In early October, Trenton and I decided we were due for an adventure. You see, most people travel a LOT out here. We’ve been here since February and haven’t taken one single family trip off the island. So we spun around in a circle three times and pointed our fingers to a map of Europe and decided to go to Romania!
Okay, that didn’t happen. I searched Google Flights and found very inexpensive tickets to Bucharest. And, after a little more research, I booked a tour with Untravelled Paths, a company headquartered out of London.
Because I bought the cheapie flights, we arrived in Bucharest around 11 PM and had to wait for our guide. Apparently, I made a mistake and was waiting for him at the wrong gate. I don’t know. But I do know it was around 1 AM when we checked into the hotel, with an early departure at 7 AM. Oooops.
It’s fine. Marius picked us up the next morning and let me bring a to-go coffee in his car. The angel. After a little over an hour of transit, our first stop was Snagov Monastery.
Snagov Monastery sits isolated on a tiny heart-shaped island, surrounded by the dark, snaking waters of Snagov Lake. It’s best known as the burial site of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), the man on which Bram Stoker’s infamous Dracula is based.
To better explain our trip and the stops we made, let me first tell you a little bit about Vlad Tepes. Around 1431, a boy named Vlad was born in the three-story house in Sighisoara within the shadow of the Clock Tower. He took his name from his father, Vlad Dracul, who was a member of “The Order of the Dragon,” although “dracul” also derives from the word for “devil“. Vlad, along with his brother, was sent to the Turkish Sultan as a hostage where he spent five years in Turkish captivity exposed to the terror and violence of the Ottomans. Years of exile furthered his guile and terrorism. Vlad Tepes became the ruler of Wallachia in 1456 and adopted methods of extreme violence, including his signature execution method of impaling his victims. Hammered onto a stake through the rectum, victims were raised aloft and left to die in agony for all to see.
After Vlad the Impaler was betrayed and killed in battle against the Ottomans in 1476, it is said that his head was chopped off, preserved in honey, and shipped over to the Sultan in Istanbul so that he could prove the formidable Wallachian prince was finally dead after years of blood-thirsty war. His decapitated corpse was then meant to have been buried under the monastery alter.
Vlad’s grandfather, Mircea the Elder, reigned when the church was first built. Vlad later developed the island as a defensive fortress. According to legend, a prison with a bloody torture chamber was also built in the monastery’s walls. You can see many of the defensive walls if you walk outside of the church into the land of little ponies in the back. Seriously, I counted 12 little ponies just grazing in their respective plots. Trenton and I even drank from Dracula’s fountain! Very germy and cool! Trenton even made some dog friends while we were on the long bridge leaving the island.
Next we travelled to the town of Sinaia, where, nestled deep into the Carpathian Mountains, lie Peles Castle, Pelisor Castle, and the Foisor Hunting Lodge. Now, Peles Castle doesn’t have a darn thing to do with Dracula, but it’s absolutely stunning and well worth the detour. The castle was designed in Neo-Renaissance style, chosen by King Carol I, who seemed like a real dream since he rejected the first three designs. I like him. The castle was used as a royal residence for about 60 years and has served as a museum for most of the time since.
We were allowed to take photos inside the museum at a cost that I no longer remember (maybe $5-10?)…that’s pretty much the norm in Romania. But, it was totally worth it! The castle’s interior includes more than 170 rooms, 30 bathrooms, offices libraries, armories, and art galleries. No surprise here, but Trenton’s favorite part was the music room and armories, and mine was the library with the secret corridor! We left the castle and met up with Marius for a quick cake and coffee while overlooking the castle grounds. Then, it was time to hit the road.
Our next stop was a true highlight: Bran’s Castle. While most people fall in love with the ornate and statuesque designs of Peles Castle, I loved the rigid simplicity and stark contrast of Bran’s Castle.
Where Peles is bright and welcoming, Bran’s is like your old storied grandfather who’d rather be on a squeaky porch out back smoking a pipe. Trenton and I agreed that Bran’s felt like home.
