Timișoara & Transylvania, Romania
Romania had a more formal border crossing than we were used to, requiring several documents to be checked and then lining up to pay a "road tax" (a whole €3 for a week). After successfully navigating through this we headed for Timișoara, passing by flat, mundane landscape along the way. Like in Hungary there were numerous fields full of sunflowers, as far as the eye can see, all standing over six feet tall. It's not a sight I have ever seen in Australia. In the small towns we drove through were numerous animals by the side of the road – horses, goats, chickens and dogs, all roaming free and not appearing to belong to anyone. There were also a bazillion street sellers, every one of them selling watermelon. That's it. Can that many people really want watermelon? Once we arrived in Timișoara it was too late to sight-see, so we found a quiet street and parked there for the night.
The next morning we walked into Timișoara, past unattractive, decrepit buildings that had us wondering what sort of country we had entered. It wasn't long before the ugliness turned into beauty, the old town providing us with charming scenery. The centre square was full of flowers, birds and grand buildings, with a theatre at one end and a church at the other. The interior of the church was dark and gloomy, the only source of colour being the gold chandeliers hanging from the roof. We strolled through the leafy park, past dozens of older people playing chess on the specially made tables. Eventually we arrived at the town castle, a one-storey building surrounded by trees looking decidedly uncastle-like.
We found another couple of plazas that offered impressive buildings and loads of cafes. The bakeries here were calling out to us, and we answered these calls by sampling a couple of local treats. The Romanian sausage roll was a letdown. It had hardly any meat and it tasted undercooked - it did not even begin to compare to an Australian sausage roll. We also bought a snack called langoși, which I was worried would be similar to Hungarian lángos, but it turned out to be a fried pastry filled with feta. Way better than the Hungarian version.
Back at the car we looked up how far it was to our next destination, Transylvania, a mountainous region in the heart of Romania. Garmin's answer: five hours 40 minutes. A lot longer than we were expecting. We hit the road just before 1 p.m., hoping to be in the town of Sighișoara around 7 p.m. Not even close. About halfway there we hit a traffic jam, where we crept along at snail's pace for half an hour, then stood still for the next 30 minutes. After a couple of ambulances whizzed by we deduced that there was probably an accident up ahead, and that we could be stuck for a while. Other cars started turning around, prompting us to do the same, and we asked Garmin to find us another route. It took us a couple of attempts to find one that was viable, and after a long, slow crawl (as everyone else was doing the same) we finally made it back on the road we wanted to be on. It wasn't smooth sailing though; the drive was on a single lane road following slow trucks the whole way.
We made it to Sighișoara about 9:30 p.m. and walked uphill to the touristy citadel for a much-needed drink. To our surprise we discovered that today was the start of a five-day long medieval festival, which meant paying a fee to enter the citadel. We were so excited about the festival that we didn't mind handing over our money. Inside it was full of activity – various stalls lined the streets, cafes were overflowing with customers, and performers were offering some “interesting” interpretive dances on a central stage. We found a restaurant that was the birthplace of "Dracula" (or in real life, Vlad the Impaler) and decided it would be the perfect spot for a couple of drinks. As this was Dracula's home town we expected there to be heaps of Dracula souvenirs, but there really weren't many at all. To our delight we found more barrel bread (our first one in Hungary leaving us with a craving for more), and Danny elected to try the sesame seed-coated variety. He loved it, but I felt the seeds were on the verge of being burnt and that didn't appeal to my taste buds at all. Overall the town provided a wonderful atmosphere and we had loads of fun being a part of it.
Tthe citadel/festival was fairly subdued the next morning - I guess everyone had had a late night. It didn't take long to explore the town, climb the covered stairway to see the sights on the hill, and check out the souvenirs. We couldn't resist more barrel bread - nut-coated this time. It was tasty but there was way too much of it (the sign said it weighs 400 grams). One shop we passed was selling local wine and spirits and also offered tastings, so Danny got stuck into the pálinka again. He came away with a bottle of the pear variety.
Once we had finished with Sighișoara we drove on to Brașov, a larger and livelier town also in Transylvania. The main street was jam-packed with cafes, taking up the whole centre of the road. The first thing we noticed was how cheap everything was. We found a self-serve ice cream bar, where we could fill up a small container with as much ice cream and candy as we liked for the grand total of €1.25. They had some weird flavours though, like apricot and prune. The ice cream was brightly coloured and highly artificial, but it went down a treat on a hot, summer's day. The centre square was open and pretty, perfect for relaxing in. I think it was Danny's favourite square due to the hops growing alongside the town hall, which to him was an encouraging sign of the sort of city Brașov must be.
Brașov has a Hollywood-style sign on the hill overlooking town, and we caught a funicular up to the top to see the view over the town. Apart from the mountain we were on, the land appeared to be mostly flat and seemed to contain nothing after the town had finished.
We found a campsite a bit out of town, set in a lovely, grassy area with shade all around. The couple next to us were from the UK and had been completing volunteer work in Moldova. It was a relief to have a conversation in English and understand what the other person was saying, without a thick accent making comprehension difficult. We haven't spoken to many native English speakers on our trip. Later we discovered that there was another UK couple a few spots down from us who cooked dinner on a portable BBQ, which tantalised our taste buds tremendously. We settled for noodles, but we did have an incredible rhubarb crumble for dessert that I'm sure they couldn't cook on their BBQ. Dinner was paired with a bottle of Transylvanian Sauvignon Blanc, which was surprisingly good. Who knew the Romanians could make decent wine?
From Brașov we travelled to Râșnov, about half an hour away, which also branded a Hollywood-style sign up in the hills. On top of one of the hills was the ruin of a fortress that looked like a worthy spot to explore from far away. We caught the tourist train to the entrance (after realising it was only about a one kilometre walk) and paid to wander around the site. It wasn't worth it. The ruins themselves were uninteresting, the souvenir shops within the fortress were lame, and the only highlight was the mediocre view from the top. Disappointing.
Our final stop in Transylvania was Bran, another 10 minutes down the road. We discovered that Bran is considerably more touristy than Râșnov, probably because it really plays on the Dracula theme. The highlight was a castle that Vlad the Impaler had some dealings with in his time (the details were hazy), and nearly every one of the 50 or so market stalls surrounding the castle made sure to remind you of this. After our experience in Râșnov we warily paid to enter the castle, but this time we were glad to fork over the money. The castle didn't look overly big from the outside, but inside it was a maze of rooms spread over five or so levels, with a central courtyard attempting to keep us oriented. We headed up and down staircases all over the place, which included a few “secret” passages, and we never quite knew where we were or where we would end up. The castle was fantastic – we could see ourselves living there once we became millionaires.
Out in the markets Danny found a cheese stall and bought a humongous wheel of local cheese, similar to a young, crumbly cheddar. The cheesemaker said it will last five months out of the fridge – I'm not prepared to see if he is right. It was so tasty that I don't think it has any chance of lasting that long anyway.