Despite its nice parks, Bucharest was still a bit urban for my liking, and I was happy to escape. Away from Wallachia and into Transylvania. Super excited about that, as I’m just a huge Twilight fan. It’s like Dracula, but better. So what better way to celebrate one of the greatest novels/movies of the century than to visit the famed motherland of the vampires.
I started in a small hostel to get the lay of the land and learn what there was to do in the area, but I then moved just down the street to a nice AirBnb in Brașov. The city is much smaller, with a nice mix of tourists and locals who also used and enjoyed the city center. There were plenty of small coffee shops, and just a couple minutes from a bevy of trees, which made it nice to be able to breath again.
The main attraction in this area was Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s castle. It was not-so-aptly decorated celebrating the family who owned the castle at the turn of the 19th century, which literally no one visiting the castle cared about. The couple small rooms towards the top of the castle that were dedicated to Dracula and medieval battles were the cause of a bit more excitement.
But after visiting the castle, the locals always ask “so what did you think?” in a kind of “I know you were disappointed” sort of way. Which, yeah, it’s a bit underwhelming, but if you go in without the highest expectations it’s fine. Truth is, it’s a normal, small castle. Not the greatest, not the worst. I wasn’t unhappy I went or anything.
I toured that with an American guy I met with Daredevil glasses. But I hadn’t watched Daredevil at the time, so I thought they were dumb looking. Also, he wasn’t blind. But at least I can appreciate them more now.
As is the case with most of Eastern Europe, most things are meat. But at one of the more authentic places I was able to get a polenta dish with cream cheese and something else. I always just associated polenta with when my brother decided to buy it at the grocery store having no idea what it is and cooking it (it’s actually totally fine, but it’s boring – they told me you always have to put stuff with it to eat it).
The city of Brașov itself contains a small old town area (seen on the right below), and on either side there are little hills you can walk up (or take a cable car). The big hike up to their “Hollywood” sign is pictured here below, and I would run on this hill a few days while I was here. Not the greatest running paths, but it was exercise of some kind.
On the other side, which is much smaller, there is a small park with some lookout tours to take selfies from.
These are some views from a tower on the other side.
I ended up liking the coffee and beer scene in Brașov well enough. Here’s a picture of Tipografia, which had both. They also had a sort of tapas menu, Bruschetta and stuff, because who doesn’t like a snack.
There are a number of street cafes that you can disappear into and work for a bit, although I rarely do that. They did have a Starbucks, so the city was immediately off to a good start as far as I was concerned. It was smaller though, not nearly as nice as the ones in Bucharest.
My favorite place ended up being Cafeteca, which was spacious enough to not be bothered, very inexpensive, and they just served coffee/beer so you didn’t feel pressured to buy other stuff. And there was a great view of the Brașov sign and old streets. People working there were really nice, and they seemed to get the whole “working from the computer” thing.
A handful of other places are around that I frequented, Hof Cafe and Kafe Pub were good, but I also stayed in the apartment a lot. It had two pet cats. One was skittish, the other was cool, so I hung out with that one a lot.
When I took the train from Bucharest to Brașov, I did no research per usual, but I did notice a couple tourist looking people getting off at Sinaia. Turns out I should have done that too, but as things go, I instead backtracked two hours on the train to see the castle there. And that turned out to be a great idea.
At this point, I’ve seen a lot of things. Impressionist paintings and sunsets on mountaintops tend to blend together after a while, as do castles. It’s all still wonderful of course and I enjoy doing them still, but they’re rarely uniquely new. Peles Castle was very unique.
The outside of the castle is cool enough, but the inside is absolutely marvelous. It’s a mixture of a number of different architectural styles (fitting given its location between essentially three separate civilizations), and includes decorations from everywhere from Germany/Austria to the Ottoman Empire in the east. And, as luck would have it, you needed to pay a hefty photography fee to take pictures of the inside of the castle, so I did not take any pictures of it.
But, Google is a thing, so look at the pictures from other people.
So if you can only do one thing in Romania, I’d recommend this be it. I mean, it even has an executioner’s sword.
That was the highlight of Romania, which I understand is annoying since there aren’t pictures of the inside. But whatever, buy your own ticket and go if you want to see it. It’s easily accessible from both Bucharest and Brașov, so you don’t have any excuses not to. The town also seemed like the kind of place where you could stay a couple days – not too touristy, but modern and had a few nice little restaurants in the town area.
Brașov is located in the Romanian Carpathian mountains, which sort of separates all the regions in Romania. So, there’s a lot of really nice hiking in the area. You can spend days doing it of course, but I opted for the shorter, more touristy hike.
This hike was to the “Seven Ladders Canyon”, which is just on the outskirts of Brașov and quite easy to get to. Aptly named, it has 7 ladders that go through the canyon and waterfalls in the area.
From the top of the canyon, there are a series of ziplines that can take you all the way back down. Looked fun enough. Until of course this small girl didn’t slow down enough and sort of “bounced” off the padding on the tree, tossing her far enough so she couldn’t reach the platform and slowly started sliding back up the zipline away from the tree. Myself and a couple other hikers got to watch in slow motion as her father came blazing down the zipline at this helpless girl (I’m not good with ages, older than 6, younger than 14) and smashed into here. She cried a little, but all in all I think it was a good collision and everyone was alright.
