Thursday, 13 December 2018

Beautiful Brasov


Even rainy and misty days are beautiful here.

Real wolves.
Bears!!
Summer was going well and it was 2 weeks till freedom for the teachers and staff, and I think we were starting to feel it! Every week a new group of kids would arrive - for some of them it would be their first camp, but most had been before and I knew many of them. As good as they were, weekends for still for me. This weekend a few of us headed down the road to the Liberty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, just outside of Brasov. Founded in 1998 by Cristina Lapis after she saw 3 bears in a small cage outside a restaurant. These bears were used to attract customers, some just for show, others for photos or to perform tricks even. From small beginnings, Lapis now has over 70 rescued bears and grounds of 160 acres. We paid our 60 lei ($20) entry fee to get in, sadly to get my camera in they wanted to charge a further 50 lei ($17), for reasons they didn't really explain, so I decided my phone would be enough - if it was good enough for photos, then I'd come back. At first I was disappointed and saw absolutely no bears at all for the first 15 minutes, but we moved to another part of the part and saw 4 bears all playing together, right in front of the fence. I couldn't believe it - there is nothing like seeing a brown bear this up close and to see them interacting in such a normal way, not bothered in the least by the visitors. I had kind of tuned out by what our cranky guide was saying - partly because of what I saw seeing in front of me and partly because she was just plain grumpy, yelling at people for being to close to the fence or the fact that they'd moved away from the group a little to get a better view. I really enjoyed this visit - the sanctuary do a fantastic job and rescue many animals in need. The bears are never taken from the wild, instead saved from a miserable life attracting customers at restaurants, or from roaming city streets at night sifting through rubbish bins. Please visit them and help them continue their good work!

Horse and cart - still very much used here.
A cat in the fields.
Beautiful even when it's rainy and cloudy.
The Romanian countryside.
We moved around the park (not all 160 acres!), and while walking down a path, something darted in front of the group, going from one patch of forest to the other! Our guide explained that some of the wolves had free reign on the grounds - wolves! We saw some of them a little further on. I'd never seen a wolf before and I thought these ones were absolutely gorgeous! There was one 100% wolf and a few others that were only 50% true blood. The male wolf was much bigger than his watered-down brethren, but they were all impressive. I've since looked up some wolf facts and was amazed to find out that they only live for about 5 years in the wild! These creatures are all amazing and can be found in Romania - so it truly is still an undiscovered wilderness here for the most part. All of the bears have names too, Max being the most famous in the sanctuary. Rescued from a restaurant, poor Max was completely blind when rescued in 2006, most likely from his owner beating him around the head as a cub. It gets worse. He was chained up outside a restaurant to attract tourists, but also to have photos taken with them - his sense of smell was destroyed due to the owner spraying his nose with a capsicum-style spray, so he couldn't smell people and panic, and he was blind and so wouldn't react to flash photography. We saw Max, sleeping away on his back, but unfortunately I didn't get a good look. Sadly, while writing this blog I found out that Max passed away shortly after my visit at the age of 22. It was a good morning out, and one that I'd do again next year when I return to Romania. The drive back was also lovely - a storm was moving in and the clouds made the scenery very dramatic, the the dark storm clouds, the high mountains and Rasnov Citadel overlooking the town. Sadly not all of Romania is beautiful mountains and forest - although the towns are usually very pretty and quaint, with people painting their wooden houses in bright colours and tending little gardens, we passed a huge concrete monstrosity from the past. A big, abandoned apartment block, which I could only really describe as Soviet-style, sat on the edge of Zarnesti. I walked past it to take a photo, feeling a little ashamed and a little scared - it wasn't the nicest of neighbourhoods and didn't want anyone catching me photographing it. The little shoe box cubes were all once a place where someone lived, small, concrete but cheap and plenty of them. The real sad thing was just behind this block were several others that were being lived.

Soviet-style, block apartments near Zarnesti.
The real Romania - beautiful Brasov!
Roof tiles and lamps.
Little windows.
Although most people may think that Romania is all huge Soviet apartments, it truly isn't, not even in Bucharest. Romania is a surprising country and a truly beautiful one too. If (or when) you visit Romania, you must make a trip to one of the most beautiful cities in the country and my favourite place, Brasov. The first thing you notice on the drive into the city is the huge, Hollywood sign sitting up on the hill above the city - something they like doing here as Rasnov also has one. The new town isn't ugly, unlike most around the world when they are part of a much older city, and in fact is quite pretty, but it's the Old Town that makes this place special. The first time I came here was back in 2016, and now I've been here 3 times, but would always be happy for another visit - I don't think that smile on my face, when walking up the main street, will ever disappear. Popular with Romanians, the town has very few foreign tourists, but that is changing quickly. The shops that line the streets are cute little bakeries, clothing stores, but many are bars, restaurants and ice-cream stores, selling all sorts of yummy (and cheap) things. I love these old buildings, lined up one after the other, but all different with their roofs and coloured facades, it's a surprise I don't bump into people while I'm looking up all the time! As you enter the main square, that smile just gets bigger. The town hall is smack bang in the middle of the square and itself is a beautiful building, but somehow you are still distracted by all the other buildings around you. To add to this, the imposing Biserica Neagră (Black Church) is right there as well, its Gothic stonework towering above the other buildings. You'll probably find yourself standing in one spot then turning around to take it all in, and then you'll notice that there's always a large, white tower on the hill, churches, more roofs, and then of course the cable car up the hill to the 'Brasov' sign.

