The world's 2nd largest administrative building just got served.
This morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise over Bucharest. . . .
. . . before kicking back at the Intercontinental Hotel’s Health Club, Pool, Sauna, and Spa on its 22nd floor:
The sun survived for only for a few minutes before a terrible fog took over. The views from here:
After an hour in the sky, we checked out at 2pm and headed south past a Romanian protest by the University:
Getting our digs in on our third and final night at Antique Hostel, we then started off our day in Old Town with the 2-hour Free Walking Tour.
It congregates everyday at 10am and 3pm (6pm in the summers) by Unrii Square under the clock.
Our first stop on the free walking tour was Biserica Sfantul Antoine, an Orthodox Church built in 1559 and Bucharest’s oldest.
According to our tour guide, every Tuesday single women have been gathering here by the dozens to pray for love, subsequently leading to a lot of single men and tourists coming here specifically to ask them out.
This church lies right by the ruins of Palatul Voivodal, Vlad the Impaler’s former Palace when he ruled here for 8 years.
Then we walked east to Biserica Stavropoleos, a peaceful monastery built in the early 18th century that boasts beautiful decorative Greek-inspired sculptures, Ottoman-inspired archways, and Byzantine frescoes.
On the west side of Old town along Calea Victorei, is the gorgeous building of CEC Bank and one of the few remnants of Bucharest’s heyday as Little Paris. It’s a sorrowful reminder of how Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had demolished nearly all of a beautiful French-inspired city to turn it into a Soviet-style urban sprawl.
The best way to recall any idea of Little Paris is to walk along Calea Victorei south to north. Don’t miss the odd statue of Emperor Trajan carrying the wolf that fed Romulus and Remus, aka the most ridiculed statue in Romania:
Around the corner is the National Bank of Romania, famous for being one of the first countries in the world to print its currency in plastic (second to Australia) . . . but only after the ministry mistook a suggestion at a world financial summit of “using plastic” (as to mean credit cards) to mean plastic cash.
Oh well, it worked out.
Along the north of old town is University of Bucharest, where over 100,000 Romanians in 1989 finally revolted to depose Nicolae Ceausescu. This incident quickly led to the infamous kangaroo court that immediately convicted and executed Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena by a trigger-happy firing squad.
After the free walking tour ended here, we headed up more north.
The first stop was the Romanian Athenaeum, a frescoed neoclassical concert hall built in 1888 that’s home to the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra.
Heading back from here towards Old Town, a few steps south is Revolution Square/Piața Revoluției, and its much-vandalized Memorial of Rebirth (strikingly keeping to the impalement theme, not sure if on purpose) dedicated to the 1,500 demonstrators who lost their lives in the 1989 upheaval of Nicolae Ceausescu.
A few steps further south is Kretzulescu Church, an Orthodox church built in Brâncovenesc style from the 1720s:
As the sun began to set, we headed down south of old town to visit one of the world’s largest administrative buildings in the world (second only to the Pentagon), the Palace of Parliament, which was built by Nicolae Ceausescu when he returned from North Korea and wanted his own symbol of socialist might.
Cutting across from Parliament and heading back up northeast, we stumbled upon a bunch of police officers standing around Strada Patriarhiei.
Bur we slipped by them (they didn’t even bother to stop us) and walked up a steep cobblestoned car path to reach in my opinion, the most atmospheric part of Bucharest’s old town, the Catedrala Patriarhală Sfinții Împărați Constantin și Elena (aka the Patriarchal Cathedral complex):
After walking around the back to face north/old town, we then discovered why there were police officers in the first place: a massive massive queue of worshippers had lined up from the bottom of the hill at Unrii Square to get inside and pay their respects on Sunday mass.
But us? Whoops! Now you know there’s a semi-legal backdoor entrance from Strada Patriarhiei!
Afterwards it was a return to Old Town and its raucous bumpin’ nightlife all 7 nights of the week.
CEC Bank at night
We dined at one of Bucharest’s most well known restaurants, Caru’ cu Bere.
Featuring extraordinary architecture inside, this place has been serving food and its homemade beer since 1879.
Romania’s most popular street food centers around the Mici, caseless ground beef sausages meat mixed with spices, garlic, and beef broth, and usually served with mustard, fries, bread, and/or a cold beer.
The other dish I ordered was a delectable veal shin:
After dinner, we hailed a 30 minute Uber ride for 50 lei to take us wayyyy up north to Therme Bucareti, which just had opened 11 months ago on January 14th, 2016.
