a romanian railway journey to the fabled transylvania
Where: Bucharest & Transylvania (Bran, Brasov)
Romania, Eastern Europe
When: August 2012
What: Palace of the Parliament, Ceausescu Era Apartment Blocks,
Dracula’s Castle, Spark House, Former Communist Party HQ,
How: International Flight, Romanian Railways, Bus, Taxi
Counter: 1 country
Illnesses or mishaps: Romanian gastroenteritis which took a week off work and two courses of antibiotics to get rid of. Thanks Romania!
Romania was a real surprise. Five days travelling around the country blew a whole host of stereotypes and prejudgements out of my mind which I am ashamed to admit I held. I imagined Gypsies on street corners badgering passers by, I imagined people would be rude towards, and dismissive of, tourists with backpacks such as me, I imagined general urban decay and predatory taxi drivers, I imagined pickpockets everywhere. Whilst we did experience problems on the journey, they were muted and tame by comparison with my expectations. Romania is a case in point: keep an open mind, rely only on your own experiences and to hell with what everyone else says before you set off. The country still bears the hallmarks, like many communist ones, of underinvestment and stagnation but Romania, unlike many other Eastern Bloc countries, is really stylish and on-trend. Younger women were glamorous, not in that over-the-top tacky way but, instead, opting for a cool, calm and sophisticated look. A trend among men was Mohican punk hair cuts, Jean shorts and tees. This is a country with a very promising younger generation. Romania has been part of the EU since 2007. Whilst Romania is not out of the woods yet, it is clear that it has taken notable strides towards dealing with its past.
Romania's back story isn't a good one. Having said this, the country has had an unstable time recently with two governments in 2012 alone and the President has just survived a vote of no confidence, although the courts had to decide his fate and found in his favour. The Ceausescu years (1967-1989) were some of Romania's darkest. Initially a popular leader in the late 1960s who opposed domination by Soviet Russia, Nicolae Ceausescu soon fell into the established communist practices of suppressing his people using his version of the KGB, named the 'Securitate', to spy and intimidate Romanians. He also trashed many of Bucharest's oldest historical buildings to make way for monstrous apartment blocks. He spent millions, whilst his country starved, building the 'People's House' in Bucharest, now called 'The Palace of the Parliament'. As the late eighties wore on, and with Romania's neighbours being swept along by the wave of democracy, Romania increasingly looked like an isolated Stalinist enclave. It was only a matter of time... Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed in the Revolution of 1989 and before the building was completed. Iconic scenes from this period of bloody Romanian history include Ceausescu's final speech, orchestrated by the Communist Party to shore up support for the regime, which backfired in spectacular fashion (you can watch his dramatic speech here). Also iconic from this time is the moment when the Ceausescus escaped from the rooftop of Communist Party Headquarters in a helicopter, to be later captured, court marshalled and shot. I went to see the very balcony where Ceausescu's last speech was delivered now part of the re-named Revolution Square.
Two street food delicacies which we dallied with were the sweet pasties to be found on every street corner - a mixture between a doughnut and cheese pastry. Whilst greasy, they were tasty - and inexpensive. Limonada was my drink of choice - a traditional lemonade drink made from sugar, lemons and syrup and served in a jug. The similarity between the Romanian language and French/Italian/Spanish and English made getting around much easier. Such a welcome relief from the crazy serpentine lettering of Georgia and Armenia. Romanians were helpful and respectful. People offered to explain, offered directions, and offered smiles. They were nice people, something, I am ashamed to say, I wasn't expecting. I left the country rather liking Romania and feeling just a little humbled. It also holds a couple of personal travel records for me, being the 40th country I have been to as well as the hottest country so far. Romania was a surprise, but a mildly pleasant one. If you like city breaks with a bit of architecture and recent dramatic history thrown in, Romania is perfect. A couple of days in Bucharest suffices, from which you could do worse than head out into some of the villages, towns and cities nestled in the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania. A trip to Romania should not begin and end with Bucharest. Getting around the country can be slow, with the Romanian railway's 'rapide' trains going full throttle at 40mph - so allow plenty of time to get to distant places. These slow speeds essentially curtailed some of our plans as it would take too long to get there. I would have loved to have seen the Decabalus statue in Orsova - the tallest rock sculpture in Europe (see here). Nevermind, perhaps another time. Romania was my 40th country.
the romanian capital & paris of the east
We arrived in Bucharest mid afternoon. A street-based temperature tower put the temperature at 45° - it then switched to display the temperature in Fahrenheit - 127. Seconds after walking past it, the display changed to 46°. For me, it was too hot. I was rather concerned as this was at 5 'o clock in the afternoon, my reasoning being that if it was 46° now, what would it be like at midday tomorrow?! Soon after seeing this we spotted a makeshift gazebo on the corner of a large boulevard with a medical stretcher inside and two women handing out cups of water to city dwellers. Also, strange yellow shelters which sprayed water, like misting sprinklers, from the canopy downwards, were a common sight in the capital - literally a cooling down bus shelter such was the heat in the city. The best part of our arrival day was spent cooling down in the hotel room and sleeping off the heat, apart from a short-lived foray out into Bucharest's Old Town for dinner.
Bucharest is a mish-mash of architectural styles which reveal its troubled past. Baroque and Neo-classical masterpieces rub shoulders with dreary sixties apartment blocks and where Stalin-inspired palaces jostle for visual supremacy with more modern glass offices. One rather strange architectural anomaly you will notice in Bucharest is that churches of all denominations are shoe-horned into the smallest of spaces. It is not uncommon to see apartment blocks built right up to the edges of churches. This was Ceausescu's doing. In one case, a church was moved back twenty metres from the road (by way of putting wheels underneath it) to allow a large apartment block to continue its straight line. Many parts of historic Bucharest were levelled to the ground to make way for major town re-planning named as 'Systemization' which Ceausescu thought would create the world's Socialist utopian society (others say it was really about moving people into tight-knit spaces so that they could all spy on each other - a way of instilling fear by stealth). Ceausescu happened upon this idea on a visit to the secretive country of North Korea. The apartment blocks built during this process are not, in themselves, truly ugly. They do carry far more outward design, with Neo-classical embellishments for instance, than the apartment blocks I have seen anywhere else in the former Eastern Bloc. They also feature open column segments at the top making them virtually unique in this part of the world. It is, though, their scale and number which scar the city so much. And, of course, there's the historic buildings that were bulldozed to make way for these blocks in the first place. Ceausescu's Systemization programme threatened Bucharest's nick name as the 'Little Paris of the East' because of its once, and now much endangered, elegant architecture.
The centrepiece of this Systemization programme is the gargantuan 'People's House' now renamed 'Palace of the Parliament'. The name 'People's House' was a complete misnoma as it was never built for the people but, instead, for the vanity and excess of the Ceausescus. The building, the Ceausescus' obsession which saw them constantly interfere with architects' plans and have staircases knocked down and rebuilt several times because they were not right, has some pretty crazy statistics to go with it - possibly underlying the growing crazy megalomania of the Ceausescus themselves. The Palace of the Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world, beaten only by The Pentagon in the States. It is the largest civilian administrative building in the world, the heaviest building in the world, it has 1100 rooms, it is made from one million metres of marble sourced from Transylvania, has 480 chandeliers and, like the Pentagon and the Great Wall of China, is visible from the moon! Some of its windows are not made out of glass - but from crystal! After all that it is officially only 98% finished. The mad records and statistics could go on forever. We went on a one-hour long tour of the building (we saw only 4% of the rooms according to our guide) for which we had to surrender our passports at the entrance and wear identity tags around our neck. We'd timed it well as it was at least 40° outside and the huge marble building was cool in comparison. Bucharest also had a pretty decent Metro system which, for 30p a ride, whisked us around the capital's principal sights without the need for us to lose our own bodyweight in sweat in the process.
