Christmas in Romania – part 5: Brasov
Saving the best for last: Brasov, my home – always!
Home is always the best, at least for me. I can honestly say – and not just because I’m from there – that Brasov is one of the best cities in Romania. It has a perfect blend of old and new: melancholic cobblestone streets are meandering among brick and stone houses with red terracotta roofs, guarded by ancient watch towers, and the fortresses on the hill. There is so much history here. There is also a lot of life and living. People enjoy each other’s life-long friendships, meet and spend time together at the sidewalk cafes, or get together on the weekends to enjoy nature, good food, and good companionship. Brasov is a true gem, located in the best possible setting: surrounded by lush mountains and showing off its best panorama from Tampa, the hill overlooking downtown and Piata Sfatului (the central piazza).
It was named “Corona” or the Crown and it’s really with good reason.
It has also been named “Probably one of the best cities in the world” – and you have to appreciate both the loving pride and the disclaimer in this slogan…
I love that the young and the old can peacefully coexist and enjoy the same wild dance parties. I love the main piazza, Piata Sfatului, a popular rendezvous and hang-out spot, which turns into the perfect performance stage for music festivals, Argentine Tango or Salsa dancing, and for the giant Christmas tree and winter market. The city has so much charm, and it seems to me that it’s getting better each year. Yes, I’m biased but I also have the perspective of seeing the city only once a year and really noticing every change.
My beautiful Brasov was decorated and poised for the winter holidays and, even without snow, it glowed and enchanted me. I enjoyed strolling down the street, window-shopping, listening to the carolers, having a cup of hot mulled wine, and admiring the Christmas tree. There was also a popular Nativity scene and a carousel for kids. I love the juxtaposition of worldly fun, candy shops, and lights with the somber shadows of the Black Church and the vigilance of the White Tower.
Learn more about the historic sites http://romaniatourism.com/brasov.html
Enjoy this slideshow of Christmas 2015, downtown Brasov (photos might take a bit to load up, so be patient).
One of my favorite activities at Christmas time is decorating the tree. My family (of four) lived in a small two-bedroom apartment, so we always had a small Christmas tree. However, it was always well-dressed and it smelled divine. I love the smell of pine tree and, since I was a baby, I could watch the twinkling lights for hours. This year I went with my dad to the market to pick a tree and chose this guy:
With the tree up (we usually have the tree decorated only a few days before Christmas), we were ready to receive carolers. There are plenty of groups going around if you wish to receive them but we opted for someone we knew. A neighbor of ours has a beautiful daughter who is studying music. She played a few songs for us on her pan flute, which I understand is pretty hard to learn.
Thanks to Facebook, I was able reconnect with a couple of friends from high school. We met at Festival 39, a beautiful restaurant on the corner of Republicii street, in downtown Brasov.
High school was not a good memory. The Headmaster was a sadistic math teacher who tormented me every day for four years. Sadly, he doesn’t even know or understand that… Oh, there are some stories to be told from those days….but I’ll leave that for another day. It was great seeing my friends. It’s like we’ve never been apart, although twenty years passed…ouch! Time is silly like that: it likes to surprise us.
My husband and I made several trips to downtown – some for purely selfish shopping reasons – but most just for the joy of walking, sightseeing, and eating. We heard about this little place called La Ceaun (“At the Cauldron”), so we tried it one night for dinner. There were two sections: one with a big common table and a to-go counter, and the other one called La Ceaunul Tihnit (“At the laid-back/calm cauldron”), which we chose. The décor was very nicely done, in a modern fashion but using old/traditional elements: local ceramics, woven towels, and wooden menu holders. The food was delicious and very cheap, comparatively speaking. We ordered mulled wine, traditional meat and cabbage rolls with polenta (sarmale cu mamaliga), a pickled hot pepper and sour cream on the side, bean and pork belly soup in a bread bowl, and for desert, galusti cu prune (potato dough stuffed with plum and boiled) – all for a whopping 52 RON, or about 13 USD.
Another great place we visited for dinner was Bistro del Arte, a very quaint little restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone side street, in downtown Brasov. The number of tables available is small, and the setup is very cozy. Local artists display their sculptures or paintings throughout and some nights, there is live music playing.
The restaurant’s loyal stray dog respectfully sits outside the bar, waiting for his treats. I offered him some bread, but I was informed that he prefers cheese… He was still nice enough to keep us company for a while.
The cheese is not to be shared with dogs, sorry (growl). We had a glass of the house red and a small cheese plate, for starters. I loved the presentation:
Next, we had paella with chicken and a Mediterranean salad, and more wine.