Bran’s is perched high atop a rocky plateau with imposing spiked turrets and blood-red towers. The castle looms eerily over Transylvania and is cloaked in legend–said to be the real life setting of Bram Stoker’s novel. Though Dracula isn’t exactly real (whatever, history), Vlad the Impaler was, and allegedly spent time at the castle during his bloodthirsty reign of terror. The castle is demure at best with narrow windy stairways, underground passages, tall skeletal watch towers that also served as dungeons, and more than 50 rooms housing Gothic memorabilia. Really, it’s just perfect.
After our tour of the castle, we wandered around the small pond at the bottom and took photos with our favorite hometown newspaper, the Dillsburg Banner. After some more wandering and exploring, we loaded up the car and scurried toward the north of Romania to a small town called Brasov…
Brasov. Brasov is nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and is most commonly known as the gateway into Transylvania. Honestly, I’ve never loved a small-town-away-from-home more. The air is fresh and clean, the food is meaty and gravy-y and potato-y, and the wine is dark and red and thick as blood. The medieval town boasts gothic and baroque architecture, as well as my most favorite church in the whole wide world: The Black Church.
The Black Church is a place of worship unlike any I’ve ever experienced. I don’t feel the Holy Spirit in many churches. But this beautiful smokey dark church sitting in the heart of Brasov is different. As soon as the heavy doors open, pipe tobacco and musty wood catch the cold Romanian air and dance lightly into one’s nose. Biserica Neagra, or Black Church, was erected in the late 1300s and was partially destroyed during a great fire set by the invading Habsburg forces in April 1689 (during the Great Turkish War). The church is decorated simply–its character comes from long man-hours, sweat, and love–not wealth. Turkish-gifted tapestries decorate the halls, and sculptures, arches, and simpler masonry patters such as trilobes complete the interior decor. I think the Holy Spirit dwells here in a place that never stopped fighting, rebuilt itself when destroyed, and is prouder to give money to people and the community than to decorate its own self in lavish adornments. This is my church.
When Trenton and I first settled into Brasov, we took a power nap. Seriously, don’t let my busyness distract you–a girl needs a power nap. We ventured out to dinner at Sergiana— a lovely little restaurant down the street from our hotel. Instead of bread, they brought us pork scratchings and wine. I had a Romanian style schnitzel and Trenton had the traditional Romanian soup. We were stuffed! We explored the town a little more by night and fell asleep early.
The next morning we had a full day to explore the perfect little town. We started the day with some homemade papanasi–fried donuts–dripping with Nutella and sweetened cheese. Then, we started our walking tour of the town. We hiked (aka took the cable car) to the top of Tampa Mountain, where the original defensive fortress was built. When Vlad Tepes attacked Brasov in 1458-60, the citadel was destroyed and 40 merchants were impaled on top of the mountain.
After our long (ahem) hike up the mountain, we walked into the center of town for some lunch. We stopped at a hip little spot called La Ceaun for some ciorba, or soup. The charming little restaurant offers three soups each day, all of which you can watching bubbling and dancing away in a large metal cauldron (ceaun). Trenton and I ordered the tochitura, a pork stew in a rich tomato and wine sauce served with mamaliga, a cornmeal mush often served as a side dish.
Once we ate all the calories we burned in the cable car, we thought we’d go for a real hike through the town, first visiting the black and white towers that were constructed by the Saxons and served as the defensive fortifications for the town. Our guide explained the “Brasov” sign in the mountains, saying that Stalin used to have a large amount of trees planted to spell his name, and the city wanted to take back the mountain after he left. Sometimes, you can still see his name in the mountains. Crazy!
We saw the first Romanian school and walked to the fairytale church of St. Nicholas. The church, established in 1219, is mainly Baroque in style and boasts some lovely frescoes. It’s absolutely stunning in person. We also passed by Yekaterina’s Gate. Located at the south end of the medieval walled city, this is the only medieval gate of Brasov preserved until today.
Part of our took took us along an alley that wasn’t an alley at all. Brasov is home to one of the the narrowest streets in Europe. The Strada Sforii, or Rope Street, is approximately four feet wide and was initially used as an access route by firefighters. We stopped at a little library at the heart of town and made friends with a couple who were visiting from London. We decided we needed something sweet and all shared a kurtoskalac–a cylinder of dough baked over a spit and coated with cinnamon sugar. The gentlemen departed for the rest of their adventure and we went back to the hotel for a coffee before heading out for a nightcap.