It is the largest thermal spa complex in all of Europe covering 30,000 sq km and features 3 sections:
1) The Palm – The massive ground floor heated pool and its surrounding smaller themed pools (featuring a salt bath, a lithium bath, and a magnesium bath), a rainforest-themed steamed sauna, automated hydromassage beds (10 lei for 10 minutes, 12 lei for 15 minutes), a cafeteria/café, and my favorite: the constantly heated 90ºF pools and jacuzzis that lead to the cold outdoors (like the Blue Lagoon)
2) Elysium – The upstairs sauna complex consisting of 6 different saunas at 6 different temperatures:
The Himalayan at 65ºC boasts diffusing salts on the walls
The Hollywood at 70ºC plays a movie with 7.1 surround sound
The Alhambra at 75ºC which has an Fat East/Arabic theme
The Amazon at 80ºC boasts panoramic views overlooking The Palm
The Provence at 85ºC features essential oil diffusion
The Bavaria which is simply hot hot hot at 90ºC aka 194ºF)
And you also have a massage studio, outdoor terrace and bar, a fine dining restaurant, a selenium pool with pool bar, and a cold waterfall themed public shower.
3) Galaxy – The only one we didn’t go to, Galaxy is a comprehensive indoor water park that’s more family oriented.
This is THE thing to do here (at least as a middle to upper class local Romanian), as prices of 50-80 lei ($10-$20 USD) will get you in this garden of Eden all day. Tickets are discounted if you only want to go to 1 or 2 of the 3, if you have a student ID, or if you go in the early morning.
Even the locker rooms are superbly designed:
You can bring your phone in, but be careful not to lose it when you get in the pools!
We stayed here until closing at 1am, before heading back into Bucharest old town on a taxi (40 lei) to catch our morning flights back home.
Not a bad way to spend another weekend abroad on a budget!
- At time of posting in Bucharest, Romania, it was 11 °C -
Humidity: 93% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast
After spending 2 hours at Bran Castle of Dracula fame, we hailed a nearby metered taxi to take us back into Braşov, the 7th most populous city in Romania and arguably the most visited by tourists. There’s even a saying among Romanians to their visiting guests: “Why bother coming to Romania if you’re not going to see Braşov?”
So we decided to see Braşov.
After being dropped off by our cab driver (and summarily ignoring his odd request when he argued that we should pay double the fare for his ride back to Bran castle…that was weird), we started our tour from the very south at 14th century St. Nicholas Church.
If you’re a big printing press nerd, the church is located on the same grounds as the First Romanian School, which houses a museum featuring the first printing press of Romania. We also caught a random wedding here, and pondered whether to sneak in as guests.
After we failed to join the wedding party (we didn’t try very hard), we wandered a few feet up to the main, sleepy square of Old Town Braşov (Piața Unirii):
About 5 minutes north is the atmospheric Biserica Sfânta Parascheva and its surrounding cemetery:
Then we detoured northeast towards the Bastionul Fierarilor landmark and hiked up a small uphill path towards the Black Tower:
From the Black Tower you can get these great views of Braşov:
North of the Black Tower is the Bastionul Graft:
Spy at some impressive graffiti, and then head back down Strada Muresenilor towards the more modern Braşov:
If you can find it, look for Strada Sforii, officially the most narrow street in Romania and believed to be one of, if not the narrowest street in Europe:
Strada Sforii just got served
Arguably the most celebrated site in central Braşov is the 15th century gothic Black Church, getting its name after being blackened by smoke in a fire that happened in 1689.
Then there’s marvelous and charming central Braşov itself, especially beginning along Strada Muresenilor:
The centerpiece, though, is Casa Sfatului and the surrounding Plaza Sfatului:
After spending a full 2 hours wandering around Braşov, we then took a metered taxi 10 minutes north to the Braşov train station and caught the 3-hour 6:50pm train back to Bucharest.
P.S. Happy Birthday Dmitry!
- At time of posting in Brasov, Romania, it was 12 °C -
Humidity: 93% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast
Dracula's Castle just got served
Another weekend off, another weekend away. And what more fitting than a visit to Dracula’s castle in Transylvania a week before Halloween?
Finding a remarkable $450 round trip flight from NYC to Romania and getting off at work at 4pm Thursday afternoon, I headed straight from the hospital to the airport to catch a 7:30pm Air France flight to Paris. After enduring viewing of Independence Day 2: Resurgence and sleeping in for 4 hours, I was in Paris by 8am Friday morning.
With a quick one hour layover at Charles Du Gaulle airport, I caught a 10am flight to Bucharest. After 3 more hours napping away in the air, I landed in Bucharest’s tiny OTP airport by 2pm Friday.
Luckily, stamping into Romania takes seconds, and you can be out the airport in minutes.
Although I’m a usually a big fan of taking cabs into the city to save time on quicker trips, the actual best way to get into Bucharest is to take Bus 783, which stops right in front of the arrivals terminal and costs a mere 9 lei ($2.25 USD).
If the automated ticket machine outside is broken (like it was for me), there’s a kiosk immediately to your right that will take over selling tickets.
