A Romanian Railway Journey to the Fabled Transylvania & Beyond
Where: Bucharest, Transylvania (Bran, Brasov). Romania, Eastern Europe.
When: August 2012
What: Palace of the Parliament, Ceaușescu-era Apartment Blocks, Dracula’s Castle at Bran, Spark House, Former RomanianCommunist Party HQ and the infamous balcony, Unirii fountains and boulevard, Rasnov Citadel.
How: International Flight, Romanian Railways, Bus, Taxi.
Country counter: Country No.40
Illnesses or mishaps: Contracting a serious case of gastroenteritis which required a week off work and two courses of antibiotics to get rid of - probably my worst travel-contracted sickness to date; arriving in Bucharest in the middle of a 46° heatwave.
Romania was a pleasant surprise. Five days travelling around the country blew a whole host of stereotypes and prejudgements from my mind which I am ashamed to admit I held, albeit in part fuelled by my research online: I envisioned Gypsies on street corners badgering passers by, I imagined predatory taxi drivers ripping us off, I imagined pickpockets on every street corner... While we did encounter some problems on the journey, they were muted and tame by comparison with such expectations. Romania is a case in point: in travel keep an open mind and keep things in perspective. The country still bears the hallmarks, as many former Eastern Bloc countries, of prolonged underinvestment and stagnation but Romania is a country with a very promising younger generation. Indeed, Romania has been a member of European Union since 2007, symbolically looking West rather then East for its future fortunes.
Romania's recent history isn't a good one. The Ceaușescu years (1967-1989) were some of Romania's darkest. Initially a popular leader in the late 1960s who opposed domination by Soviet Russia, Nicolae Ceaușescu soon morphed into communist dictator archetype, suppressing his people through propaganda and violence. Ceaușescu was also responsible for the demolishing of many of Bucharest's treasured historical buildings, reducing them to rubble to make way for monstrous communal apartment blocks and, in doing so, maximised the surveillance of his people. He lavished millions on building the People's House in Bucharest, re-named The Palace of the Parliament after the Romanian Revolution, while his people starved. As the late Eighties wore on, and with Romania's neighbours being swept along by a tidal wave of democracy, Romania increasingly looked isolated, an anachronism, a basket case, a tin pot dictatorship. It was only a matter of time... Ceaușescu and his wife Elena were executed in the ensuing Revolution of 1989. Iconic scenes from this period of bloody Romanian history include Ceaușescu's final speech, orchestrated by the Communist Party to shore up crumbling support for the regime, which backfired in spectacular fashion live on Romanian television (you can watch his dramatic last speech here). Also iconic from this time is the moment the Ceaușescus escaped from the roof of Communist Party Headquarters in a helicopter, only to be later captured, court-marshalled and shot by firing squad live on Romanian national television.
I found Romanians helpful and respectful. People offered to explain, offered directions, and offered smiles. I left the country rather liking Romania and feeling just a little humbled - and, admittedly, somewhat of an idiot for having prejudged the country to intensely. Romania also holds a couple of personal travel records for me, being the 40th country I have been to as well as the hottest country I have visited so far. If you like city breaks with impressive architecture and a recent dramatic history, 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 in no way begin and end in Bucharest.
We arrived in Bucharest mid-afternoon. A street-based temperature display 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, this was simply 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 passing Bucharesters. What's more, peculiar yellow shelters which sprayed water, like misting sprinklers, from the canopy downwards, were dotted around the capital such was the dangerous heat in the city. Indeed, apart from a short-lived foray out into Bucharest's Old Town for dinner, the best part of our first day in the Romanian capital was spent cooling down in the hotel room and sleeping off the heat with the air-con on maximum.
