It had been booked for a while, months actually, but I still didn’t believe it was happening until I got in the car. That’s when I started to panic a little. I don’t like to get excited about things until they’re actually happening, having been let down a lot, so when we paid for flights to Bucharest to visit Transylvania, I tried to stay calm.
My fella and I had talked about booking a little holiday for autumn (cheaper, no school children) and he had suggested Transylvania, and why not go over Halloween? It made perfect sense and we could visit ‘Dracula’s’ Castle on the 31st too. We even booked our tour in advance to make sure. I researched spooky things to see and he found some decent looking bars where we might not get stared at (boy, we were wrong). I tried not to get too excited. It was months away.
Finally, in late October, we arrived at our hotel in Bucharest, the plan being to spend a few days in the capital city, then get the train to Brasov for a few days doing castle tours and Halloween things. I had asked in advance if we could upgrade our room, but only if they had a specific one available. This being a boutique hotel each room was different. They were able to upgrade us to my chosen room. The Gothic Room. It was pretty special. Unfortunately Bucharest was not. The city centre was awash with ‘Irish’ pubs, dance clubs and strip bars, some which pounded music until 6am. 7am on Saturday. We found a rock pub ‘Private Hell’ which played music we liked but even here, as with most of Bucharest, people stared at us a lot. It was odd. And we’re not even that odd.
Sightseeing wise Vlad’s palace was undergoing major maintenance, so we couldn’t even see the outside. The church – Biserica Sfantul Anton – in the palace grounds was beautiful however, and contained a relic, of St Anthony I believe. A piece of his bone was displayed in a guilt case at the altar and people waited to see, pray and place their forehead on the case.
Around the back of the church there was a memorial area where people placed candles to pray for loved ones. We saw them at a few of the larger churches and eventually worked out that one side of the area was for the living, while the other was for the dead. Considering the gold and opulence inside the churches, the memorial areas looked like pigeon hutches. It seemed a shame worshippers couldn’t light candles inside.
We also visited the famous Bellu Cemetery, but this wasn’t quite as imagined either. In all my years of visiting cemeteries, I have never been to one at the same time as a service. When we arrived at the 54 acre ‘cultural attraction’ there were a few teenage goths hanging around. It turned out that they were part of a larger group of teenagers attending a burial. As more and more people arrived carrying flowers we felt more and more uncomfortable and decided that instead of standing completely still out of respect, we would walk in the opposite direction.
While keeping our eyes open incase we should accidentally disturb the mourners, we tried to see some of the reportedly amazing memorials and mausoleums. After a few minutes a security guard approached. We didn’t understand what he said but he clearly (but politely) made it clear there was no photography allowed and then pointed to his shoulders. We put our cameras away and I guessed at the rest and put my jacket back on to cover my shoulders. It was so hot and we felt so awkward, even though we were the other side of the cemetery to the service, we decided to leave. I normally feel a mix of excitement and peace after seeing a beautiful old cemetery, but I just felt a mix of guilt and disappointment.
We did manage to find the sorcerers arm though, which went a long way to making Bucharest not completely disappointing. A mummified, sorcerer’s arm. In a box. Genuinely. The Zlatari Church it was in was very unassuming, especially because the huge bank opposite looked like a palace. In a box, at the altar, was the relic I had at the top of my list, but there was a queue of ladies waiting to kiss the box and place their forehead on it. I sat quietly and patiently at the front until everyone there for religious reasons had been and gone, then I stepped towards it. It looked like a monkey’s paw. Withered with tight dark brown skin, it didn’t look real. It was covered with glass but there was a hole cut over the hand, with a gilt ring edging it. It was then I realised what the ladies had been actually kissing.
The legend goes that the arm belonged to a powerful sorcerer Ciprian, who was asked to bewitch a Christian woman for a pagan man who desired her. This woman, Justina, was too strong in her beliefs to be bewitched and her strength convinced Ciprian to convert to Christianity and renounce the Devil. Apparently. Information about St Ciprian is so scant however, that the Roman Catholic religion has actually removed him from their official list, but some Orthodox churches still celebrate him. People pray to him to remove curses and charms, despite him renouncing his sorcery ways.
