting and entering. We’d recommended avoiding this wing as it’s the overly saccharine, make-believe part of Bran Castle. We walked the grounds a bit to get a more full view of the castle and the departed on time with our driver.
After the drive back to Brașov, we ventured back into town for a snack since we knew dinner would be late and landed at a French fry place called Cartofisserie on the main square, which was similar to what we tried in Brussels. Brendan had a large with samurai sauce (mayo + chili) and I had a medium with curry ketchup. While the fries were very good, we wish we would have chosen better sauces for us though. While in line with an American whose family was from Brașov/Romania. He warned us about flashing our money and pickpockets, but we thought the stern warning was a bit over blown (perhaps not meant for the seasoned traveler?). We found Brașov to be a very safe city as long as you kept your travel wits about you.
We walked around a bit more, saw more of the Black Church and city gates, and then returned to the hotel for a glorious 30 minute nap before our 6pm free walking tour with our Romanian guide, Luciana.
She described the history of the area of Transylvania, and how it was made of 3 regions – Transylvania in the North, Wallachia in the South, and Moldovia in the East. Confusingly, Modolvia (both the province and the country) passed back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires over the years and also grew and shrunk until it finally reached its current status as both a province within Romania and a standalone country.
The architecture of the city was decidedly Saxon/German, reflecting its history, native settlers, and also the merchant class involved in crafts and trade who grew wealthy as an extension of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Once we realized the German influence, we understood why we loved it so much!
Brașov, being at the intersection of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe, became a multi-cultural city as well, but remained heavily influenced by the Saxons due to tax exemptions bestowed upon them, which created wealth and political influence. The city also still had a large part of the fortified castle walls and towers in tact, gates, and one of the oldest buildings in Brașov, the Hirscher Haus.
Just beyond the main square is the Black Church (Biserica Neagră), is one of the largest Gothic style church in Southeastern Europe, and has interesting touches such as the likeness of a boy being pushed off the roof by the apprentice master (think Game of Thrones). In 1689, a great fire destroyed the city nearly completely, and this is why the church is called the Black Church and also why one of the towers on the fortress wall is called the Black Tower. While we didn’t go inside the church due the entrance feel (we strongly feel that the one thing religious institutions do not need is financial support), the Black Church is supposed to have an incredible organ, and organ masters over the years have performed concerts there as a result.
Besides the German (Saxon) population living in Brașov, there were also a Romanian and Bulgarian population, a smaller Hungarian population, Romani people, and several thousand Jews – these encapsulated the main ethnic minorities. Nowadays, people of Slavic descent are the majority and these other groups, German included, are the minorities in Brașov. There was a large Catholic and then Lutheran population in the area during the time of the Saxons, but now most of Romania is Eastern Orthodox.
During Communist times, the Soviets stayed away from the old city and thankfully built outside.
We visited the Jewish synagogue (outside anyways) which also included a monument to those lost in WWII. The Romanian people, again being somewhat obligated to enter World War II on the side of Germany because of the historical connections and ties of the King, did what they could to protect and hide the Jews, saving many from extermination. We heard this in Bucharest as well.
Narrow rope alley was neat to see, and if you stopped at the right moment you could capture the Brașov sign above through the eave of the alley. The alley, like most everything else in the city, was named after its purpose or guild.
We the moved onward to the City gates with 1 large and 4 small tower. We enjoyed learning about the crest of the city, which was a crown on top of a tree trunk with roots underneath. This was supposed to represent the nature of the crown city (Corona) with the Saxon lineage, with the trunk representing the Transylvania region, and roots representing the people themselves. The symbol was one of the coolest city crests we had seen in our lifetimes.
We paused for a minute near the base of the mountain in an area with some interesting street art as she explained the relation of Brașov to the other fortified castles in this part of Transylvania. There were 13 in total and they were all relatively close by, great for a car trip.
Due to the proximity to the mountains, there are many Carpathian bears in the area, and Luciana showed us a fun video of one in the city. She also advised the group not to run if a bear was spotted, which we thought was obvious until we remembered most people probably had never even seen a bear or been to the wilderness of the mountains, much less taught what to do when encountering wild animals. We were glad we avoided the bear sanctuary, as some pictures were passed around of that as well. While still a top attraction to be sure, it was nothing we hadn’t seen before and the weather was poor.
Closer to the castle gates, Luciana shared with us some of the true Vlad Tepes tales that we had heard earlier at Bran Castle. He impaled his enemies and went to extreme lengths due to a lack of power (due to Ottoman rule) so had to use psychological warfare. Again we heard that he was known to be very fair though, and not as ugly as his usual portrait portrays.
The tour ended at the black tower overlooking the city at sunset, which was glorious and unexpected. It was a great tour overall and Luciana was amazing, passionate, and erudite!
At the base of the viewing point there was also a very cool restaurant and winery where you could sit in wine barrels – something to look forward to for next time!
Afterwards, we stopped back to the hotel to shower and then headed out to dinner. We decided to eat at a Romanian fusion restaurant called Subtampa right at the base of Mount Tampa a little after 9pm. Once sat, the waiter Octavian was a bit severe almost demanding our order right away, but we later learned this was because the kitchen closed at 10PM even though the restaurant was open until 11PM. Google was very unreliable for this type of information, and once we realized the reason for the rush, we took care of business. Octavian became more friendly as the meal progressed.
We ordered rum cocktails and requisite sparkling water, followed by some a delicious mashed eggplant salad that Octavian recommended and a beet salad. Throughout Romania, eggplant was ubiquitous and a reliable vegetarian option.
For our entrees, I ordered the veggie dumplings and Brendan ordered the lamb shepherd’s pie. We both enjoyed our meals, but I was quite full already and the dumplings were on the heavier side. All in all the meal turned out great, and was a very tasty, modern interpretation of Romanian food, and Octavian warmed up to us once we got him talking a bit and had our food orders in in-time.
After dinner, we decided to stroll the path along the mountain and across some old ramparts of the city. Again, we felt very safe in Brașov even at 1030PM at night, where we turned in for a great night’s sleep in an extremely comfortable hotel room. The Radisson Blu Brașov ended up being our favorite hotel on the trip.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel to fuel us for the trip up Mount Tampa, taking the cable car up hiking down. We decided to book a train from Brașov to Bucharest at 2:33PM, getting us into Bucharest at around 5PM, in time for our 6PM check-in with our Gate 1 tour group.
After a 15 minute walk we reached the cable car operation, which was 20 lei per adult to go up after a 15 minute wait across buying the ticket and then queuing to board. The cable car ride up was easy even though we were packed in with lots of people. We first walked to the Brașov “Hollywood” sign to take some pictures of the great view overlooking the city. Then we Hiked down and reached the bottom in about 45 minutes. Our hike included one fall by Brendan from the fresh rain and slick mud and rocks on the trail (note to self – bring hiking boots next time!).
One back in the city, we checkout and did our final look at Brașov from the rooftop of the hotel. Our cab arrived promptly3 to the train station and the 2:33pm direct train to Bucharest was on time from track 3. We boarded our first class reserved seats that we booked the night before (this is what our guide suggested in case it filled up) which were comfortable although the seat assignments were both adjacent aisles. Since the compartment was relatively open, we were able to move around and sit across from one another. The train ride was on time and uneventful, except for a couple of lovebirds sitting catty corner to us that made out with tongue and heavy petting the entire train ride. We had to a do some double takes because one would assume this type of public display affection is more likely to happen with youngsters, but they were middle age like us! It was especially odd because there were people all around them, which they didn’t seem to mind at all. We created 2 possible narratives: either they were honeymooners, or they were adulterers on an escapade that was most likely reaching its end.
We arrived in the Bucharest North train station and disembarked for our next leg of the journey with the tour agency, Gate 1. After some haggling with a scammy taxi driver, we negotiated 15 Euros to the hotel, which was more than we should have paid but we were happy with the convenience. Of course upon drop-off, the cabbie pretended that he didn’t hear the agreed to price and we had to haggle all over again, eventually just giving him the right amount and walking away. With all that behind us, we arrived at the InterContinental Athénée Palace Bucharest, which was a very nice start to the formal tour part of the trip.