Bucharest is a mixture of architectural styles which betrays a troubled past. Baroque and Neo-classical masterpieces rub shoulders with dreary 1960s 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 squeezed into the smallest of spaces. In one instance a church was moved back twenty metres from the road, by way of putting wheels underneath, to allow a large apartment block to continue in an uninterrupted straight line. Parts of historic Bucharest were levelled to the ground to make way for Systemization, a policy Ceaușescu envisioned would establish the world's first Socialist utopia and said to be inspired by the dictator's visit to North Korea. Of course, this was far less about creating utopia and far more about relocating Romanians into small, claustrophobic spaces where they could be more closely surveilled. This was the architecture of the dictator, architecture as tool of suppression, as weapon of subjugation. In the paranoia of the age, neighbours became likely spies, friends potential informants, family members probable traitors. The apartment blocks built during this era are not, in themselves, entirely ugly or without architectural merit. Admittedly many are adorned with Neo-classical or Baroque embellishments which go a long way to softening their functional brutality and partly compensating for the beautiful buildings which they unceremoniously replaced. It is, however, their sheer number and size which scar the city so. Ceaușescu's policy of Systemization threatened Bucharest's famous epithet of being the "Little Paris of the East". I would also testify that Bucharest is infinitely more interesting than Paris.
The centrepiece of this Systemization programme is the gargantuan People's House subsequently renamed the Palace of the Parliament. The name "People's House" was, indeed, a huge a misnomer as it was never built for the people but, instead, was a product of the vanity and excess of Romania's dictator and his wife. The building, underscoring the megalomania of the Ceaușescus themselves, has some outrageous superlative statistics to go with it. The Palace of the Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world, beaten only by The Pentagon in the United States. It is the largest civilian administrative building in the world, the heaviest building in the world, it has 1100 rooms, is made from one million metres of marble sourced from Transylvania, and has 480 chandeliers. Some of its windows are not made of glass but, quite absurdly, from crystal. After all that, and at the time of my visit, it is officially only 98% finished. 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. Our visit to Romania's most infamous building was timely; it was at least 40° outside and the giant marble building offered some respite from the unrelenting Romanian summer temperatures. Indeed, sometimes the environment you find yourself in dictates your itinerary.
Bucharest also had a rather efficient Metro system which, for a small fee, whisked us around the capital's principal sights without the danger of us losing our own body weight in sweat in the process. The city's Old Town consisted of streets upon streets of café s, bars and restaurants. The bars, with their Perspex and neon, are the outward expression of a country trying to move on from the darkness of its past and instead gaze firmly to the future. Indeed, I found it hard to conceive that only 23 years previous to my visit Bucharest was the seat of power of a brutal dictator and his evil, manipulative wife and a terrified population starving to death in freezing tenements. Bucharest has embraced the freedom and night-life of Western Europe with passionate fervour.
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 dictator. Unsurprisingly, it has a string of absurd statistics to go with its immense size.
The view from a balcony inside the former Dictator's palace and down Unirii Boulevard.
Beautifully Baroque Budapest. Such architecture justifies the city's epithet of 'Paris of the East'.
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. R ather incredible.
The Stalinist architecture of the House of the Free Press in northern Bucharest. Initially called Spark House.
Hidden between huge socialist buildingsthe New Saint John Church, built in 1756, was moved back on wheels to make way for Ceaușescu's Systemization strategy.
Outside the former Romanian Communist Party Headquarters in central Bucharest featuring the infamous balcony where Ceaușescu delivered his final speech. Right: in front of the headquarters with the balcony over my shoulder (you can watch his dramatic speech here).
The Unirii fountains go some way to softening the imposing apartment blocks which dominate the city.
Getting to Transylvania from Bucharest is 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 170 kilometres into central Romania, affording us rather impressive views of the evocative Carpathian Mountains. These are the mountains to which Bram Stoker refers in his novel Dracula. Brasov is also a favoured location for many travelling around Romania because of its proximity to Bran and the famous Bran Castle. For this reason it attracts an irritating number of visitors. Including me.
Having made the hassle-free journey from Bucharest, we stupidly thought that travelling only 30 kilometres from Brasov would be simple. It wasn't. On the advice of a ticket seller in a booth we purchased, through a hatch the size of a matchbox, two 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 something called 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 that we were sat on a bus which was going round in circles. 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 has dissipated into the mists of time, came with us and we all split the fare. We also arranged with the driver to take us back to Brasov railway station. He was slightly crazy, 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 60 kilometres return trip from Brasov to Bran and Bran to Brasov (which also included him waiting for an hour and a half for us to explore Bran), the fare was £16 - and this was split three ways between us. Saying goodbye to our Chinese pal, and with time short, we asked him to take us from Brasov Railway 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 but protested, "No Russia, no Russia!"