Also of note was Bucharest's Old Town which consisted of streets and streets of cafes, bars and restaurants - an al-fresco diner's dream. The bars, with their perspex and neon, would quite easily give bars in London a run for their money in any design competition. This part of Bucharest was really buzzing - and so not what I'd expected to see in Romania which, only 23 years ago, was run by a brutal dictator and his evil, manipulative wife. Bucharest has embraced the freedom and night-life of western Europe with gusto - and much success. We ate in the Old Town for the three nights we were in Bucharest. Indeed, our hotel was located right on the border of the old and new Bucharest - great for accessibility, but annoying when Televizeunia Romana is filming and sponsoring large public stages of performers and singers a stone-throw from your window!
The gargantuan Palace of the Parliament - the biggest civilian building in the world - a striking and unforgettable sight at the end of Unirii Boulevard. This is the architectural product of a vain megalomaniac communist. Unsurprisingly, it has a string of crazy statistics to go with its immense size.
The arches and Baroque inspired apartment blocks which dominate Bucharest. It is not their style, but sheer number and size, which scar the city.
The orange domes of the Russian Church squeeze round an apartment block in central Bucharest. I think this looks rather stunning.
The Stalinist architecture of the House of the Free Press in northern Bucharest. Initially called 'Spark House' it contained all State-controlled print media.
The Unirii fountains go some way to softening the imposing apartment blocks which dominate the city.
heading into the fabled transylvania
Getting to Transylvania from Bucharest is rather straightforward. Travelling on the country's SNTCF train network from Gara du Nord we arrived in Brasov some three hours later, having travelled on the 'rapid' train for 170km into central Romania, affording us rather impressive views of the Carpathian mountains, referred to in Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' novel. Brasov is also a favoured location for many travelling around Romania because of its proximity to Bran and the famous Bran Castle. It is also, sadly I would argue, very tourist-geared.
Having made the hassle-free journey from Bucharest, we stupidly thought that travelling only thirty kilometres from Brasov would be simple. It wasn't. On the advice of a ticket seller in a booth who, through a hatch the size of a matchbox, sold us tickets for a bus which should have taken us to Bran. It didn't. It merely took us to the bus station from where we should catch a maxitaxi out to Bran. Of course, she did not explain this and we spent the next hour completing one and a half circuits on the bus before a local man helped us out and explained what had happened. A Chinese man, in Romania for a conference the following day, was also trying to get to Bran. We finally arrived at the right bus station only to find we'd missed the maxitaxi by eight minutes - and the next one, it being Sunday, was an hour's wait. We decided to jump into a taxi - and the Chinese man, whose name I forget, came with us and we all shared the fare. We also arranged with the driver to take us back to Brasov rail station. He was a bit mad, constantly trying to communicate in English (he'd studied Russian in school like many of his generation), finishing everything he said with 'Understand?' Taxi fares were immorally cheap. To travel the sixty kilometres return trip from Brasov>Bran and Bran>Brasov (which included him waiting for an hour and a half for us to 'do' Bran), the fare was £16, split three ways. Saying goodbye to our Chinese friend, and with time short, we asked him to take us from Brasov rail station (again he waited whilst we collected our bags from left luggage in the station) to our hotel in Old Brasov. The ten minute journey cost us £1.30. He said he was an engineer who had taken to driving a taxi to make ends meet. He was highly amused by my saying goodbye in Russian. He shouted, "No Russia, no Russia!" Bran and Brasov were the parts of Transylvania I had time to explore. Here's what I found when we got the train into Transylvania to make a date with Dracula...
Arriving at our hotel, which actually turned out to be a Pensione (not happy), Brasov was quaint and completely different to Bucharest in every way. Cobbled streets, red tiled rooftops, winding alleyways leading to courtyards with lanterns help to make Brasov a real tourist trap, full of families (many German) buying ice-creams and riding go-carts in the main square. It wasn't my idea of a great location to visit and I felt like I was in the Costas in Spain somewhere. It was very sanitised and safe. And a little boring. The saving grace was the cable car ride up to the top of Tampa Mountain which overlooks Brasov. The views were rather fantastic and made Brasov look like a toy lego town. I also loved the large Hollywood-style white letters on top of the mountain - which we got to walk directly behind. On the descent from Tampa my ears, and those of others, popped.
