Brașov : The Gem of Transylvania

Brașov, Romania, architecture, travel

In 2012, I was fortunate to hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania for four days.  It was a wonderful experience as it was trekking with purpose:  to help orphaned kids in a Romanian orphanage in the town of Brașov (pronounced BRA-shov).  I have shared about the hike and the service aspects of this incredible trek.  But what I have not done is pay the town of Brașov its due…  You see, Brașov was totally unexpected for me given my limited exposure to Romania before this trip.  Also, it was unexpected after spending a couple of days in Bucharest.  Brașov could not be any more different than its counterpart south of the mountains.  And that may be true of many towns in Romania if my visit to Iași added further to the case…

Brașov, Romania, architecture, travel

Headed towards city council (the tower) and main square of Brașov

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

Black Church and the White and Black Towers on the hill

German Saxons were influential in shaping the region and this town going as far back as the 12th century when the Hungarian overlords of the area brought these industrious folks to help develop the area.  Brașov could be said was founded by Teutonic Knights but even after they left, the settlers stayed continuing to influence this town, so much so, that German is still an important language in the area (I found just as many people who spoke German there as English) though some of that could be due to more modern reasons too.  In any case, all you need to do is look at the architecture of this beautiful town surrounding a good bit by mountains to see what I mean.  You feel you are in maybe some part of Germany or Austria in the old part of the town.

Brașov, Romania, Transylvania, architecture

Beautiful buildings everywhere

architecture, Brașov, Romania

Detail on an old building

Some of the key sights and sites of the town include:

  • The Black Church, one of the largest (if not the largest) Gothic churches in southeastern Europe
    Brașov, Romania, Black Church, bell tower, architecture, travel, photo

    The Black Church

    Brașov, Romania, Black Church, clock, bell tower, architecture, travel, photo

    Clock of the Black Church

  • The old city gates that remain (Catherine’s which is the only original medieval gate still standing, and Şchei which is more recent from the 1820s)
  • The medieval city walls and fortifications, which you can get onto and walk pieces of it to see some of and go up the old towers (the White and Black towers)
    Brașov, Romania, White Tower, fortification, history

    The White Tower (I hope that is self-evident!)

    Black Tower, Brașov, Romania, fortification

    The Black Tower, which does not look as black as the White Tower looks white!

  • The main square or piața (Piața Sfatului) with all the cafés and lively scene
    Brașov, main square, Romania, kid, pigeon

    Brașov’s main square or piata full of life (and pigeons!)

    summer night, street musicians, piata, Brașov, Romania

    Musicians playing on a street leading to the piata on a summer night

  • Rope Street, the narrowest street in Romania
  • The first Romanian school (originally built in 1495 and re-built almost a century later into the current structure) sits next to St. Nicholas Church (which itself dates from the 16th century) and its small but interesting museum (we got a fun and lively short lecture by a priest named Vasile on the history of the school)

    St. Nicholas Church, Brașov, Romania, travel, architecture

    St. Nicholas Church in Brașov

Brașov is not only rich in history and architecture but it is also a perfect spot to explore Transylvania (which is WAY more than Bran’s Castle!) and from which to launch any summer or winter sports activities.  The hiking is phenomenal with beautiful landscapes that feel untouched by modernity and I can only imagine how neat the skiing is!

Brașov, Romania, street art, paintings

Street art near the main post office

And the food, oh, the food!  I loved it!

fried pork chunks, onions, Romanian food

Fried pork chunks – mmm!!!!

dessert, Brasov, Romania, food, delicious, travel

Deliciousness

bread, pastry, bakery, food, Romania

Fresh from the bakery!

Here a couple of images showing the range of “interesting” to be found in doors around town!

Brașov, Romania, door, scene, travel

Near St. Nicholas Church

door, tilted door, Brasov, Romania, red door

Was someone drunk? Or am I?

I enjoyed my days in Brașov before and after the hike and can safely say this is a MUST when visiting Romania.

Photo of the Week – A Night out in Brasov

Last summer, as you may have read (or hopefully will check out!), I did a hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania.  Home base for the trek was the charming city of Braşov.  I still have to write about that beautiful town but this picture really evokes the spirit of old town Braşov for me.  After a nice summer night dinner, we strolled around town as many of the locals seemed to be doing.  It was a fun atmosphere and I wish I had had more time there.  I shall return!

