The next part of our trip in Romania began like a spy movie. In August 2011 my husband, Lütfü, had gone (without his wife, mind you) on a nine-day business trip to Brasov.
During his flight from Bucharest back to İstanbul, he met a mysterious young woman, a Romanian with an obscure job with a shadowy cruise line. Had Lute liked Romania? Oh, yes, he loved Romania, and would return some day with his wife (as if I believe he said that last part!). The mystery woman happened to be from Brasov (or so she said), and told Lute that next time he should stay with a friend of hers who had a small guesthouse in a village near Bran, a half-hour outside of Brasov.
In the interest of furthering tourism in Romania, my selfless husband obtained her phone number and email. Of course he told me all about his new acquaintance, and when it came time to plan this trip, I reminded him of her “friend” in the village; since his mystery girl was a local, it might be a good lead. We got no reply to emails to the address provided by Mata Hari, so we phoned Romania. A young-sounding woman named Dana answered; when Lute introduced himself, explaining that we wanted to make reservations for five people for two nights, she said in perfect English: “This a joke, right? Who is this?” Hmm, not encouraging, but we persisted and made the reservations, or tried to. The best we could get was a VERY reasonable price for two rooms, and the instruction to “just call me the night before you will come.” Romania is not that easy to book, outside the big cities, so we just said, “Fine, we’ll talk to you in a month,” marked our calendar, and forgot about it.
Fast forward to May: After having spent a week on the road, we were ready for anything, or so we thought. We called the incredulous Dana from Brasov, and asked how we should get to her village the next day, reminding her of our “reservations.” “Oh, no,” says she, “Don’t worry; just call me tomorrow when you’re ready, and I’ll come pick you up!” We agreed, realizing only later that we still didn’t know the name of her village. Details!
Mid-morning the next day, Lütfü and the energetic Chantel went off to do some business at the train station, leaving Bev, Craig and me at a really, really nondescript café. By now it was lunch time, so we decided to eat on the shady (and shoddy) patio of the café. A woman came with menus; we were ready to ignore them and order just fries and a beverage, but when the lady just stood there glaring, we dutifully studied them. She was right out of a Monty Python movie -- a very stocky gal, with stiff black hair in no discernible style, a pretty good moustache to match, knee stockings leading to serviceable shoes on one end and REALLY stocky bare knees on the other, and very, very strong-looking arms that resembled large, tightly packed sausages, not flabby but meaty. I was really glad to see her, because so far the women in Romania were much too good-looking for me to want to hang out with.
We were so fascinated (and intimidated) that we ordered a feast of salad, potatoes, chicken, soup, bread (which costs extra in Romania), and some beer to wash it down. We discovered this poor lady was the waitress, the cook and the busboy; we later found out she was the cashier, too. She worked very hard, and her rather scary appearance notwithstanding, was kind and efficient, if not exactly ebullient. We were just finishing what turned out to be a delicious and very cheap lunch, our new friend energetically whisking dirty plates away as fast as they were emptied, when Lute and Chantel returned. Disappointed to have missed a meal, Lute told us to get ready, because Dana was coming to fetch us. Just then two brand-new cars came hurtling towards the café, stopping at the very last second, and two young women leapt out, each prettier than the other! One was Dana, and the other one was Mimi (if those are their real names!). They had brought two cars so we would be more comfortable, and were we ready to go?
A brief portrait of Dana: 30 years old, Dana has black curly hair, the kind that just curls, never frizzes; she is tanned and in very good shape because she is a champion biathlete in cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Yes, this little slip of a thing straps on a rifle across her back, skis five-seven kilometers, shoots at some targets, then skis some more. She has been on Romania’s Olympic (2010) and European teams, but had to leave international competition so she could care for her ailing mother. She stays in training, though, and competes domestically. Romania carries her on the books as a police officer, but I got the feeling she is a full-time athlete. Mimi, who is officially a soldier, is her friend and fellow competitor. (“Hey, Mimi, want to go run a few hundred kilometers today, maybe hit a few targets? Then we can do some push-ups!” “Sure, Dana, let’s go!”) If I were in America, I wouldn’t believe any of this, but we seemed to have left our skepticism (and our discretion) at the Transylvanian border; we just sat back, sighed, and enjoyed the ride, happily separating our group and getting in the cars of strangers, not having a clue of where we were going. I mean, who could make up anything better? Beautiful Olympians in new cars, dying to make us more comfortable, taking us to a village we can’t find on a map; yes, life is good.
