My cousin from New Zealand recently went travelling in Europe and when he came to us in the UK I asked him what his favourite place was. He gave an unexpected and unusual answer: Romania. The people, the scenery, the history - it seemed to have it all, so I decided to head on over there too, and what better time to do it than at Halloween...
The first notable thing about any of this is that everything was so cheap! It was also a fantastically exciting and unusual holiday, needless to say.
We flew for £82 each to Bucharest (Ryanair), got the 3.5 hour train from Bucharest to beautiful Brasov in Transylvania for £5 each, and stayed at the immaculate and well-equipped Kron Studios in Brasov for £28 per night, per 3/4 star double studio apartment! (booking.com)
Brasov is a traditional Transylvanian town, located within a few miles of major attractions Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, as well as the Libearty Bear Sanctuary and the Carpathian Mountains.
It is an absolute pleasure to spend time in the town of Brasov whether you're simply after a little bit of shopping and deliciously creamy hot chocolate, architectural and historic sights, or even a bit of a test of logic at Mind Games (see below)!
The cable car up the Tampa mountainside is a good little excursion from the town to get into the hills above and take in the views of the town below. The enormous 'black church' cathedral that looms over the town seems suddenly tiny from the top.
'Mind Games' is a fantastic and unusual attraction involving being shut in a room with a series of varied puzzles to solve in order to get out! There are rooms like these in other cities too, and the one in Brasov is fantastic, run by the friendliest and most accommodating people. Mind Games can be found in an alleyway just off the main square where the banks are.
Getting around is easy and the attractions nearby (such as Bran Castle) are simple and cheap to reach by taxi. Make sure you use a branded taxi as pirates are a problem. Martax and Reytaxi are good.
Other than pirate taxis (a problem in Romania in general) Brasov is a very safe city with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere.
Libearty Bear Sanctuary
This wonderful and noble sanctuary for rescued bears was started by a Romanian lady when the first bears were rescued from being exploited or kept as 'entertainment'. Until the late 90s it was legal to own a bear and amongst other atrocities, many restaurants and other places kept bears in small cages outside to lure people in; although it must be questioned which sort of person would be lured somewhere by something like that.
The sanctuary is set in the natural forest and the 80-something bears have huge areas to roam free. The sole purpose of it is to house the bears and tourism is secondary to that which is refreshing to see - Libearty Sanctuary make it very clear that they are not a zoo.
It is around £10 to enter and a knowledgeable guide shows groups around at set times on the hour, around three times a day (such as at 11am), but email first to check availability (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The sanctuary is in the forests above the town of Zarnesti and is really only reachable by taxi. It is not very well signposted but if you're driving it's up a winding gravel path after Zarnesti - don't turn off and you should reach the parking area within a few minutes.
Rasnov FortressSet on a hilltop that is visible from the main road to Bran, this enormous fortress from the 14th century was built on top of pre-historic Bronze-Age and Neolithic settlements. The mixture of residential ruins and defensive towers are fascinating to wonder around, with the backdrop of the unspoiled and forested Carpathian mountains. Local people also sell a variety of items such as painted local pottery and ornate scarves.
The legendary castle built by Vlad the Impaler in around the 14th century is the inspiration for the classic novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Its foreboding sheer stone walls glow orange at night, and at Halloween jack-o-lanterns are placed around the courtyard, flickering an eerie light. The narrow tunnels and steep staircases are exciting to walk around, exploring the various chambers and rooms within - many left as they were when various Royals inhabited them through the ages.
The castle is set on a steep hill and is surrounded by trees. It involves a fairly impressive walk up to the entrance, just adding to the imposing atmosphere.
Bran town, although fairly geared up the tourists, is a good place to spend some time too, especially if shopping for gifts or souvenirs, and delicious Romanian treats such as kurtos kalacs - a traditionally Transylvanian pastry cooked around a sort of cylinder chimney and covered in various combinations of walnuts, cinnamon, sugar and coconut.
It is around £5 to enter the castle, although special events can be slightly more, such as Halloween tours.
Peles CastleIn the lovely town of Sinaia, just on the edge in the green hills with a mountainous backdrop, lies the stunning and fairytale 19th century Peles castle. It is a simply stunning royal residence which is now a heritage site and open to the public as a National Museum.
Peles makes a good stop if driving back to Bucharest from Brasov to the airport (or vice-versa).
Eating Out in Transylvania
Eating out is divine, especially in higher-end restaurants (still around £13 for a main, a drink and a dessert)! Expect traditional central European cuisine on most menus, such as schnitzel, stroganoff and strudel, and also local specialities such as meatballs and cabbage. Transylvanian cuisine can be surprisingly waste-not, and don't be surprised to see 'lamb's brains' or something similar nestled between more appetising options...
Sergiana is a fantastically local, popular and classy restaurant in Brasov, as well as Bella Musica across the main road from the cathedral with its lovely atmosphere and winding low-ceilinged halls and cubby-holes.