Deep in Danube country Brasov on the other side of the forest (5)

After a wonderful dose of fresh air, delicious food and tinkling goat bells, not »»

After a wonderful dose of fresh air, delicious food and tinkling goat bells, not to mention a good night’s sleep, our little group left Rila on the morning bus for Sofia. We left with fond memories of magnificent mountain scenery, dreaming forests and the mystical enclave of the Rila Monastery.

We fooled around in Sofia for a few hours, and then went to the train station early; we were heading for Bucharest, Romania, on the red-eye, and were prepared with water, snacks and libations for our second slumber party on wheels.

It turned out this train was a Russian train, bound for Ukraine after Bucharest. Our previous train had been Turkish, and there were marked differences; besides the red leatherette upholstery on our seats/bunks instead of fuzzy blue fabric, there was the tiny middle-aged female conductor with bristling short blonde hair who was in charge of our wagon. She was a very thorough bureaucrat, which is appropriate for a conductor on an international conveyor of foreigners, and she studied our documents more than once in a manner that left no question of who was in charge.

Once that was established beyond any possible doubt, and after we were under way, she melted a little and insisted we all come to her compartment for tea, only we couldn’t stay -- we had to get out as soon as our glasses were poured. Naturally, we returned to our cabin and the hallway outside it to lounge around like international persons of mystery, drinking Russian tea out of glasses with lovely filigree holders.

We all must have missed something in tea-drinking-on-a-train-etiquette class, because suddenly Madame Conductor came sweeping down the hallway in a magnificent rush to collect our glasses, finished or not, less than 10 minutes after offering them to us. Then she came BACK, all in a dither, demanding to know where the OTHER tea glass was, apparently having come up short on the count. We jumped to and instituted a search -- I forget who found it -- and returned what must have been a rare family heirloom to Madame. It was like she was Good Conductor and Bad Conductor, all in one person. She sniffed haughtily and returned to her den, not to be seen again until the next passport perusal, when she was once again efficient but now dressed in some kind of fluffy lounge wear, which made it sort of hard to take her as seriously as before.

Arriving in Bucharest

After another nice train ride, some of us (Lütfü and me) sleeping better than others (Bev, Craig and Chantel), we arrived shortly after May’s early dawn into Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. While arranging for our connection to our real destination, Brasov, I noticed some ladies outside the train station with bundles that would have done any Turkish teyze proud, apparently waiting for transport elsewhere. I was mesmerized by the colorful, complex and obviously hand-woven and hand-sewn clothing they wore. Their outfits were far more elaborate than anything I had seen outside of an ethnography photo book or a touristic culture night. They didn’t look very comfortable, and I surmised they were village ladies en route to or from home. I found out later these were Romani ladies; they were at least as distinguished and colorful as our southeastern Kurdish ladies, who wear such beautiful long velvet dresses. I never saw Romani ladies dressed anything like this in Albania, Bosnia or Bulgaria, and certainly not in Turkey; it was a real treat for me.

After a brief train ride, we finally arrived in Brasov, and we started to get an inkling of exactly what all the shouting was about: After a hurried arrival at the large central train station we took a taxi to the heart of the old city, where we had reserved a little apartment.

The view from Piata Sfatului

Our first view of Brasov was from the Piata Sfatului (Council Square), the site the 15th-century Council House, or Town Hall. Brasov has a very long and colorful mercantile history, and markets were held here from at least the 14th century. What the Piata was really the site of was a fairy-tale city (the Grimm kind, not the Andersen kind). It was much easier to imagine robust German burghers, and ladies in headdresses with veils, bustling around while unknowingly knocking elbows with fairy godmothers, wicked stepmothers and the like, than the people who actually populated the place -- very modern, regular European types with sunglasses and fashionable shoes. Old, perfectly kept-up (or restored) houses and shops, painted every color of the rainbow in surprising harmony, are straight out of a childhood dream. There were posters for art shows and concerts everywhere; outdoor cafes for a kilometer, from the Piata Sfatului all the way to another square across the city; a tourist information place housed in one of the old buildings on the square, and it just couldn’t be more convenient and fascinating.

While Lute went to find the guy with the key to the apartment, the rest of us sat down at a handy sidewalk café to wait, and to reflect on what a shame it was that it was too early for our traditional cultural taste-test of the local brew on offer. We feasted our eyes on the surrounding, legendary Carpathian Mountains instead.

After dumping our backpacks, we wandered to the end of the Piata, where the Black Church stands, by all accounts the biggest Gothic-style church in southeast Europe. We hadn’t really noticed this elephant in the parlor upon arrival because it was SO BIG it couldn’t have been there. Returning to the fairy-tale motif, it was the giant’s church to Jack’s village: At 89 meters long by 38 wide and with a 65-meter tower, it would look big anywhere but right smack in the middle of town it would strike the fear of God into anyone just based on its size (which may have been the point). I went inside (for a small fee) and it was almost equally impressive from that perspective.

There have been more churches on the site; this one was built in 1477, and largely rebuilt after a fire in 1689 almost brought it down, and gave the church its nickname. Blackened angels and bits of saints are carefully arranged on ledges high up on the inside walls, like not-so-subtle reminders of what may follow this life if you’re not careful. It is a German Lutheran church, and it is filled with medieval touches like wooden stalls that belonged to rich families and trade guilds, painted with strange (to our eyes) crests and mottos. For instance, one colorful painting shows two lovely angels supporting a large gear. (Yes, a gear.) It makes sense for a colony of strong, hard-working German merchants and tradesmen to thank God for their vocations. There is also a large collection of Turkish carpets, go figure, hanging on display, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, with such conflicting provenance I don’t want to go there. A huge pipe organ, with 4,000 pipes, adds a lot to the stylistically eclectic interior, which ranges from Gothic to Baroque to sort of Protestant minimalism. In other words, it is breathtaking.

There is a cable car to take visitors up Mt. Tampa, about 1,000 meters high and 400 meters above Brasov. Looking at the city from there, once again it is easy to miss that Lutheran elephant of a church, but once you spot it, the rest of the city looks like a model train display.

St. Nicholas Church (established 1292, rebuilt 1495) is so beautifully Baroque it looks like it is the original inspiration for several Disney princess films; Sforii Strada, or Rope St., 80 meters long and 1 meter 40 centimeters wide, the narrowest street in Romania; Strada Republicii, Republic St., the outdoor café and shopping pedestrian area I mentioned earlier, the İstiklal Caddesi of Brasov; the ski center visited by people from all over Europe at Poiana Brasov, 12 kilometers out of town; the Black Tower and the White Tower, with rifles and cross-bows slung on the walls of the latter; and real people living here and enjoying life, a lot -- what’s not to like? I am not making this up; I still can’t quite believe we were there. Of course, there is a good reason for this over-the-top romance and mystery; did I forget to mention what “on the other side of the forest” translates to? That’s right: Transylvania! And that’s where Brasov is…

Next up: Râsnov Fortress

*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.


Expat Zone

Columnist: ELSIE ALAN