We were once again driving at night time, which I really like to try to avoid. Fortunately the roads north weren’t too bad, and I wasn’t too worried about stray animals, hidden potholes, or other garbage littering the road. We stopped by a supermarket with an aim of getting something to make for dinner – only to find that there was a small buffet inside, which was both dirt cheap, and moderately tasty.
I had really wanted to go drive the Transfăgărășan mountain road, which is said to be one of the most beautiful roads in the world, filled with endless hairpin turns. It’d be the thing of dreams in a sports car, and still something that would likely fill us with joy in Gunter. But… I couldn’t get a clear answer if the roads were still open, as it seemed that there had been snow in the mountains the past few days… Plus, it was a reasonable detour… so, we did the logical (if less exciting) thing and drove as far as Sinaia, just south of Brasov.
It was with great surprise (and happiness) to wake and find that the skies were clear. It was also significantly cooler than it had been the past few days. The thought of snow and icy roads are always in the back of my mind, and I’m hoping to stay at least one step ahead of it.
We’d parked the night in a monastery car park, only a short walk from the former royal palace – parking cost us an agreeable €2.50. The walk was short and relaxing, and through some densely wooded forest.
I’d visited back in 2003, but for a reason that I couldn’t quite remember, didn’t visit the interior. I think it must have been closed for renovations (or a particular day of the week/holiday), rather than me choosing not to pay the small entrance fee. Even though I’d visited before, I was still in awe when we caught our first glimpse at this striking palace-cum-castle. It felt like something from a children’s story, with pointy turrets, and all sorts of excessive decorations.
Actually arriving at Peles Castle was a little less relaxing. There was a counter to purchase the tickets – and fortunately I had just enough cash for the 120lei entrance fee (double tour) and 35lei to take photographs (not that many others actually ponied up that extra cash). We now had tickets, but no real indication how to join a tour and see the castle. There were large tour groups pouring through, but it seemed like us regular independent travellers were being ignored. Several attempts to enter were all met with rejection and increasing frustration.
Eventually a guide did come and form a group for English speaking guests. We put shower caps over the soles of our shoes, and stepped inside what would be one of the most luxurious buildings we’d ever visited. It only took a few moment to completely forget about the chaos and frustration from the attempts to enter earlier.
We started in an epic stairway that led to an equally sensational atrium. The amount of wooden carving and superfluous decoration was mindboggling. It quickly set the state for the things to come.
And what did come was room after room, each as lavish and incredible as the last. Giant halls filled with epic arsenals of armour and weaponry.
There were rooms with enough golden gilding to make St Paul’s cathedral in The Vatican look shabby.
There were all sorts of official rooms, music rooms, enormous dining rooms, and the beautiful throne room.
There were also several rooms decorated in themes, such as Moorish style, and Florentine, with all the shades of marble.
It was a fantastic decision to book the extended tour, as some the group size shrunk considerably. The apartments were a little smaller than what we’d been visiting in the original tour, but these felt much more intimate, and every bit as beautiful.
We hadn’t been inside for that long, but the amazing weather from this morning had mostly vanished, and the threat of rain was real. We had a quick walk around the gardens of the Peles Castle, which is all that I saw last time. The gardens were small, and finely decorated, much like the castle itself.
There was the smaller Pelisor Castle (again, dare I say palace) next door, built for the king’s son, however it was closed for renovations. We were able to walk nearby to see some of the exterior, which featured some beautifully decorative multi-coloured tiling.
There were a few more buildings in the area, which seemed much older than either of the two castles. It looked like an old town square, which were now restaurants and cafes.
We were getting hungry, as it’d been at least three hours since our last meal. We followed gravity downhill and ended in the main part of the town of Sinaia. The walk down was beautiful, with so many amazing 19th century buildings. Sadly many of them were in terrible condition and quite a few were even left vacant/abandoned. It was really interesting to see the past glory of this small town, with the lavish casino and the enormous hotels, both of which are still operating.
Walking further in to town took us away from the grace of the prime years, and brought us to a much more modern era, with ski rentals, and discount sports clothing chains. The modern hotels had none of the charm of the older town.
It was a little difficult finding a restaurant that met our two demanding criteria – looked like good food, and was cheap. We settled for an auto service place, much like the last two meals we’ve had so far in Romania. It’s great being able to see the food you’re ordering, rather than having to imagine it from a menu – even if you don’t 100% know what the food is going to be just by looking at it.
As with Sinaia, I had also visited Brasov back in 2003. It was on my early-twenties backpacking around Europe ritual, that also took in Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Budapest. At the time, I’d never heard of Brasov, and truthfully never even considered visiting Romania, but a friend that I made in Budapest invited me to join him on a visit here.
I had always had fond memories of Brasov. I remembered it as a small but beautiful old town, with beautiful gothic buildings, and was really keen to return and share it with Risa.
I also keenly remembered that it wasn’t all fairy town stuff, with the suburbs surrounding being depressing grey concrete monstrosities – which is where we had stayed. This time, however, we found a free park for motorhomes right on the edge of the old town, near the gondola station. We passed on a ride up the mountain, and instead quickly made our way into the old town to explore before dusk (and the storms) hit us.
