With time running short, we decided to book an experience off of AirBnb to see the central area of Romania and Transylvania. We chose a 14 hour tour with George because he seemed like a relatable guy and his reviews were great. It turns out we made an excellent choice because George was exactly what we were looking for: laid back, interesting, and easy to spend a day in the car with. We were curb side at 7am with only a few hours of sleep in us. But as we discovered this early time was the best time.
Book the same tour here that we did. I’m not getting a kickback or anything. It was just a fun trip. Thanks George!
The closest castle to Bucharest, about an hour and a half drive up into the Carpathian mountains is Peles Castle built by Carol I, the first king of Romania, in 1883 (completed). Instead of the heavy and military style of other local castles, Carol chose to build his in a German New-Renaissance style with ornate towers and lots of bling. It was the first castle to have electric lights powered by it’s own hydro power source on the premises. It’s the storybook castle from romance novels and Disney films frosted in a fresh dusting morning snow.
George got us off to an early start so we could miss the crowds travelling from Bucharest on larger tours. We arrived right at opening and were one of the first groups allowed in. We skipped ahead of the tour a bit and were able to get a little alone time in these amazing and ornate rooms filled with fabulous collections of furniture and weapons. I’ve never quite seen this level of extravagance. Many of the wall murals were painted by Gustav Klimt. A truly impressive space. You have to pay double if you want to take pictures and my permit was checked about 6 times during our walk-through. We opted to just buy one.
After our brief loop of the first floor (there are other floors you can tour for an additional charge) we swung by Carol’s successor King Ferdinand’s smaller Pelisor Castle for an outside view and then met George at the coffeeshop to continue on before the crowds caught up with us.
So, this is supposed to be it, the grand daddy of Romanian castles, Dracula’s castle, the place all the cheesy tours try to peddle to Americans who have no inkling of Romanian history and know about its existence through Hollywood B movies (they can’t be bothered to read the novel). So honestly I was a bit apprehensive about this one. The cheese potential was very high.
A little background: yes Dracula was a real person. Dracula means son of Dracul, dracul meaning dragon, a name given to his father when he joined the Order of Dracul, created by the Holy Roman Empire as a defense against the Ottomans. He was the second son to Vlad Dracul who became the ruler of Wallachia in 1436. In those times the region now known as Romania was broken up into smaller areas, the southern part Wallachia, the central part Transylvania, and the north western part Moldavia. These areas were in conflict with the Ottoman empire so the sultan imprisoned Vlad’s two eldest sons including Drucula for 6 years to insure Vlad’s allegiance. After his father and eldest brother were killed by Wallachian nobles, Vlad III (Dracula) returned to reclaim his throne now occupied by his cousin. He regained and lost power three times in a series of political conflicts. Once in power Vlad III fought ruthlessly for the independence of Romania. Locally he’s considered a hero and celebrated in history. However the stories of his harsh methods of execution and torture were also true. When he regained his seat he had the Wallacchia nobles impaled on poles. When the Ottoman’s reached his region they were confronted by 20,000 impaled bodies blocking their path including women impaled with their nursing infants. I think the local take is that though harsh it was required to maintain order.
Bran Castle wasn’t his main residence but apparently he did stay at this castle at certain times. It’s of a more medieval menacing style built on a rock face between Wallachia and Transylvania. The castle doesn’t seem to have any of the original things inside but had been decorated for Christmas with stockings and trees and that sort. Mostly empty the furniture seemed to only be for show not original. And many of the rooms displayed poorly printed information boards about Dracula history with a focus more on the movie character than the real person though some information was also provided. At midday it was starting to get packed with a line at the door and solid line of traffic through the entire castle. Pushing our way from one room to the next, up claustrophobic stairwells and tiny doors, and out onto walkways looking down on more throngs of tourists. As far as castles go the place was reasonably still all together but after just coming from Peles with its ornate craftmanship and priceless collections, the place seemed only a shadow to me. George says he prefers Bran to Pele because Pele seems more like a palace than a real military castle, and that’s true. But my vote goes to Peles. I mean it’s definitely worth a visit but get your brain more into vampire mode on the way.
I think my favorite part was the pedestrian areas leading to the castle.
