Hiking at Poiana Brasov, Romania

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Hardly any stay to Brasov goes without at least a very short trip to Poiana Brasov. From the bus central station – the buses are regularly and beware that especially in weekends and during summer holidays are very crowded – a 30-minute trip leads to the little mountain resort that in the last 10 years went through a huge transformation, with many luxury hotels as well as villas and moderate accommodation mushrooming.

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The same can be said about the various restaurants, although most iconic ones, like the classical tourist destination ‘Sura Dacilor‘, with animal fur hanging up on chairs and various traditional items displayed on the walls. It serves a lot of meaty food, accompanied by the traditional beans soup, polenta or the tzuica drink, a very strong plum – usually with a concentration of 28-60% alcohol.

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But Brasov was already too generous with us, offering a lot of foodie temptations, so we decided rather to try burning some more calories. With the cable car, we go on the top of Postavarul Mountain, with a beautiful overview over the entire region. During the winter, Poiana Brasov is changing into a ski resort, one of the top destinations of this kind in Romania.

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The glamour we encountered before disappeared. We pass near a burned cottage and lots of tourists keen to reach the top of Postavarul Massiv. With its 1799 m. it is a relatively easy ride – many experienced hikers preferred to climb on the top by foot too – and the views are very beautiful, embracing the most interesting part of Prahovei Valley. You can have a short snapshot of the heart-breathing view here and here.

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Although the climbing is not that difficult and many people are bringing their 4-5-year children too, it’s important to have good shoes, as a big part of the walking is through sharp stones.

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When the weather is fine and there are not too many clouds, one can see too far away, on the other side of the mountains. Everything looks small and relatively isolated in the middle of the forest.

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On the way back, we go by foot, walking almost intuitively as not the entire path is marked. However, the ride is easy, and we cross path with many people that eventually can help with a direction in case we are lost. Many are either jogging or walking, or trying some extreme sports, driving ATVs or mountain bikes. However, late in the nights or evenings, unexpected furry inhabitants, like big Carpathian bears can be an occurrence and thus, it does not make too much sense to adventure too far away off the beaten path.

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The road we chose – Drumul Rosu/Red Path – is easy as we have proper shoes too and it goes maybe too fast. The landscape keeps being beautiful and there are lots of interesting flowers and small insects to discover.

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We made a long coffee stop – but with a great view – at Postavarul Cottage, built at the end of the 19th century and burned several times. It’s situated at 1604 m. altitude and it still has some free places for accommodation. Such places do have basic amenities – like beds and some breakfast and some common restrooms and during the winter some extra cold is complimentary. Otherwise, it does have free wlan but also some lizards.

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Refreshed and rested, we keep going on, simply enjoying the view and the silent landscape. Although there are a lot of people around – either tourists enjoying their holiday time or locals spending their Sunday here – it’s relatively quiet.

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Back at Poiana Brasov, we made a little tour of some of the fancy locations, but rather prefer to keep enjoying the simple ambiance of the mountain ride.

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Among many interesting facilities offered by the hotels and resorts in Poiana, horse-back riding is one of the most popular, addressing both children and adults, with special classes offered at relatively acceptable prices. Bowling and spa are other two main activities that can be practised here.

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The road back to Brasov can be done in less than one hour and it’s worth the effort. The hiking is easy, but still one should be careful and watch his or her steps. Most probably that on a rainy day, the road gets muddy and the risks are higher, but otherwise, we spent a pleasant walk cleaning the lungs with the fresh air of the mountains.

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When the trip was over I was glad that I decided to return to Poiana Brasov. Although a classical trip in a place where I’ve been for so many times as a kid, it’s always a good and healthy option to spend one Sunday off town, in the middle of the nature, with a minimal investment.

For more pictures from Poiana Brasov, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/poiana-brasov-romania/

The mysterious stories of the houses in Cristian, Romania

??????????Less than 20 minutes away from the big city of Brasov in Romania – watch this space for two posts about this city coming up this week – there is a small locality, Cristian. If you like hiking and you are trained enough, you can find a way to go there through the hills around. Or stop there and explore the place hour by hour for more than one day. A small train is coming up once in a while, and the cars are coming and going very fast.  A bus or a taxi can bring you faster in this little quiet paradise. Travellers visiting the area cannot be indifferent to the quiet beauty of the place and they usually stop for a long photographic trip wandering on the small streets or the hills around.

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In the morning, the cows are slowly going to their pasture places, for coming back late in the evening. As within the small locality, you can easily find a lot of recluse corners, but also open areas with people grilling or enjoying the sunny weekends, close to disaffected communist constructions whose initial destination was long forgotten since.

