Enclosed in our new trusty steed we sped away from the terrifying and lawless roads of Bucharest towards Transylvania and more manageably terrifying and lawless roads. Flat countryside soon gave way to incredible mountain views and small towns nestled in the folds of the land. Dense dark forests where myths were sure to dwell, craggy peaks complete with either a dark fortress or a welcoming looking ski chalet. After a great lunch in a quaint little mountain town we descended into Brasov which lay in the valley beyond the mountains. Our first look was a little disappointing as we were confronted with hideous large communist blocks and sprawling new developments, but as we drove further towards our goal the town began to age.
We soon arrived at the ‘bike house’ and were met by Emil and Iouna and a momentarily hostile Eura. Eura very quickly warmed to us, stopped barking and we felt as if we were visiting old friends. Sitting at the table with Emil and Ioana we chat effortlessly and quickly learn of their passion for Romania and Transylvania. Ioana is a conservationist with a wealth of knowledge about the history and ecology of the region and Emil is a designer and artisan who works with wood and knows a lot about architecture and traditional crafting methods. Their love of history and creative eye was easily seen in their gorgeous home. Newly renovated by Ioana and Emil, the house is a 250 year old Saxon home and in it’s more recent history was the towns first bike shop after the communist era, hence it’s name.
That evening we were recommended a traditional Romanian restaurant in a gorgeous red bricked wine cellar. Dotahn ordered the chef special and was presented with a plate piled high with various incarnations of pig and polenta, proceeding quickly into a meat coma and couldn’t finish even a third of his meal. Although more and more we can see Dotahn’s roots from this region he isn’t accustomed to the sheer meatery of the diet.
We only had two full days in Brasov so after breakfast we hit the road and drove into the country side in search of a small monastery called Sinca Veche on Emils recommendation. Driving past endless corn fields with hay stacks pulled right out of children’s picture books and the many crucified Christs dotted along the roadside we came to a small village and turned right at an old church, following a squiggly line on paper Emil had drawn for us. On the top of a hill we came upon the monastery built alongside a cave which was once a pagan temple and is now a holy site for Christians. The area is lush with forest and has a beautiful and serene atmosphere. Small hobbit like rooms are used to keep holy relics and forest paths lead between mossy rocks and a small spring. The cave is filled with small prayers crammed into the rock and we each took some time to feel the calm and make a prayer of our own.
Back on the road which is like a moth eaten patchwork quilt due to multiple potholes and repairs we slowly made our way to Bran castle, best know for its tenuous ties to the the Dracula myth. The castle is said to have inspired Bram Stokers classic tale along with the historical figure of Vlad who is a heroic character in Romania and a feared monster to many others. Vlad III Draculesti or Vlad Dracula was later dubbed Vlad the Impaler because of his fierce brutality in defence of his country. He is said to have defended the Bulgarians and Romanians from the Ottoman Empire in the mid 14th century. His image can be found everywhere almost on par with religious iconogrophy as he is seen as the defender of the Christian faith.
The castle itself looms over a craggy cliff side and is imposing and beautiful. Simple smooth stone, small rooms and incredibly thick walls. The castle was first built in 1212 by the order of the Teutonic knights, destroyed by the mongols thirty years later and then rebuilt towards the end of the 13th century by the Saxons.
After witnessing the elaborate gaudiness of Versailles with it’s immense amount of marble and gold in the giant rooms that acted as a theatrical stage for the royals, Bran was very refreshing and humble. Decorated as it was when it was the home of the very popular Queen Marie of Romania in the 1920’s, the rooms were quite small and intimate with beautiful details in the tiles, rugs and furniture. The castle had a warm and homey feel despite its staunch stone walls and evidently military construction. Beautiful curves, gorgeous wooden furniture, amazing views and a fantastic courtyard, Bran is a castle we could call home.
In the courtyard was a fantastic historical remnant, the witches scales. Used for reliably ascertaining a women’s witchly properties a bible and some rocks were placed on one end of the scales and a woman on the other. As the soul of a witch weighs very little if you are lighter than the bible and ‘some rocks’ then you were sentenced to a witchy death. These weigh houses were very popular in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century as women were charged to be weighed and provided a certificate to say they were not a witch. This made the owners of such scales and various officials very rich.
Unfortunately we were unable to see Peleș Castle as it was closed during the days we were in town:( But not to worry, as that evening we were taken out for drinks and dinner in an old stable with Emil, Ioana and their Brasov posse.
