// R O M A N I A
I’ve spent a little while reflecting on the few days I spent in Romania and, after weighing up the positives with the contrary, I’d have to say my emotions are still very much mixed. Like a perplexed packet of assorted lollies. Like whose less than ingenious idea was it to add black liquorice into the mix anyway!? There are one hundred other lollies I can think of that would instantly be much more appropriately palatable.
Anyway, back to telling you about Romania. The main cities are bright, beautiful and carry this kind of old medieval charm. Beautiful architecture wherever you look, churches that tower over you and cute streets that beg for you to take their photo (and so I did). But I found my interactions with Romanian folk to be very hit and miss. I can count on three fingers the number of people who I met (outside of the hostels/hotel side of things) that spoke or understood English. It was a big culture shock to be honest.
I realised there was a profound language barrier the minute I arrived. It was at the precise moment in time where I got handed a cigarette when I asked for directions to the bus… I have never smoked before and didn’t think four o’clock on a Tuesday morning was the best time to start. Whilst I understand I don’t speak fluent Romanian or anything remotely close, I did try to learn some essentials before going. The usual ‘hello’, ‘bye’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’… it turned out that what I should have learnt is ‘where’s the bus station’ and ‘no, I don’t smoke’. I wish someone would have told me how much of a struggle everything was in Romania. I don’t think it would have changed things much in the way of my desire to travel to Romania, but it would have made me SO much more prepared for what this crazy little country had in store.
So, to avoid you getting in the same pickle as me, I bring you: how to survive 72 hours in Romania.
The first trouble I encountered was realising the promise of a shuttle between Bucharest airport and Brasov that I had found online was a far-fetched fantasy that someone had made up so that gullible travellers like me became stranded in Bucharest airport. Instead of catching this convenient shuttle, I’d first have to catch a bus to the main train station in Bucharest (Gara de Nord) and then catch a train from there to Brasov.
So, long story short, I did eventually find the bus station through a quick Google search. There’s one outside the arrival and departure terminals. I also found information of buying tickets and bus schedules online too. Thank god for Google! If you’re arriving in Bucharest, then you need to buy the tickets to the city BEFORE you get on the bus. The driver will not accept cash and will send you away with a disgruntled look on his face. Like he has personally been victimised by money. Or he has a complete germ phobia and cannot bear the thought of touching lei coins and notes. I didn’t get to experience such a delightful interaction as I was playing a game of ‘monkey see, monkey don’t do’ with the travellers getting on the bus before me.
The 780 express line connects Bucharest Henri Coanda International Airport with the Gara de Nord.
The 782 express line connects Bucharest Henri Coanda International Airport with Banaesa Shopping Centre.
The express line connects Bucharest Henri Coanda International Airport with the city centre (Piata Unirii).
In order to ride Bucharest’s buses or trams, you need to buy an Activ or Multiplu card in advance. You can buy these from little RATB kiosks found at major bus and tram stops (and at the airport luckily). The Multiplu card (which is blue and white) costs 1.60 lei and needs to be loaded (when purchasing) with two to ten journeys (which each cost 1.30 lei). After the initial purchase, the Multiplu card cannot be topped up. The Activ card (which is green and white) costs 3.70 lei but can be topped up with any amount from 2.60 to 50 lei at any time.
When boarding buses, trolleybuses or trams, you need to validate your Activ or Multiplu card at one of the orange machines on the bus or tram. Just wave the card in front of the machine until you hear a beep. The screen will then tell you how much credit or how many journeys you have left on the card. If you are caught without a validated card, then you will be fined 50 lei (which isn’t as bad as some countries, but still not really ideal).
