As we boarded the Hungarian Mav Start intercity train from Budapest to Bucharest, we were prepared in true Mizark style without any food or water, thinking the train would have a restaurant carriage on. After all, it was a thirteen hour night train we were taking to Sibiu. How wrong could we have been as we trundled through the Hungarian countryside with the sun melting onto the distant hills?! For thirteen hours, we prayed for a hot drink or even just some water, it didn’t arrive as we pulled into Sibiu train station. Romania has fascinated me as a travel destination for years and Miz and I couldn’t wait to experience this country of vast forests, castles, bears and mythical legend stories. Romania is a southeastern European country known for the forested region of Transylvania, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. It has some of the best medieval towns on the continent and is one of the most affordable countries to travel in the whole of Europe. We walked out of the station and instantly felt as if we had stepped back in time a decade or two. Our Air BnB host, Lucien, picked us up and drove us to his family home, a ten minute walk from the old town centre. Sibiu is so beautiful, its cobbled old town square, medieval churches, cafes, markets and parks gave it a fairy tale feel as the sun glistened against its pastel coloured buildings. We got lucky as we had arrived at the beginning of a three day street food festival which was taking place in the main square. Our first day was a write off, as we passed out in a park due to our lack of sleep on the night train. The family we stayed with were amazing, Melinda and Lucien and their two daughters treated us like family and we chatted about all sorts of subjects. Melinda made us some amazing Romanian food, most of which was homemade. Her speciality was Sarmale which is cabbage leaves rolled around a filling of minced pork meat which was simply delicious served with sour cream. For breakfast, Melinda would walk to the local market for homemade bread, cheese, salami served with her own fruit jams and elderflower lemonade. It was such a great experience staying with such a kind family and one we will never forget.
We spent three lovely days in Sibiu walking around the old town visiting churches, sitting in parks and sampling local delicacies such as Covrigi, which are Romanian baked goods similar to pretzels, which consist of salted bread topped with poppy or sesame seeds. They also have a sweet version filled with cherries or chocolate…simply delicious. An unbelievable event happened whilst we were in Sibiu. I am still in absolute shock about it now, a fortnight later. It came like a bombshell and totally out of the blue. Melinda and Lucien had the most beautiful, laid back, calm golden retriever named Ellis. Miz is terrified of dogs, and on the third day, she stroked him. She announced it was the first time she had stroked a dog or in fact any animal. I was happy to witness this event. Here’s photographic evidence of the emotional moment!
Another highlight of Sibiu was The Astra Museum. We walked five kilometres from Sibiu through parklands and fields to visit this place. It is Europe’s largest open air museum which showcases how the Romanian people have lived throughout history. There are real life traditional houses, churches and windmills set in a village surrounding amongst the forest.
Melinda gave us a lift to the train station. As we said our goodbyes, it was sad to be leaving such a lovely and kind family. On the train, we met a forty year old Romanian guy who had been living and working in London for the last ten years. Like a lot of Romanians, they choose to work overseas and send money back to their families as opportunities in the country are minimal and the average monthly wage is pretty poor. On average roughly three to four hundred pounds per month. We headed to Brasov through endless Transylvanian forests and heavy rain. By the time we pulled into the station, the rain had cleared. After a debate regarding a taxi price, we arrived at our guesthouse ten minutes later. Brasov was very picturesque, surrounded by forested mountains. Its old medieval centre was like stepping back in time. Miz and I noticed a Hollywood-esque sign overlooking the city in the distance and decided we would challenge ourselves by walking up to the viewpoint. We slightly underestimated the hike and a couple of hours later, sweating and dehydrated, we had a magical view of the old city and surrounding mountains. Making our descent, it was getting pretty dark, the signs dotted around the path did nothing for our nerves. Beware of bears, jaguars and wild boar. Oh well, we made it down in once piece and celebrated with some tasty Romanian food. Silvia, a lovely woman we had met months before in India was from Brasov and had written us a list of things to see and do in her amazing home country.
Romania is full of old castles, citadels, medieval towns and fortresses. We headed to Rasnov citadel early the next morning. For us it was a real highlight, its crumbling walls, living quarters and gardens added to its charm. The views out to the Carpathian Mountains which were still covered in snow was vast. Rasnov village was quaint as we sat in a shady garden, polished off a pizza and sipped on an ice cold beer.
