Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A Transylvanian Traverse

I knew they brought down a communist dictator with a revolution in 1989. I knew they beat England with late goals in 1998 and 2000. And I knew Nigel Farage said he doesn't want them living next door. But that was pretty much all I knew about Romania and its people before travelling through Transylvania.

© Ryan Chapman

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

It turns out Farage isn't alone in his disdain for the former Soviet-bloc nation. According to a poll, Romania is overwhelmingly the EU country where Brits would least like to live. So, naturally, I was keen to find out what's so dreadful about the place and its people and I strongly suspected the answer was nothing at all.

Here are some highlights of the trip, interspersed with photos and the occasional vague attempt at humour*.

Libearty Sanctuary (near Brasov)

Up until fairly recently it wasn't uncommon for Romania's native brown bears to be captured by restaurant owners and kept as pets to attract customers. I don't know about you, but when I'm choosing an eatery I'm often swayed if they have a distressed caged bear at the front door.

This practice was illegal, but the authorities turned a blind eye because there was nowhere to house any rescued bears. That was until 2005, when the brilliantly named Libearty Sanctuary opened its doors. Which was just in time because when Romania joined the EU new animal rights laws rendered many of the country's zoos illegal, adding to the list of bears needing a new home.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

The sanctuary is part rehabilitation centre, part retirement home. The elders live out the rest of their days in bear paradise and the cubs are taught how to wild, before eventually being released. The sanctuary is very keen to specify it is 'not a zoo' and that its primary concern is for bears, not tourists. In other words, if you don't see any bears, tough shit.

The Museum of the Revolution, Timisoara

Timisoara is probably the most historically significant city in Romania. As like most of history, the majority of it happened ages ago. But, as recently as 1989, the revolt against Nicolae Ceausescu's regime began here, in the far west of the country. The tidal wave of revolution spread eastward towards Bucharest and Ceausescu was toppled several days - and at least a thousand lives - later, before being sentenced to death by firing squad.

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

To this day, bullet scars littering building facades in Timisoara make the violence of 89 seem all the more recent. The Museum of the Revolution brings it to life further, in a very understated way, inside a dilapidated building that probably hasn't seen a paintbrush since Ceausescu was in power (though I suspect this is intentional).

Christmas Markets

Sibiu was first on the Romanian Christmas Market scene, and other cities were quick to get in on the action of glühwein and sweet treats. Whilst Sibiu's is the most festively colourful, they range from the complete meat-feast in Timisoara (think hog roasts and sausages) to hosting almost-forgotten British band Smokie in Brasov (Living Next Door to Alice went down a storm, although some people weren't fully aware of who Alice is, judging by what they shouted during the chorus).

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

Sibiu © Ryan Chapman
Sibiu © Ryan Chapman

Brasov © Ryan Chapman


Bran Castle - also known as Dracula's Castle - is a confusing mix of gothic splendour and bullshit. The approach is laden with vampire references, as this is said to be the inspiration behind Bram Stoker's fictional castle in Dracula. However, there's no evidence to suggest either Stoker or Vlad the Impaler - who Dracula was loosely based on - even visited the area, let alone the castle. In fact, they probably didn't even know it existed.

Soon after entering, the vampire bubble is burst and you realise it's actually a museum of furniture once belonging to some royal family in the 1920's. So you come for 15th century Transylvanian vampires and get 20th century Ikea.

Bran Castle © Ryan Chapman

They know it's bullshit, we know it's bullshit, they know we know it's bullshit, but tenuous links aside, armed with an active imagination Bran Castle is actually worth a visit. Just don't get locked in because rumour has it you wouldn't survive the night...

For an actual castle, with turrets and shit, there's Corvin Castle which watches over the somewhat crappy town of Hunedoara. And there's not a cartoon vampire in sight.

Corvin Castle © Ryan Chapman

In summary:

If myth-busting borderline xenophobic perceptions isn't a good enough reason to choose Romania as your next holiday destination then go for the charming old towns, refreshingly affordable restaurants and, of course, the bears.

Sibiu © Ryan Chapman

Be aware that nothing Romania is perfect. If the meal is delicious, the service will probably let you down. If the train is on time, there will probably be a power cut. If the cocktail menu looks good, they'll probably have run out of ice. But, be tolerant, and Romania is incredibly rewarding. After all, perfection is dull anyway.

*Umm, I warned you they'd be vague.