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My Bloody Romania: Bra?ovywood - Give me a sign! Any sign!!
Why is it that the top two tourist destinations in Romania have virtually no signage to assist the, you know, tourists? Seriously, this mystery has kept me up at night and driving in maddening circles during the day, cursing the mothers of city officials who are apparently still diverting their sign budgets to keep apartments for their mistresses by the Black Sea.
Let's start with Bucharest. First off, this hellhole is one of Europe's worst capital cities, so anyone coming here for a pleasure stay is either vastly ill-informed or they're giving it a pity visit, because their plane landed here and they had no other choice. Bucharest has minimal satisfying activities, it's expensive (by Romanian standards) and there's an army of thieves and pickpockets freely roaming the streets including the armada of illegal taxis that still bafflingly operate with impunity, despite repeated declarations by officials (via live-feed from their Black Sea villas) to crack down.
Bucharest has exactly zero signs directing people to such vital locations like important plazas, the train station or the airport (until you're just 2km short of the bloody thing and planes are roaring overhead, where they've posted a no-brainer sign pointing straight on - nice effort jackasses). On the contrary, if you, say, want a Big Mac, there's thousands of signs blanketing the city clearly pointing the way to the nearest McDonald's, with distances and GPS coordinates just for good measure. Say what you want about McDonald's, at least they understand the simple concept of 'If You Point to It, They Will Come – Faster', while Romanians still largely adhere to the perennial 'Find It On Your Own, I Don't Care If It Takes You All Day. Do You Have A Cigarette?'.
Braşov, hands down Romania's primary tourist city (without the advantage of an airport, I might add), is only slightly better. Once you've penetrated through the industrial and commercial zones, a few signs have been nailed to posts in randomly selected intersections pointing the way to the center, but getting this far takes a significant amount of luck and trial and error since there are no signs directing people from the E68 highway. I know this as indisputable fact, as the Little Vampire and I just drove the entire length of Braşov's outskirts three times searching in vain for signs, speculating on what kind of BMW the mayor bought with his sign funds.
Well, future Braşov visitors, here's a hard-earned tip for getting to the center of town: when approaching the outskirts, look up toward the south (better yet, have your co-pilot do this, as taking your eyes off traffic in Romania for even a second is guaranteed to lead to disaster) and locate the tacky Hollywood-style 'Braşov' sign propped above the city on Mount Tâmpa. All you have to do is home in on that thing until 'Centru' signs start appearing.
Once in central Braşov however, it's all gravy. This is tourist ground zero for a reason. Easily the most scenic urban area in the country, Braşov also happens to be an excellent staging area for castle tours, day hikes, and increasingly ill-fated 'bear-watching tours'. I've lost count, but I think at least three tourists have been killed by bear attacks in the Braşov area this summer, with several more injured. Meanwhile, these outings - usually consisting of a ride to the local trash heap to watch scavenging bears feed - are creating the illusion (for the bears) that humans = food. I don't know about you guys, but when I go somewhere expecting food and find nothing (say, a flight from DC to San Francisco), I get a hankering to disembowel somebody. Obviously, I'm of the opinion that bear tours should be avoided. If you wanna see giant, hairy, dangerous animals rooting for scraps, tour the US Senate during appropriations season.
I'd been to Braşov before, wandering the pedestrian-friendly center, slowly circling the massive Black Church and, as I did on this visit, enjoying some of Romania's best non-Romanian cuisine.
I'm not normally the kind of jackhole that travels 10,000 miles just to eat at the local Hard Rock Café. I love Romanian food, but seriously, after weeks/months of the same stuff every single day, sometimes you just want a hamburger. Or in this case Mexican. I haven't found anywhere else in all of Europe that does Mexican as well as Bella Musica in central Braşov. Chips with salsa, prepared the way that Buddha intended, and a shot of ear-smoking ţuică arrive after you order and it just gets better from there. Fajitas, burritos and excellent cuts of beef are available at reasonable prices. And, yes, they do Romanian food and they do it well. There's a 'ciorba de pui a la Grec' (countryside chicken soup, Greek style) on the menu that aroused me more than the first time I saw Michelle Hunziker topless.
I'm gonna be frank, with limited in-town time and yet more foul weather, I didn't spend much time roaming Braşov on this particular stopover, but even quickly driving through town served to remind me that Braşov is well worth its notoriety. Even better, there's a somewhat competitive budget accommodations industry here, making this one of the few cities in Romania where a decent hostel stay is attainable. We stayed at Rolling Stone Hostel this time around after a grimy, malodorous stay at another hostel during my last visit, which, despite the already-dated review in the current LP, has free internet/WiFi and reasonably priced castle tours.
Like most popular cities, it's probably best to avoid Braşov in July and August, otherwise, this remains a must-visit city on any Romanian tour
Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, co-authored the current edition of Lonely Planet's Romania and Moldova. Visit his personal blog, Killing Batteries, for further amateur food reviews and more references to Michelle Hunziker's killer bod.