Meeting the Saxons – Brasov, Romania, Eastern Europe
My husband, Mark, and I board a modern speed train at Gara de Nord station in Bucharest on route to Brasov. The 2:30 hour ride, past industrial Bucharest, green valleys and bushy forests, crosses at some point the invisible border into Transylvania.
At Brasov station, we take a taxi to Casa Cristina where I’ve reserved a room for one night. We pass the main square, go onto a side street, climbing up a hill patterned with little village houses. The owner had said over the phone that they were located at a10-minute walk from the center. This is starting to look like a 30-minute hike.
Midway, we ask the taxi driver in broken Romanian to take us somewhere closer to the center. He drives us to Pension Kronstadt. We check into a nicely furnished clean room (48 U.S. dollars per night, including breakfast), drop our bags and march out to tour. Along the way, we pass the central park, the white church, the four star Aro Palace Hotel (an eye sore, typical communist cement bloc), and cross Eroilor street (also the way to go to Poiana Brasov), and the main artery into the center.
The heart of the medieval town, Piasta Sfatului, is dotted by ornate houses in watercolor pastels, a circular fountain and outdoor cafés. Excitedly, I snap shots of the main landmarks – the Council House, the gothic Black Church (smoked by a fire in the 17th century, said to have the largest mobile bell in the country, though we didn’t go looking for it), and the fairy-tale looking citadel and gates that once protected the Saxon rulers against Turkish, Mongol and Austro-Hungarian invaders. Meanwhile, Mark lounges on the comfortable sofas of the Cercul Carpatin café/restaurant (that used to be a gilder’s stronghold in its hey day), soaking in the striking views.
Next, we head towards the Telecabina, at the foot of the impressive Tampa Mountain, and purchase two tickets for a three-minute cable car ride up. We cram into the metal box with two Russian girls and a Chinese couple, nervously testing its resilience, unsure whether the 1970’s construction will conquer the steep hill. It begins to pour as we reach the summit, where we stumble on a wedding in full swing at the panoramic restaurant/terrace.
With no directions in sight, we follow in the footsteps of a zigzagging couple, hoarding bottles of Ursus beer, down a dirt trail flanked by majestic trees. The fresh pine fragrance (unlike smog infested Bucharest) whacks us into a stupor. About a quarter mile later, we reach the lookout point, from where a dodgy fenced balcony, slightly blocked by the gigantic white letters (In the 1950’s, Stalin forced the town to cut down trees in order to carve his name on the mountain, which has now been replaced by the Hollywood style letters), that spell out the 320,000+ population below. We overlook the once Saxon bastion, the fortified gates and citadels, the plethora of churches, and the carpet of red-roofs, some of them, unfortunately, caving in. Overcoming our "wedding crasher" desires, in a momentary angst to get a better view from the restaurant terrace, we make it safely back.
We retrace our steps down a romantic cobblestone street (undergoing mega gas pipeline reconstruction), towards the Casa Hirscher (a former trade house turned restaurant that sits next to the Scottish Pub), recommended by the pension staff. Inside the restaurant, maps, coats of arms and other medieval images are scrupulously frescoed on the walls behind elegant wooden tables and stylish leather chairs; a tiffany-like glass panel in shades of bright orange, burgundy and red bearing the H logo (for Hirscher) stands across a cozy bar.
Because the weather is relatively warm, and a huge tarp protects us from the rain, we choose to sit at the open terrace, next to the only other customer in sight. The menu, opening to a chronicle on the building’s history, offers a wide range of local and international dishes (salads, soups, beef, chicken, lamb, pastas, etc) spelled out in Italian, English and Romanian. We decide to treat ourselves to beef and chicken delicacies.
Within 20 minutes, a crowd invades the remaining tables. Their orders, mainly salads and pizzas, come by the time we get our wine bottle. Gawking jealously at our neighbors, we wonder if the chef is giving a ceremonious orthodox death to the chicken and the cow, which will eventually become our meal. We regret our decision to go the a la carte track. Forty-five minutes later, bordering on nausea and slightly tipsy, two daintily decorated dishes finally arrive. Oh no! We get nouvelle cuisine style classics, the plates are vastly bigger than the portions, and we fret it won’t be enough. Surprisingly, the heavily sauced meals are delicious and they give us that pleasant just under-stuffed sensation. We strongly recommend this place, but advise that you order in advance.
As the sun sets in, we return to the hotel to rest. At about 10:00 p.m., we promenade to Casa Tudor, a five- minute walk from the pension, to pacify our sweet cravings. We share a portion of Papanasi, mouthwatering cheese dumplings with thick cream and homemade jam filling, and a carafe of red wine.
Biking in Poiana Brasov
On Sunday, after a protein and fat packed breakfast – omelet with Cascaval cheese and ham, salami and sausage cold cuts, sliced tomatoes and bread and butter – we take off to Poiana Brasov; the summer/ski resort, par excellence, located 12 kilometers south of Brasov. We shoot up a scenic snaky road, into the thick Carpathian Mountains. Our friendly and talkative taxi driver, who skillfully avoids roadside peasants selling wild raspberries and honey, and who is himself in a hurry to meet up with his friends for their Sunday barbecue ritual, drops us off within 25 minutes at Casa Dinga.
Here we rent two mountain bikes, and check a helpful, but rusted, roadside tourist map marking trails and biking routes. We opt to circle the village town. We drive past a flee market, on what seems to be the main square, selling a range of wooden arts and crafts (Dracula’s face is prominently displayed on beer jugs, chess boards, wine bottles, ashtrays), trinkets, furry vests, ski jackets, and dead stuffed animals (with bulging eyes!). The market leads to a wooden gate that opens to Syra Dacilor, Dacian shed – a complex of huts turned restaurants. We speed up the main road, past the thatched church, and hike to the cable car that ferries skiers and hikers to the top of coniferous draped Postavaru Mountain.
We breeze down a string of hotels, lodges, bars and restaurants catering to all tastes and pockets. We return the bikes ready to gorge on the grilled meat slabs we’ve been sniffing during our ride. We choose a little restaurant on the main road, at the entry into town. The food is average, but the service is painstakingly sluggish and uninteresting. Agreeing that taxiing back is too expensive, we build the courage to take a bus. We get our tickets, pass the horse riding center, and reach Brasov in 30 minutes, unharmed, kicking ourselves for not doing this before.
We leave the center, past the cement thick communist blocs and reach the train station to head back to Bucharest. At the station, Mark gets yelled at for about 10 minutes by the ticket teller, for not being able to explain something about our return tickets (which we’d already purchased in Bucharest). Somehow, he ends up paying an additional 30 lei. Eventually, we make it to the train and wave our good-byes to Brasov and Poiana, certain that we’ll return soon to hit the ski slopes, the equestrian center and more that we couldn’t cover in 24 hours.