A Passage to Transylvania

April 26th, 2011

I am quite certain that in some of my readers’ minds Transylvania exists somewhere in the mythological space rather than on the surface of the Earth. Yet for others, once they realise Transylvania actually exists, it turns into a place in which to trace the very material inspiration for legends such as Dracula and Countess Bathory. And then there’s another tiny minority to which I subscribe – the ones that have seen Transylvania before reading Bram Stokers novel. However, visiting Transylvania some 150 years after Stoker, I am here to certify that his observations were surprisingly accurate and even more surprisingly time – defying. The ethnical diversity, the exquisite dishes, the haunting fortresses and the vast expanses of forested hills and mountains with their air of mystery still lay there for the adventurous traveller to explore.

Budapest

While wishing to do the entire trip by train, time constraints force me to cut Bram Stoker’s journey short by flying into Budapest. This Eastern European rising star needs no introduction. As I get out of the airport and pass by the hassling taxi drivers, I make my way to the city centre by public transport. The underground carriages stroke me as being the oldest I have ever travelled in. Having reached my destination, I shake off the transport museum feel and get a very warm welcome at the modern Art’otel Budapest. I check into a lovely junior suite, with (I believe) a spectacular view over the Danube which I could not enjoy due to persistent fog.

Early morning, I head to Budapest Keleti station and board the train that would take me to the heart of Transylvania by evening. The train is made up of Romanian IC rolling stock with a Hungarian restaurant car added to them, a fairly comfortable arrangement for a 10 hour journey. The 4 hours of gliding across the misty, snow covered Pannonian Plain serve as a worthy prelude before entering the land of legends. The fog clears out as the train crosses the Romanian border and heads towards the Western Carpathians. I get my lunch in the Hungarian restaurant car which serves freshly made cheese pancakes and enjoy the view of the first mountain silhouettes and catch a glimpse of the hilltop fortress of Radna guarding the passage through the Carpathians.

Sighisoara

The train pulls at Sighisoara station in the evening. Though recently renovated, do not expect Western standards. I check in and have a good night’s rest before wandering on citadel’s streets. The citadel of Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Dracula, stands on a hilltop around which the modern city has spread out. I have visited Sighisoara a couple of times, and each time it was a different aspect of it that caught my attention, be it the architecture, the festival or the cafes. This time, it was the smell of it – that heavy, pervasive smell of ancient walls imbued with the smoke of burning wood constantly going out of the chimneys each winter, for hundreds of years. It instantly reminded me of how hard they tried to recreate the same smell at Dover Castle Museum, for the sake of medieval atmosphere.

But here it was for real, protruding from the brightly coloured walls of the ancient houses still inhabited today into the narrow streets and passages. To my mind, Sighisoara in winter is the closest one can get to experiencing life in a medieval fortress. I spent the morning enjoying the bright winter sun and walking along the cobbled streets with patches of dirty snow. I went up the Covered Staircase up to the Church on the Hill where the pinched voice of a math teacher and the sound of chalk scratching the blackboard resounded with an eco through the windows of the near by high school. From the hill top I descend back into the city to sip through an afternoon tea served with honey at Casa Cositorarului, a cosy café next to the Covered Staircase. Late afternoon I make my way out of the citadel by the Clock Tower Gate and head to the train station to board an IC train to Brasov.

Brasov

Comfortable and very quiet, the IC train is a great way to travel. If it weren’t for the late hour, the route would have proven rather scenic as well through the Eastern Carpathians. I shared the carriage with a couple of middle aged businessmen and government officials and went for a coffee and biscuits in the restaurant car before arriving at Brasov station.

As far as holidays go, Brasov equates with variety. There is hardly any city in Romania that has so much to offer, from skiing to medieval fortresses and organ concerts. As far as bars, restaurants and nightlife, Brasov is one of the liveliest cities after Bucharest. But above all and irrespective of season, Brasov is a great place to spend time outdoors, enjoying the variety of mountain trekking routes having as a starting point either the city or Poiana Brasov, the city’s own sky resort, a couple of minutes bus ride from the city centre. Feeling less adventurous, I pay a visit to the Black Church, an imposing gothic structure in the city centre and walk along the medieval city walls and up to the Black and the White Towers, each offering spectacular views over the old town. Guided by the smell, I go around the city centre in search of kurtos kolacs, the one and only Hungarian dish to have crossed south of the Carpathians, conquering hearts and taste buds. Served in any pastry shop, the pale – yellow dough is grilled to perfection on a wooden cylinder and sprinkled with sugar and crushed walnuts. After 2 relaxing days in Brasov, I head to Sibiu early morning, on the earliest available service.

Sibiu

The earliest service available from Brasov to Sibiu happened to be a P train, the lowest ranked train on Romanian Railways. Seats are unreserved and train fares and the idea of paying them are still largely negotiable with the train conductor. The crowd is lively and there’s a constant chatter in Romanian and Hungarian. I share my compartment with 5 other people who enjoy a breakfast of cured pork fatback with onions and, quite unlikely for this time of the day, pass around a small bottle of palinca (local strong spirits). As the dawn comes, the Fagaras Mountains, the highest mountain range in the Carpathians, with their snow covered peaks come in view through the stained window. The train pulls at Sibiu Station just after 9 AM.

In stark contrast to the train I just disembarked and the countryside surrounding it, Sibiu has a surprisingly sanitised, Western outlook. The historical city centre, having undergone recent restoration, boasts impeccably preserved architecture. As a former European Capital of Culture, Sibiu had the resources to boost its provincial charm. The streets and the 2 town squares are quiet, undisturbed by any traffic and there’s a multitude of cafes and restaurants to be discovered at every corner. I wander around the cobbled streets for a while, cross the Bridge of Lies, where according to the legend, lovers whispered sweet lies to each other in the most romantic spot in town and decide to have a warm lunch at one of the traditional restaurants in the Main Square.
Late afternoon, I head to the train station to catch a train to Bucharest. After the morning’s rough travel, I now board a standard A train and luckily have my seat in the open plan part of the carriage, with a view on both sides, to admire the scenery flicking through the window before the dark sets in. Fashionably late (due to network engineering!), the train pulls at Ploiesti station (my hometown) just after midnight.