The next day, we took the public bus to Bran Castle. The hour long journey was uncomfortable as the air conditioning was broken and felt like we were trapped in a sauna. We arrived in the small village of Bran half baked, dripping in sweat. It was a relief as the sun darted behind the huge grey clouds. Bran Castle is a national monument and landmark in Romania, commonly known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. It is often referred to as the home of the title character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, and sorry to disappoint you all, no evidence exists that Stoker knew anything about this castle and his description of Dracula’s crumbling fictional castle bares no resemblance to Bran Castle. Glad to get that one out of the way, haha. One interesting fact is that the scene for Draclua was set when Stoker visited Whitby on the Yorkshire coast in 1890. The imposing Whitby abbey with its weathered gravestones and precarious location on the cliffs edge gave him his inspiration. Bran Castle attracts travellers from all over the world because of its links with Dracula, many believe the link lies with Vlad the Impaler who occupied the castle in the late fourteenth century. His blood thirsty attitude in many barbaric battles are to have inspired Mr Stokers character. Whatever your personal opinion, one things for sure, the legend still lives on and that’s good enough for the locals who depend on the masses of tourists who pass through on a daily basis. The castle itself is beautiful and definitely has a spooky feel…maybe it’s all true, take a trip and see for yourself, but remember to take some garlic…just in case!
On the way back to Brasov, the heavens had opened. This was serious rain bouncing from the pavements. We jumped off the bus and were drenched in seconds. We ran to the nearest cafe and grabbed a hot chocolate. The local football team, Brasov FC, must have been in action that evening as a local mob marched through the town centre chanting, bare chested in the hammering rain. Next stop was Sinaia, a small mountain village which attracts skiers from all over the Balkan region during the winter months. For a tiny village, it packs quite a punch. Apart from being home to Romania’s first hotel, casino and railway line, it’s also home to the countries most beautiful castle (in our opinion of course). Peles Castle is mesmerising and completely fairytale like. Visually, it’s a sight to behold as it glistens against a backdrop of emerald green pine trees. It was built between 1873 and 1914 and constructed for King Carol I. It has a painting collection of two thousand pieces and one hundred and seventy rooms, many dedicated to world cultures. We took a tour of the castle and were left speechless by its interior. One thing I will say is the organisation of purchasing the tickets is a real shambles, they simply let too many people into the castle at once, so the whole experience can be pretty hectic, especially when encountering bus loads of package tour tourists who use selfie sticks as deadly weapons. Best to visit extremely early, like us, or at the end of the day.
Ready for some adventure, Miz and I started a hike into the forest to a viewpoint I could see on my maps.me app. Wow, it was hot as we walked or crawled up the side of the steep mountain. The view at the top was somewhat of a disappointment, apart from a couple of eagles gliding on the thermals, nevertheless, it was a lovely walk in nature. I tried some cliff hanger moves, but slid down into the slippery rocks.
The park in Sinaia was a lovely place to relax with views across to the Grand Casino and Royal Hotel. Our guesthouse was a bit special, one of the great finds of the European part of the trip so far. It was huge and more like an alpine ski resort with a wood burning stove, terrace and a huge jacuzzi bath. The owner was really kind and cooked us up some Sarmale, again, simply delicious! The train journey to Bucharest, the countries capital, was crowded and as we pulled into Bucharest’s bustling north station, the beauty of Transylvania’s forested landscapes had been left behind. Romania’s capital city has a real buzz after years of communism under General Ceausescu’s leadership. Its old town is vibrant with many pop up bars, art galleries and trendy restaurants and it has a whole host of beautiful open spaces and parkland. The metro system is old and in need of an update but it is very effective and easy to use. A ten journey ticket costs one pound with the added bonus that two people can use it. Our Air BnB was located in one of the old communist tower blocks built to house the cities population in the late sixties and early seventies. Our host, Sebastian, used to work in the UK and was very welcoming, making us some homemade lemonade when we arrived. The apartment itself was small but cosy and had everything we needed. The location was great and only a ten minute walk into the old town. Sebastian told us about a free rock festival in a local park so we headed out to find it. The park was also home to Ceausescu’s palace and presidential headquarters. Apparently, it is the heaviest building in the world, I’m not sure how the powers that be would fit it onto some scales, but I’ll take their word for it! The palace is an imposing flashback to the dark days of communism and also the location of the leaders final speech, in which part way through the people turned against him and stormed the gates. He, along with his wife escaped from the roof in a helicopter before being caught hours later and executed.
The festival was in full swing, only metres away from the parliament building which had struck fear into people only a couple of decades before. It is proof how this city has managed to move on into the future leaving its dark past behind. Miz and I took the metro to the huge central park with its beautiful lake. We walked for hours in the glorious sunshine, the park was full of life as it was Sunday afternoon. We sat and ate some delicious sweetcorn soaking up the chilled out atmosphere. The park was full of water fountains for drinking. As Miz turned the tap, the pressure hit breaking point and absolutely covered her in water. As she screamed out loud, about ten locals turned to look and found it hilarious!
Our stay in Bucharest had been great and very inexpensive. Romania, as a backpacker destination is top notch. It has breath taking landscapes, wildlife, medieval towns, majestic castles, friendly locals and a vast train network which costs peanuts to travel on. Contrary to many myths of gypsies, crime and vampires, I can safely say this is a truly magical country of immense beauty. If it’s on your travel radar, don’t hesitate, book a flight and experience it for yourself!