After leaving Corfu, I was originally supposed to have an overnight layover in the Athens airport but I wussed out and changed my ticket. You see, there are no decent, reasonably-priced hotel options near the Athens airport. I have no idea why this is but it’s the reason I’ve twice spent the night in that airport on previous trips.
There are two hotels near the airport, the Sofitel for about $300/night or the Holiday Inn Attica for around $200/night. Both lovely hotels, I’m sure, but not worth the money for just a 6-hour layover.
So, while I was in Sofia, I looked into some alternative flights. Spending Sunday night in the Athens airport and arriving in Romania dead tired just didn’t seem like a good plan so I was willing to throw some money at the problem. Not $300, mind you, but something.
I discovered that by leaving Corfu at 4pm instead of 10pm Sunday night, I could catch the evening connection to Bucharest and spend Sunday night there instead. Since the change would only cost me 100 euro, I jumped at it.
Then I booked a room lovely and reasonably-priced Denisa Airport Hotel in Bucharest to get some sleep before catching the morning train to Brasov. When all was said and done, I’d spent about $200 and got to Romania a full 12 hours earlier and able to start my day in Bucharest after a good night’s sleep. Genius.
Day 2 – Brasov
Monday morning I went back to the airport bright and early and caught the local bus to Bucharest’s main train station, Bucharesti Nord. The trains to Brasov leave pretty regularly but I’d been told to avoid any train that wasn’t a Rapid (R) or Inter-City (IC) since those were the fastest and nicest of Romanian trains. There was a Rapid at 8:40am and I made it to the station in plenty of time to catch it.
Since this was my first experience with Romanian trains, I played it safe and booked a 1st class ticket for about $20 (2nd class was $15 so this was a no-brainer). “Rapid” is apparently a relative term in Romania as this train took a little more than 3 hours to cover the 95-mile distance between Bucharest and Brasov.
But the ride through the countryside of Transylvania was worth it. By lunchtime I’d arrived in the charming town of Brasov.
Situated in the heart of Transylvania, the medieval town of Brasov seemed like the perfect place to set up camp and explore the region. Surrounded by the peaks of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, Brasov is resplendent with baroque, gothic and renaissance architecture.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the main Council Square, Plata Sfatului, where the city’s German heritage is evident. The Council House, built in 1420, lies in the center of the square and was once a watchtower for approaching barbarians before becoming the decision-making center for the business of the city.
My hotel, the fantastically-charming Bella Muzica, was located right in the Council Square and at 60 euro a night, it was a steal.
I caught a bus from the train station to the Council Square and easily found Bella Muzica. After checking in and dropping my things, I headed back down to the front desk to inquire about the bus to Bran Castle. Directions in hand, I was off to the main bus station to catch the bus to Bran.
A Visit to Dracula’s Castle
Just 45 minutes later, I arrived in Bran and the cute little town brought an instant smile to my face.
As I stepped off the bus, I could see Bran Castle perched high above and I was surrounded by a tiny village of vampire souvenirs and memorabilia. It was total vampire kitsch but in a reasonably adorable way. From vampire fangs to vampire wine, this town had it all.
I bypassed the souvenir stands and made a beeline for the castle entrance. Situated on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, Bran Castle is commonly referred to as “Dracula’s Castle.” Though it is actually just one of several locations linked to the Dracula legend, it is considered to be the fictional home of Bram Stoker’s title character, Count Dracula.
Stoker based his character on the legend of Vlad Draculea, ruling prince of Wallachia in the mid-1400’s who had a notorious reputation for impaling his enemies in particularly grotesque fashion.
Though the castle itself was a bit of a letdown – I guess I just pictured it differently – the whole experience of Bran was a lot of fun. Sometimes you just have to embrace the kitsch.
On the way back to Brasov, the bus made a stop in Rasnov and I got off to check out another castle. This one was actually more impressive than Bran Castle but without the crowds, souvenir stands and fictional history.
Once back in Brasov I spent the rest of my day exploring the town.
One of the first things you notice is the giant “BRASOV” sign stenciled across the mountain overlooking town. After seeing a similar sign grandly announcing Rasnov Castle, I began to wonder if Transylvania had a bit of a Hollywood complex.
The next thing you notice as you walk around Brasov are all the café umbrellas emblazoned with the following bold (yet hedged) statement, “Brasov – Probably the Best City in the World.” Probably? I mean, come on Brasov…either you are or you aren’t. But either way, you’ve gotta love their confidence.
And I have to say, though best city in the world may be a stretch, Brasov is without a doubt a terrific city.
Day 3 – Bucharest
For my last day in Romania, I took the train back to Bucharest to see what that city had to offer. It was another 3 ½ hour train ride, this time in 2nd class as the train I chose didn’t have a 1st class car. The ride was OK but I quickly learned that the major difference between 1st class and 2nd is air conditioning. That was definitely worth the extra 5 bucks.
After checking into the history-laden Athenee Palace Hilton Bucharest, I grabbed a map from the concierge desk and took off to check out Bucharest. The main area of interest for tourists is the Old Town so I started there.
Apparently, they don’t have much interest in keeping the Old Town old since there were numerous construction projects going on everywhere. Many of the streets were torn up and closed off. It was difficult to navigate through it all but I was able to at least get a feel for what the area looked like.
After some of the beautiful Old Towns I’ve seen in the past few years all over Europe, the Bucharest version was a bit of a disappointment.
The rest of the city is really just what you’d expect to see in any big city, lots of office buildings, shopping centers and traffic. The strength of Romania as a tourist destination is definitely in its countryside. The Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania and cities like Brasov and Bran are certainly worth a visit.
If I were to return to Romania, I would definitely spend more time exploring those areas and less time in Bucharest. But as a whole, I really enjoyed Romania. It’s a country with a rich and mysterious history and worth a stop on any Eastern European itinerary.
It’s hard to believe this trip is finally coming to an end after almost 5 weeks on the road! Next, on to Amsterdam for one final night before heading home.