Bus 783 comes every 20 minutes during daylight hours. Once it arrives, dash in as quickly as you can and grab a seat; this bus gets extremely crowded and notorious Bucharest traffic can make standing with all your luggage a maddening experience.
It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get from the airport to downtown Bucharest, depending on traffic.
I got off at the stop right next to the Intercontinental Hotel, immediately north of Old Town.
Having taken advantage of IHG’s Accelerate Offer last year, I was able to snag a 2 free night certificate for any IHG property in the world. And learning that the Intercontinental here is one of Bucharest’s finest hotels, I ended up using my free weekend stay here. I crashed the moment I checked in.
Refreshed and recharged the next morning, I hailed an Uber for 8 lei ($2 USD) to pick me up for a 5 minute ride to Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main train station.
To reach Dracula’s Castle — which is formally known as Bran’s Castle — you first need to get to the city of Braşov. Trains from Bucharest to Braşov run hourly, especially in the mornings, and cost around 45 lei for 2nd class and 70 lei for 1st class.
Although the ticket machine doesn’t have an English option, it’s pretty intuitive, or you can use the ticket booths which are staffed by adequately competent English-speaking agents.
For those of you wondering which class to choose, 2nd class is cramped, but works fine enough:
Whereas 1st class has way more leg room and privacy:
The ride takes about 2 hours and 50 minutes, so enjoy the views of Transylvania on your way to Brasov:
Having taken a 10am train, I arrived in Brasov at around 12:45pm:
Right outside of the train station is a wall of kiosks; on the side that’s facing out towards the city, you can get tickets that cost 2 lei for Bus 23 or Bus 23B that stop about 100 yards south of the train station.
Bus 23/23B arrives every 10-15 minutes and takes you 10 minutes away (4 stops) to the regional bus station called Autogara 2 – Stadium.
From Autogara, you will need to take another bus that has the sign “Brasov-Rasov-Bran” on it, which leaves once every hour (or hour and a half depending on the time of day). It costs 7 lei (buy when you board) and takes about another 40 minutes to reach Bran.
Alternatively, you can befriend a few other tourists here (like I did with Ty and Dmitry, an American tourist and a Russian tourist respectively traveling on their Fall Break from NYU Abu Dhabi University & College in UAE) and split a metered taxi to go directly to Bran Castle within 30-40 minutes. It will cost about 120-150 lei total (or about $10 USD per person if you fill up the cab with 4 people).
Once you reach the village of Bran, you feel like you’re walking through the Transylvanian version of its Wonderful World of Harry Potter…or Dracula in this case.
Follow the crowds and most likely you’ll reach the ticket booth for Bran Castle. It costs about 35 lei for adults, and 20 lei if you have a student ID:
Head past the gate and walk up a small hill to reach the very castle that would inspire the legend of Dracula:
Because of its loose association with Vlad The Impaler (the actual man that inspired Bram Stoker‘s Dracula), who actually was a prisoner here for 2 days, this 12th century castle in turn became popularly associated with being the legendary castle of Dracula himself.
Around the time of posting, this castle was making news again when Airbnb offerred an international competition for guests to stay here overnight (in coffins!) this upcoming Halloween: Dracula – Two to get comfy coffin for Halloween stay overnight in Bran Castle.
We just missed the party by 1 week!
An entire tour of the castle will take you about 30 minutes to fully explore, and if you go around Halloween like we did, be prepared for Halloween-related kitsch decorated all over the venue as well as the massive crowds taking photos of them.
The highlight is a secret stairwell that takes you from the 2nd to 3rd floor:
People seemed to be pretty tiny back then as all the rooms and ceilings seemed to hang pretty low:
Don’t forget to step outside for the views:
And finally, near the end of the tour is an optional exhibit on various medieval torture devices that were used on and killed real people back in the day of Vlad the Impaler. Tickets cost 10 lei per person and can be bought at the gift shop out in the courtyard.
This exhibit spans 3 tiny floors and features some of the world’s most popular torture devices, most notably. . . .
The Iron Maiden:
The Interrogation Chair:
A vertical version of The Rack:
The Judas Chair (You sit on this with weights hanging from your limbs…):
The Wedge (where they force feed you water until you suffocate, or split apart):
The Rack (where they stretch you until you split apart/suffocate/die):
The Joint Crusher:
The Skull Crusher:
The Breaking Wheel (where they attach your limbs to the wheel and break you apart):
And finally, the one that gave Vlad The Impaler his very moniker, the Impaler:
Not surprisingly, we spent twice as long in the torture gallery than the entire castle itself. Afterwards we dodged the souvenir shops and headed back down and wandered the surrounding grounds:
Then we headed back out to the village, where a bunch of temporary haunted houses solicited our Halloween spirits and beckoned us for our easy money:
Lame, I'm outta here!
…but we decided instead to take a cab and head back to Brasov.
- At time of posting in Bran, Romania, it was 12 °C -
Humidity: 93% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast