Romania wasn’t high on my to-do list before planning this trip, but once my father learned of my job in Russia, he’s mentioned it in his conversations with customs at his job (his seed company has a surprisingly international and diverse clientele) and he kept hearing one thing- go to Transylvania. So we did, and in October to boot.
When planning, the two cities I targeted were both in the heart of the rugged, hilly country below the Carpathian Mountains- Sighisaora and Brasov. Our first stop was the former, a small, relatively out of the way city boasting a 12th century Saxon citadel at its heart. After grabbing a nice lunch of Romanian schnitzl (chicken cutlet) and an unpronounceable and unfortunately lost -named dish that amounted to savory meat-stuffed cabbage rolls (and some of the local dark brew) we headed to the center of town, passing what looked like a Communist military cemetery and a very pretty, riverside Russian Orthodox church on the way.
The Sighisaora Citadel is situated on a big hill towering over the city. Only some walls and towers remain of the original fortifications, but those that do are impressive examples of the medieval, quintessentially Transylvanian architecture that has been inspiring Vampire lore for centuries (in fact, one two-story wooden yellow restaurant claims to be the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, but even if it was a generous three hundred years old that’s not old enough).
Besides the cobble-stoned main square, the main attractions are two churches and a Clock Tower. The Monastery Church was converted to a Luthern joint when this part of the country did, and was a result has a lot of German gothic touches we didn’t see in nearby countries. More interesting, though, was The Church on the Hill, accessed by a long covered flight of stairs and presiding over a leaf-strewn cemetery and the town at large. Inside are tons of medieval statuary and colorful frescoes, hundreds of years-old brightly painted trunks unique to the area and in the process of restoration, and a painted altarpiece by the Polish Veit Stoss’s son. The least and most impressive building is the Clock Tower, with the exotic, almost Oriental gables and tiled rooftop that makes you think “yeah, I can see Dracula living in that.”
After hopping a twilit train to Brasov and bedding down in our only private hotel room of the trip, we got an early start to take advantage of this bigger, more spread out city. We knew Bran Castle was a must, and got talked into just taxiing out there at a bad local price, but an amazing one if we’d been in the U.S. Bran is popularly held to be Vlad the Impaler’s Castle, and it’s stark, stony hilltop location and exotic look certainly seem like what Bram Stoker would have had in mind when writing his horror masterpiece.
The design, like Sighisaora, is actually Saxon, and was even inhabited (much later) by the Anglo-Saxon (British) Princess Maria, who married into the Hungarian Hohenzollern royal dynasty and made this castle her primary home. So, the inside decor is much more turn of the century opulence than cobwebs and dimming candlesticks, but the picturesque location in the Carpathian foothills and tangle of wooden hallways, pretty courtyard views and interesting nooks and crannies made it well worth the visit. More disappointing was Brasov’s Old Town, which really is only a small section of town swallowed up by modernization. We had an excellent lunch, though, of a thick meat stew and polenta cooked with goat cheese (and some complimentary pork sweetmeats which went great with our dark beer). The main square and nearby Black Church are nice enough, but after a trip full of them, nothing particularly memorable. Likewise, the “Narrowest Street in Europe” near the Church isn’t terribly narrow, but is painted prettily in different pastels.
Our evening train trip to Bucharest, and our flight home, was actually the point that really sold the beauty of Transylvania that so many people told my father about. Watching the forested hills and small, craggy mountains hiding dark glens and dilapidated wooden buildings, hovels, and even tents glide by felt like traveling through time, right up to Bucharest’s featureless concrete jungle.