Romania is Exactly What We Needed After the Intensity of Istanbul
This peaceful, slow-paced country is everything we hoped it would be.
After the intensity of living in Istanbul, Turkey, for two months, Brent and I both agreed on what we wanted next: something peaceful, and green, and way smaller than Istanbul’s sprawling metropolis.
That’s one of the things we love about being digital nomads: if something is lacking or frustrating about our current location, we can pick the exact opposite for our next destination.
We’re very glad we lived in Istanbul, but its stressors began to wear on us. Getting tear-gassed and worrying about being arrested for what I wrote about the government can do that.
Two different nomad friends suggested Romania at about the same time. One said, “The Transfăgărășan Highway is the most stunning stretch of road I’ve ever seen.” And another said, “I’ve been meaning to go to this little place called Sibiu.”
So Romania, it was!
We started in Brașov, a town of 220,000 tucked up in the Carpathian Mountains, in the Transylvania region of Romania.
Yeah, that Transylvania.
You’re probably thinking of Dracula right now, but don’t feel bad. You’re hardly the only one.
I just wanted a place to decompress.
And Brașov gave me exactly what I wanted. Cool mountains and green parks. Winding cobblestone streets. Charming central plazas.
Okay, there was only one plaza, but it was definitely charming.
It was ringed with quaint coffee shops and outdoor dining. Best of all, unlike Istanbul, the occasional police officer smiled — and they didn’t carry machine guns.
The population of Brașov is two hundred thousand people, which sounds fairly large. But compared to Istanbul’s nineteen million residents, it seemed like a sleepy country village.
In fact, it looked like a sleepy country village too, partly due to geography. Old Town Brașov is tucked into a small valley at the foot of Mount Tampa. And as one of our new local friends pointed out, Romanian households usually hold many more people than American ones. The city really isn’t that big.
The Old Town is centered around Piața Sfatului, or Council Square, where markets were held as far back as 1364.
But over the centuries, Council Square was used for a lot more than just markets. A pillory used to stand in the square for humiliating scofflaws, witches were tried and punished here, and a few folks even had a date with the executioner’s axe.
Ah, the good old days!
Thankfully, the worst that usually happens now is your gelato melts too fast in the hot afternoon sun. Which can be a tragedy if you like gelato as much as I do.
I spent a lot of time enjoying Council Square. I especially loved exploring it in the early mornings when I had it almost entirely to myself.
Well, me and the pigeons.
I usually did all of this early in the morning while Brent was still asleep. That way I got the “golden hour” right after sunrise, and could take all the pictures I wanted, but without driving Brent insane.
Just outside the town square is the Black Church, or Biserica Neagră, which dates to 1383.
A local friend told us this Gothic-style church got its name from the great fire 1689 that all but burnt the city to the ground.
But historians say, nope, that’s not true. In fact, the name “Black Church” didn’t come into use until the 19th century, and only because industrial pollution blackened the building’s walls.
But come on! The local’s story is much more romantic.
I also visited Strada Sforii, or Rope Street, which is considered the third narrowest street in all of Europe.
If you’ve spent any time in Europe, you’d know this is actually saying something.
The “street” was built in the 17th century — partly in response to that great fire of 1689 — so firepersons could quickly move from one side of the city to the other.
Here’s a fun fact I picked up about Brașov.
Do you recall the story of the Pied Piper — how the mayor reneged on their deal for the Pied Piper to lure all the city’s rats away? And how, in revenge, he led the town’s children into a cave, where they were never seen again?
Actually, I didn’t recall the part about the cave, but whatever. The story also gives the location of the end of the cave, which is in Transylvania.
Brașov, to be specific!
How the tunnel stretches 1500 kilometers from Hamelin, Germany, to Romania makes no sense but, hey, it’s a fairy tale, right?
In fact, Germany and Romania — specifically, Transylvania — have long had very extensive ties between the each other.
That’s because, back in the mid-12th century, Saxons from what is today northern Germany arrived in Transylvania, eventually becoming known as Transylvania Saxons. This explains why so many villages in Transylvania feel a lot like Bavaria.
Over the course of eight hundred years, those Saxons constructed hundreds of villages and fortifications, but are mostly remembered now for the seven “citadels,” which became trading centers and today are the towns of Bistriţa (Bistritz), Braşov (Kronstadt), Cluj (Klausenburg), Mediaş (Mediasch), Sebes (Mühlbach), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighişoara (Schassburg).
Okay, that’s a lot of detail. Can you tell I’m geeking out?
As recently as 1850, Germans outnumbered actual Romanians in Transylvania, though by the end of World War II, most were eventually forced out of the area.
But the ties with Germany still linger. Brașov is still known by it’s German name — Kronstadt — and menus are often printed in Romanian, English, and German. And the German conglomerate Siemens operates three factories in Sibiu.
What else did we love about Brașov? The natural beauty. Several national parks surround the city.
Unfortunately, Romania is also home to six thousand brown bears. The bears, which are related to grizzlies in the United States, are definitely not the friendly kind.
In fact, right on the edge of town, we came across a memorial to a semi-recent teenage victim of one of these bears. And a mother and her cubs were spotted on the outskirts while we were visiting. The week after we left, a friend sent us a video of a bear running down one of the main streets.
That’s a lot of bears.
In the end, Romania has given me exactly what I’d hoped for — a peaceful experience with very little stress.
Except watching out for bears on those early morning walks.
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed reading about our travels, we would truly appreciate it if you helped spread the word. Feel free to forward this column to a friend you think might be interested. Oh, and mulțumesc! (That’s Romanian for “Thank you!”)
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I've just stumbled across your blog and I'm already loving it. Lovely writing and such beautiful photography.