‘The Alpine chalet’
After dropping off our bags at what looked more like an Alpine chalet than a guesthouse, and meeting Mom, who really did not look well, the girls whisked us off so we wouldn’t get bored. They took us to a place we had never heard of, and what a pity; it was the magnificent if slightly obscure Fortress of Rasnov, between Brasov and Bran. At this point we were deep in the Carpathian Mountains, and they are every bit as beautiful and commanding as I had read. Storybook villages appear along the winding road; above is tier after tier of forested grandeur, snow still twinkling on the farther ranges.
We knew we were in Rasnov because of the huge Hollywood-type sign up on a mountain, but it was nothing compared to the fortress. Taller even than the surrounding mountains is a rocky tor with a very visible structure on it, the huge citadel of Rasnov, overlooking the whole world. I was secretly (considering the fitness of our hostesses) hoping I would not embarrass myself walking up to our lofty destination, but no; not only did the girls drop us off and tell us to call when we were done (whew!) but there is actually a nice rubber-tired trolley, pulled by a big strong tractor, which, for a small fee, will take you nearly to the top of the mountain. Needless to say we were all over that, and enjoyed a comfortable, scenic ascent to the fortress. At the drop-off, there is a snack stand and a walk of a hundred meters or so. Before that, this being Transylvania and all, there was a little old man playing the most beautiful violin, sad old songs full of mystery and romance. He almost made me cry. You see a lot of these musicians here, old guys who have to have seen it all, Nazis, communism, deportations and occupations, and yet here they are, still alive, anonymous, playing haunting airs from their past for a few tourist coins.
Although the Dacians built a fortification here around 200 B.C., which the Romans destroyed and rebuilt a few centuries later, the current building was built by the Teutonic Knights in 1215. The Knights were a Germanic order committed to the Crusades; the building of Rasnov came a few years after the grotesque and far-reaching Fourth Crusade, which ended with the Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, and just before the Fifth Crusade, the one with Saint Francis of Assisi in it. The Mongol invasions were on about then (Genghis Khan himself made it to the Crimea well before he died in 1227), and Rasnov was a good location for Crusader-types to fight all sorts of enemies from. A village grew within the walls, and eventually a well was dug after the fortress fell in the 17th century because the besiegers discovered an external water supply. The well, legend has it, was dug by two Turkish prisoners, who were told they could leave after they finished the well. Seventeen years and 146 meters of solid rock later, they finished and were promptly murdered. That is the story, anyway.
As we explored this amazing citadel, with its restored village and extant well, it was hard not to notice the lack of visitors. Romania is doing a lot of work on the site to make it even more attractive, but its combination of partial restoration and utter ruin, with a view of the valley and the Carpathians that is beyond stunning, makes it a compelling destination right now. I recommend anyone thinking of visiting the area to go see it before it turns into Disneyland.
We wandered the streets of the village aerie, marveled at the view, took photos and were entertained by a handsome Teutonic Knight who demonstrated archaic weapons and also sold souvenirs. As the shadows lengthened, we reversed our direction and went down the mountain, some of us going on to look at a local cave that we really liked, and the rest of us waiting in a fine café at the bottom, resting our bones. In due time, our lovely Dianas came for us in their chariots, whisking us off to a terrific restaurant in Rasnov, where we ate like kings. They sat (not eating, of course) watching us with apparent fascination until we finished, and then they took us home.