Monday, November 16, 2009

Rich with history, high in Transylvania

By Necee Regis, Globe Correspondent | November 15, 2009
www.boston.com

BRASOV, Romania - Thick morning fog was lifting from Council Square, slowly dissipating as the sun pressed above the rim of the nearby mountains and pastel buildings glowed in the brightening light. At that moment, as the cool air carried a scent of burning from distant fields, it struck me that I was quite far from familiar things and that I loved being in Brasov.

I had arrived the night before, after a hundred-mile train ride from the capital, Bucharest, along a route that meandered through the lush Prahova Valley before climbing into the southern Carpathian Mountains that rim Brasov like a crown. I wanted nothing but to wander the streets, admiring the mix of Gothic, Baroque, renaissance, and romantic period buildings in the center, and possibly to sit at an outdoor cafe, drinking espresso. And that’s just what I did.

Brasov has been a cultural and commercial center of Transylvania since as early as the 13th century. Its location between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe made it a trade route hub. The original medieval settlement, founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1211 and settled by the Saxons, has been preserved and restored, drawing historians and tourists to the old city where there’s plenty to do and see.

A good place to begin a walking tour is Council Square, also referred to as the Marktplatz, a wide and active central plaza that’s said to be where the legendary Pied Piper led the entranced children of Hamlin. I didn’t hear any pipers, though the influence of the Saxons is everywhere you look, from ornate churches to the colorful facades of three- and four-story buildings trimmed and decorated like fanciful cakes.

The Black Church, said to be the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul, is on the southwest corner of the square. Contrary to the image the name conjures, the church is not black. It was given this moniker in 1689, after a fire destroyed much of the town and blackened the church’s interior walls. Although the exterior retains its Gothic character, the lofty, light-filled interior restoration is mainly Baroque, with stained glass windows, stone columns, balconies, an elaborate 4,000-pipe organ, and walls adorned with 17th- and 18th-century Anatolian carpets. Only one of two original towers was rebuilt and it houses the largest church bell in Romania, a seven-ton marvel.

Brasov has at least six other historic churches, encompassing 13th- through 19th-century styles built for Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Romanian Orthodox worshipers. In the oldest section of the city, the Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas is a wondrous sight, with one tall spindly tower surrounded by four smaller ones. Enclosed by a protective wall that also shelters a small cemetery, the cathedral’s architectural style ranges from Byzantine through Baroque with a smattering of Gothic. A synagogue, built in 1901 in a neo-Roman/Moorish style, still serves the small Jewish community that remains since World War II.

The History Museum of Brasov is, appropriately, housed in the historic 13th-century Old Town Hall. A medieval watchtower, known as the Trumpeter’s Tower, sits atop the building, where, presumably, a trumpet sounded a warning as enemies approached. The museum’s exhibitions explain the dominance of Saxon guilds in medieval times, and display artifacts from ancient to modern times, such as Paleolithic Age stone tools, bronze and iron armor, farming implements, and weapons.

When fresh breezes beckon, bearing scents of pine and oak, you can hike nearby Mount Tampa for a bird’s-eye perspective of Brasov. On the southeast side of the town’s fortress walls, the tree-shaded Brediceanu Alley leads to the start of a hiking trail that takes about an hour to climb. There is also a cable car to the mountain top, up 3,000 feet. From this height, it’s easy to survey the terra-cotta roofs and watch the comings and goings of townspeople.

If, like me, all this hiking and touring makes you hungry, there are plenty of places to dine, from casual bistros to restaurants serving Romanian cuisine accompanied by elaborate, if touristy, shows featuring music and costumed performers. In addition to traditional foods, such as grilled meats, sausages, cabbage rolls, and stews prepared in cast-iron kettles, restaurant choices are as numerous as the conquests by foreign invaders: an Argentine steakhouse, a German bistro, a French restaurant, an Indonesian cafe, a Chinese kitchen, a Viennese saloon, a Greek taverna. Sometimes incongruous combinations occur, such as the music hall in a 400-year-old cellar that features Mexican and Hungarian foods, or the Italian pub with Mediterranean and Romanian cuisines that features Guinness stout. Romania has several winemaking regions, providing decent choices to accompany local cuisine. Transylvania produces dry white wines like pinot gris and sauvignon blanc, as well as aromatic muscats and sparkling rieslings.

In the old city, Republicii Street is pedestrian-only, making it easy to stroll and shop. In addition to clothing and shoe boutiques, you will find stores selling jewelry, sporting goods, books, and antiques. There are also art galleries and shops selling folk crafts, such as fragile painted or beaded eggs, embroidered clothing and linen, figurines, carpets, blankets, pottery, wood carvings, and icons. On the street, women sell their own handcrafted and embroidered tablecloths, skirts, blouses, and intricate lacework.

Brasov boasts a healthy night life, though I didn’t explore the offerings listed in my hotel room guide. If I return, I’ll be tempted to visit the Extra Time Café, since any place that advertises, “Enter this bar if you are in love with twist, cha-cha-cha or rock and roll,’’ might work for me.

Until then, I’ll savor the memories of smoke from faraway fields while recalling the simple pleasures of Brasov.

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

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