“My friend – Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and will bring you to me.” *
I did sleep well, but the Count never picked me up and I had to make my own way by train to the Carpathian mountains. You may have guessed that the quote comes from Bram Stoker’s absolutely brilliant novel Dracula. Stoker of course never visited Transylvania, but he did do Romanian tourism a huge favour.
Transylvania, the name conjures up images of wolfs, bears, gothic castles and forested mountains. Amazingly, all that and more (hearty good food!) can still be found in this region. Transylvania is a surprisingly large province. As a matter of fact it is larger than Hungary, which it used to be part of, and has less than 7 million inhabitants.
After three days in stiflingly hot Bucharest (see previous blogs) it was time to explore the countryside. Bucharest to Braşov is a 2 ½ hour journey with a fast train. I recommend you book first class. It is not the Orient Express (which used to cross Romania), but you do get that extra bit of legroom and it only costs the equivalent of £3 more than II class. The total cost of the 166 km journey is 70 RON or £ 13.80.
It is another sweaty late September day when I set off from the train station in Bucharest North. Ventilation is not included in first class. An old lady sitting opposite me takes out a wad of bills from her wallet. Is she really going to count money, openly like some gangster in a C movie? No, she spreads them out as if they were cards and then proceeds to fan herself with them! The notes are too thin and flimsy to do the job properly, but it is an amusing sight.
The first 45 minutes of the journey are no great shakes. Endless, flat stubble fields that have recently been harvested. But slowly one by one wooded hills drift into view. Having passed the massive oil refinery in Ploieşti the train track starts to follow the lower reaches of the river Prahova. I have read about Ceaușescu’s delusional renewal plans and how he ordered the destruction of thousands of villages and I am therefore pleasantly surprised to see that at least some traditional architecture has survived in Transylvania. This stretch could potentially be a lovely train journey but the river and its banks needs cleaning up. The concrete weirs do look solid but they remind me of communist era defence lines.
After a while the hills increase and become fully grown mountains, peaking dramatically in the resort Sinaia. In the winter months this holiday centre will transform into a half-decent ski-resort. In my next blog I will make a stopover here, on my way back from Braşov.
Having arrived in Braşov I head for the taxi stop. I know it is only about 4 km to my hotel and I ask the driver what he is going to charge me. 50 RON, he says, which is almost £11. I haggle it down to half that price, knowing that even that is far too high. The little fellow then asks me with a sly grin if I am Russian. Should I take that as a compliment? It turns out that this ride comes with an unsolicited sales pitch. Tomorrow my trusty new friend wants to take me on a day trip to Bran and several other spooky castles. Bran is advertised as Dracula’s castle because Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Count Dracula) was imprisoned there long enough to register on a tourist map. It is a popular destination, looks sinister enough in the pictures and I am initially ready to consider my fixer-cum- taxi driver’s offer.
His name is Victor, I learn. He tells me to give him an offer he can’t refuse for a private tour. But I haven’t got a clue what the going rate is, so I change the subject to football. You can hardly go wrong with that in Romania, as they haven’t qualified for the World Cup 2018 in Russia. This theme brings out another, not completely surprising streak in the unshaven little chap with the glowing eyes. I ask him about the local football club. He launches into a shockingly sweary rant. He hates the effing rich owner who, Victor claims, has destroyed his beloved FC Brașov which is currently lingering in the second Liga. The expletives continue to fly during the rest of our conversation and we cover an amazing array of subjects for a short ride. I try to imagine what it would be like to have him as my personal chauffeur for a day, transporting me from one lugubrious castle to another, while uttering profanities. I am not given much time to contemplate this before Victor has changed tack. He tells me he recently bought a car in Leicester. Huh, did I hear that right!? Yes, it is cheaper to fly to Leicester, buy a second hand car and drive it all the way back to Romania, than it is to buy a vehicle locally. Victor paid £600 for a luxury car and would I like to hire it? It is a right-hand drive and therefore ideal for me, he says. All kinds of horror scenarios involving me and the right-hand jalopy in the Transylvanian countryside flash through my mind, before I politely decline Victor’s offer. Luckily we have arrived before he can come up with more sales pitches. Victor has delivered me slap bang in the middle of the old town without any problems. He did claim initially that it was rather complicated to get to the centre with all its narrow roads and therefore he would have to charge some extra money. It turns out that a major road cuts through the medieval market place where my hotel is. Before Victor gets back into his car he signals with his hand ‘phone me’. His eyes light up like saucers and his cunning smile bares a perfect set of pearly whites, with the tiniest hint of fangs. Then he adds: “You can call me if there is anything you need! Anything! ”
I think I need a drink.
- This passage is from Count Dracula’s letter to Jonathan Harker. It is taken from the first chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.