Transylvania is a true gem in Europe. The word means “the land across the forest” and this could refer to its geographical location as a plateau nestled in the backwards “L” shape that the Carpathians make. The highest range of the Carpathian Mountains (Fagaras Range) makes up much of Transylvanian’s southern border but the region’s eastern, northern and western borders are all defined by high peaks. It may be that Transylvania’s folklore and its popularity in Bram Stroker’s Dracula are what bring tourists to the area, but what those tourists find there is much more. They find beautiful villages nestled in valleys between hills or mountains, old cities with medieval architecture, fortified churches and friendly, easy-going people. When I was presented with the task of showing Romania to one of my best friends, Transylvania was, hands-down, the region I wanted to display and at the same time, revisit.
The early morning train wasn’t all that early. The plan was to catch the 6:30 Regio to Sinaia but in the morning the later 11:50 InterRegio seemed like a more attractive option. The train slowly crept out of the city past the long lines of identical blocks and walls decorated in the same graffiti that was there 3 years ago. The country-side quickly swallowed us whole as we passed by villages with their houses, courtyards, dogs, dirt roads and villagers. Poverty is easy to see when just leaving the city. Houses nearly falling over situated a stones-throw away from the brightly colored walls surrounding a large home and a Mercedes. These scenes display poverty not only in the lack of material wealth but also in the lack of class. Somehow we barely noticed passing by our first stop, the large city of Ploiesti with its oil refineries situated to the south and east of the city while the north of the city looks toward the foothills of the Carpathians. This city was once the target of a major bombing campaign by the Allied forces in WWII called Operation Tidal Wave. Suddenly our faces were glued to the window as faces tend to be when you’re in a train and the mountains begin to rise up around you. Soon we were at our stop, Sinaia. With our large packs we made our way off the train into a chilling mountain air.
Sinaia, though a beautiful location, was a bonehead decision by the trip’s planner (myself). Sinaia was chosen over it’s neighbor Busteni because it features one of the nicest museums in Romania at the best preserved castle in Romania, Peles. Busteni, on the other hand, features some great hiking with incredible views. The bonehead decision was that the trip’s planner deciding Sinaia because of the museum, disregarded the fact that Day 1 fell on a Monday when all museums in Romania are closed. Either way the short hike up to the castle allowed for some nice views of the town’s architecture and monastery. We were able to hang out in the courtyard of the castle for a while and walk around its grounds before retreating back down the hill with a bar of nuga and a beer waiting for us at the bottom. Following the beer we made our way back to the train station for the day’s second leg to Brasov.
After passing by the beautiful Busteni the mountains the train began to descend until finally we entered the city of Brasov. Hungry and with heavy packs we hustled around town searching for hostels. The two hostels we had written down on paper were disappointments. Both hostels were located in the center and both offering not much other than a number on the door. Finally after doing some more searching I looked in my pocket to find a flier that one man at the train station shoved into Wes’s hand as we quickly passed him. It was the flier for the hostel Kesmet Dau. We were in luck as the hostel had cheep beds and one free drink included.
The second day began with a nice conversation about traveling and being in foreign places with our fellow hostel goers. A couple of Canadians, Americans, a Brit and a lone Swedish gal made for good morning conversation before heading out. The days discoveries began with a hike to Tampa, the peak that rises sharply out of old town Brasov that takes you up to the cities very own version of the Holleywood sign. Views from the peak reveal Brasov and beyond on one side and the snow covered Carpathian peaks on the other. The hiked looped back down the hill through the forest ending at one end of Brasov’s southern wall were our old city walk began. That walk took us to the major sites of the city gates, rope street, the square of advice, the black church, the northern wall and finally lunch at a basement restaurant. From there we returned to the hostel to grab our bags and move on to the next point of interest, Sibiu.
Our host gave us some great advice the night before which led to my favorite part of the trip. It was the second to last nice day of the trip and we spent it walking from village to village over beautiful Transylvanian landscapes. Starting in the nearby city of Cisnadie we perused a couple second-hand stores and made our way to the center of town where we circled the beautiful fortified church. An old local man led us to the edge of town showing us the old dirt road to our next destination. Passing a flock of sheep through an orchard we spotted the next fortified church in the distance. The fortress at Cisnadioara is situated high up on a steep hill at the edge of a small village. On our way up the hill we spotted some deer and at the top of the hill we spotted an amazing landscape viewing Cisnadie in the distance and the mountains to the south.
After asking the locals for directions to our next destination we were sent up an old wagon road that was hard to follow at times. Just after crossing the hill’s peak we could see Rasinari, the dream site of a fellow volunteer. On our way down the hill we spotted some donkeys grazing and a hawk swooping down by the forest. The town was pleasant to walk through with its dirt road splitting the bright colors of the houses lining it. We met with the volunteer in the center of town were we picked up some lunch supplies. After a good chat and some grub we decided to take off back to Sibiu where we hung out with our great hosts at restaurant in the beautiful small square.
Tour of Sibiu. It’s high walls, old churches, squares large and small and rich history we filled our day which included a trip through the Birkenthaul museum where our host was working. What’s Europe without visiting at least one museum? The day was pleasant but you could feel it getting colder and cloudier. The next day we would be back on the road after three nights in Sibiu and we were hoping for some decent travel/hiking weather.
Decent weather we did not get as we woke up to snow and then heavy rain. The weather stalled our departure from Sibiu but eventually we got out the door and on the road to Deva where you can see the fortress on the hill shooting up out of town. The fortress was nice but the burrito at Pizza Grande was better. I was quite familiar with Deva already being that it was my transportation hub for traveling in the northern and western parts of Romania for the two years of staying in Petrosani. The maxi-taxi ride that I’ve become so familiar with put me to sleep and suddenly we were surrounded by mountains again descending switchbacks, back home in Petrosani. My good buddy Dragos picked us up at the bus station and we spent that evening first getting some food with some of my best friends in Petrosani, Leddy and Dan, and then returning to Dragos’s for a good evening’s conversation. Unfortunately, visiting was the extent of our trip to Petrosani. The weather hindered our main purpose for visiting my second home, hiking in Parang. Due to the weather we cut our Transylvanian adventure short a half day by taking the day train back, but not before we took some time to visit with Ernest. Six hours of train and we were back in Buc to meet some friends out for a nice night in Lipscani.
Transylvania is a pretty face of Romania but not the only face of Romania. Traveling through Transylvania was a good idea and it showed my buddy a great/beautiful part of Romania. We hung out with some friends, met some interesting people and talked to quite a few Romanians that had some interesting things to tell us about the history of the country. Despite all of this, it was great that Transylvania is not the only part of Romania that I was able to show my friend. Spending a couple days at the beginning and end of the trip allowed us to do some discovering in Bucharest as well. I’m sure that Wes learned a bunch about Romania and saw many new things but I also learned quite a bit as this was the first time I took a look at both parts of my Peace Corps service: service as a PCV in Petrosani and service at a PCVL in Bucharest.