Brasov – More than Just Dracula, a Hidden Jewel of Eastern Europe

I came to Brasov with the plan to stay just one night and, like everyone else, all I planned to see was Bran Castle: the legendary home of the Vampire Dracula.

On arrival, I checked into a very cheap hostel (45 lei / €8) called Art Hostel which isn’t in the best location but since I was only planning to stay a night I didn’t mind. It’s probably the smallest hostel in the world, with only one 8-bed room and a tiny kitchen and common area but I really liked it. That evening I headed out to explore, not expecting to find much in this pokey little village. After a brief walk around the old town square and the Black Church, I discovered a busy looking road full of bars and restaurants. Being Saturday night, it was quite packed with a bustling mix of young and old locals.

I soon came across a bar called Biblioteque, which caught my eye because I know it as the word for ‘library’. Turning up the long passageway that forms the entrance to the bar I found it was lined with bookshelves full of old books, antiques, and board games. Immediately I was enamored with this bizarre find and began to realize there is far more to this pokey little village than I first assumed. After a few beers and a bit more exploring the awesome nightlife on offer I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving Brasov tomorrow.

In the end, I actually stayed a whole two weeks AND didn’t even go to Bran Castle in that time. I did cycle the 25 kms to the Bran Castle location on my first day as planned but it was a Sunday and the place was absolutely packed. It looked like Disney World with all the cheap souvenirs, stalls and hawkers trying to sell you crap. It was not at all like the creepy environment I expected and I quickly decided I had wasted my time coming here. Also, it was never even the home of Vlad the Impaler who inspired Dracula – it just looks similar to the castle described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula book.

On the cycle home, I decided to take a different route via Poiana Brasov (the ski resort overlooking Brasov) due in part to roadworks I had encountered on the way and the feeling that I should at least do something while I’m out. The road was fairly long and steep but I didn’t have my bags so it went smoothly despite the lack of any high range gears on my bike. As I climbed I quickly began falling in love with the surrounding nature and by the time I was cycling down the hill on the opposite side back into Brasov, I had again reiterated to myself that I would be staying longer.

I entered back into Brasov through a nice dirt path and then turned on to a road that followed the ancient walls and a small river. Suddenly I came across a door in the rock face opposite the river with a bridge leading to it. It was pitch black inside and as I stood wondering if it was open to exploring, somebody popped out and confirmed that its a collection of tunnels that you can explore with your phone torch.

So I went in and spent about an hour exploring and got quite deep into the caves, having to crawl at some places. Eventually, I grew concerned I may not find my way out and started heading back. It was a bit confusing at parts but I eventually escaped unscathed. I thought it’s pretty cool to just have something like this open to the public with none of the usual worries about health and safety. Oh Romania, you silly sausage.

Getting closer to town

That evening I began to develop a rather nasty cough and spent the next day in bed at the hostel, getting some work done but mostly trying to rest. It may have been from overexerting myself on the cycle, or possibly something I inhaled while in the cave? Either way, I booked another night in the hostel and stayed in that night. A hitch-hiker showed up and we got chatting and he said hitch-hiking in Romania was very easy and people were friendly. He went out and when he came back showed me some amazing pictures from a hike he had done up to the Brasov sign, so I resolved to do the same before I leave.

The following day I abandoned plans I had made to leave Brasov and go cycle the Transfagarasan Highway and instead moved to another hostel more centrally located. Incredibly, this hostel was even smaller than Art Hostel, with only one 6-bed dorm and a tiny bathroom but a slightly bigger kitchen. I got some more work done and then went for a hike to the Brasov sign, which turned out to be quite a lot further and higher than the hitch-hiker had made out. It was totally worth the view though, and some good exercise.

When I got back, another cycle-tourer was at the hostel – a French guy who was heading in the opposite direction to me. We chatted a bit and then he headed out to an Irish bar called Deane’s where I later found him. The bar was having a 10 lei pizza special (about €2) so I joined him and some girls he had met and we had a few €1.50 beers and pizza. I guess it’s not the most traditional Romanian place but it’s a really cool bar, and they do karaoke every Tuesday!

