Friday, April 20, 2012

Transylvania, Romania: Land of Myths and Mountains

When I first read Bram Stoker’s classic “Dracula,” I harbored ever since a romantic and mythical perception of this mysterious country, hence why Romania made it onto our travel list in the first place. Slightly off the beaten European tourist path, Romania is a largely overlooked and underrated destination. Filled with majestic natural beauty, rustic villages, unique and stately castles, and defined by a long and complicated history involving Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia, Romania is worthy of a short break at the very least.  However, minimize your time in Bucharest, another typical sprawling Eastern European city filled with Soviet-era construction and planning, but not much more.

Under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s dictator from 1965 to 1989, much of Bucharest’s old architecture was destroyed and replaced with nondescript concrete block towers, which now define most of the cityscape, making Bucharest a mostly drab and ugly city.  However, in recent years, the transformation of the central neighborhood Lipscani into its former “Old Town” glory has revived what was once a ruined sector of the city and is now the preeminent entertainment destination for young capital dwellers and travelers alike. 

Bars and cafes spill over into the pedestrianized streets and sidewalks, while clubs burst with revelers and pulse with house and techno music. I would not be surprised to see Bucharest join the ranks of Prague, Krakow, and Tallin as the new target for British stag parties in the near future.  However, as far as we could tell, this was pretty much the extent of Bucharest’s entertainment options, although I’m sure there are more historic sites around the city that we did not have an opportunity to squeeze into our short time.  

Transylvania is a very large region, but if you are limited on time, it is best to base yourself in Brasov.  The train to Brasov from Bucharest’s Gara du Nord train station takes approximately two and a half hours, with a stop in Sinaia along the way. Here you can take some time to see Peles Castle, a quirky, fairy tale-like, 19th century palace built by King Carol I, but largely conceived by his eccentric wife, Queen Elizabeth.  Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains, Sinaia is also worth the stop to take in the stunning views.


Nearby to Peles Castle, literally just a further walk down the path, is the Sinaia Monastery, the namesake of Sinaia itself and named after Mount Sinai in Egypt. There is also a World War I cemetery on your way up to the castle. Sinaia is small and most people stop in Sinaia for a few hours enroute to Brasov from Bucharest.

The town of Brasov is much larger than Sinaia, but still significantly smaller than Bucharest and maintains much of its historic Saxon architecture, especially around the central Old Town area near the Black Church.  Overall, Brasov is a fantastic base for additional excursions to go hiking and for the notorious Bran Castle, or what is more popularly referred to as “Dracula’s Castle.”

Old Town Brasov

In fact Bran Castle’s relationship to Vlad Tepes (the basis of the character of Dracula) is tenuous at best, himself only having lived here for a short time.  The original castle of Dracula conceived by Bram Stoker is a thing of fiction and was only hypothetically located in an area deep inside the Carpathian Mountains which is mostly inaccessible. Bran Castle is the closest you will get to Dracula in Romania, but well worth the visit to learn more about Romania’s medieval history and the strategic importance of this fortress throughout history dating as far back to the Templar Knights. 

Throughout our trip we were hit with very different weather patterns including warmth, sun, heavy rain, and then finally snow on our last day, which was actually a great way to sample Transylvania in all its climate complexities.  Food, drink, and accommodation are generally very cheap.

Although I personally don’t have much of a palate for heavy, meat-dense Romanian fare, one of the best spots in town for traditional regional food is Sergeiana. Having our fill of pork, pork, and more pork, we made reservations for Easter dinner the following night at the amazing Keller Steakhouse. Without any pretension or kitsch, this is an honest and sophisticated effort and the end result is truly high quality steak and very good wine. A bit expensive by Romanian standards, this is probably the best restaurant in town and well worth the money, a bargain coming from London. 


I have no doubts that very soon Romania will join the ranks of the Czech Republic and Hungary as a low cost alternative destination within Europe. As I discovered myself, shattering finally my own fantastical childhood notions, those who come here seeking the thrills of Dracula will uncover so much more in the country’s stunning natural beauty and rich and complicated history.  -- KV


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