A Travellerspoint blog


Poenari Fortress

Romanian roads don't leave much room for error

sunny 8 °C

Our visit to Poenari Fortress in Transylvania was definitely worth writing about. First of all, it was organized by the girl who seemed to be running the hostel we were staying at singlehandedly (she looked about 18, but was probably 20). She said she had a friend with a car who was a good guy and would drive us out there, and we would each pay him 40 Euros. She also told us that there was another guy staying at the hostel who wanted to go, but not by himself, so if we went he would be able to afford to go as well. Okay, well, Poenari Fortress was actually a hide-out of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. "Dracula"), so we said yes. She told us we'd have to leave by 8am the next day because it's a long way to Poenari from Brasov, and she kept telling us we'd have to eat lunch in the car because of the time factor, and we'd be gone all day, especially if we also wanted to see Bran Castle and the Rasnov Fortress (both closer to Brasov than Poenari).

At 8am we were ready to go, but our driver was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later the hostel girl informed us that there was a "small accident" with the car, which the driver had been trying to fix late at night, and now he was tired and had slept in but was on his way, but we'd just have to go in a different car. This did not fill us with confidence. Further questioning elicited a reply of "No, not an accident like boom! Just a small problem with the car. Don't worry, he is good driver!" All right, then. When the driver arrived we were shown to a small, new-looking, four-door Chevrolet. It seemed okay - but on the driver's side the air bag (and thus the whole centre of the steering wheel) appeared to have been ripped out of the car. Our driver got in, we all introduced ourselves, and we started off down the road. So far, so good. However, our driver was having trouble switching gears - there were some jerks and some grindings, and he said "Damn! I want my car!" We went a bit further, the driver cursing the Chevrolet and nearly killing several pedestrians. Suddenly another car came too close and there was a small Bang! as the driver's side mirror was hit. This did not seem to bother our driver as much as the fact that he hated the Chevy he was driving. We went a bit further and then he said, "Damn! I'm getting my car!"


So we drove back to the hostel and switched to his car, a two-door Opel from the mid 90s. The driving immediately became much smoother, although not slower or less scary for the pedestrians who had to jump out of the way. Finally we got out of town and started winding our way up into the hills. There were amazing views of steep slopes and old farmhouses, flocks of sheep, cows, haystacks and forests in the gold morning light. It was really beautiful - and the road was all hairpin turns (which the driver took at speeds I would never have dared) and sheer drops into the valley. We passed a horse and cart with a family who waved and smiled and didn't mind us taking their photograph. We stopped a few times to ask directions. Our driver had never been to Poenari Fortress before. It took us about four hours to get there. One section of the road was patched and full of potholes so deep we had to slow to a crawl to get over them. At first the driver didn't realize how bad the potholes were, and tried to keep up some speed. Then he got angry because of the potential damage to his car, and slapped his hat on the dashboard so hard that the buckle on it flew into the backseat and landed on my arm. At that point I thought he was going to order us all to get out and turn around and leave us by the side of the road - but we kept going and we did, at last, arrive at Poenari.


For me, the main attraction of Poenari Fortress was that we had to climb about 1480 steps to get up to it. The fortress itself is mostly ruined - an earthquake centuries ago caused some of it to slide down the mountain, and what's left is a couple of towers and ramparts on top of a very steep hill. There's a caretaker who charges you 5 Romanian lei to get into the ruins once you've climbed all the stairs (divide by three for Canadian dollars) and a wooden outhouse should you need to use a toilet. And the view from up there was really spectacular, especially with all the trees on the hillsides turning red and gold and the sun glinting off the river winding through the valley far below. The driver walked up all the stairs and came to see the fortress with us. He told us he was 20 years old, and it was interesting to watch his mood change from foul to peaceful and maybe even happy over the course of the day. In the morning he cursed the Chevy, cursed the pedestrians for not getting out of the street fast enough, swore in both Romanian and English about the potholes and their effect on his car, and generally seemed to be having a terrible time. After the walk up to the fortress and more cigarettes and Coca-Cola, he talked passionately about the corruption of the Romanian government, how they did nothing for the people, how some things were better under communism (although he was really too young to have experienced much of that himself), and at one point said, "Life is shit. My salary (as a bartender) is enough for food for me, my mom and my sister. My mom has enough to pay the other bills, and that's it." He told us he made about 1000 Euros per year, and his car cost 1000 Euros, so he'd be paying it off for a while. We talked about the political systems in the United States, Romania and Canada, healthcare and how it worked (or didn't) in those countries, and other similarities and differences. He tried to convince us that Romania sucked, and we told him we wouldn't have come to visit it if it all sucked. All four of us talked about life all the way back, and towards the end of the trip, when I said I hoped his car hadn't sustained too much damage from the potholes, he said, "Ah, what does it matter? It's just a car. It's just a material thing." He sounded happier, and made some remarks about love and happiness and "in Romania, love is in the air." Later he told our hostel girl that he'd be happy to take tourists on trips like that again, but only if they were tourists like us. Jason says he thinks the driver just hadn't had any coffee in the morning, but by the afternoon had consumed enough sugar, caffeine and cigarettes to make a big difference to his mood.