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There are the houses, each with its own story not easy to be told. In most of them used to live members of the German minority in Romania. At the end of the 1980s, while the communist dictatorship was reaching higher levels of absurdity and oppression, they left, bought by the German state, one by one, and I remember how from a summer to another, we drove through empty cities, with deserted houses, with an deep sadness in the air of a place – and country – where you were unlucky enough to stay, for too complicated reasons to understand to a child’s mind.

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After the end of communism, some people returned and were able to buy back their former properties, some new owners took them and changed them according to their non-local tastes. Some unlucky houses were just destroyed to the ground and in their places, new post-communist villas were built on their place not necessarily following the good architectural taste but rather displaying the joy of unexpected money abundance.

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More or less repainted or rebuilt, most houses are still the same: parallelepiped elongated shapes on the fringes of the streets, with their half-circle entrances leading to large interior yards. Children are playing around or go walking with their grand parents, while their parents are working in the city or who knows, abroad in Spain or Italy.

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The German minority settled on the territories of nowadays Romania starting from the 12th century, for economic reasons. They used to live in compact communities in Transylvania till the end of the 20th century, when the same economic – plus political – reasons brought them back to the Germany of their forefathers. Called ‘Sachsen’ or ‘Schwaben’ depending of the region they were originally from, they speak an old German dialect that used to be for a long time for me the only German language that I knew. (No excuse for my clumsy German language skills, I bet).

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From a  political and architectural stage to the other, the houses can be read as an approximate history book. Some style mixture leads to completely unexpected results, when shapes of Greek columns, eventually coloured, are attached to old river stones and metal framed windows.

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In the area near the city hall though, most houses were rebuilt keeping in mind the original 19th century local German architecture. Early in the morning, the windows are open and the careful investigation of the street life can start. Some Transylvanian houses do also have benches in the front of the houses where the old ladies can sit comfortably keeping an eye to all the social interactions and news. However, the street observation from the high of those windows looks more dignified and discrete, don’t you think?

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Caught between small streets and rows of houses, the square near the city hall looks like a perfect observation point too for understanding the secret life of Cristian.

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In the middle of the day, the open windows look like embracing the visitor while keeping you in the front of the gates. When the evening comes, everything is slowly closing and the center of life moves indoors. The life of the streets, except the speedy trucks and cars outside , is getting quieter too after 8-9 o’clock in the evening. There are a couple of small shops open – most of it is done in Brasov anyway – and a pizzeria with a late night program, but without a hotel or proper accommodation, most tourists have left already. Renting rooms by locals is possible though, especially if you want to experience a perfect retreat experience, with good local food and healthy sleep after long walks in the middle of the nature.

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The longer you stay, the more intrigues one might be about the local stories of the houses. Asking the locals about can lead to an interesting conversation, but doesn’t mean that you will get too many revelations about the secret histories.

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One afternoon, I spend my free time just walking the streets trying to catch on the camera the different styles of the houses and especially their windows. With local funds, most of them were introduced part of an open air exhibition offered to the visitors, but without too many details about their full history.

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Near the city hall, there is also a small citadel, serving as a local protestant church, with some library resources.

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The choice of the new colours for repainting the houses or only some details of them is sometimes hilarious, and the explanation should be either mysterious – maybe some colour combination can bring luck to the new entrepreneurs that decided to buy a property here – or clearly economic – those neon paintings are probably the cheapest ones on the market.

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In most cases though the decent light pink shades were kept, with various decorations that are the trademark of the well kept houses in the Transylvanian villages. People living here are more careful to keep their face showing up well kept walls and entrances.

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My short visit to Cristian was my last leg of my two-week trip to Romania – the longest stay in more than 5 years (more posts coming up this week as well). As usual, a mixture of more or less happy memories accompanies my stay there, but my visit to Cristian, after more than 20 years, reminded me of my inner child who will always keep asking lots of questions, ready to explore new territories and discover the mysterious stories hidden behind the wooden doors. As the houses are still reluctant to share their secret, I told to myself that maybe one day will spend more time listening more stories. Maybe a next time.

For more pictures from Cristian, have a look at the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/cristian-romania/

Timisoara, a next European Capital of Culture?

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The first time I’ve been to Timisoara more than 10 years ago, I had to cope with a massive headache and wasn’t able see too much from the city. The second time I arrived was on a long train-way from Budapest, trying to cope with just another massive headache. Plus a shocking dirty looking train station where I was helped though by a nice lady to get the best price for the next leg of the trip to Brasov. Once I had the ticket in my pocket and was out of the station, I calmed down in a cafeteria called La Noemi, serving a good cappuccino and some traditional tasty pretzel (covrigi). Around me, I had a lot of very ugly looking communist housing projects, trying to get a bit out of the grey crowd, like this pinky ground floor. What we gonna do next?

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On the way to the small hotel we stayed, were the friendliness of the people helped me to ignore some muddy streets and dirty alleys, we noticed a lot of deserted industrial spaces, another testimony of the communist past of the city. With a nuance of regret, our taxi driver, in his mid-50s complained how the local industry doesn’t exist any more, forgetting that probably he would have not been able to talk with foreigners if the communist dictator was still in power.

