Monday, July 25, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Bran Castle, Brasov and a Hike

Waking up after a restful night in Simon village, we sat down to a spectacular Romanian breakfast of village-produced sheep cheese, ham, eggs, honey, fresh baked bread and hot delicious coffee. Seriously, check it out in the picture here...

All of this was literally and figuratively "setting the table" for our day - a visit to nearby Bran Castle and then touring the town of Brasov. Satisfied with our morning feast, we took off with Andrei in our trusty vehicle for the short ride to Bran.

Bran Castle
OK, the first thing to know about Bran Castle, is that it certainly looks like a castle that the real or fictional Dracula could have lived in. Craggy hilltop location? Check. Spooky towers and spires? Check. Birds (or are they bats?) circling around? Check. Narrow pathways leading up through a dark forest to get there? Check. (Below: Bran Castle.)

But then the second thing to know about the castle is that it was neither the inspiration for Bram Stoker's fictional Castle Dracula nor the residence or property of the real Vlad Dracula - although the later probably did set foot there at some point.

However, exactly none of that has deterred the good people of  Bran from hyping up Bran Castle as the place to get the "Dracula experience." Why? Did I mention how much the castle looks like it could be Dracula's? And indeed, at the base of the hill that the structure resides atop, there are all kinds of Dracula inspired items in an open air market -  mostly junky stuff. (Right: Sign at the Bran Castle market.)

But if you strip away all of that business, there is one more thing to know about Bran Castle. And that is that it is a great example of what castles in this region looked like and were used for. With a mindset of learning more about this rather than some fictional Dracula thing, we enjoyed our visit to Bran Castle. Climbing stairs, ducking through narrow passageways, resting on balconies overlooking the inner courtyard and seeing the various rooms - all with great views of the valley - the castle proved to be fun. Also, a number of rooms featured information about who really did live in the castle, when and why. One room in particular addressed Dracula - the real one - and also the very real superstitions of rural Transylvania such as vampires, living dead, ghosts and others.

When we were finished looking around, we descended from the hill and actually did check out the open air market. Yes, we did pick up a few funny Dracula items, but amongst the schlocky stuff there were a few stalls selling legitimate hand-made local items. In particular we found the table cloths to be pretty. After checking out the various options and comparison shopping the stalls, we settled on a table cloth we liked best featuring brilliant aqua and dark blue designs. Andrei interpreted for us and verified that the table cloth was indeed hand made in the local area, and with that we happily purchased it.

Our next destination this day was the beautiful city of Brasov. Bigger than any other town we visited other than Bucharest, Brasov features a wonderfully preserved medieval town center with a great wide plaza in the middle. The reason for visiting here was simply to take in the sights...and eat some good food. (Below: Main square in Brasov.)

However, our first stop was the Gothic Cathedral that sits near the town center. Inside, we learned a few things that we didn't know. For example, back in the old days the rows of side pews along the edges of the massive hall each were property of a local guilds - builders, millers, blacksmiths, etc. And in fact, you can see the guild designs on the respective pews. Andrei said that guilds paid money to the church for the pews and that the more they paid, the better position they'd have in the church...and by implication respect in the community. They also apparently were in charge of "policing" their section of the church during services and providing staff for whatever functions happened in their section during the service.

The next thing we learned, or more accurately first saw, was that there were many middle eastern carpets hanging on the walls. This seemed odd for a Christian Cathedral. But, it made sense when Andrei told us that these were gifts from Ottoman traders over the centuries. Sure enough, Romania sits right on the east-west trade route used to transport goods from the east into Europe. Apparently to keep things on the up-and-up, the Ottoman traders would gift these very expensive and beautiful carpets to the local nobility and church.

And then the third thing we learned was that during the 1989 revolution, there was fighting in the streets of Brasov as various factions tried to either retain power or take it over. At one point, a group of revolutionaries holed up in the church, but the local military shot into the the church anyway. Today, you can see the bullet holes in the interior of the Cathedral. (Right: Cathedral in Brasov.)

Next, we walked the short distance to the city's main square. By this time, it was getting to be after 12 noon, so we thought the best thing to do was get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants bordering the square. Featuring umbrellas with the tag line "Brasov, Probably The Best City In The World," we alighted at a patio table at one of Andrei's now reliable selections. Good choice. Again, spectacular food. Before we ordered, however, Andrei said that all he would be getting is soup "and the donuts." Donuts? We though, "yeah right. Too much on a hot day and couldn't be that good." We were wrong. Seeing what he had ordered, Diane and I quickly requested our own order. Now, these are not donuts like what you'd get at Top Pot or Dunkin' Donuts. No. These were more like big fried bread cannon balls slathered in a sweet icing and jam, topped with a donut hole and powdered sugar. Huge, delicious and...possibly...the best thing we ate the entire trip.

Fueled up on pork, beer and donuts (yes!) we set out to see the rest of the town.

Once we were done walking the streets and seeing the sights, we loaded back up in our truck and made our way back to Simon village to take a hike. We did this by driving the entire length of Simon up to where the road ends, parking and then proceeding on into the forrest on a trail. Following along a delightful flowing stream, our hike took us gradually up through the lush green forrests. Along the way we had views of serene medows, small water falls, gorgeous trees and, ultimately, a fabulous view looking up at a poriton of the Carpathian mountains. After the hot afternoon in Brasov, the entire hike was a welcome departure.

Here are a few pictures from our hike...

One intereting thing we learned along the way was about sheep poop. Well, actually more about dogs. Here's one point, Andrei looked down on our path and said, "I don't like what I see here." I asked him what he meant and he said that there was sheep poop on the trail, and that meant that there could be a sheep heard nearby. And where there is a sheep heard there are sheep hearding dogs. These dogs, according to Andrei, are fine if the Shepard is around,  but if he's not then they are extremely aggressive. He advised is to each pick up a sturdy walking stick and keep it with us as we hiked. We quickly complied. In the end, we never saw any sheep and certainly no dogs. But, the story also brought to light how pervasive sheparding is in Romania and how seriously they take it.

Returing to our guest house after 7 p.m. we could officially say we'd had both a very busy but extremely fun day in Romania. We settled in for another great meal from Magdalena. I attempted to stay up late enough to see the stars as there would be no light polution of cloud cover to obscure them, but I was too tierd. Both of us hit the sack and rested well.

The next morning it was time to say goodbye to our host family and Simon village as we made our way to our next desinations - Viscri Village and the town of Sighisoara.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by me, Marc Osborn. Pictures are not authorized for any use without written permission from me.

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