Whilst train travel into Transylvania was not a problem, leaving the region certainly was. The first train to Bucharest, the one we had timed ourselves to catch, was in red on the computer screen of a rude little lady at the casa, or service desk, at Brasov station. We said we would like to travel on that train, just to make sure it was definitely a no-go. Her response was to shout at us, "No!" Women like her, in little glass booths with minuscule windows, and who have no manners whatsoever, exist all over eastern Europe in my experience, so I was not surprised when she behaved in this way. I have decided the next one I come across I will try to wind up in whatever way possible - just for fun! Either that or I might actually start to get offended. With an hour to pass we walked across to the newly built Unirea shopping mall opposite the station and settled for a coffee before making our way back over to the station. The shopping centre has a sign on its revolving doors which tells shoppers not to smoke in the building, no to bring in dogs, and not to bring guns in (click here to see). Reassuring. After what was without doubt the longest tannoy bing bong in the world came the announcement that our train would be six minutes late. Actually, 'Soixant', the word used, reminded me of the French word for sixty, not six. We checked back in the main hall. Our train, which was coming from Vienna, would indeed be an hour late. We were destined to be in Transylvania for a further hour. Our remaining time back in Bucharest was getting shorter and shorter as the whole torrid affair wore on. One saving grace was that our final day in Transylvania coincided with a rapid cooling of the temperatures we'd previously endured. This prompted an emptying of my rucksack on platform 3 where I donned a pair of trousers (over my shorts) and a long-sleeved shirt (over my other shirt). I'm not sure what locals thought but I didn't really care - I was just glad that it was not forty six degrees and that I could lay off the water bottle. Apart from cancellations, delays, the chilly weather and a drunk collapsing and having a fit on the platform opposite (and whose friend started shouting down at him) the delay didn't bother either of us. It was all part of the Transylvanian experience and people watching helped pass the time.
The toy town scene of the triangular Town Hall Square which greets you as you look down from the top of Tampa Mountain. In the centre is, of course, the Town Hall. This is as far, architecturally speaking, as you can get from Bucharest.
a date with dracula's castle
Bran Castle is marketed as the home of Dracula or Vlad Tepe. There is, however, no evidence that this man has any connection with the place. In my eyes, it wasn't particularly remarkable, and I was left feeling rather underwhelmed having seen and been inside it. It was, unsurprisingly, a real tourist trap, crammed full of people from all over the world lured, possibly falsely lured, by the Dracula connection. We spent less than two hours here - and that was plenty. If you are in Romania and pushed for time, supplant Bran for somewhere else. Bran Castle itself was difficult to photograph because, annoyingly having spent so much time trying to get to Bran, the castle was surrounded by overgrown trees. The best photograph I achieved was a bungled result of me having to stand on a wall - even then electricity cables strung across the street got in the way. You would think authorities maintaining the place would trim a few branches in the summer months so that the thousands of tourists can actually see the thing they've travelled so far to see! Our Chinese friend was also left feeling rather deflated. Ironically, we passed a much more impressive castle, Rasnov, perched on top of a mountain on the way back in the taxi from Bran. The taxi driver ensured he slowed down for us to take a fairly decent shot, which is the final photograph in this section.
Bran Castle. Yes, this is what all the fuss is about. The castle was rather frustrating to photograph due to electrical wires criss-crossing streets as well as overgrown trees which surrounded the building.
travel tips, links & resources
- Do your research beforehand if you're planning to head to Dracula's castle in Bran. Despite being a popular destination for tourists the public transport is more complicated than you might expect. We got a train from Brasov, with a bus and then minibus. It may just be worth hiring a taxi if you're pushed for time.
- Bucharest is a fascinating place in which to spend a few days - it is perfectly navigable by foot but be warned - it sizzles in the European summer months.
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