For a dose of local history and a deeper look at Old Town Brasov, Ioana organised for a friend of theirs who is a historian to give us a tour of the town. So with the morning sun we met Paula and began our trek with a visit to the old fortress of Brasov which gave an amazing view across the town. The history itself is a long, complicated and tumultuous one as Brasov is an important gateway to the East and West and was endlessly contested. Although its ancient history is cloudy with Dacian and Roman artifacts, the town as it is known today was first settled by Saxons under the Hungarian kings in the early 12 century and later fortified by the Teutonic knights. Brasov was an important trade route linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe and was therefore a strategically important military location.
Paula then took us for a walk around the outside of the old fortifications of Old Town, along a path that crosses the very bottom of the woods that clothe Mt Tâmpa, the mountain that rises above Brasov and even bears a Hollywood sign of the towns name on its peak. During the Communist era Mt Tâmpa had another name spelled out on its side when communists carved out Stalins name by cutting down certain trees. You can still see some of the regrowth recovering. There are also tales of an underground ocean hidden within the mountain.
Here we got a peek at some local mythology when we came across a stone chair on the edge of the path. It is said that the stone fell on Ana Marie and her lover killing them both. The town then carved the same rock into a chair in memory of their love.
Along the old outer wall we visited other significant landmarks such as Catherine’s Gate, the last surviving medieval gate into the old city and the Black Tower, which is more of a white hue but called the black tower due to a fire when it was hit by lightning centuries ago. The views from the tower over the town were spectacular.
Moving inside the old fortification we were taken to Brasov’s most revered historical landmark, the gothic Black Church. It was given this name after it was completely blackened by the Great Fire in 1689. The church was one of the only surviving building after this fire as most of the town was made of wood. When rebuilding the town it was decreed that no more buildings were allowed to be made of wood. The church was beautiful inside, with four organs, balconies and spiral staircases, walls adorned with oriental rugs and mausoleum stones. There was also the old guild seating with the guild insignia painted on them to show were they once were seated. We tried to deciphers which guilds sat where by interpreting the drawings.
When walking around the center of town we noticed the recurring image of a crown with roots. This image was also seen at Bran Castle so we asked Paula what it meant. She explained that this was the Brasov coat of arms and that there are many myths about where it comes from. One of them is that King Soloman (not that one a different one) was running away from the Turks and hid in the woods where he put down his crown on a tree before continuing on with his escape. The crown is now a lost treasure in the woods with some attempting over the years to find it.
We ended our tour in the main square and then went and had coffee speaking of more contemporary things such as pop culture, games and movies.
Our last night in Brasov was full of stories and merry making when we were treated to a home cooked traditional Romanian peasant meal made by our lovely hosts. We were introduced to Țuică, a highly potent traditional Romanian plum spirit made by Emil’s family and Romanian sushi, which is the nickname given to the smoked belly fat of a pig. Other staples of the Romanian diet are the aforementioned polenta, made all the better slathered in butter, three types of cheese (one of them coming from a large jar made by Emils grandmother) and sour cream. Complete this with raw onion, bread and eggs and you have yourself an unusual and absolutely delicious meal.
The night grows long and early with more Țuică and wine loosening the flow of shared stories. We are introduced to Romanian pop music and tradition folk songs and dance.
We ask Ioana and Emil if they knew what the graffiti ‘Basarabia y Romania’ means. They explain that Basarabia is a province of Moldova and that Moldova was once all Romanian territory. Then Russia split Moldova in half and took one side which is now called the Republic of Moldova. The other side is called “Our Moldova’ to the Romanians. Their are many people in Romania and in Moldova who think that Moldova should be reunited and given back to Romania.
When we try to look up the history of Bessarabia it all seems a lot less straight forward. The area has been constantly occupied and and renamed by the likes of the Ottoman Empire, Russia, Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Moldova. However it is easy to see many similarities in the culture of the Bessarabian region and Romania. Turns out Dotahn might be part Romanian!
But the night can not last forever and our new friends have work to attend to in the daylight. So with drunken farewells we say goodnight. Thankyou for having us Bike house. It was too short but very sweet.
The northerly trek towards the Republic of Moldova is a stunning and mountainous one. We wove through amazing canyons, through stone and forest towards our stay in Piatra Neamț.
We were greeted by a large and empty guesthouse and our host Ion. With our few snippets of conversation conducted entirely through a translation app. The language barriers didn’t matter as we sat down to amazing home cooked meal of fish home grown veges and even more amazing homemade cognac.
Well over-proof, but also overly delicious the cognac was a little too much for Emmily’s delicate constitution and so we spent the next days sight-seeing nursing her hangover. Swan infested waters of a large lake, a giant dam and a closer look at nearby canyons soothed Emmily’s head in time for our journey into what was once Bessarabia.