tips to avoid awkward interations
Bucharest Gara de Nord to Brasov
Like buses, tickets for the train must be brought before you travel. I found this out the hard/weird/confusing way. Naively, I kind of just walked onto the first train I found saying ‘Brasov’ and asked the train conductor about buying a ticket. He pointed his finger towards the next carriage to: (1) what I originally thought was ‘get on that carriage and I’ll come to you soon’ … but now know it to be: (2) ah, the toilet, over there. Again, another demonstration that English is not part of their Romanian way. When the conductor came around, it eventuated that I did have to buy my ticket before I got on and that he would probably have to throw me off at the next station … in the middle of literally nowhere… at six in the morning… in the freezing cold. This lady who spoke very broken, put back together, and then broken again English came to my rescue and spoke with the conductor and then said in her unpieced English ‘come here, stay here’. And, because I was sleep-deprived and pretty confused, I did. This lady was so kind. She tried to make conversation, shared her sandwich with me (it was ham but I thought it rude to say no), gave me her spare can of soda and then woke me up when we got closer to Brasov. I honestly dread to think where I would have ended up without her!
Brasov train station is much like Bucharest, though a tad quieter given that it is not the capital city. The bus station is immediately outside the front doors of the station and it is here that you can catch a bus to the city or hail a taxi to take you to your hotel. Just a word of warning on the taxis. If you’re wearing a backpack and look anything like someone who resembles a backpacker, they will shout at you offering you a ride in their taxi. If you want to catch a taxi, then fine; but just maybe steer clear of the ones that are luring and shouting atrocities. I never caught a taxi (due to an inherent fear after watching films where taxi drivers kidnap backpackers) so can’t really offer any words of advice here.
Brasov itself is a true gem. Even a three-hour plane flight, a dodgy train encounter and a bus ride couldn’t dull my wonder for the colourful piazza of Brasov. After resting my head for a few hours, I decided to wander around the old town. This walled city has a colourful history, having been the prize of many wars fought over the centuries. Even with its small-town feel in the middle of the mountains, restaurants and activities are plentiful. Braşov offers diverse gothic, baroque, and renaissance architectural styles; visitors will find themselves looking up, entranced by the artistic architecture and pastel-coloured buildings all around them. Braşov’s name means ‘crown city’ in both German and Latin and its coat of arms bears a crown with oak roots, which is evident on walls and buildings throughout the city. The city centre is lined with romantic cobblestone roads, with crepe stands and cafes lining Braşov’s wide, pedestrian-only boulevard.
1. The Black Church: Built between 1383-1480, the Black Church earned its name after the smoke from a 1689 fire darkened its walls. Although the largest Gothic church in Eastern Europe may not be as striking as some Western European cathedrals, its gothic architecture and the Anatolian carpets that adorn the walls reflect the crossing point of the cultures and influences from the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Saxons.
Two castles nearby to Brasov and that make for an easy day trip are Rasnov Castle and Bran Castle. Regrettably I didn’t get to do Rasnov (though the bus did drive past it) but I can’t recommend Bran Castle enough. It is everything a haunted vampire castle should be and more. Obviously having a car makes getting to these places a lot easier but, fear not, they are just as reachable by bus if you’re relying on public transport like me. You catch the bus to Rasnov and Bran from Autograda 2 in Brasov. You can either walk here from town (which takes about 35 minutes) or catch a bus (which takes about 10-15 minutes depending on traffic). The bus comes every half hour and it takes about 45 minutes (although this again depends on traffic) to reach Bran.
3. Bran Castle: Built in 1378, this wood and stone fortress served both protective and commercial purposes and had an essential role in protecting the Hungarian king from Ottoman and Tartar invasions. In 1920, Bran Castle was donated to Queen Maria of Great Romania, who lived there with the royal family until 1947. Since then, the castle has been converted into a museum as a popular connection to Count Dracula. Castle tickets are 40 lei (8.50 euros) per adult and admission hours can be found here.