Hollywood! I mean Brasov!

The view from the Brasov sign.
The cable car.
Rooftops.
I decided to take the cable up today, as the weather sun just perfect for it, and I knew that I'd get a great view of the city from an angle that you don't normally get. There are two options to get to the top, either walking it or getting to 18 lei return ticket, of which I chose to go the lazy way. I had to wait a fair bit, as it was summer and the car can only take 20 people at a time. Once in, you realise how old and unsafe all cable cars seem, but we were in and so we went up the hill along the 573m cable at 6 m/s, climbing up to nearly 1000m for a view of the city. A short walk around the top of the hill and we were greeted with the view that I was hoping for - the city of Brasov spread out before me in all its glory. The city has a population of around 250,000, the 7th most populous city in the country. You can clearly see the central square, Piaţa Sfatului (Council Square), with the town hall building right in the middle, the imposing Black Church also stands out, and you can clearly see the old city walls encircling the Old Town, but it's the rooftops of all the houses that fascinate me the most. Even if you weren't that famous character from those popular video games, it'd be easy to jump from rooftop to rooftop, most not even having a gap between the next, but you'd need to watch for the sloped roofs and the little windows that pop out. The viewing spot is a popular tourist destination in the city, but it's also a hit with groups of young people that want to hang out, smoke and drink, and just pass time. Couples also come up here for some 'alone time' with a view, some even climbing over the barrier and finding a quiet place on the rocky cliff. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon - a few beers, a good view and some nice company.

Beer and company.

Couples retreat.

Narrow streets.
Going up!
Walking around Brasov is very pleasant. Apart from the main square, full of people eating ice creams, sitting by the fountain and dining at the cute restaurants, there are many other things to see. There is the tiny street, 'Rope Street' or 'Strada Sforii,' but The Black Church is most obvious as it is huge - you can't miss it really! Built in the late 14th Century, the Biserica Neagră stands an impressive 65m tall, from ground to its lone bell tower. The outside isn't really black, but the stone is what's called 'gritstone,' which may have given the church its strange, greyish colour. The carvings and decorations on the outside are lovely and it's a nice short walk around the grounds to appreciate these, but a visit inside is also worth it because of the very impressive church organ inside (one of the largest in Europe), as well as the largest collection of Asia Minor carpets. It also has the biggest bell in the country - weighing a hefty 6.5 tonne! I didn't go in this visit, as I was there 2 years ago, but I always looking at this church and admiring it (just be warned you can't take photos inside either!). Something else to do in Brasov is to see the small cemeteries that hold the bodies of people that fought during the '99 revolution. Although not exciting, I find it a little spooky but yet it's not something that we should forget about, and I know the Romanians haven't. Ever since the War of Independence (1877-78) the Romanians have been doing quite a bit of fighting, including WWI (when Romania gained its present day borders), local wars in the Balkans, revolts, WWII (afterwards Romania came under Soviet Ccontrol and was called the People's Republic), and then the Romanian Revolution in 1989 when the people gained their independence again. It started in the city of Timisoara and spread throughout the country, eventually ending in the show trial and execution on Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, ending 42 years of Communist reign. Coming from Australia it is sometimes hard to imagine that people my age have lived through conflicts in their own country, even harder to imagine for European countries - we think Europe is stable after WWII but you'd be surprised at how many small wars are fought. War is a terrible thing that should be taught in schools and never forgotten lest we don't learn out lesson and they happen again.

The Black Church - Romanian's most important Lutheran church.

Stunning view of Brasov.
Brasov - my favourite Romanian city.
Brasov in the sunshine.
My 4 weeks at the Summer Camp were done, I was finally free. I'd experience more of Romania this year, things like the bear sanctuary and a real hike. I'd also gone to a large supermarket in Brasov and found that the supermarket is very strange, unlike any other I've ever visited. You get your products off the shelf, as per normal (beers are also sold in vast quantities and varieties!), take them to the check out and the person scans them for you. This is where the 'normal' things end - the cashier doesn't actually handle any money (so maybe I can't call him a cashier?), instead he gives you a ticket with a barcode on it which you have to scan on a machine a short distance away. You scan the code and it tells you how much your shopping has come to, you then pay, getting another receipt at the end of this to show the security guard before you leave. Very strange and I cannot believe this is more efficient that the standard, world-wide way of doing things - it must be a complete lack of trust with employees and money. Supermarkets also stock 96% alcohol vodka and beer in 2.5L plastic bottles! Over the past 4 weeks I'd also seen more horse and carts than in my whole life, and I would be seeing more as I travelled around the country. I find it cute and always exciting to see a horse whiz past in the opposite direction on the national road - and when you are stuck in traffic, it's probably one a few cars ahead of you. Finishing the camp, we all headed back to Bucharest to have dinner together and to celebrate. I spent a few days in the city before jumping on a train to Sinaia, a city about 2 hours north of the capital, set in beautiful mountain surroundings.

I will miss the mountain sunsets!

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