My bones are aching, my hands shaking and my stomach moaning. It’s a couple of days since I arrived back from a week’s adventures in Romania; perhaps too soon to reflect, but as good a time as any to record one of the most bizarre and surprising trips I have ever taken.
We (my eastern-Europhile self and my slightly more reluctant partner) opted for a fly-drive approach to seeing the country. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there on the best way to see Romania, and though trains seem a simple and cheap option, we thought a car was our best chance to do as much as possible in a short time, as well as allowing us to explore more off-the-beaten-track places. As it turned out, Romanian roads are some of the most beaten tracks I have ever come across…
It made logistical sense to fly to Bucharest, but our time there was always to be fleeting: a city break was not what we were after. We stayed just one evening, during which we discovered a surprisingly decadent old town, an unsurprising deluge of Communist-era building blocks, and some trendy, but sadly empty, bars (it was a Monday). We ate at Caru’ cu Bere, a restaurant in an incredible gothic-style building with stained glass windows and a history of several hundred years. It gave us a tourist-friendly introduction to Romanian food, which is not too unlike English food: heavy, meaty, and comforting.
I don’t regret skipping out on the sightseeing: Bucharest is by no means a beautiful city. But I intend to return in the future. My experience of European cities that have little to offer tourists on the surface is that they are often the most interesting once you crack their tough Stalinist exteriors (see also: Berlin, Warsaw).
The next morning, an hour’s drive to the mountain resort of Sinaia. Located on the route to Brasov, our next major stop, the small town has only two things that are really worth seeing.
First, the dreamy Peleş castle, which was so big on fairytale factor that it puts anything you’ve seen in a Disney film to shame. Our time in Sinaia was dogged by heavy snowfall, which made for desperately difficult driving and walking conditions, but added so much to the magic of visiting Peleş. The beautiful exterior was matched by an incredibly decorated interior, complete with armoury, theatre and Turkish smoking room, making for the perfect chateau encounter.
Sinaia brought spiritual magic too; in the shape of its small but impressive monastery. A Tuesday afternoon in February was perhaps not the most popular time to visit the place — when we got there the ticket booth was abandoned and there was no one to be seen on the grounds. We tried the door anyway, and stumbled across a chorus of monks singing hymns in a kind of Gregorian chant style that was so captivating that we barely noticed the intricate decor of the building. The level of ritual would top that of a Freemason meeting, and given an hour I expect they could convert even the staunchest of atheists.
Small disclaimer: The guidebooks gave no hint that Sinaia, if devoid of its attractions, would be little more than a slightly trashy tourist town aimed at ski folk, so I feel I should mention it here. Visiting on a daytrip from nearby Brasov would perhaps be the best way to see the sights but dodge the plethora of theme pubs and faceless hotels.
After digging our car out of the snow, we set off to Brasov, where we would base ourselves for two nights. On the way we were to stop at two more castles; the sizeable Rasnov citadel, and the one we were most excited about: Bran castle, the alleged inspiration for the home of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Rasnov fortress was unfortunately a bit of a write-off. Tripadvisor promised a medieval Transylvanian hilltop stronghold, with views for miles and 800 years of history. However skies coated with mist and snow clouds meant we could barely see a few metres in front of us, and trudging through what remained of the ruins with no company but the owners of the tourist-tat shops that have sprung up inside proved a little joyless.
The weather that ruined Rasnov only served to make Bran castle all the more moody and enticing. We approached Bran through a haze of broodiness, and when we finally spotted the castle on the horizon, it didn’t disappoint. The aesthetic was everything my Dracula-loving brain wanted it to be: uncanny, gothic, and dripping with horror.
Travelling through tiny passageways to cobbled courtyards was the order of the day inside, which was actually smaller and more well-kept than I was expecting. It was interesting to get to grips with the Vlad Dracula and Bram Stoker connection, which is a rich tapestry of myths, maybes, and artistic license.
No one castle that we visited had everything, but the trio of Peleş, Rasnov and Bran, which were all very different, added up to the perfect Transylvanian castle experience.
Brașov was a trove of interesting oddities; we thought we had the measure of the old town on the first evening, but the more we wandered, the more gems we found. It’s also a real, functioning (small) city, that doesn’t rely on tourism to exist, which meant we could also drink at great bars, find some excellent hipster coffee and eat really good food.
The city is overlooked by Tampa mountain, which you can ascend via cable car, and the skies cleared just in time for us to get one of the last cars of the day. The station at the top offers a curious setup; the bar has no windows, and some of the best views outside are obscured, but it was still worthwhile.
Our second day in Brașov was largely taken up by a visit to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti. Romania has by far the largest brown bear population in Europe, but unfortunately for would-be bear watchers, they all go to sleep in the winter. A bit of research led us to Zarnesti’s sanctuary, which rescues bears that have lived miserable lives in captivity and gives them a nice life in big play areas at the top of a mountain. Many of the bears have never learned to hibernate, so we were able to see around 30 of the 87 bears that reside there.
Seeing brown bears so close up without having to worry about being eaten was a real treat, and because they are so well looked after it never felt like a zoo. We also saw a bonus wolf, a few deer and some (probably) stray dogs. Romania is teeming with stray dogs and cats, which even for animal lovers can be quite unnerving at times. Some are friendly; others look rather rabid and seem to want to eat you. Anyway, the bears were lovely, and the views from the sanctuary were stunning.
