A Visit to Transylvania

I’d booked a first-class passage on the CFR Calatori train to Brasov, in Transylvania. Romania is the only Balkan state with an extensive state rail system, although “first-class” might be second-class on the Deutsche Bahn. Before departure, a group of Roma walked through the train peddling used paperbacks and souvenirs before being shooed away by the CFR conductor.

The train to Brasov takes two and a half hours and gradually ascends from the Wallachian Plain to the Carpathian Mountains, with stops at Ploesti and Sinaia. Ploesti is famous as an oil center which was Hitler’s only source of petroleum as the war wore on. It was bombed by the US in August 1943 in Operation Tidal Wave, which wrought great destruction but also resulted in heavy losses of B-24s. It’s still a functioning oil town.

After arriving at Brasov, I took an Uber to my modern Airbnb. My young driver was part Russian and spoke excellent English. I negotiated a return drive to Bucharest Airport so that I wouldn’t have to navigate several train connections. I like to eliminate travel worries whenever possible.

I walked into town to orient myself. Brasov was settled by Protestant Saxons and Hungarian Szeklers, who claim to be the direct descendants of Attila the Hun, during the centuries of Austrian and Hungarian rule. Up until 1918, it was a key component of the Hungarian Crown Lands, as they were formally known, before it was ceded to Romania in the Treaty of Trianon. The current president of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, is of Transylvania Saxon descent

The old town is going through a significant restoration. Its crown jewel is the Biserica Neagra, or Black Church, a Gothic church built in the 15th century.

The next morning I met with Alex, my mountain biking guide for the next two days. We had interesting conversations during our ride up to the ski lift. He told me that before the 20th century ethnic Romanians were not permitted inside the Brasov city gates. It was an apartheid system. He also told me about the horrific brainwashing experiments that were conducted west of Brasov, in Pitesti, in the early ‘50’s under the direction of the notorious Communist Ana Pauker. About 750 students accused of hostility to Communism were incarcerated at the Pitesti Prison, where they were subjected to such sadistic physical and psychological terror that the term “horrorism” was coined. Fortunately, Pauker and her comrades were purged in 1952 and the horrors perpetrated at Pitesti were swept under the rug. You’ll need a strong stomach to read the accounts that were published after the fall of Communism in 1989. I noticed that young Romanians are well informed about the Communist era.

The trails were in great shape, though some of the higher ones were off-camber. There were some fun drops and great scenery. Alex said he’d been riding the trails for years.

After the first day tour, Alex took me to lunch at a traditional Romanian restaurant, which was included in the tour. He told me about some obnoxious Dutch tourists who kept exclaiming how “cheap” Romania was, which I’m sure he felt was demeaning. I might have thought that, but I wouldn’t proclaim it.

There was a large Kaufland supermarket across from my Airbnb so I picked up some provisions and made dinner at home. The ride was tiring, and I had to be ready for round two the next morning.

The next day I had an over the handlebars mishap and sustained a bad cut on my leg. I felt fine as we descended the mountain into Brasov, but we stopped by a pharmacy to get some bandages and antiseptic before lunch. Later that night I developed a headache and worried that I may have had a concussion so I gave Alex a call and he told me his brother-in-law was a radiologist and he secured an early morning scan for me at a private clinic. The tech was a true professional and the head MRI wasn’t bad. The total cost was $149, a fraction of the cost in the US. I was relieved when the doctor said there was no damage at all. My headache had also resolved. I was probably dehydrated. Since it was only a little after 8:00 am, there weren’t many places open yet, so I reluctantly went into a Starbucks, where I joked with the baristas about how awful their coffee was in the US. They promised that I would like theirs, and I did! By then, some of the old town cafes had opened, so I enjoyed a great breakfast.

Because of the MRI, I wasn’t able to make the tour of Castle Bran and other Dracula-related sites, so I went hiking in the nearby hills.

After checking out the next morning, I saw my driver waiting and we took off for the Bucharest airport, passing through some wild Carpathian countryside before reaching Ploesti, where we stopped for a coffee before ending up at the airport for my flight to Kyiv.

I spent almost a week in Romania and had a fascinating visit. I’d like to explore other areas of this unique country in the future. It’s an accessible destination for North American travelers given the widespread use of English among the younger generation and the excellent food and wine.

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