Crown of the Mountains: A Weekend in Brașov

Checking the Wikipedia page of Brașov I was informed that it’s climate is humid continental, the humid part of which disturbed me slightly, but I needn’t have bothered all that much, since during our four day stay we were faced with all four seasons, ranging from a hot and sunny morning to spritely spring rain, annoying autumn rain and a serious bout of snow, obviously representing the winter which at first hardly happened this year, but then suddenly insisted it is here to stay, which is frankly a very rude thing to do in the second half of March.

These were however splendid circumstances to check whether the city’s charm survives rotten weather, and I have to say it passed the test, probably a combination of the colourful houses around the centre which brighten the dullest light and the dramatic backdrop of mountains which are crowned by clouds or fog when the rain moves in. Further to this, there’s an array of pleasant options on the bar and restaurant front which can provide shelter against the whimsies of the weather, a great delight when compared to my provincial Romanian town, recently advertised by a friend as North Korea minus the fun.

Brașov is, however, a bit hard to get to. This must have been a great plus for the inhabitants of the old Dacian settlement and the Saxons fortifying themselves against all sort of treacherous foes, such as marauding Turks, bears looking for juicy treats in medieval trashcans and possible bloodsucking visitors from the South. According to one version of the Dracula story, Vlad Țepeș, not necessarily innocent when it comes to shedding blood, yet probably somewhat less keen on literally consuming it, got his bad rep from the Saxons of the Brașov area, who, irked by having lost several previously held privileges, started spreading suspicious rumours about Vlad’s well, culinary preferences.

These day, though, Vlad would have found it a bit difficult to approach the Saxons, particularly as most of them have left the area anyways, in successive ways of emigration/return to core German territories, the last of which happened during the Communist era. Many Germans were deported to the Soviet Union immediately after the war, while those who stayed or were lucky enough to return quite explainably chose to leave for Germany as soon as they could.

This being said, a small German community soliders on, and Vlad could choose to approach them by car. This would make Vlad endlessly annoyed, because the Prahova Valley, linking Bucharest to Brașov is almost invariably clogged with traffic, for one of my favourite Romanian national activities is the running of errands with no finality which often involve senseless travel. Trying to spare himself a minor heart attack, he could envisage getting around by train. This sounds like a splendid idea but can sometimes be sabotaged by the mysterious functioning of the CFR- Romania’s national rail company, which alongside its Hungarian counterpart, MÁV, are very high on the list of institutions that have made my short life on this planet as miserable as it can possibly get.

Which reminds me of the fact that Vlad could have considered approaching his target from Budapest, perhaps after a prison spell at the hands of his Transylvanian frenemy, Matia Corvin, in which case the night train from Keleti would have felt like an upgrade. Despite our penchant to complain about the (non)working of things in Romania, the night train is not that bad: it is clean and fairly comfortable, although a bit pricey- a bed in a four-person compartment costs around 85 euros, while the luxury of a two-person sleeping arrangement will cost around 140. Should you have chosen to fly to Bucharest instead (though not from Budapest, because that also costs an arm and a leg), the train ticket will be a refreshing ten euros only.

Once in Brașov, you may as well start your exploration from the Main Square, Piața Sfatului, thus named as it houses the building that used to be the old town hall. What is immediately striking again is the German-ness of it all, with old German names still mentioned on street signs and shops with German names and inscriptions.  The town’s German name is Kronstadt, crown city, which leads us to the much-discussed matter of its overall naming: the Romanian Brașov/ Hungarian Brassó version is considered to be of either Slavic or Turkic origin, whereas about the Latin Corona we at least know it does indeed mean crown, and this crown is present in the city’s coat of arms as well.

