Brasov appears as if from nowhere, unfolding suddenly below the mountain pass that winds you a harum-scarum ride between the soaring Carpathian Mountains. It's at the centre of a site with epic, ancient significance in history, legend and art – a cultural vortex secreted amid miles of the kind of dense, Eastern European, fairytale wilderness that exists in the imagination, home to bears, wolves and perhaps some even more fearsome creatures of fable.
Big enough to be multi-faceted and small enough to be intimate, Brasov is an ideal centre point from which to extend your interest to other parts of the country but still have plenty to absorb you close by. There’s a thriving arts community (- stop by Kron Art, a stepping-stone for young, local artists who have moved on to achieve international success -) and several museums, and the Black Church (located across the road from the excellent Teehaus café and cigar bar on Gheorghe Baritiu Street) holds free choral concerts every week.
Nightlife is good-humoured and the local beer, Ursus, is tasty and cheap even by students’ standards, so it’s no wonder that ‘Romania’s Prague’ is one of Brasov’s monikers. The other is ‘Little Hollywood’ because of the tall, white letters spelling out the name of the city across the peak of Mount Tampa, (Brasov’s own mini-mountain,) which were erected in place of the name of Stalin, carved into the rock in the 1950s at his behest. Climb up (or take the cable car and walk down) in a morning and ponder the changed, optimistic country below as you rest in a clearing and gaze at the view.
Stay at the Bella Muzica – it’s the nicest hotel in town and too good to miss, given the very reasonable prices. The restaurant does local specialities very well, but there’s plenty to appeal to the more cowardly palate... You might also consider Butoiul Sasului, in a courtyard off Republicii Street, for dinner. Bistro de L’Arte is excellent from breakfast to nightcap, and the Piata Sfatului Restaurant is always busy at lunch.
It’s hard to ignore Romania’s wildlife; pine-clad mountains tower over the town in almost every direction and the edges of the suburbs lie intimately alongside the forest boundaries, so as long as you stay inside the car and keep moving, you can simply hop into a taxi at dusk and see the bears snacking from the wheelie-skips in the new town as I did! But the little extra cost is worth it to see bears and possibly wolves in the wild, and Equus Silvania (located in Sinca Noua, a twenty minute taxi ride away) is the perfect local company to choose; they’ll organise horseback excursions and wildlife-watching evenings you’ll never forget (but be sure to book well in advance).
A taste of the mountains is sure to tempt you into exploring further, so spend day three taking in the sights at some of the mountain villages. Each one has its own story, so you can take your pick: Sinaia is a picturesque ski resort, but King Carol’s romantic Peles Castle is its main attraction. Medieval fortress Sighisoara’s network of cobbled streets are a gothic fantasy come to life, and the fairytale castle of Bran is the usual destination for Dracula-chasers. Poienari’s 15th century citadel really did belong to Vlad Tepes. The list goes on... Take the train for the most authentic experience; you’ll stop at some intriguing, run-down, pretty places and meet tanned, shirtless Roma kids and friendly locals selling little punnets of wild raspberries at every station.
Spend a night at the Casa Capsa; just like much of Romania, it’s singularly beautiful on the surface but not entirely slick beneath; despite having a self-proclaimed ‘occidental atmosphere’, there’s occasional brown or absent tap water (as everywhere) and there’s nothing spectacular about the room service fare, but in Victorian times it was the hotel of choice for the rich, talented and famous.
There’s a wealth of sites to visit - Revolution Square, the huge Parliament Palace, the red-brick Kretzulescu Church and the pretty old town to name a few - and don’t miss a unique chance to see the Brancusi and Grigorescu pieces at the National Art Museum (free admission). Lunch on the terrace at Balthazar is chic and fun (unless, of course, the Count Dracula Club theme restaurant appeals…).
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