The 7 Ladders Canyon

By now I had picked some info about the surrounding area and heard about an incredible hike up a gorge called the 7 Ladders Canyon. I headed off early the next day on the 10 km cycle to the canyon, stopping briefly for some very cheap McDonalds breakfast along the way. I locked up my bike on arrival and began the easy 2-hour walk to the start of the gorge. It follows a small river and a really awesome looking zip-line course which I planned to do on the way down. Entrance to the 7-ladders canyon is about 30 lei (about €6) so remember to bring some cash if you intend doing this. Luckily, I had enough, but the zipline is quite a bit more (80 lei), so I decided against that.

Hence the name, the canyon consists of a climb up 7 steel ladders through a huge gorge created by the river and has a similar feel to Antelope Canyon in the US. Along the way, I met a Norwegian girl who was living and studying in Copenhagen. She wanted to continue the hike all the way to the top of the mountain but was afraid of bears and asked if I would join her. I said yes, of course, because it was the chivalrous thing to do and not at all because she was drop-dead gorgeous.

After what felt like ages up steep sections over rocks and dirt where the path sometimes disappeared completely, we eventually reached a clearing with a small hut. The hut was a refuge for hikers and had some supplies so the Norwegian girl bought us a coke each since I had shared my water and biscuits with her. From here it was another hour or so hike to the highest point and we bumped into some others who decided to join us – a Norwegian guy who looked like a Viking, a French girl named Camille and an English girl from London. Just as we were heading off a small bear walked out of the forest up ahead and crossed the path but didn’t even notice us. After that, we were all on the lookout for more bears but sadly didn’t see any.

We did, however, bump into a shepherd who got very mad with us for apparently scaring his sheep off the path although we couldn’t understand what he was actually shouting. Despite taking another two hours, the hike to the top was totally worth it as the views are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve heard that the mountains in Switzerland are even more beautiful but they would have to be pretty spectacular to beat this! If you ever get a chance to visit Romania, which you definitely should, I would recommend this hike over any other tourist attraction.

Becoming a local

During the hike, we had all become friends but sadly the Norwegian and English girls had to leave that evening, so I arranged to meet Camille and the Viking for some after-hike drinks. We went to Bibliotheque for some beers and then another bar where we drank some Bechrovka shots and then headed back to their hostel for homemade Palinka, an awful tasting local liquor. Needless to say, I stumbled back to my hostel very drunk, with the promise to move to their hostel, Boemia, the next day.

Despite a mild hangover, I was up early, packed my stuff and moved to Boemia hostel before the others even woke up. After being assigned a bed I had some coffee and got some work done. I was now quite settled in Brasov and had quite decided I might just live here now, so I no longer felt the need to try squeeze in lots of touristy stuff. Camille was a volunteer at the hostel along with a Kiwi girl, Jess, who I had briefly met the night before. They took turns looking after the hostel in the evenings in exchange for free food and board and so the young couple who ran it could get some time off.

Peles Castle

I had been hearing a lot about Peles Castle since I arrived, which people reported as far more beautiful than Bran Castle, so Camille, the Viking and I decided to go visit it the following day. We headed off early and took the €3 train to nearby Sinaia, a short walk from the castle. It really is far more beautiful, although quite expensive to visit if you want to see the whole thing. Just the first floor is 30 lei (€6) and for both floors, it’s double (60 lei), which seems excessive. The other two had student cards so they got half-price but I decided I couldn’t afford that much and just took a first-floor ticket.

After exploring the opulent first floor we attempted to go upstairs but they asked to check our tickets. I said I had accidentally given mine in at the door but since the other two had second-floor tickets, she assumed we were a group and let me in. Score! If you do go to Peles and can afford it, I suggest getting a ticket for both floors (or sneaking in like me) – the upstairs is far more impressive than the first floor! Annoyingly, they try to scam an extra 30 lei out of you for ‘photograph tax’, which is bullshit and I told them so. It does, however, mean you need to be very discreet when taking photos if you don’t cough it up. Fortunately, after traveling to so many supposedly ‘sacred’ sites around the world, I’m a pro at taking discreet photos.