We never did find out what the "small accident" that had led to the initial car swapping was. We suspect the hostel girl of making up stories because she thought we wouldn't be comfortable in the little two-door Opel. I suppose we would have had more room in the Chevrolet, but it seemed to be the car with the most problems. When we asked the driver about his car, he said it was fine and he had just bought it. In any case, it made the trip and everyone arrived intact. We stopped at Bran Castle on the way back into Brasov, but it had closed up for the night so we didn't go in - and no one mentioned anything about trying to go to Rasnov Fortress at that point. Later we had dinner with the American guy we'd shared the ride with, and we discovered that sometimes, if you hang around in a restaurant for long enough, the band stops playing bad covers of Western pop songs and starts in on the traditional Romanian stuff, and the Romanians take a break from smoking for some energetic dancing.

We're in Budapest now. We decided to leave Brasov the day before yesterday and ended up on another night train, and here we are in Hungary. We went on a walking tour that focused on the communist history of Budapest yesterday afternoon, and plan to explore downtown a bit more today.

Posted by arwyn 01:01 Archived in Romania Comments (1)

Rila to Romania on a Special Russian Train

Castles and hay-stacks and bears, oh my!

overcast 2 °C

Religious icons for sale, near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Similar icons were for sale outside the Rila Monastery.

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery was amazing. Inside the church is dark and smells of the beeswax candles everyone is lighting for various saints, and outside the domed veranda ceilings and walls are completely covered in frescoes. Inside the walls are covered in frescoes, too, but it's darker and they look less well-kept and you aren't allowed to take photos. Monks in black robes and warm-looking hats are occasionally seen wandering about through the throngs of tourists, and there are lots of signs informing you that you aren't allowed to go anywhere near the monks' living quarters.


We ended up staying at the hotel Tsarev Vrah, 200m from the monastery. The view (above) from our nice big warm room was beautiful. It was definitely worth the 60 Bulagarian leva. I'm fairly certain that if we had knocked on some doors and spoken some Bulgarian we might have been able to stay in the guest dormitory of the monastery, but we didn't. I felt like it was best for people who were actually religious pilgrims to stay there anyway, and I really liked our hotel room.

We left the Rila Monastery by bus on Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening saw us at the Sofia central train station, reserving a sleeping compartment and negotiating with a tout who did in fact help us but who then demanded too much money for his informational services. Our train was Russian; we had tea in fancy Russian mugs; if we had not been woken up at 5:45am by our Russian train conductor we would have kept on going to Moscow. However, we got off in Bucuresti, the capital of Romania, and took another train to Brasov, where we are now hanging out in a hostel. Of course there was the 2am passport stamping when we left Bulgaria, and the 4am passport stamping when we got to the next station in Romania. In both cases, a uniformed official came onto the train, knocked on our door, took our passports, stamped them and brought them back. We didn't get as much sleep in our sleeping compartment as we had hoped.

The first thing I ate in Romania was soggy baklava from a fast-food joint at the Bucuresti train station, washed down with something pretending to be coffee. When we got off the train in Brasov three hours later (did I mention we spent 13 hours riding trains?), I had some kind of pepperoni and cabbage sandwich with lots of mayonnaise. I was so hungry at that point that it tasted absolutely delicious. After a nap at the hostel (where the dorm room actually seems to be colder than the outside air), we had soup and beer at a pub near the town square. The soup was good and hot and full of fatty pork - which in the case of the one I ordered, was not mentioned in the menu description. "Smoked bean and red onion" clearly means "full of pork and pork fat" in Romania! But I hope you aren't getting the wrong idea here - I enjoyed all of this food! I was hungry, and I was in Romania, where the roof-tops are very pointy and they still make hay-stacks. Imagine the quaint old-fashioned idea of a haystack with a shepherd asleep in the bottom of the pile, a hat over his face and a piece of straw hanging from his mouth. Now just take away the sleeping shepherd and you have Romanian hay-stacks. When I saw them out the window of the train I thought we had gone back in time.

Tomorrow: Dracula's Castle!

Posted by arwyn 12:25 Archived in Romania Comments (4)

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