After this, a few bars, Romanian sausages and hotel cats, we caught the train to Brasov for the second half of our adventure. The station had no platform, as the rails are not electrified, but it also meant it was three feet from the ground up to the door. A few men tried to take my bags, which I declined, or to sell me English magazines (mostly National Geographic which confused me). After finding our seats we were pleased to see the £6 upgrade to first class for our 3 hour journey had been worth it. The big red reclining armchair style seats, albeit still in hardwearing train seat fabric, were comfy and spacious and the tray tables were huge. We had coat hooks, plug sockets and curtains. Not what I was expecting from the outside of the train. A conductor walked with ease through the rocking train carrying a tray of hot black coffee in plastic vending machine cups, not seeming to care whether anyone bought one or not, followed by another carrying a shopping basket with crisps and snacks.
Almost as soon as we escaped the outskirts of Bucharest the landscape became breathtaking. In a ‘Carpathian mountains that I’ve seen in the movies’ kind of way. The towns we went through looked just like I had imagined. Dogs and chickens in the yard and Bavarian looking lodges and turrets and solitary old ladies in headscarves sat by the road. Memorials on top of mountainsides and no one speaking English. It was immediately much more what we had wanted. And Brasov itself was no different.
The town had a more historic feel to it. People stared much less (if at all) and we immediately felt more at home. We were grateful to ourselves that we had planned our visit to finish at Brasov rather than the capital city. We had part of a day before Halloween to explore Brasov (we mainly explored pubs) and got an earlyish night. On the morning of the 31st of October I changed my outfit three times and we left our apartment to meet our tour guide. After being put with two different guides we were finally introduced to our third, and correct, guide. Our group was small and cosmopolitan. Two French ladies, an American couple, one quiet lady from Mexico and us.
We visited Bran Castle first and were overwhelmed at how busy it was. Our guide explained that it was a special time for schools to visit historic places and that was why there were so many children. We shuffled from room to room trying to hear our guide as hoardes of pre-teens swarmed around us. We got some amazing pictures and I spent the whole time grinning but the castle was not as expected, more small country home inside, than grand medieval castle. I bought a toy bat, a bat bookmark and some local artwork. Of a bat. Despite the school children it was already shaping up to be the best day.
We went on to a fort, which was being prepared for a film shooting so parts of it were being covered up (like the safety hand railings), then onto a Bavarian stately home and then Peles Castle (which I later discovered was used as the setting for a nauseating film ‘A Christmas Prince‘). We finished by eating schnitzel and cold potatoes at a very Bavarian ale house, surrounded by woods and a bear ontop of a fountain.
After our tour guide dropped us off we headed home for a quick refresh and change of clothes (despite it being almost November the temperatures were in the mid twenties). It was now dark and we were thinking about where to spend our Halloween night, not fancying any nightclubs or fancy dress parties. My fella Niki suggested we walk passed the Black Church, a tourist attraction just off the town square, to see if it was lit up at night. As we rounded the corner to the main door there were two slightly drunk chaps having a chat and holding a takeaway. I stared at the opening times to see if we could go into the church the next day, then up at the roof. The takeaway chaps wandered off and I began to say something about would I die if someone dropped something off the roof onto me and as I turned around Niki was kneeling down. And holding out a ring. He said ‘Lauren will you marry me?’ in the most serious voice I’ve ever heard him use.
I found that I had to go down to the ground too suddenly, and that I had started crying. He asked if that meant yes and I nodded. The rest of the evening involves no spooky things, just large drinks, calls home and relief. And tears. Lots of tears.
I’m not sure if anything I write after this can follow that. We did go inside the Black Church, it was very English and therefore familiar and slightly disappointing. I saw a ‘Heroes Cemetery’ filled with small, sad and very moving gravestones to those lost in war. An old Romanian lady blessed us as we left the small, bright chuch next door. The cable car was closed. There were poor children selling used books table to table and a lot of cute dogs. None of this mattered very much to me.
Bucharest was disappointing, Brasov was everything we had hoped and more.
And I got the gothest, spookiest proposal story in the history of the world.