A Day in Transylvania

When you say Transylvania people think of the stories about Dracula and Van Helsing; and about vampires, werewolves and monsters. You might think it would be a creepy sort of place to visit and that the castles and surroundings would be dark and scary and altogether as abysmal as they look in the films and stories. Some of my friends didn’t even think that Transylvania was a real place, but rather a made up horror story setting. However, it is very real and the stories have got it all wrong. I am from Canada, and have seen my fair share of snow and ice and winter; but I’ll be honest, I have never in my life thought that winter could be as beautiful as it was when we travelled through the crystalline trees into the Carpathian Mountains.

Travelling into the region of Transylvania from Bucharest by car is a relatively uneventful trip at the outset, passing the empty fields and broken down industrial compounds on the outskirts of the city. Once you leave Bucharest and head into the mountainous region, you’ll pass small towns and villages that reminded me of the quaint medieval towns you might see in period films. The houses were all made of brick and wood, nestled into the hills and surrounded by dense forest; they had cobblestone streets throughout and old gothic churches scattered around. Most people going to Transylvania take one of the routes to the medieval city of Brașov, and travel from there to the surrounding sites and castles, such as Bran Castle. You can take a train or a bus quite easily to Brașov from Bucharest, but if you have a chance, I would suggest taking a car, to be able to make stops along the way and enjoy the region more. Not only will you have the freedom to enjoy the small towns along the way, but you will have a great drive through the empty winding roads in the mountains.

My day in Transylvania took me from the cold and grey of Bucharest into the winter wonderland that was the mountains. It was a blindingly sunny day and the light sparkled on the snow and the ice that covered the trees like glass. I felt like we were driving through a painting, or a Narnia book. Our first stop was Peleș Castle. This castle was built in the nineteenth century by the Romanian king Carol I. The more I have read about King Carol I, the more I have come to admire him. Carol I was born into the German royal family, and while he was much too far down the line of succession for the German throne, he was chosen to be the ruler of Romania when the country was looking outside of their borders for a leader. He evidently took his role as king very seriously; he learned the Romanian language quickly, adopted a Romanian spelling of his name (from Karl to Carol) and endeared himself to his people through devotion to the position and respect for their religion, culture and heritage. Peleș Castle is a Neo-Renaissance castle near Sinaia in the Carpathian Mountains, surrounded by forests and overlooking a beautiful courtyard and a stunning view of the mountains.  This castle is one of the most incredible structures I’ve ever had the privilege of being inside. The castle is made almost entirely of wood; the walls and carvings, the furniture and floors, the bookcases and wardrobes and window sills, everything is made of some variety of wood. The interior is ornate and grand and the many rooms and halls are differently themed; French, Moorish, Turkish, Italian, and so on. There are impressive collections within the castle of various types; armor, paintings, tapestries, sculptures, china and ivory. The craftsmanship and care that was put into the construction of this castle is simply overwhelming, and the interior of the castle is the most spectacular interior of any castle or palace I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to Versailles, palaces in Turkey, castles in Belgium and the Netherlands, and never once have I been as in love with a castle as I was at Peleș.  If you have the chance to visit, make sure you don’t miss this enchanting place; the entrance is only 30 Romanian lei (around 7 euro), and absolutely worth it!

 

 

After Peleș Castle, we made our way to Sinaia Monastery, a 17th century Christian Orthodox monastery named after the famous Mount Sinai in Egypt. In the complex there are two courtyards, each with a church in the center. One is the old church and one is newer. The old church, Biserica Veche, was built in the 17th century, while the newer “Great Church,” Biserica Mare, was built in the 19th century. The churches were built in the Byzantine style, although I’ve been round many typically Byzantine churches and I found that while they are Byzantine churches, they are also quite characteristically Romanian. So for anyone who reads Byzantine Church and is turned off after having seen so many, Romanian churches are unique. Byzantine or not, church architecture in Romania seems to make the churches look taller and thinner, with sharper spires and bell towers, giving an overall very angular look to the structures that I love. Inside these churches there are some beautiful mosaics of Romanian historical figures and saints, although some of the ones in the old church were defaced by the Ottomans during their occupation. This is always a shame, and I’m sorry for it, but the churches and what is eft of their mosaics are worth checking out regardless, in my opinion.

 

 

From Sinaia we travelled to the medieval town of Brașov. Above Brașov you can see the imposing structure of Rașnov Citadel and in the center of Brasov you will see the tall Gothic Black Church. The Black Church overlooks the square in the center of the Old Town; and is a great place to start your exploring from. Around the square there are many cafes, traditional Transylvanian restaurants and various shops. Brașov is a lovely, picturesque city surrounded by the mountains, with cobblestone streets and old buildings that will put you back in time. I absolutely loved Brașov and wish I’d spent more time. Keep in mind, mulled wine carts are situated around the square near the Black Church and are definitely a worthwhile expense in the winter time. While in Brașov I would recommend a visit to the Black Church, and trip up to Rașnov Citadel up on the hill, if you’ve got the time.

After Brașov we travelled south to Bran Castle. This castle is, I’m sure, half the reason that so many people even make it to Transylvania. I’m sorry to say that the castle has absolutely nothing to do with Vlad III, the Impaler, and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracua; however, it is the castle that most closely resembles the description in the novel. It is for this reason that it is called Dracula’s Castle, and draws so many tourists every year. Certainly, visiting this castle in the winter was a good idea, as I’m sure it must look a lot less ominous and vampire-like covered in lush greenery and flowers. It sits atop a tall hill that overlooks a valley, and was most likely built for this reason, allowing the people in the surrounding areas to see an Ottoman invasion coming from far away. Nobody really knows who exactly built the castle, it might have been a local lord or the peasants of the town in need of a fortified place to stay safe from the Turks. Nonetheless, despite Vlad having never stepped foot in the place, and Stoker never having even seen it, the castle is worth visiting, if not simply to say you’ve been. The castle is still well intact, impressive, and has become a national symbol as a result of the popularity of the Dracula association. A word of warning, the castle is up a somewhat steep hill and once you’re in the castle, there are many staircases. I was warned beforehand, and was honestly expecting much worse, so prepare yourself for too many stairs and then you’ll be pleasantly relieved at the actual amount. Another thing worth mentioning is that the interior of the castle is quite underwhelming. Evidently in the early twentieth century the castle became an official royal residence, and it became a favorite of Queen Maria of Romania. She collected some of the furniture displayed inside, and the rest has been added since it became a museum. Nonetheless, no furniture within the castle is original or particularly old, and beyond that, some rooms are simply left empty or display campy info boards, photos and props from Dracula films and stories. Personally, I loved the castle, and hadn’t expected much from the interior anyhow, but if you are, lower your expectations. The outside of the castle, the courtyard and the view from the balconies are worth the visit and more though, so don’t skip it because there are no medieval dungeons and torture devices or coffins for vampires to sleep in.

 

 

My visit to Transylvania, albeit in the dead of winter, was without a doubt the highlight of the trip to Romania. I loved Bucharest, but Transylvania offered so much more in terms of an older culture and picturesque places. I travelled into Transylvania on a beautiful winter day and loved every moment of it. The castles were impressive and beautiful, the mountains were stunning (especially in the winter), the food and wine was impeccable, and the towns offered a look into the past. And after all, one can’t really travel to Romania and skip Transylvania.