Warmed up by the wine, we stepped into the cool night. We walked briskly, past the mulled wine wagon, still very much alive with visitors, past the late-night walkers, taking in the charm of city in its festive lights, feeling alive and happy.
Brasov has many perks and one of them is being the foothills of Poiana Brasov, one of the best skiing resorts in Romania. My brother and his friend convinced my husband to join them for several days of skiing. I don’t ski but I ice skate… It’s crazy, since I grew up there but I never took skiing lessons. I went skiing a few times, when I was a kid, with strap-on skies, and once, while in college. I had the “pleasure” of trying out the black diamond slopes using my fancy plow move and my thigh as the brake, so I didn’t return… But back to my story. My husband didn’t bring any skiing attire from the U.S., so we ended up buying a helmet, goggles, gloves, hat, socks, and ski pants at the local Decathlon store. He rented the other equipment from Poiana Brasov, and off they went. I joined them to the base of the slope and then went for a few hours’ stroll. I went to find the old Olympic skating rink I remembered from my childhood. I remember the little changing area serving hot tea with rum – so soothing and satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed the vendor huts lined up between restaurants, along the main road. I ended up buying a ridiculously large furry hat and walked around with a grin the entire time; Hey, when in Rome (or Romania for that matter)…. I squeezed my way into a small wooden church to listen to a part of the sermon, then I walked past the sledding slopes and proceeded to look for a nice place to grab a hot coffee. I really wanted to find something non-smoking (which is still hard to find but finally existing!). I found this traditional-looking restaurant and chose a corner table, in the upstairs section, overlooking the slopes. I had a decadent and cheesy pastry and sipped on a cappuccino. It was fun watching the kids – by themselves or with their parents – sled down the hill, and a couple of young adults – possibly having had one too many rum teas? – who kept of falling off the sled before it reach the bottom half.
After a while, I walked back to the parking lot at the bottom of the ski slope to wait for my boys: husband, brother, and nephew. While waiting, I enjoyed people-watching: the colorful suits, the skillful – and not-so skillful – slaloms, and the random dog managing to dodge the skiers as they came to the end of the slope. There was one lady who arrived with the aid of the Salvamont, on a stretcher. Her leg must have been broken. She hobbled to a fence, where she waited for the ambulance to arrive. I felt so bad for her; she looked in pain.
After a good day of skiing, what’s better than a warm and plentiful meal, cooked by mom? Nothing, of course. My parents prepared mici (or “the little ones”, a mixture of beef, lamb, and pork, with spices, grilled), alongside veggies, and washed down with beer or red wine.
On the last day before heading to Bucuresti and then back to Knoxville, we visited with my brother and his family one more time for another feast. Even if it had finally started snowing outside, the guys fired up the grill on the patio and cooked tuna steaks, chicken, and beef. The side dish was either pasta made by my nephew (he had taken a cooking class the previous day, making pasta from scratch), or couscous, to stay on the healthy side of things. The wine was good but the time was short.
Good-byes are not my favorites and we rushed out to catch a cab back to my parents’ apartment. When we walked in, a familiar vanilla smell was coming from the kitchen. My mom showed up with a knowing smile on her face. “You made doughnuts, didn’t you?” A large plate of hot beignets was waiting on the small kitchen table and we gladly indulged my mom before hitting the road.
Our driver took a while to find us and was a little distraught at the number of luggage pieces we had (little did he know that we left quite a bit behind; we brought three bottles of wine, carefully packed in our check-ins). In Bucuresti, we stayed at hotel RIN, which is very close to the airport and offers free transportation to and from the airport. It’s a four-star hotel (although it’s not really) but we found a room at a discounted rate of only 30 dollars per night.
Our flight out of Bucuresti was bright and early at 6 a.m. In Amsterdam, we boarded our big plane, only to disembark because the cleaning crew had missed a check point. But better safe/clean than sorry. After that, it was smooth sailing to the U.S. I sat next to a foreign-looking guy (I had the middle seat), who happened to be sitting next to me on the flight to Knoxville. Turns out that he was indeed foreign (from the Check Republic) but was living in Knoxville – small world….
I really love flying KLM. The staff is always so nice and calm. I noticed that they are very heavy into branding, which I can appreciate being that I do marketing for a living. Everything from the plastic cups to the napkins and more had something typical Dutch etched or printed on it: a bicycle, tulips, clogs, windmills. Some of my best friends are Dutch, incidentally – but that’s another story… I do have a lot of stories, so stick with me. Meanwhile, I leave you with these beautiful flowers (which my husband and I bought for my mom before we left).