And if you’re in Brașov, don’t validate your ticket again when you change trains. I did that, causing a big argument between two ticket enforcement officers as to whether I should get fined. Luckily for me, the lady who spoke some English won and I did not get fined.
Bound by my personal philosophy to, when making a close decision, choose the more interesting option, I elected to head through Moldova to the Black Sea rather than just traveling north up Romania and western Ukraine.
Since the bus to Chișinău would have taken me all the way back down through Bucharest, which didn’t feel productive, I decided to make a stop in the city of Iași instead. It’s a university town in Northeast Romania, not heavily populated on the tourist trail.
I stayed at Bicycle hostel, which only had two bicycles and they were broken. Other than that, it was a really nice place though. Oh the walk uphill to the town was also annoying, but whatever. I was just going to stay one night, but I ended up staying two or three. I mean, it had two Starbucks, so there are worst places to be.
Think Starbucks coffee is expensive? It’s not really a ton cheaper in Romania, probably a little less than $3 for an Americano. The average income for someone in rural Romania is $400-$500/month. PPP, that’s the equivalent of paying $30 for the same coffee at your local Starbucks. People like their American things here (although I admit the Starbucks are pretty quiet in Iași).
The interesting bits of town are essentially a road leading to the Palace of Culture, which is then oddly surrounded by a mall. They really can’t get enough of their malls here.
The people in the hostel were nice, and I tagged along to a dive bar where they were having a beer pong tournament. It was neat, but I’ve long been retired from those shenanigans so I just went home at a reasonable hour.
It was a nice enough stop-over, they had a couple college town beer bars that were nice to sit and work for a while – Beer Zone being the one I found most convenient. But, I wouldn’t want to stay there much longer, so after a couple days I continued on.
From Iași, it’s a pretty short drive into Chișinău. Moldova still speaks Romanian, and its capital was very modern and not entirely different than Romania. I swear I took more photos, but they seem to have disappeared. I did take a picture of the market though, which was massive. You could buy anything there, from batteries and clothing to fruits.
The group at my hostel in Moldova was very interesting. A constant at every hostel I’ve been to is talking about how to save money traveling around, cheap eating options, and an overall sense of pinching pennies to extend travel a bit. Not here, in the capital of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe with an average GDP of $1800 in 2015. The hostel consisted of almost all solo travelers (there was pair of cousins, and a couple as I was leaving) – a Swedish engineer, Argentine businessman/traveler, son of an Egyptian oil tycoon, a SF-based entrepreneur, and an American who sounded like he knew his way around cryptocurrencies. There were a few seasoned travelers that were taking more normal vacations, and while people weren’t just blowing money left and right, nobody was asking what the prices of things were either. Bottles of wines at restaurants were about $6, so it’s not like this was some dramatic show of wealth, but it was very different than your typical hostel, in a good way. I didn’t really realize it until afterward. I suppose if you’re solo traveling in Chișinău it’s probably not your first solo travel rodeo.
But anyways, I know I did take pictures, but that said you’re not missing a whole lot by not seeing them. There are some older, soviet-style buildings throughout the city, but they’re also modernizing. The center had a cool arch, and there were a couple nice parks with lakes nearby and within the city. So that was nice for a change.
They had a few good cafes, so I worked at Tucano Coffee (which was my favorite), and Robert’s Coffee as well. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the food around (especially from a vegetarian perspective), but we did drink Moldovan wine with almost every meal, which was very good.
I did a day trip with another American to Tiraspol, the capital of the autonomously-governed region of Transnistria on the eastern edge of Moldova. It’s an odd place with it’s own currency, and rather than speak Romanian, everything is in Russian.
It was touted as one of those “step back in time” to the Soviet Era experiences, which it was to a certain extent. Definitely lots of old, Soviet-style apartment buildings. You know, boring looking. But as we walked around looking out-of-place, people didn’t really give a shit. We ate at a small food kiosk in the park and the workers there enjoyed the communication barrier, but other than that there wasn’t really much excitement.
The “coins” are really cool though – they’re basically small pieces of plastic.
We tried walking into the Botanical Gardens, but they were closed so we only got a few glimpses. Well, we were able to get in, but the guy made hand signals telling us no, and despite the fact that we clearly did not understand Russian, walked us out pointing to the sign saying they were closed on Mondays. It was more of a “you guys are idiots” tone than anger or frustration though, so no big deal.
There was a park with a church and some bells between the train station and the “center” of Tiraspol, so I took some pictures of that.
The currency is the same rate as Moldova, but you do need to switch to their currency upon entering. We both exchanged the equivalent of $12 upon entering the town, and after a day of walking around and getting a couple snacks, he had $6 left and I had $10 left. So we bought some regional wine for the ride back and kept the rest as a souvenir.
There are some large, old wineries in the surrounding region of Moldova, but we weren’t really organized enough to have a go at that. Next time, I guess. But that was it really – didn’t really know what to expect from Moldova or Northeast Romania, but I was pleasantly surprised and glad I had gone in that direction.
The bus from Chișinău to Odessa is a few hours, where I’ll stay for a little over a week. It’s more of a eastern Europe tourist town, but it’s on the sea and I miss the water. While I haven’t heard wonderful things about it (unless you want to sit on the beach and party at beach clubs), it should be a fine enough place to chill for a few days.