Our nightcap of choice was found at Doctor Jekelius, but Trenton and I called it “The Pharmacy”. With its worn exterior, murky glass windows, and rows of medicinal bottles, the entire place feels like a 1900s Saxon pharmacy–because it is! Our drinks were served in long test tubes that the waiter called anaesthetics. This was definitely one of the coolest spots in Brasov.
The next morning, we joined the tour group. Because we were “new” and the rest of the team had been together all week, before we sat down on the bus, the tour guide passed around a bottle of palinka (that we later renamed Paul Anka), local firewater made from plums. Well, that was a start! Our tour group consisted of a bunch of hilariously raucous Englishmen and women. Our first stop? Rasnov Fortress.
Located on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains, the crumbling fort of Rasnov towers at nearly 200 meters over the sprawling Transylvanian countryside below. It was originally built in 1215 by Teutonic Knights and used as a defensive stronghold. It was once rumored to be owned by Vlad the Impaler’s grandfather. Throughout its entire history, the fortress only surrendered once, when invaders cut off its water supply. After, a well was constructed. The last siege of Rasnov took place in 1690 during the final Ottoman invasion. Today, the fortress is a wondering ground of maze-like rooms connected by old wooden ladders, secret passageways, and buried skeletons. We ventured through the grey dismal day to the colorful little town of Sighisoara, Vlad the Impaler’s birthplace. In addition to being the inspiration behind Dracula, this beautiful little town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, founded in the 12th century. The town is decorate with burgher houses and ornate religious buildings. Its streets are mostly cobblestone and weave over secluded alleyways, through tranquil squares, and up to the Church on the Hill (complete with a totally creepy graveyard).
For those of you who know me, you know I LOVE finding unique artwork from street vendors and antique shops–look at this piece!
Our walking tour began with the old clock tower in the center of town. A true landmark, the clock tower was built in the 13th century and stands 64 meters tall. Our walk took us to the Church on the Hill, by way of the Scholar’s Stairs–a covered, wooden walkway that’s much longer than it looks! The cemetery at the top is exactly what you’d expect a Transylvanian cemetery to look like: dark, ivy-covered trees shading ancient, overgrown tombstones that cover the hill. Beautiful!
That evening’s dinner involved our entire rowdy group going somewhere. I don’t even know where. Trenton sang with the Brits and we partied long into the night.
The next morning we began a long journey to Balea Lake. Perched high up in the Transylvania’s Fagaras Mountains at 2034 meters, the glacial lake is a stunning location, reached only via the Transfagarasan. What’s that, you ask? The Transfagarasan is a twisting snake of a road that earned its title as “the best road in the world” by some guy named Jeremy Clarkson from some show called Top Gear. The journey started well enough. Laughter, the passing of weird snacks and drinks. But then, everything turned white. And we all turned quiet. No one could see anything and we began our crawl up the mountain. I swear you could hear a pin drop in that van. Slower and slower and icier and icier and quieter and quieter. Finally, the van stopped. “Out you go!” our guide cried.
We happily poured out of the forsaken death van and immediately began a snowball fight! Some of us were a little brighter and opted for mulled wine as perfectly packed balls of snow whizzed and zipped by our ears.
We settled in for lunch at the Balea Lake Chalet, complete with more mulled wine and warmth! After we had our fill, we began our long descent down the mountain. This time, it was a little easier to see.
We clamored back into the cold van in preparation for our next stop: Poenari Castle. Perched on a rocky precipice along the Transfagarasan road, Poenari Castle towers over the Arges River, its spiked turrets piercing the sky. Regarded as the “real” Dracula’s castle, Poenari was said to be the main residence of Vlad the Impaler who used the crumbling fortress as a major stronghold against the Ottoman invasion. To reach the top, you have to climb over 1400 steps. But the view from the top is majestic, eerie, and irreplaceable. To add even more intrigue, the castle is also said to be haunted by the ghost of Vlad the Impaler’s wife, who flung herself from the towers of Poenari to the turrets below during an Ottoman siege.
And that was it! We awoke at 0300 the next morning to make our flight. Overall, the trip was almost flawless. We met some great people, experienced Romania’s unique customs and culture, and learned a great deal about Romania’s history, particularly as it related to…DRACULA!