Although there are traces of human settlement dating back to the murky depths of antiquity, the present iteration of  Brașov/ Kronstadt was founded by the Teutonic Knights in the early 13th Century, when by order of King Andrew II of Hungary they established several forts in the area known as Țara Bârsei. The Knights themselves were (un)politely expelled soon after, but the German speaking population stayed behind, and became known as traders and artisans, instituting wealthy guilds and profiting to the maximum of the city’s location at an important trading thoroughfare. Their habit of being perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about the quality of their ware has led to the birth of the word brașoavă as a more ceremonial way of implying someone is lying.

Pleasantly close to Piața Sfatului you’ll find two of the city’s main attractions: Strada Sforii- Rope Street- and the Black Church. Rope Street, 80 metres long and with a maximum width of 135 centimetres is considered the third narrowest street in Europe, after Reutlingen’s Spreuerhofstraße and Exeter’s Parliament Street. It dates to the 15th century, when it served as quick passage for firefighters, an essential feat in the narrowly packed inner city which contained many wooden structures.

The building of the Black Church was started in 1383, a period of great prosperity for the city, but had to be halted during the Turkish invasion of 1421. When the Gothic cathedral was finalized in 1477, it was still a Catholic place of worship, most likely consecrated to the Virgin Mary. During the Reformation, most of Transylvania became Protestant, Lutheran ides being promoted in Brașov by locally born theologian Johannes Honterus. Thus, today the church belongs to the German speaking Lutheran community of the city and is renowned for its excellent acoustics and 19th Century organs- unsurprisingly German made as well. The church itself is actually not really black, rather dark grey, but it must have been soot black after the fire which destroyed considerable parts of it on the 21st of April 1689. As it is still actively used for worship, it can only be visited outside mass hours: from 10 AM to 4 PM (7 PM in summer season) from Tuesday to Saturday, and 12 to 4 PM (7 PM) on Sunday, while on Mondays it’s closed.  The entry fee is of only about 2.5 euros, but taking photos is strictly forbidden. Should you try anything along those lines, you expose yourself to the ire of a flock of custodians competing in sinister sternness with the church’s medieval statues.

The outline of the old Saxon fortifications is most spectacular from the top of Mount Tâmpa, which sports a Hollywood style Brașov sign (a similar sign can be seen in nearby Râșnov as well), that, according to legend, was once the safe haven of a man chased by bears. Since there’s been quite a lof of coverage of Romania’s unruly bears in the press, let me add that the danger is by no means quite as imminent as it’s often pictured to be: while the animals do like to indulge in the occasional trash can investigation in inhabited areas, bumping into them is not highly likely if you’re touristing in the heart of town. Mountain trails are of course another matter, but let’s keep in mind that in those cases we’re the ones trespassing their living quarters and just imagine how irate you’d be if a grizzly with an i-phone started instagramming your kitchen.

The ascent can be made either on foot, or with some pretty Italian made cable cars, for which the return ticket costs a mere four euros. The highest point of the Tâmpa is of 960 metres, and besides the city it also offers staggering views of the Postăvarul massive it belongs to. With some sadness we learned that the restaurant which offered quite the perspective is closed, just as they closed the one in the Citadel, lying on a hill across the Tâmpa, and a part of the city’s old fortification system.

The Citadel itself is unavailable for visits altogether due to a dispute over ownership, but one can revel in it from the outside, and further trot along the lines of the old city fortifications visiting the Black and the White towers. You guessed correctly, the Black Tower is not really black either, but it did also partially fall prey to a fire. Crossing towards the Tâmpa again, you will meet the city gates, the more ornate Catherine gate, which served as the principal entry point to the city until it became too narrow for the needs of traders in the 19th Century and was replaced by the Șchei gate nearby.

Though I might have exhausted you with dates and numbers (habits learned from history manuals die hard), hopefully I at least chose the more interesting ones, and rest assured that the list above is by no means exhaustive, though I would say a good place to start once you’ve  recovered from whatever means of transport you choose to make it to Brașov. It now dawns on me Vlad might have chosen to go on horseback. And he might have been right, too.

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