Travel Diary: Brainy Backpackers in Brașov

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The Travel Diary is a retrospective blog about our 3-month long wedding trip in 2003. We’re sharing stories about our honeymoon across 11 countries, including accommodation details, recipes, travel stories, and the story of how 2 people started a lifelong adventure together.

Let me explain something about my first night in Transylvania.

This is a place of old stories, and even older traditions. It has a thrall upon the entire world, this place of dark forests and crumbling castles. The mountains always seem to have faces in them, and the sound of baying dogs can often be heard at night, whether you are in the city or the countryside. The old stories of vampires, witches, and werewolves that many tourist traps still tout proudly are not ill-placed in this setting. Transylvania is absolutely bewitching, and it’s worth visiting for anyone who loves medieval history, or even medieval fantasy.

Castle Romania

So with all that in mind, you’ll understand if I describe the figure who welcomed us in to her home that night in Cluj as positively vampiric. She let us in through the creaky gate, locking it quickly behind us, motioning to the not-so-distant howling that filled the trees. We followed her in to the tiny house, she and her husband make wine here, and judging by the neatly stacked buckets and large glass bottles out front, they had just finished their production for the evening. Suddenly, the purplish hands made more sense, and our friendly host welcomed us inside.

The front of the house had been converted into a private space for guests. A large painting of Constantine hung above a small table with a few candles, a bowl, and a large wooden crucifix. Our shuffling host crossed herself as we went past it. As we entered the guest bedroom, I noticed a small crucifix hung beside the door and by the window. Our smiling host, who shuffled about the room explaining the operation of the shower in broken French (in Romania, if you can’t speak enough Romanian to get by, you can try French or Italian, and either might be understood). After a number of hand gestures and almost-French exchanges of information, she wished us a good night with a wide, crooked-toothed smile that made her skin crinkle like crepe paper. She was very sweet and likely not a vampire, I had decided.

Almost as soon as we had arrived, we stepped out again in order to meet Christian for dinner as promised. We met at an average Romanian style restaurant – you’ll find that in Romanian cities, “Chinese style” food is cheap and abundant. I say “Chinese style” because you will get what you pay for – cheap and abundant usually means sweet & sour sauce made of ketchup and jam. True story. Hey – when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.

We were all eager to try some Romanian recipes, and I came prepared. Food really brings people together. It can be a universal language, and when I’m traveling, I go out of my way to find out what the locals love to eat. I had learned that Romanian cooking was hearty, savoury, rustic, and in some cases, unusual – well, for me anyways. One classic Romanian dish that you will find on any menu that serves home style food is brain. Calf or lamb brain is common in good restaurants. It is prepared in a number of ways, and if brain is your thing, it’s probably great. Brains are consumed in a number of places in the world, and when the food culture is as old school as it is in Romania, you’ll find dishes that use all parts of the animal – nothing wasted. It may not be your taste, but it doesn’t have to be for everyone.

Christian, our well-traveled acquaintance from Germany, had told us that he wanted to be adventurous, so he wasn’t going to ask what the translations of the dishes on offer were. He pointed to an entree near the bottom of the menu that looked like the house special – usually a great option if you are trying something new. Stephen mentioned to Christian that he might want to re-think that approach, as he might end up with a plate of brains. Christian rolled his eyes, exclaiming that we sounded so “American” (which really made us fume, because Canadians don’t like being mistaken for Americans, thankyouverymuch), and that we shouldn’t be so ridiculous as to assume that anyone would serve us brains in a foreign country. Laughing, I pointed out the word for “brains” in my little pocket guide to Romania. It happened to be listed as the main ingredient of the house special that Christian intended to get. Needless to say, he changed his order quickly. We didn’t receive another lecture after that, and when dinner came (I had pork stew with polenta), it was delicious.

After a night fraught with bad dreams about howling werewolves, we were off again the next morning, passing by our hosts who had already begun their day’s work making wine outside. We had thought that we would spend another day in Cluj, but we were eager to get a little deeper in to Romania. We thanked them for their hospitality, let ourselves through the gate, and made our way to the train station. We were on our way to Brașov, a town in the very centre of the country that has great hiking, a well preserved old town, and a huge gothic cathedral that we couldn’t wait to explore.

Brasov Landscape

Our arrival in Brașov was easy, but once again we had found ourselves with no place to stay in town. Luckily for us, we were entering the shoulder season, when the summer tourists have disappeared and room rates drop in order to lure the last few travellers in town to stick around a while longer. We found a room at the basic Hotel Aero Sport, which we do not recommend. We will explain why later.

Since we had arrived in Brașov at around 10am, we had the entire day to explore. This is another example of why traveling by train overnight is the best option for those trying to save some money in their budget. You don’t have to pay for a night’s accommodation if you sleep on the train, and when you arrive in the morning you have all day to explore. No wasted time, no wasted money.

Romania - Brasov Mountain Shade

We decided to hike up Mt. Tâmpa – a 1-2 hour gentle hike up a clear and easy trail to a panoramic view of the old town. It’s definitely worth a trip, but those with knee or ankle issues, or trouble with heart & lungs should take the gondola to the top instead.

Brasov

When we reached the top, we took in the amazing views of old Brașov, planning our route through the churches & cobblestone streets below for the following day’s exploration. We hiked back down, arriving hungry & sweaty in the town square at dinner time. We settled on pizza from a shop nearby, which was served with a gravy boat of tomato sauce on the side. We watched as other customers poured the red gravy all over their pizza, and decided to follow suit. It tastes exactly the way you’d imagine. Like you’ve poured tomato soup all over your slice.

Exhausted after a day of travel, hiking, and soupy pizza, we headed back to Hotel Aero Sport for our first of 3 nights. We were not prepared for what we were about to experience. It is one of our favourite travel stories to date.

So we’ll save that for our next Travel Diary entry.

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