Catching the bus back from Bran to Brasov is just as easy. A guy dressed as Dracula in one of the gift shops at the castle described the bus stop as ‘head out the gates, down the hill and wait by the pepsi sign’. But this was all done in sign language and grabbing a ‘pepsi’ he had on the counter at the end. Maybe Dracula has changed his beverage options from blood to a much more modern thirst quencher. But, for the irrationality of his hand signals and the whole ridiculousness of the situation, his directions were on point. The bus station was just outside a shop that had a pepsi sign attached to it. Pinned to a board is the bus timetable for buses going back to Brasov via Rasnov (though the bus does make many stops along the way).
4. Râșnov Citadel: The recently restored 14th-century Râșnov Citadel sits on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains, about 200 metres above the town of Râșnov. For decades, this perfectly positioned citadel provided refuge for inhabitants of the area. It is a quick day trip from Braşov’s historic centre. For 12 lei adult admission fee (2.50 euros), visitors can access the maze-like inner rooms of the fortifications, a museum, a school, hundred-year-old stone houses, a skeleton buried beneath a glass floor, a few so-called secret passages, and sweeping views of the countryside.
2. Twin Watchtowers: Following repeated raids by the Turks, Braşov’s residents fortified their city in the late 1400s, building thick stone walls with strong bastions, two outer watchtowers, and a citadel. On the opposite side to Braşov’s mountaintop sign, visitors can see the striking Turnul Alb (White Tower) and newly renovated Turnul Negru (Black Tower) which is, ironically, also constructed of white stone. In 1599 the black tower was destroyed by fire from a lightning strike, which blackened its walls, hence its name. Today, this pyramid-shaped glass roof tower is no longer black and houses a museum. Both towers can be visited and provide magical panoramic views over the city.
5. Tampa Hill: The mountain which overlooks Brasov, the Tampa, is a habitat for brown bear, linx, boar, butterflies and a wide variety of birds including the raven, the Ural owl, the black woodpecker, the Eurasian nuthatch and many others. Walking to the top takes about an hour and you have several alternative trails with different difficulty levels to choose from. You can also ascend Mount Tampa by cable car (tickets are 16 lei) to an altitude of 940m. The cable car is open from 9am to 4 pm and closed on Mondays. From the upper cable car station walk five minutes (not 15 minutes as indicated) along the path behind the Brasov sign to the rocky summit (at 955m) for the best views of the town. If the weather is good, then take the walk! There was only a handful of people at the top when we were there. The skies were a clear blue, the trees alternated between autumnal shades of orange and yellows, and the views were honestly amazing!
Brasov to Sighisoara
This is where my train experiences got a whole lot worse… I wondered why my train ticket was only 18 lei (equivalent to two-ish pounds) … but this all made sense when this graffitied shambles of a train rocked up to the station and crowds of people, including the homeless, were pushing to jump aboard the train. It was a free for all. I wish I had known how horrendous this four-hour journey was going to be and I would have happily paid triple the price. It was dirty, smelly, and there was so many homeless people begging for money. Adding to this was the fact that everyone was smoking. On the train. Then everyone was going to the doors and opening them when the train was moving. I honestly thought I was going to die. Either of secondary smoke inhalation or by being flung out the doors and under a passing train. This homeless guy tried to talk to me and there is no way of winning: ignoring them makes them try harder to get your attention and giving in and looking at them eggs them on into thinking that their efforts have finally succeeded. I’m so thankful that the young guy sitting across from me who (from what I can gather) told him to leave me alone. My tip from this trip: pay the extra lei and catch the IR trains. They have comfortable seats, electrical sockets to charge your phone and you don’t have to worry about being pestered just because you look different and you’ve got a backpack.