Our trip to the small Saxon village of Viscri was meant to be a short detour on our drive to Sighișoara, but it was so much fun that it warrants its own paragraph. It can only be accessed by car, and the 10km dirt track that is the only entry route is realistically undriveable in anything but a chunky 4×4. Not ones to turn down a challenge however, we took on the path in our tiny Toyota Aygo, dodging potholes in first gear for what seemed like forever. At one point we came to a standstill as we tried to shift an entire herd of cows off the road — eventually a local farmer came along and, thankfully, showed us how it’s done.
When we finally got to the village, the Saxon fort that is its star attraction was closed for the winter, but it sort of didn’t matter. It was suitably impressive from the outside, and the colourful fairytale village was our first proper taste of the rural Romania we would see a whole lot more of in the coming days.
After the long and bumpy escape from Viscri, we arrived in the tiny city of Sighișoara, the most magical place we stayed. It’s home to a large walled citadel, which sits atop a hill and overlooks the rest of the city. For about 30 quid you can stay within the walls and, in our case, even sleep on top of them.
Exploring the inside of the citadel was incredible fun. Old towers, churches and winding cobbled streets give way to colourful old houses and the birthplace of Vlad Dracula himself. Once again we benefited from visiting in the low season, and largely had the place to ourselves. It is possible to visit Sighișoara from Brasov as a day trip, but I’m glad we stayed the night. The hotel was excellent, we found a great pub, and the Romanian food was the best of the whole trip. We also finally got on board with Romanian wine, which is surprisingly excellent.
A quick note on the costs, then. Sighișoara was noticeably the cheapest place we stayed in Romania, but your money goes a long way anywhere in the country. Two courses and a round of drinks in a good restaurant could cost as little as a tenner per person, and accommodation in decent double rooms could be done for not much more. Entry fees to castles and museums were never more than a few quid, and our only experience of public transport (an airport transfer bus from Bucharest airport to the town centre) cost something like 80p a person. The only time we payed anything approaching western-European prices was when eating and drinking in touristy old-town areas, such as in Bucharest.
As much as I would have enjoyed more time in Sighișoara (we had one evening and a full morning), we did feel like we had seen the sights by the time we left. And so it was on to Sibiu, but not before stopping off at some of the apparently endless Saxon villages on the way, to check out some fortified churches — chapels that have been rebuilt or reinforced to act like castles during an invasion. These were invariably closed (low season strikes again), but all still worth a look.
Sibiu is a large city that boasts a picturesque old town, castle walls, turrets and pretty much the full range of city-defense stuff. By now we were in no doubt that these places must have been invaded a hell of a lot, but we were also a bit castled-out, so mostly focused on finding a bar and taking a much needed rest.
Bâlea Lac and the Transfăgărășan road
The next morning we headed out to visit Bâlea Lac, a glacier lake 2,000 metres high and located in the Făgăraș Mountains, the highest mountains of the Southern Carpathians. It can only be accessed in two ways; by what British TV show Top Gear describes as the world’s best road — the Transfăgărășan; or by cable car. As the former only opens for three summer months a year (it is completely snowed under the rest of the time), we did a mix of the two, and took the open section of the road as far as we could (and yes, it was great fun to drive on), before jumping on a cable car to get to Bâlea Lac.
The lake was totally frozen over, and barely distinguishable from the surrounding snow-covered peaks, but the views were still worth the trip. We took a sort-of hike up a steep section of the mountain, trudging through around 10 inches of snow, and despite clearly being out of our depth in the weather (it really warranted skis), we still had a great snow day.
Cozia national park
Back in the car, and a short drive to a nearby national park, Cozia. National parks in Romania aren’t really like those in England, in that they don’t seem bothered if the roads are littered with shacks and building blocks. It was still a really beautiful area though, and we spent a very chilled evening in a wooden cabin with home-cooked food, before embarking on a hike the next day.
Our route wound 5km up a steep hill, and at the top, our destination: a small monastery at 700 metres above sea level that was home to around a dozen monks, who seemed a little surprised to see us. One of the kind residents gave us a tour (mostly in French, but we got by) and, obviously, five apples.
And just like that (via a gruelling three-hour drive to Bucharest airport), we were done.
A foot note: Driving in Romania
Driving in Romania was at times, the most fun I have ever had driving. At other times, it was one of the most frustrating, stressful and miserable things I have ever done.
The roads, when they are good, can be amazing winding trails that pass through mountains and offer spectacular views. Quite often though, the roads are in terrible condition. Dirt tracks and cobblestones come up, but are rare, while huge potholes all over great stretches of (what should be) fast roads are very common. There are additional challenges, too: Stray dogs, cows and various other animals stroll across roads as they wish, and you’ll have to get used to overtaking horse and carts, and farmers with wheelbarrows.
Romanian drivers rank among the most impatient I’ve seen. They consistently overtake in places where it is unsafe to do so, and will honk and flash at you if you go any slower than 20km an hour over the speed limit.
I would probably not choose to drive in the country again, but if you are thinking of doing so, I would wholeheartedly recommend hiring a 4×4 that can handle tough conditions. This applies even more so if you visit in snowy season, as we did.
I have no regrets about hiring a car; we saw things we never could have otherwise — but be warned if you do the same!