I don’t know if the town has changed, or if my experience and memories did, but it wasn’t as pretty as I had remembered. I guess it’s pretty unlikely that a town this old would have changed much in a little over a decade, so it must have been me. The walk into the centre of the old town took us down some pretty old streets, but the most of the buildings looked in dire need of some love and affection. It’s true that perfectly manicure buildings look too much like a theme park for me, but the converse is also true, and the town looked run down.
We had a quick walk through the central market, taking in the town hall and then the cathedral. Neither were as astounding or gothic as I’d remembered, which made it slightly disappointing. I think if I hadn’t visited before, and/or if my memory had been less subjective, I’d probably have found it far more interesting – but I had visited, and my memory is subjective, so I can’t help it.
We made a quick climb up to see the town from a tower part way up a nearby hill. It was much lower than the main lookout, but we figured the views would still be pretty good. It was a nice (but short) hike through the beautiful autumnal foliage – or at least what was left of the autumnal foliage. Another bonus of visiting the less popular of the two view points was the serenity of having it to ourselves. Of almost having it to ourselves.
I think the town looked much nicer from above. It gave a good idea of the concentration, as well as the colourful older buildings, without showing the signs of wear.
The path back into town took us around remnants of the old wall, complete with the occasional tower. It was only a short walk, but it had felt like we’d left Brasov and gone to a far away place.
The skies continued to darken, and we continued to look up with concern. The Black Church (which was darkened as the result of a fire) looked even more menacing with the threatening skies and barren trees. However, in our quest to see the town from above before sunset, we’d missed our opportunity to enter the church, which closed surprisingly early.
The winds continued to pick up as we went to properly wander through the old town. The main pedestrianised streets were certainly developed (and developed for tourism), but it felt much more lively and healthy than some of the surrounding streets. It slowly started to grow on me, having the feeling of both charm and grit. It was lively, too, and even with the frigid wind thrashing its way through the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, people were still outside and enjoying having a drink.
Instead, we grabbed a kebab, and returned to Gunter to watch a movie!
It had taken a while, far later than the forecast had predicted, for the storm to finally reach. But, when it did, it made plenty of noise and shook the van around during the night. We had woken to find a less than stellar morning outside, adding an emotional dampener to the literal one outside.
Like Brasov and Sinaia before it, I also visited Castle Bran back in 2003. I mean, I think everyone that visits Brasov makes a short pilgrimage to see Count Dracula’s Castle – I mean, how could you not.
We drove through the driving rain, with the new experience of driving through the country during the daylight hours. I don’t know if it was scarier because I could now see the condition of the road, or if it was better to be driving in partial ignorance at night.
We managed to avoid all the parking pimps and find a large, quiet and free parking area at the rear of the castle. It did however mean that we had to walk that little extra in the cold rain… but on the upside, the extra walking warmed our bodies for the standing around that was about to take place.
The branding of this castle was a master stroke. The actual ties to Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, were said to be tenuous at best, with him spending at most a night or two here. However, when you catch your first sight of this imposing castle set upon the hill, especially on a dark and miserable morning like today, you don’t have to imagine too hard that Dracula used to live here.
Us being here on the Saturday before Halloween was purely co-incidental, however, the same couldn’t be said for the dozens of others that were dressed in vampire costumes. It was fun to see people dressed this way, having a bit of a laugh. The only downside of this were the tacky decorations that were put up, making it feel even more like a theme park than it would ordinarily.
Inside the castle was a little more prosaic, with mostly barren rooms lacking decoration and only simple adornments. It was the complete opposite of Peles Castle yesterday in Sinaia – partly why I think it should be Peles Palace. The rooms were mostly whitewashed, with timber floors. Some of the rooms had furniture, including some incredible carved beds, but otherwise, much of it was barren.
The actual layout of the castle is what interested me the most. It was the very definition of organic evolution. Rooms seem to be added as needed, and the shape of the castle seemed to have grown around these additions. Inside the rooms were oddly shaped, with narrow hallways, low ceilings, and random protrusions.
It was even weirder when looking at the interior courtyard, which didn’t seem to have a single coherent piece of design, with mismatched windows, columns, and of course, the same chaotic amalgamation of additional rooms. As much as the castle looked imposing from the outside, I truly think the interior courtyard were my favourite views of the castle.
There was a small exhibition about the history of Vlad Tepes, and about how he became to be known as The Impaler, for his habit of leaving foes impaled. He sounded truly fearsome, which was all part of the intention. There was even some information about the Dracula character created by Bram Stoker. I had thought that the Irish author had visited at some point, but it was said that he had never even visited Romania, let alone this castle.
It didn’t take too long to see the entire castle, even stopping to read every little bit of limited information that we could find. Soon we were back out in the vicious cold winds and exploring the markets down below the castle. It was mostly populated with tacky souvenirs, taking advantage of the Dracula connection, but there were also some really nice shops selling handmade woollen clothing and other artisanal items.
But, perhaps the highlight for me for the markets was discovering langos. I hate to mis-describe it, but think of a small pizza that has its base deep-fried, instead of covered in ingredients and baked. Once it’s out of the fryer, it’s lathered in sour cream with garlic, and then topped with some grated cheese. It’s exactly as delicious as it sounds. We also grabbed some sour soup and goulash to eat back in the van.
And now, as the sun came to say hello, it was time to go search for a little more rural experience of Transylvania.