It doesn’t take long to wander around and you could easily knock everything off your bucket list in a few hours. One thing I do recommend doing in Sighisoara is climbing the clock tower to get 360-degree views of Sighisoara below. It was beautiful and well worth the very rickety, dodgy stair climb to the top.
the birds eye views from the tower
Sighisoara was like Brasov in that the old town was packed with charm. So resplendent are Sighişoara’s pastel-coloured buildings, stony lanes and medieval towers, you’ll rub your eyes in disbelief. Fortified walls encircle Sighişoara’s lustrous merchant houses, now harbouring cafes, hotels and craft shops. Lurking behind the gingerbread roofs and turrets of the Unesco-protected old town is the history of Vlad Ţepeş, the bloodthirsty, 15th-century Wallachian prince. He was allegedly born here, in a house that is visitable to this day. Ţepeş is best remembered as Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula, fuelling a local industry of vampire-themed souvenirs.
how cute is this place!?
Sighisoara to Cluj-Napoca
So, in true Natalie style, I had accidentally booked tickets to fly home to London from Cluj instead of Sighisoara. Cluj being located approximately 160 kilometres and a 5ish train journey from Sighisoara. This meant I had to catch an early bus from Sighisoara to Cluj and then make my way to Cluj airport to get home. And what more fitting way to finish this Romanian whirlwind than another weird train journey.
Learning from my two previous mistakes, I decided to: (1) buy my ticket before I got on the train and (2) pay the extra money and get the IR train to Cluj-Napoca. Surely this would guarantee a much smoother journey that I wouldn’t feel the need to recount like I am about to do. But I was wrong...
I got on the train, found my seat and sat down. I popped by backpack next to me in the hope I could catch some shut eye on the five-hour journey ahead. I looked up to see this lady in her 70s or maybe 80s staring at me and it made me super uncomfortable. It was like one of those moments where you look up to see someone looking at you and they make no effort to look away. I couldn’t change seats because apparently the seat number on your ticket is gospel and you’ll be sent to the equivalent of train hell (aka be kicked off the train) if you go against this unwritten commandment. So, I smiled and got my earphones out and pretended to sleep. A few minutes later, I felt a poke in my arm. It was the lady. She said something in Romanian that my brain translated into being something along the lines of ‘where are you from?’. I said ‘Australia’ and she responded by pretending to be a kangaroo. I can just imagine what the other train travellers were thinking. I laughed and she took that as encouragement to do more animals. Crocodiles, koalas, snakes. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was dying inside with embarrassment, I would have found it pretty amusing.
She tried to make more small talk and we conversed without knowing what each other was truly saying. She opened her tote bag and brought out a sandwich. I decided at this point that this was old lady code for giving you their stamp of approval. I wasn’t really feeling hungry but decided that I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. And, besides, this was also distracting her from doing more animal charades. Throughout the journey, the kind lady filled up my water bottle with fresh water, gave me sweets (do all old ladies have sweets!?), sprayed perfume around me when a ‘smelly’ guy sat opposite of us, and, no word of a lie, I woke up from my nap with a blanket that she had put over me. We got to the other end and she pushed past people to get me to the doors, we stepped off and then I turned around to say thank you and she was gone. Writing this honestly makes me wonder whether the sugar I put in my coffee that morning was actually sugar and if I had imagined this very odd train encounter.
So, in conclusion...
Would I recommend Romania?
After writing about my time in Romania, I have decided that yes, I would recommend Romania. But take this recommendation with a touch a salt (which is so unlike me because I LOVE salt). I appreciate that it’s not for everyone or just any old someone. Go to Romania if you want to see some incredible architecture, learn about interesting history, are obsessed with Dracula and unreal castles or if you’re open to trying something totally new. But, if you’re not, just book a flight to Rome and go eat some gelato!
Would I return?
I appreciate that my 72 hours was an entrée of what Romania has to offer. I would return to Romania to see other things on my bucket list. These include places like the Transfăgărășan highway, Peles castle, the mud volcanoes in Bazau and the Scarisoara Ice Cave. But I don’t think I would go back to Bucharest, Brasov or Sighisoara. Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful, but there is only so many times you can wander around old towns before they all start to look the same.
I’ll leave it here for now... but stay tuned for my travels along the Transfăgărășan ;)