As a local, romanticizing about your country can be tricky. I must confess I’m always biased. It’s hard to close your eyes at the unfortunate infrastructure, how great it would be to drive on the national roads without any worries, to be able to enjoy the landscapes without being alerted by the holes continuously. Despite all that, one thing is sure: Romania is beautiful without compare. Well, you could compare, I’ve heard foreigners saying “Wow, it looks like Switzerland!, “If I didn’t know it, I’d say we’re in Austria”.
Let us tell you a bit about our three days journey in Transylvania, on the lookout for vampires and bears. That may sound novelistic. In reality, we were looking forward to relax (and hoping to see one bear). As a local, I haven’t visited the places we’re about to show you since secondary school, and as a foreigner, Edgar was eager to discover more of Romania during his 10th visit. So we were both excited to immerse in a new road trip adventure where we pinned:
Curtea de Argeș
If you rented a car, have in mind that the national roads are not ready for tourism…yet. Edgar’s optimism is overwhelming and I surrender: “With time things will change”. Hopefully, because otherwise it’s a waste of beauty. Beauty without beholder is…is…something else.
First stop: Sibiu. We presented the city where the houses don’t sleep in another post, so we invite you to open another window for a quick read, enough to convince you to visit.
Second stop: Transfăgărășan. Before experiencing one of the most spectacular roads in the world (according to Top Gear), we made a quick stop at Cârtișoara. Little did we know that this village is more than a passsage to the Făgăraș mountains. It is also considered an important historic passage.
What caught our attention from the main road, the reason we reversed the car, was an old blue-washed traditional house, that we soon realized was part of a museum property. Lost in the middle of nowhere, this museum is a tribute to the legendary figure, The Shepard Cârțan, who played an important role in trying to free the Romanians in Transylvania from the Austro-Hungarian occupation. He was a well-travelled man, self-taught, a free spirit, who brought 20 000 Romanian-language books from across the mountains to the occupied territories, for the education of children and peasants.
We were still finishing the story of Cârțan in our heads, when we initiated our journey into the mountains. Needless to say we spent two hours on the road, stopping at each altitude to admire and wonder at the natural landscapes. We think that even more impressive is the road on the other side, as you head towards Curtea de Argeș.
We’d love to say it was a wonderful experience, yet there’s a tiny detail that left us with a bitter impression. The restaurant next to the lake, Cabana Paltinu, has probably the worst service we’ve experienced so far, with rude waiters and even ruder management. Just to be advised in case you want to rest your feet and stay your belly in a warm place. Note! The temperature can drop to 12º during summer days.
Instead, we recommend stopping at Conacul Ursului (Bear’s Mansion), where we ordered the traditional sour beef soup and the local sheep pastrami dish. The waiter told us real stories about bears coming close to the cabin in search for food…Great, we were one step closer to meeting a furry friend.
As we were determined to reach to our next destination during daylight, we promised to make just a quick stop at Vidraru Barrage and Cetatea Poenari. As much as we wished to stay a little longer, we didn’t do much than sightseeing. In short, Vidraru Lake is a barrier lake created in 1965 on the Arges River for electricity production purposes. At a few kilometers distance stay Cetatea Poenari, claimed to be the real residence of the Vlad Tepes impaler (widely known as Dracula) that features in Bram Stocker’s book. To reach the citadel you must climb 1 400 stairs (that takes about 30 minutes). The reason it was built at this height, was to make it difficult for the Turks to invade. It also made it difficult for us at that hour of the day. Well, we had to leave it for the next time!
Third stop: Curtea de Argeș
I forgot how stupendous this monastery is since 4th grade when I visited it with my teacher. It truly stands out among all other religious sites you come across Romania. To tell you the truth, as we stood there observing its masterpiece, we had this feeling of encountering a mosque rather than an Orthodox Monastery. Built between 1512 – 1517 in Byzantine style, with arabesque decoration, the monastery speaks the Ottoman occupation on the Romanian territory that lasted until XIX century. We didn’t get to see its interior, but as we understood from a nun, inside you can see the remains of the royal families, Carol the 1st, Ferdinand, and their wives, Queens Elisabeta and Maria, as well as impressive mural paintings.
The most interesting part is the legend behind the construction of the monastery. The story reveals the tragedy of architect Manole that built the monastery by sacrificing his wife Ana, whom he built in the South wall.