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Into the Land of the Dracula Legend (Or Is It?) and Moldova

Brașov, Romania, Black Church, White Tower, Black Tower, Transylvania

So my trek to Romania is fast approaching.  I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!).  I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…

The Hike

The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle).  We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area.  We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level.  I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain.  I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more.  I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!

Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova

I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip.  In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.

The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option.  A strong contender was neighboring Serbia.  But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova.  I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it.  I decided to make it there before the hike.

Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country.  The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there.  So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.

Iasi, Romania

Iasi (photo courtesy of: RomanianMonasteries.org)

Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days.  I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).

Map showing my tour of Moldova (based in Chisinau)

Map showing the areas I will explore on the three day visit

I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.

Getting to Romania

I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value.  I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights.  However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles!  Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric…  Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).

Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles.  I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles.  I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future.  A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help.  I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”.  Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that.  I was quite pleased.  I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood  that I got as good a deal as possible.  My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).

Getting to Moldova

Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova.  Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one.  Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau.  I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day.  Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip.  (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing!  I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)

But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear!  After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense.  I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!

Bucharest

Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights.  I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!

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So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains:  do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.

However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!

Traveling for Good – A Trek in Romania

I have pondered may a-times how lucky I am that I can travel to places around the world mostly for personal reasons and sometimes even for business.  I, like many others, are blessed with the opportunities possible in this day and age to make long distance travel possible.  In 14 hrs I can be in Seoul should I choose.  50 yrs ago, maybe a lot less years ago, that trip would have taken much longer to do.  And on and on I could go about how good we have it.

And then I realized that I can do these trips not only because the world is smaller and technology facilitates many things.  I can travel because where I was born and where I live have afforded me opportunities to be in a good enough situation to travel, something many people in other less developed countries may never have.  But I go further the more I think about it:  even if I didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to travel, I still don’t have to worry about many basic things.  Malaria is not a threat in my country.  Water safety is not a concern (usually, anyway).  There is good medicine accessible within a mile or so from where I live.  Etc.

Many people in this world have to worry about such things.  Forget about whether they would have the wherewithal to travel abroad – they have to worry about the basics that you and I, dear reader, more than likely will never have to worry about.  Yes, we do have issues too but not at the scale of what a good portion of our fellow human beings have to worry about.

It is with that in mind that I decided to do a trek to help some folks who may have a lot less of the basics than most of us.  A friend of mine founded an organization a few years ago that organizes treks in support of orphanages around the world.  They have gone to base camp in Everest, to the top of Kilimanjaro, done the Camino in Spain, hiked to Machu Picchu, etc.  This July they are organizing a “lite” trek in the mountains of Romania – the Transylvanian Alps – and I have decided to join them for the first time!  The organization is called Trekking for Kids.  The trek will begin and end in Brasov in central Romania, an area with well-known beauty and famous (or infamous as the case may be) for Bran’s Castle that inspired the Dracula story (I even hate to mention it but had to!).

Trekkers raise funds that directly fund the projects that will be done for the targeted orphanage (capital improvements, sustainability-oriented projects, etc.).  Not only do we fundraise for the orphanage but we will pitch in with sweat equity while at the orphanage as well as just be with the children.

I am thrilled to be undertaking this challenge.  It is a lite trek but that is 4 days in a row of hiking and I have not done more than one day ever… My longest hike was over 20 yrs ago…  So I will share a little between now and July about preparations for the trek and then share with you the experience once the trek is done.  I am hoping my troublesome knee will cooperate as it has been acting up the last 3 years.  But I hope it all works out for the best first and foremost for the kids in that orphanage in Brasov, Romania!

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If you’d like to support the orphanage projects via Trekking for Kids via my trek, go to their site, click on “Donate” on the top right, go to the “Select Trek or Fund” box and select “Romania 2012”, and then (don’t forget!), select me as the Trekker you are supporting!  (If you prefer to pay by check, please email me so I can get the form to you which will also provide you with your tax receipt.)

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