Brasov is racked by a history of vampires and eerie folklore, but stroll down its spacious boulevards and through its café-lined squares and you will soon discover a city that has a whole lot more to offer.
“Do you believe that even the powers of time can be altered for a single purpose?” Bram Stoker wrote in Dracula. If you would have asked me that before I visited Brasov, I would have hollered a full-bodied “no” in response. Now? Perhaps, particularly in the velvet mountains of Transylvania where carpeted forests smother tiny villages and horse-drawn carts are still the chosen form of transport.
After the raw buzz of Bucharest, where barefoot, barely-dressed beggars lined cardboard boxes outside shops and well-heeled business types ignored them completely, the soft fuzz of the countryside was a welcome change; from high-rise, low-cost tower blocks to Dr. Seuss-style turrets in no time.
When I was a child, I was convinced Transylvania was a fictional place reserved for Halloween tales and dark folklore. It was straight from the pages of a worn book, with grey skies, grey buildings, and the never-ending splash of rain. Fanged ghouls slipped in and out of trees, floating from one victim to the next. But that is just in the books, right? As we pulled into the central train station I sent up a silent prayer that I would not see any cloaked figures lurking in the bushes, or feel the piercing pain of a sharp tooth in my neck.
You would think at my age the stories would not bother me, but there is something about visiting a place that has been immortalized in literature. It would be like visiting Hogwarts or finally stumbling across Mordor somewhere in the depths of New Zealand. There is always an inkling at the back of the mind; a small scratch that simply asks, “what if?”.
Transylvania and its most prominent city, Brasov, do not serve to dampen this curiosity either. The folkloric thread has been fervently picked up and hounded by tour companies and local peddlers – evident straight away in my first few moments outside the train station. Wrinkled hands shoved brochures in my face, insisting I “walk in the footsteps of Dracula”. Some even invited me to dine in the same places, on the same cuisine, as the characters in Stoker’s story.
Carving a path through the melee outside the station was like I imagined: battling through the spears and hungry claws of the past would have been. But once I had got through the forest of pamphlets and heckles it was another place entirely. The days of hunters and prey seemed a million miles away.
Pastel-painted houses line cobblestone streets. Dust spirals spin along wide, empty boulevards and through squares edged with terraced cafes and bars. There is a hum of resilience to the tales that seem to have defined the city for the rest of the world, but more than enough space to breathe and take it all in.
I thought it would be busier, beckoning literature lovers from far and wide, but compared to the other hubs of Europe I had set foot in it was calm and humble. At its heart, Brasov is a city where people enjoy sipping a casual glass of wine in the afternoon, savour good food, and enjoy showing its visitors how to have fun.
In the central square the City Hall, with its ornate detailing and medieval tower, looks out over boutique shops selling handmade gifts, designer clothes, and patterned umbrellas, lamps, books, grand bars with high ceilings and all the spirits, wine, and beer you could ever wish for. Food stalls serve local delicacies and sweet snacks.
From there the city sprawls out in a spider web of narrow lanes, many of which are punctuated with old Roman churches and tiny houses that are a feat of architecture. Museums, galleries, and plush restaurants remain well-visited but not packed, whilst every scene is backed by high mountains. Kind of like it is being held together by the arms of the forest.
Central Europe’s Finest
Around the perimeter of the city there are a smattering of staircases that lead up into the hills, bringing miniature-village views of Brasov into reality. It is up one of these staircases round of the back of the main square where I look out over the umber roofs of the city and the pink, pale blue, and beige buildings beneath them. From up there, it was hard to imagine a city racked by bloodsucking monsters. In fact, I half expected to see Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel skip by at any moment (though not the big bad wolf or the gnarled-nosed witch).
The most surprising thing, though, was how well it wore its shoes in the present day. Though its architecture harked back to yesteryear, it was clear that Brasov had carved a place for itself alongside other Central European favourites like Prague and Budapest, with lively bars, a large youthful population, and a creative scene that played on the wealth of natural surroundings.
But still it celebrated its rich history and lengthy traditions. Nouveau restaurants served up chunky, succulent steaks alongside authentic Romanian cuisine (boiled chicken and mincemeat were prominent stars of the show), and luxury hotels rubbed shoulders with modest pensions (local apartments).
There were plenty of modern day issues that went hand in hand with the contemporary charm of the city, too. Whilst enjoying the cable car ride up Tampa Mountain (which I had to myself in high season), I was told by my “driver” that Brasov faces job crises and economic problems just like everywhere else in Europe, if not more.
In fact, the scariest thing was not watching over my shoulder waiting to see the glint of a blood-red eye or a pale face, but how well-educated locals were struggling to make ends meet.
From the top of the mountain, alongside a huge, gaudy Hollywood-inspired sign that read “Tampa”, Brasov could have been mistaken for a city plucked straight from a fairytale. It had all the makings for it – pretty buildings, plenty of kitschy charm, and a thick forest that encircled it entirely.
But having wandered the streets for myself, tucked into the traditional and new-age food, and exchanged laughs with the locals, I knew that it was so much more than a fabled façade. Through its stoic effort to remain firmly footed in the present day, Brasov is no longer resigned to the words written in a centuries-old book.
Instead, it has well and truly earned its place alongside other cultural hotspots in Europe, and it is working incredibly hard to keep itself head and shoulders above the rest. Not an easy task when you have the carpeted forest of Tampa Mountain to rise beyond.
So, do I believe that even the powers of time can be altered for a single purpose? Now, yes. Brasov is shaking away its age-old cloak of vampires and haunted castles to reinvent itself as a humble city filled with treasures and contemporary charm. Its purpose? To reveal the personality it spent years honing before it was condemned to a lifetime of fiction.