That evening the Viking had to leave but Jess, another guest and I headed out to watch a live music event that the local council was hosting in the town square. It featured some local bands and ended off with an incredible opera singer that sounded as professional as anything I’ve seen on TV (although, I’m tone deaf so what would I know).

We took a bus up to Poiana Brasov the following morning despite mild hangovers and decided to hike up to one of the ski chalets. It wasn’t the most beautiful hike as it mostly followed a dirt road that is a skiing piste during winter. However, at the top, we discovered the pot of gold – free food and palinka! We don’t know why, but a small restaurant was giving away platters of bread, ham, cheese, and cake along with free shots of palinka, so we proceeded to get drunk before stumbling back down the mountain and almost dying. Good day.

Transfagarasan

I spent the following few days mostly working during the day and playing increasingly complex drunken card games with Camille and Jess in the evenings. The hostel (Boemia) had a nice flow of really interesting guests, many of which we got to join in with our game of figuring out, and then playing loudly, the song that was number one when they were born. This, I found, is a great way to get everyone in the hostel involved, even the commonly shy ones. I really should work in a hostel full time.

Anyway, during these days we formulated a plan to hire a car and drive up what Jeremy Clarkson once called the most beautiful road in the world – the Transfagarasan! The road was built by ex-president Ceausescu as an attempt to improve upon the already popular Transalpina, a few kilometres to the west. While it is admittedly more impressive, it is so treacherous that they need to close it every winter.

The car hire companies are a bit odd in Romania and require a minimum rental period of 2 days, so we collected the car the day before Jess and I drove up to Poiana Brasov to have some lunch. It was also good practice for me to get used to driving on the right. The next day we all woke up super early and hit the road at 7 am, along with Camille’s friend who had come to visit her for the weekend. Unfortunately, we didn’t choose the best day weather-wise but that just added to the spookiness of the Romanian countryside.

The road past Bran and around the back of the Carpathian mountains winds up and down along mountainous roads with beautiful scenery all around. It’s dotted with creepy old towns that are littered with interesting and bizarre sights, like strange sculptures and bizarre buildings. After a few hours driving, we eventually began the ascent up the south side of the Transfagarasan, where we stopped to visit another one of Dracula’s supposed castle – Poianeri. Unfortunately, it was closed due to bears, so we continued on across precariously built bridges and through small tunnels until we were winding up along the sides of a huge valley.

Suddenly I realized we were very short on fuel and the chances of finding a gas station out here were slim. The girls were freaking out but I figured as long as we get over the peak we can just free-wheel down the other side to the gas station at the bottom. We had one moment of panic when we stopped for photos and the car wouldn’t start at first but eventually, we made it to the top. Right at the very peak is a short tunnel which, when driven through, result in the most extraordinary event. On the side, we entered it was sunny and clear weather but as we broke out the other side it was practically snowing! The sky was dark with clouds, thick rain was falling and patches of snow surrounded the road. It was like going through a portal into another world.

We found somewhere to park the car amongst the throng of tourists and day-trippers and went to explore this strange landscape. Despite being mid-summer, large swathes of snow remained on the mountain, almost like a glacier. Despite this, many people were hanging around by the lake and some even went for a brief swim. The view from the top is incredible, looking down over what must be the windiest road ever built. Surprisingly, the food stalls at the top weren’t overpriced and we managed to get a decent lunch for about 15 lei (€3). One of the nicer things about Romania is that it isn’t spoilt by tourism…. yet.

Soon we needed to head down, so we all climbed back in the car and started to roll down the road with the engine off to save petrol. It made it difficult to brake and steer without mechanical assistance, especially considering the sharp corners and steep inclines, but we made it. We stopped briefly to explore a waterfall near the base of the pass and then got back on the road for the long ride home.

Personally, I find Brasov to be one of the undiscovered jewels of Eastern Europe but a friend of mine recently visited and found it boring. This highlights how unique the travel experience is for each different individual and how our perception is largely subjective. I always hope my blogs can help people to enjoy a destination better but in reality, the only way to know is to get out there and do it yourself.

As always, have a happy journey …. and never stop exploring!

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