We boarded our first European train in Bucharest and set our eyes on the medieval city of Brasov. Aside from experiencing the beauty of the Transylvanian countryside, we were in search of the infamous Bran Castle, mythically pegged as the 'home of Dracula'.
The short 3-hour train ride had us pass through stunning autumn landscapes and small, simple villages that appeared to grow out of the mountainside. It was exactly the type of environment we had envisioned when we thought of Romania and its Carpathian Mountain range.
Our friend Patrick had arranged for us to stay at the training centre of a hospice that he's associated with, Hospice "Casa Sperantei" Foundation. We were picked up from the train station and taken to our charming room on the top floor of the training facility. It is conveniently located a short 10 minute walk from the old city making it far more attractive than a standard hostel or budget hotel. There were only two other people staying in the multi-level facility so we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Once we were settled our host Anna took us to the hospice and gave us a tour of its operations. The hospice, a first in Romania, does phenomenal work, helping patients with terminal illness by providing special care and a much better environment than the Romanian hospitals.
If you're looking for a charitable organization to contribute to, or get involved with, please take a moment and check out the Hospice "Casa Sperantei" Foundation at http://hospice.ong.ro/e_index.htm
It was a beautiful day, unlike the grey and wet weather we had in Bucharest, so we decided to venture into the city centre for some sightseeing. Brasov is not that big, but it was much larger than we had expected.
While strolling through the cobblestoned streets and narrow alleyways we couldn't help but notice the large 'BRASOV' sign on top of the mountain that overlooks the city. The unmistakable sign towers over the city like the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. It reminded us of Vancouver; if you're ever lost just look to the mountains to get your bearings.We took the popular Mount Tampa tram to the top of the mountain and were treated to spectacular panoramic views of the red-roofed city (see the attached photo).
Early the next morning we hitched a ride to Bran castle with Terry, an English consultant hired by the hospice to assist its nurses (she was also staying at the training centre). She was flying back to England later that evening and was also headed to the famed Bran Castle to see what all of the hype was about. We drove an hour through the picturesque Transylvanian countryside before arriving at the charismatic village.
Bran Castle was exactly how we imagined it would be. Perfectly situated on top of the hilly valley, the fairy tale castle is a mesmerizing site! It was built in 1382 by the Saxons in order to defend Bran pass from the invading Turks. Many of the rooms have been restored but much of the original furniture is still intact and on display. We explored its many nooks and crannies, walking up tight, windy stairwells and peeking through small wood-framed widows that overlooked the quaint village below.
Interesting story - Bran Castle became famous during the reign of Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula. Born in 1430, Vlad "Tenes" (Impaler) is a real life Romanian warrior that successfully halted the invasion of the Turks, led by Mohammed II who was the conqueror of Constantinople (current day Istanbul). His father was named Vlad Dracul, hence the name "Dracula".
Vlad is said to have been a sinister person that thirsted for human blood, it's even rumored that he was involved in cannibalism - although there is no factual evidence to validate this.
The blood sucking vampire Dracula was created in 1897 by the Irish writer Bram Stoker. It's said that the author used Vlad the Impaler as the inspiration for the Dracula character because of his reputation as a bloodthirsty and punitive combatant with no mercy.
Although Bran Castle is said to be the home of Dracula, history says otherwise. Vlad the Impaler never actually lived in the castle. He did, however, visit the castle on a few occasions while passing through the region during periods of war and volatility. The old fortresses in the Transylvanian region were the perfect setting for the story of Dracula and it is said that Bram Stoker did considerable research on Bran Castle and Vlad the Impaler while writing the famous novel, which is why both get the fame attention that they do.
So there is no Dracula, at least not in reality. But don't tell that to the Romanian villagers. Vampires are big business right now with 'Twilight' and 'True Blood' topping the international charts. The legend of Dracula and Bran Castle has created a Romanian tourist trap that brings in the big bucks.
Of course we couldn't help ourselves and bought a bottle of Dracula's blood, a tacky tourist souvenir of really cheap red wine. Hey, we were in the fabled land of vampires… we had to "Trink zee blood!"
We managed to find our way back to Brasov on a local bus, although it felt like we had stepped back in time. The bus doors didn't even close properly. We were reminded of the transportation in Asia; though, being in Romania, we quickly noticed that there were few other ethnicities besides Caucasians. In fact, we felt many worlds away from India, Cambodia and Jordan.
Our final evening in the Transylvanian countryside ended at a restaurant that had been recommended by Anna. After sampling traditional food and a few of the local beers we bumped into David, the English traveler that we met in Bulgaria a week prior.
The funny thing is that when we departed Veliko Tarnovo we said, "Maybe we'll see you in Romania?" We assumed he was yet one more person that we'd never see again, but knew that at least he was headed in the same direction.
It's great running into people a second time while on the same adventure but in a different country. We had a similar experience meeting a couple in the Philippines that we later met in Vietnam at a dusty street-side bar. We also met a kiwi couple in the Galapagos Island that we later traveled with in Peru, and we met an Australian couple in Peru that we later stayed with while in Newcastle, Australia. They feel like old friends with familiar faces, yet we hadn't met prior to departing Vancouver. It's these types of moments that make our journey so rewarding and memorable.
We drank more beer with David, swapped travel stories and listened to the live Romanian polka music. It was another fun-filled day in Eastern Europe!
The following day was to be a long one, with a slow 4-hour train back to Bucharest followed by a grueling 16-hour overnight train to Budapest (without a sleeper bed, I might add). We weren't looking forward to being trapped on a train for almost a day but were excited to see what Hungary had in store for us!
November 23rd, 2009