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Too many historical considerations for a poor head like mine, so I rather tried to focus on the colourful present of the city, with colourful graffiti joyously invading the deserted urban spaces. Things changed a little bit more than some might want to recognize, it seems.

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The contrasts are easy to notice in Romania, where poverty and luxury can co-exist easily only steps away. Close to the dirty industrial space, it is situated a huge multi-storey mall with a sophisticated multiplex home theater, a favourite meeting point of young people. Although they probably don’t have the money to buy all the expensive clothes or electronics displayed, they enjoy the ambiance, meeting at the food court for social networking. The food is not that expensive, and besides the popular Mc Donald’s and pizza and Asian foods there are also some local Balkan dishes one should definitely not miss, such as the pleskavica, made of various ground meats and potatoes.

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One good news about my headaches is that when it happens, I should definitely try to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Hoping the cold rain will make me feel better, I took on Cuza Street, passing near a nice park with even nicer graffiti. Lacking too many tourist signs, we rather follow streets intuitively, hoping that sooner or later we will arrive somehow near the central area.

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Slowly, we entered Eugeniu de Savoia Street and from there on, we were in the historical area. Compared to many other big Romanian cities, like Bucharest, for instance, Timisoara was not affected by megalomanic urbanist reshape that might have been destroyed the old constructions. However, for decades, the local budgets are suffering for underfunding and the result is the decayed facades of classical buildings.

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The closer we were from the center, the bigger the problems. As Timisoara wants to apply its candidacy for the status of European Cultural City in 2020, the new mayor started a massive refurbishing of the streets. On the long term, it can be a good thing, and only considered myself very unlucky to be here at the wrong time. On the other side of the muddy holes, cute shops and youngish coffee shops were winking at me.

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Among the rest of the country, Timisoara as the capital city of the Banat Region, assumed always a leading intellectual role, the city enjoying for a long time a multicultural reality of many languages spoken and an intermingling of cultures and identities. It was said that at the beginning of the century, Serbian, Hungarian, German, Yiddish as well as French were spoken currently on the elegant streets of the city. Streets that were the first in Europe to enjoy the benefits of electric light. Even during the communism, who mostly destroyed the multicultural past, Timisoara was always considered the door to Europe, and given its vicinity with the more liberal Hungary and Serbia, many products prohibited in the rest of the country – including soaps, and shampoos and chewing gum – were more available here on the black market.

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All these horror histories are hopefully gone for ever, and the city is trying to get back its charming days. Going back in the early time it’s almost impossible, because many of the minorities and their representative intellectuals are long gone. Instead, the search for a new identity can be more interesting for the future of the new generation of people still living here.

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Timisoara is an university city, with many young people from the rest of the country and all over the world living here which can change and dramatically challenge the grey narrative of the past. The graffiti in the central historical area are one of the best I’ve seen during my whole European trip and at a certain extent could be read as the message in a bottle of a new generation of Romanians.

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Timisoara was the first Romanian city that in December 1989 decided to end up the fear-hate relationship with the communist dictatorship. People went out of the street, prompting other cities to do the same. In just a couple of weeks, the country was finally out of the nightmare and although there are different interpretations and versions of what and why things happened there, it was about time that the darkness in which Romanian citizens were kept for too long to end up.

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The Opera Square was one of the symbolic reunion points of the anti-communist demonstrators. Now, it was only the rain, us and some local people hurrying up. Very close from there, the small Tourist Information where we received a lot of insights about where to go next.

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Interesting Art Nouveau buildings, relatively well preserved, showed a different face of the city and I wished I can find an extensive book about the history of the local architecture. Maybe the next time.

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The square in the front of the Cathedral is another place where people risked their life to fight for the freedom of children to play freely near the alleys, without the need to hurry up to spend their after school time waiting in the front of the shops for a little bit more sugar or maybe some bread. Despite the rain, the restaurants around were full of people and a carefree feeling was in the air.

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The architecture can be surprising if you dare to explore more and more. There are a couple of guided tours in English that dedicated to the culture and history including of the huge Roma palaces around the city. If you ask the locals about them, they will feel a bit annoyed about the topic, but it’s one in a lifetime experience that tells something about the a relatively unknown European minority.

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The bad weather, the ugly headache, the exhaustion of the last long hours of train ride plus the perspective of an equally long trip shortened our stay in Timisoara. After a little walk on the bridge over the river Bega, we decided to slowly head back home for a healthy sleep. It was a short trip, but maybe of the city will win the competition to be an European Cultural City, I will dare to come back for getting to know the city in its newly restored glory.

For more pictures from Timisoara, check the dedicated Pinterest board: http://www.pinterest.com/ilanaontheroad/timisoara-romania/