The bus from Moldova arrived in Bucharest at 6am. We were dropped in the centre of the city next to a large fountain and James and I couldn’t help noting that although we couldn’t see anything overly spectacular it felt like we had taken huge leaps and bounds away from the downtrodden and somewhat suppressed atmosphere of Chisinau. It was quite refreshing to be somewhere that simply felt alive, even though it was too early for there to be much life around.
Once we reached our hostel we were presented with the lovely hospitality of X Hostel. The guy wouldn’t put our bags in storage yet because reception didn’t officially open until 8am, even though he was right there with the keys. And then we had an argument because he pretended not to understand when I said we had a booking for “tonight”. Those fuzzy feelings beginning to fade a bit we went back to the park we’d passed and watched a downloaded episode of Hamish and Andy’s Euro Gap Year while waiting for 8am.
By the time we went back there was a new guy, he put our bags in storage but wouldn’t let us inside the hostel to make a coffee in the kitchen because you needed a key pass and he couldn’t give us a key pass until check in at 2pm. The next morning I realised it wouldn’t have mattered anyway: we wouldn’t have been able to make a coffee because the kitchen didn’t have any cups. Useless.
We filled out the morning by joining a free walking tour at 10am which taught us some of the history of Romania and took us to some interesting places. Then we searched for food and eventually it was time to check in and sleep for the rest of the day. I felt like that was enough time in Bucharest for me and the next morning, after exploding my instant porridge in the microwave and then realising I couldn’t have a coffee because there were no cups, I got on a train to Brasov.
Getting out of the city and into the mountains was great. I spent 4 nights in Brasov, not because I was particularly interested in the city – it has a small old town and a big Hollywood sign up on the hill – but because of its proximity to other, much more interesting places. I planned a series of day trips, each including a castle and a hike. It didn’t quite turn out as I’d planned, however, because the bad weather had followed me once again and it rained most of the time I was in Brasov.
The first day I went to Bran Castle. I had heard that it was a lot less interesting than its fame would suggest, and I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. For free, you can walk around outside the castle boundaries and get a nice view and take some cool photos. Clumped in front of the entrance to the grounds is a big souvenir market, each stall selling the same tshirts, mugs, magnets and pens with reference to Dracula or Vlad Tepes. Once you fight your way through the crowds in the market you can purchase your ticket to enter the castle. It’s $13 for a ticket, or $8 if you show your student card that expired two years ago. Inside the grounds there are more souvenir shops, then you walk up to the castle which is full of information boards about Vlad Tepes, Dracula, and Bram Stoker, and of course more souvenir shops.
Besides being an obvious tourist trap and honestly a bit boring on the inside, the whole basis for the attraction of “Dracula’s Castle” is a lie. Vlad Tepes, Stoker’s inspiration for his character Dracula, did not live there. He stayed for one or two nights on one occasion and that’s it. Bram Stoker also never visited the castle, in fact he never set foot in Romania. He learnt about Vlad Tepes in Hungary where he was seeking a historical figure to add flare to his already blossoming vampire character. Just to add to the ridiculous nature of the whole thing, in a piece about Stoker inside the castle he is referred to as being English. He was in fact Irish and there is a difference.
After taking in as much as possible inside the castle, there were some interesting bits but really not worth the price of the ticket, I headed out of the centre of town a bit and went walking through the forest and up a mountain for a few hours. If anything, this forest with its twisted trees, steep path and views of distant jagged mountains was more reminiscent of Dracula than a tiny, tourist-filled castle. I walked through the forest, through open fields of wild flowers, and enjoyed views over the villages in the valley and the surrounding mountains.
The next day the rain poured down and I contemplated not doing anything but I ended up on a bus headed to Rasnov, where unfortunately there is also a Hollywood sign, and hiked in the constant rain up the mountain to the citadel at the top. At the ticket booth I met Zoe and Matthias, an English-German couple from Scotland who I’d originally met in Morocco. We’d found out we were in the same area and had arranged to catch up for a walk around the mostly unimpressive citadel. Again, it was filled with souvenir shops, and I regretted slightly the lack of authenticity everywhere.
This time the views of the mountains were extra creepy, with low lying fog drifting through the trees. Quite a sight to see, really, despite having to get soaking wet to be able to see it. Zoe and Matthias gave me a lift back to Brasov in their camper van and by that time it was warm and sunny so we had a walk through the old town and ate some pizza cones.
For my final day I went to Peles Castle in Sinaia. This is a relatively new castle compared to the others I’d seen as it was only built in the 18th century. I hitchhiked to Sinaia, which was exciting. It seems to be the thing to do in Romania, even many of the locals do it, so I thought it would be a good place to try it for the first time. It was great, I met some locals and had a good chat and they dropped me off close to the castle.
Peles Castle has two floors, and the ticket price is $12 per floor which I thought was way too steep but I really enjoyed walking around it, it was an impressive sight. Then I was planning to go for a hike up to the nearby mountains which are supposed to offer an amazing view of the surroundings, but as I started walking out of town I heard the loudest and most prolonged thunder clap ever and a bit of rain started and I thought, “I don’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain when this massive thunderstorm hits”. So unfortunately I had to turn back and I hitchhiked back to Brasov.
The next day it was time to leave Romania. My first stop was back in Bucharest, where I met an Australian guy who had been staying at my hostel in Brasov and had left all of his underwear hanging in the back room after he’d washed them. So I delivered the bag full of men’s underwear and then got my train to Bulgaria.