An Afternoon In Brasov, Romania
The third and final installment of our day in Transylvania — you can see Part 1 (Peles Castle) and Part 2 (Bran Castle/Dracula’s Castle) here! (Side note: isn’t it crazy how some days you can do and see an insane amount of amazing things, and then other days it seems like too much effort to even make some toast?! Always blows my mind.)
Anyways, after spending the majority of the day hanging around dreamy castles and practicing our Dracula impressions, our bus headed to an even more whimsical locale — Brasov. I actually passed through (and stopped for lunch in) this charming medieval town back in 2011, but then I didn’t have too long to explore. This time, I had initially been planning on spending a few days there on my own; but, as I explained here, this organized day-trip was the best option for Tristan’s limited amount of time in Romania.
Founded by the Teutonic knights in 1211 on an ancient Dacian site and settled by the Saxons as one of the seven walled citadels, Brasov is now one of the most visited places in Romania. Surrounded by towering mountains, rolling fields, thick forests and villages with fortified churches and comprised of gothic, baroque, and renaissance architecture, the distinct medieval ambiance of the city makes it seem like it was copied and pasted straight from a children’s fairytale book.
In fact, legend has it that this is where the Pied Piper led the children of Hamlin.
The city is centered on Piata Sfatului (The Council Square) and marks the heart of old medieval Brasov. Lined with beautiful red-roofed merchant houses, and overflowing with colorfully painted and baroque structures, this is the starting point for falling for Brasov’s salubrious charms.
Dominating the center of the square is the 13th-century yellow-and-white Casa Sfatului (Council House), which served as the meeting house for the town councilors, known as centurions. On top of the building sits the Trumpeter’s Tower, used during the Middle Ages as a watchtower for warning the citadel inhabitants of approaching danger. Today Casa Sfatului houses the Brasov Historical Museum and the city’s new tourist office.
Piata Sfatului is also home to many of Brasov’s best restaurants. In warmer weather, diners spill out onto the square and in colder weather cuddle up inside. Starving after a whole day of castle-wanderings, we made a beeline to one of the best (and cheapest) Romanian restaurants — Restaurant Gustari. (It is located directly opposite Casa Sfatului and is just simply marked as “Restaurant”).
The atmosphere inside is cosy and the menu has a wide range of Romanian offerings including stuffed cabbage rolls, soups, globes of pastry with cheese and jam, mutton marinated in home made sauce, and pickled trout with polenta. They have strong drinks and sweet deserts for a fraction of the price of other restaurants in the piata.
I went for Romania’s de facto national dish, sarmale (occasionally seen on menus as sărmăluţe). These are made of ground meat (usually pork, but also beef, poultry, or even fish) mixed with rice and other ingredients and rolled into cabbage leaves. The most popular side in Romania is mămăligă, a corn-meal ‘polenta’ mush reminiscent of the southern United States. It is served with everything, and is best when paired with a dollop of smântână (sour cream). Mămăligă is made with corn, so is perfect for us gluten-free travelers!
Pork is the main meat in Romania, so of course there was a little slice balanced on top of my dish.
Tristan had garlic chicken with mămăligă and we each had a glass of Horinca de Maramures — a double-distilled plum brandy prized for its clarity and its 80-proof wallop. Considered a local treasure, horinca is made from the ripe plums that fill marketplaces come fall. Almost all Romanian traditional strong drinks are made from fruit, which technically makes them a “brandy”, as the term “brandy” simply refers to any alcohol made by fermenting and distilling fruit.
Similar to plum brandies found throughout Central Europe (in Hungary it is called palinka, and in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia it usually goes by slivovitz), horinca is raised to shouts of Noroc! (Good luck!) at births, weddings, wakes and everything in between.
Although we were told to merely sip it — like a nice tequila in Mexico — the only reason I would have been shouting was due to its potency. On the other hand, Tristan needed all the luck he could get, this was to be the beginning of an evening filled with difficult shots, and I am not a good shot-taker!
Fed and watered, we set off on our official tour of the city.
Ours came as part of our day-trip package, but I have heard wonderful things about the Walkabout Free Walking Tours — you tip at the end how much you think the tour was worth.
The Black Church is Brasov’s main landmark — one of the most important Lutheran churches built by the German community and the largest gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. Built between 1385 and 1477 on the site of an earlier church (destroyed by Mongol invasions in 1242), the construction of the Marienkirche, as it was known in German, was hampered by extensive damage caused by Turkish raids in 1421.
Its name derives from damage caused by the Great Fire of 1689, when flames and smoke blackened its walls. Restoration took almost 100 years and of two towers planned, only one was finished; however, the Black Church boasts the largest church bell in Romania, weighing in at seven tons. During the months of July and August, organ recitals are held in the church three times a week, a tradition observed since 1891.
The German name of the city Kronstadt, as well as its Latin name Corona (meaning Crown City) reflected the considerable wealth that was acquired in the region. The location of the city at the intersection of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and western Europe, together with certain tax exemptions, allowed Saxon merchants to obtain a significant amount of money and exert a strong political influence in the region.
For this reason, the city’s coat of arms is a crown with oak roots.
Brasov is also home to one of Europe’s narrowest streets. Strada Sforii (Rope Street) was built in the 15th century to give firefighters an access route between the two major thoroughfares at each end. Measuring 80 meters (260 feet) long and varying in width from 111-135 centimeters (44-53 inches), Strada Sforii is the third-narrowest street in Europe and an urban planning hack turned tourist attraction. After all, how often can you stand in a street and touch both walls at the same time?
The pink building below is Brasov’s Synagogue. Jews have been in Brasov since 1807, when Aron Ben Jehuda was given permission by the Saxons to reside there. The Jewish Community of Brasov was officially founded 19 years later, followed by the first Jewish school in 1864 and building of the synagogue in 1901. The Jewish population of Brasov expanded rapidly to 1280 people in 1910 and 4,000 in 1940. Today the community has about 230 members, after many families left for Israel between WWII and 1989.
There are so many interesting parts of the city that you could easily spend 2 or 3 days wandering around.
The only thing I had time to see last visit were the incredibly well-preserved City Walls, which were built by the Saxons after having quite enough of the destruction that came from the constantly invading Mongols and Turks. During the period of 1400 to 1650, they build fortifications around their town, first consisting of earthen walls and wooden barriers, later reinforced with stones.
Schei is the district where for centuries Romanians were forced to live, as only Saxons could live within the city walls.
And, if this place wasn’t magical enough, it also has a Hollywood-esque sign proclaiming the town’s name. Located at the top of Mount Tampa, the sign can be seen from all over town and can also be reached by cable car. The sign pays homage to the amount of Hollywood movies that have repeatedly used scenes of the region in blockbusters. (For example, Cold Mountain was shot in surrounding fields and farmland in the Carpathian Mountains.)
Romania is still a little off-the-beaten-track for the typical European trip, but I can’t stress how much I suggest a visit. There is still so much more that Tristan and I want to explore there, so we will definitely be heading back at some point!
As always, let me know if you have any questions about our Transylvania/Romania travels, or if you want some help planning yours!
Outfit details in this post!
Photos by Jenny Heyside and Tristan Marsh