We arrived at our hotel, which actually turned out to be a pensione, dumped our bags and headed out into Brasov. This was a place in stark contrast to Bucharest: cobbled streets, terracotta rooftops, and winding alleyways leading to courtyards with lanterns of yesteryear. It was very sanitised and safe and had none of Bucharest's edginess. It's travel writing cliché to say that we had gone back in time but that's precisely how it felt. The saving grace was a cable car ride up to the top of Tampa Mountain which overlooks Brasov. The views were rather fantastic and, from such a great height, made Brasov look like a Lilliputian toy town. I also loved the large Hollywood-style white letters on top of the mountain brashly spelling out "BRASOV" which we were able to walk directly behind. On the descent from Tampa my ears, and those of others in the cable car, 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 highlighted 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 particular 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. Either that or I might actually start to get offended. I have often mused that these small boxes with tiny hatches are actually designed to keep these people in rather than keep us out. With an hour to pass we walked across to the newly-built Unirea shopping mall directly opposite the station and settled for a coffee before making our way back over to the station. I couldn't help but notice the signs on the shopping mall doors which informed shoppers that smoking, dogs and...guns were not allowed inside. Reassuring. After what was without doubt the longest tannoy bing-bong in the world came an announcement that our train would be six minutes late. Actually, I mused, "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 another sixty minutes 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 tiring 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) to keep out the chill. I'm not sure what locals thought but I didn't really care - I was just glad that it was no longer 46° and that I could lay off drinking water for a bit, having somewhat developed the behaviour of a fish constantly gulping. Apart from cancellations, delays, the chilly weather and a drunk collapsing and having a some kind of 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.
Arriving in Brasov from Bucharest on Romanian Railways.
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.
Brasov's terracotta rooftops seen from the top of Tampa Mountain.
Enjoying views of Brasov on our last morning.
Bran Castle is marketed as the home of Dracula, orVlad Tepe. There is, however, no evidence that this man has any connection with the place. In my eyes, this wasn't particularly remarkable and I was left feeling rather underwhelmed having seen and been inside the castle itself. It was, unsurprisingly, a tourist trap of the worst kind, crammed full of people from all over the world lured, possibly falsely so, by the building's famed but disputed 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 the castle was annoyingly surrounded by tall trees. The best photograph I achieved, below, was a bungled result of me having to stand on a wall and, even then, I could do nothing about the electricity cables strung across the street. You would think authorities maintaining the place would trim back 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 underwhelmed.
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 surrounding the building.
Bran Castle detail: turrets, graveyards and steps.
travel tips, links & resources
- 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. Indeed, it is not uncommon for temperatures to reach the mid-40°s. By the same token, temperatures plummet to well below freezing in winter, often dropping to -5°.
- Make sure you try the two street food delicacies to be found on every street corner. First, a sweet pasty which is a mixture between doughnut and cheese pastry. While often greasy, they were tasty, inexpensive and perfect as food on the go. Second, it is impossible to leave Romania without having tried limonada - a traditional lemonade drink made from sugar, lemons and syrup and served in a large jug.
- Bucharest has an efficient Metro system which, for small fee, whisked us around the capital's principal sights without the need for us to lose our own bodyweight in sweat in the process.
- The similarity between the Romanian language and other European languages such as French, Italian, Spanish and English meant making sense of signage and other information relatively easy.
- Getting around the country can be slow, with the Romanian Railway's misnomered '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. Our experience of the railway was characterised by three hour-long delays. You'd be wise to have a Plan B if you need to get somewhere fast.
- 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.
- It would be very wise to keep an eye on your belongings in Bucharest; the city, like many capital cities on the continent, has a reputation for having a pickpocketing problem.
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