Forth Stop: Bran
When you say Bran, the first thing that springs to mind is the well-known Dracula’s castle. By the way, the castle is so cozy, that it’s hard to believe a frightful vampire could live there.
Then you have the Rucăr-Bran couloir situated at 1254 m above the sea level and which is said to be utterly beautiful. As much as we would like to have attested to its beauty, we passed by during nighttime. The only beings awake at that time were the bears, but not even them delighted us with their presence. Speaking of which, there’s a famous Romanian bear sanctuary called Libearty in the municipality of Zărnești, very close to Bran. It is the largest sanctuary of brown bears in the world with 69 hectares of oak forest. Read more about the project at www.ampbears.ro/en/bear-sanctuary
What else we could have seen if we had more time: Rucăr-Bran couloir and Libearty bear sanctuary
Fifth Stop: Sinaia with its iconic Peleș Castle and Pelișor Castle
Situated at 800m altitude, Sinaia is one of the oldest mountain resorts in Romania and it used to be the kings’ residence.
The pièce de résistance in Sinaia is undeniably, the Peleș Castle. Either you’re foreigner or native and want to know about its history, you may consider a guided tour. Otherwise it’s hard to grasp the meaning of all the architectural art with “endless wood-carved ceilings”.
In short, it is “the first European castle to have central heating, electricity and vacuuming. Construction on the 3500-sq-metre edifice, built in a predominantly German-Renaissance style, began in 1875. Some 39 years, more than 400 weary craftsmen and thousands of labourers later, it was completed.” (Read more here!)
Located in the middle of a wild nature, just like Quinta da Regaleira in the green Sintra, Peles Palace was the home of Carol the 1st of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dinasty, Romania’s first king. Under his kingship, the longest in the country’s history, he obtained Romania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, then he introduced the constitutional monarchy and he basically built the foundation of a modern state, developing Romania economically, educationally and politically.
Have in mind that both the Peleș and Pelișor Castles will take around four hours to visit. Many people opt just for Peleș, but if you’re into Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Rococo, then Pelișor feels like a second home. Pelișor (diminutive for Peleș) was the residence of the second monarch, Ferdinand, Carol 1st’s nephew and future successor to the throne.
After the visit at the castles we drove at 1400m altitude, where we came across a sign saying that we might meet wild animals in their habitat, and we shouldn’t feed them. Too bad we saw this sign after meeting the small furry friend below who was hungry so we gave him some biscuits. Some passersby told us there used to be two bears standing by the road waving and waiting for people to drop them food. Meanwhile, they were taken to the Zărnești reservation.
What else we could have seen if we had more time: Go with the cable car to Babele at 2.292 m. We tried our luck in the morning, but it was already a long waiting line and according to other tourists, it would have lasted at least 1h30 to arrive up the mountain (it’s also just one cable car working). Not to mention that if the weather turned cloudy all of a sudden, the ride would be cancelled or even stopped.
Sixth Stop: Mid-day in Brașov
As expected, mid-day in Brașov is not enough. One should spend here a weekend, and if you were to move to Romania, Brașov is ideal, right in the middle of the mountains, close to ski resorts, not far from the capital and the seaside…and close to furry friends (not sure though if that’s a good reason).
What we did in exactly this order: took the cable car up to the top of Mt. Tâmpa, strolled the downtown streets, we sit for lunch in the large square (Piața Sfatului), visited the Black Church, climbed in the forrest until the white tower (Turnul Alb), walked by the old wall back to the car. And that’s it for now!
What else we could have seen if we had more time: Poiana Brașov, a famous winter resort.
Moving to another country made me appreciate my country even more. The virgin nature where time seemed to stop makes one’s vacation blissful. For someone who comes to Romania for the first time, not knowing what to expect, it proves to be a wonderful surprise, despite Romania’s lack of development in various areas. Or maybe that’s the reason why Romania is an authenticity keeper. 🙂
Edgar’s melancholic words: Whenever I’m in Romania I feel at home, it’s like I have always lived here. No matter the city, village or countryside, I just love being here. Romania is quiet, timeless and yet-to-be discovered, which makes everything so exciting. In the end, I think Romania is also about its people, they make the experience worth it.
Read also: Romania is not just Dracula’s land!