Street food at Bran Castle
As you approach the castle, the small town around it is alive with tourists. Large buses parking, the steady moving mob of people towards the ticket counter. The streets here are lined with snack shops and close to the entrance an entire village of little shops and stands selling trinkets, tea, and food. On the drive up I had mentioned that I was into food so George showed us some good spots in the market. Our first pass was down a lane with human sized vats of cooking meat, beans, and goulash with giant loaves of bread beside and buckets of bright purple pickle mixes. Katy and I chose the goulash which was fantastic. We shared a bowl because I was saving myself for something even more interesting that George had pointed out on the way in. The langos!
George said this was a beloved treat of his childhood and was so happy that I was excited by it that he paid for my first experience. Thanks George!!
A langos is a circle of dough, like a pizza dough, dropped into oil and fried instead of baked, like a Native American fry bread. The bread is removed then topped with sour cream and a local salty shredded cheese, with optional additional toppings. We got ours with raw garlic, onions, sausage, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. Katy said I was noticeably happier with my langos in hand. You fold the whole thing in half like a big fluffy crunchy taco and chow down. I really loved this thing. Although I was burping up raw garlic the rest of the day but entirely worth it. Simple and filling. I think these would do really well at street fairs in the US. Although I thought the fresh and salty cheese really made it and not so common back home. But George assured me that it would work with any cheese.
This was definitely my favorite Romanian find of the trip!
After being fortified with stew and fry-bread we were off to a partially ruined hilltop fortress in the snow. This was perhaps the only time I’ve really needed my heavy coat since Mostar. The wind was biting and the temperature well below freezing.
You arrive at Rasnov fortress via curvy wooden roads and park at the bottom in a lot. For a small fee (I think it was worth it) you can be pulled in a train by a farm tractor to the top. Half way up we passed a dinosaur amusement park and airsoft range for the kids. It seemed just as popular as the fortress.
Rasnov was originally built on a site owned by Teutonic knights in 1211 and taken over by the local Saxon community that built a small town inside the walls, occupied until the beginning of the 18th century.
You pass through an initial tower gate, a small walk up the snow covered hillside, then into the first main gate. The fortress had three sets of gates here, then onto the village. George says that the first siege of the fortress was over in 2 weeks because it had no water source. One was later built but no longer has water.
George takes us first straight up to the money shot, the high peak in town, with stunning views of the valley blanketed in snow. And then wind back down into the village. Most of the structures are ruined but a few buildings remained intact and vendors are selling different tourist goods along the roadsides. A small building once used as the schoolhouse is still in pretty good shape. And the fortress seems to have a thriving gang of kittens to play with. We eventually wind back to the main gate, climb the tower for a few pic, and hop back onto the tractor.
Originally we had planned to take a train to Brașov and spend the night as a staging ground for our trip to Bran castle. I had imagined a small remote village in Transylvania with a few hotels. As it turns out Brașov is the third largest city in Romania with a thriving local community and tons of tourists. Wide pedestrian streets full of people with shops and bars and lots of fun being had by all. We drove around town a few times looking for any parking spot but every lot and space were full. I spotted a guy getting into his car and George had to reverse into traffic about 10 spaces back to nab it. We walked to the Black Church, a gothic cathedral and saw Rope Alley, supposedly the thinnest road in Europe.
AND we got to visit our SIXTH Christmas festival! Katy was overjoyed. And a pretty decent one at that. George pops into a local meat stand to buy a favorite childhood treat, boiled pig skin strips. He was excited to share as I enjoy such things. In the US pig skin is typically fried until puffy and crunchy. Boiled pig skin is rubbery and chewy. It’s not a texture that Americans are used to. I’ve had it a few times in local and Chinese cooking. I like the saltiness. But it’s best warm. As we walk around in snow my skin strip starts to get thicker and chewier. These are like 18″ strips. Two was about my limit today.
Dinner at La Ceaun
As the sun set George recommended a local restaurant and we fought off the yawns a bit for a good meal. George reccomended a unique local beer called Zăganu. He got the lamb pastrami which is served here in large bits in sauce, I had a strange craving for pork ribs, and Katy got the lamb stew.
We hit traffic on the way back through the mountains doubling our drive time. George was a trooper traversing the night snow and stop and go roads. And let us doze off in the back seat. We had such a great time and George was an excellent guide. When he gets his travel site up and running I’ll post a link so you can look him up there.