Ok, I admit it. When I knew we were coming to Romania for a River Cruise I wanted to come in a few days early so I could visit Transylvania. Its not that I believe in vampires, but there is just something mysterious about this region of Romania that was once its own country. I started by researching day trips out of Bucharest where we are based. I found a couple that would take me to some of the special castles in the region and a lovely Transylvanian city. My hope was to see some of the villages in the region where time has stood still and the horse-drawn cart is still in use.
We booked a full day tour with Unzip Romania (through Viator). It was not substantially more to book the tour as a private one, so it is just Boris and I with our guide. We booked before we left home and pre-paid in American dollars. A few days ago, I was sent the name of the tour guide and the confirmation time for pick-up in our hotel lobby. We enjoyed a big buffet breakfast and were at the concierge desk at 7:30 am to meet Alex.
Even though it is just the two of us, Alex brought a mini van so we are sitting up a little higher which is great for touring. He invited one of us to join him up front, so I was excited to ride shotgun. Right off it was clear he had read my comments sent along with our reservation. Boris and I both love history, so Alex jumped right in and filled us in as we traveled out of city. We have about a two hour drive to our first designation, Peles Castle, a royal summer residence commissioned by King Carol I in 1873 and completed in 1883.
Carol I, born Prince Karl of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was a German selected by Romanian nobles to lead the new country rather than to create in-fighting among the barons by selecting one of their own. He entered the country under an assumed identity to protect his safety. He ruled Romania from 1866 to 1914, the longest reigning Romanian monarch. He served first as a Reigning Prince until the military victories he led allowed him to declare Romania an independent nation in 1877. He was crowned King in 1881.
In addition to his military victories, he brought innovation to the young country. He ordered the building of the first bridge over the Danube. When he arrived in the country, he did not speak the language but learned Romanian in only one year. He further endeared himself to the Romanian people by adopting the native spelling of his name.
The castle is located in the Bucegi Mountains in the charming village of Sinaia with the look of a Swiss ski resort. With only two-lane traffic, vehicles move in the area at a snail’s pace. Alex is well known in the area and he secured us great parking and tickets with no wait. The private tour does not include attraction entrance fees, but Alex passed on the discounted prices to us. We also had the choice of the basic tour or the extended one which includes the private apartments. There is a hefty fee for the use of a camera in the interior so I opted out. That said, there was so much to photograph that I think I would have gotten my money’s worth.
If you like dark, carved wood and stained glass, Peles Castle would be a favorite. Each room also features a different theme based on different parts of the world. The three ballrooms flow into one another. One is in the Venetian style, one is Ottoman, and one is decorated with mock thrones. The castle features a 36-seat dining room table off the center ballroom. After dinner, the men retired to the Turkish room for smoking and drinking. The ladies retreated to the music room where Queen Elizabeth played the piano and harp. The teak wood furniture in this room was a gift to King Carol I from an Indian Maharaja. Later in the queen’s life she wrote fairy tales; paintings featuring her characters appear in the room. The stained glass in the music room also depicts fairy tale characters.
The queen was devastated by the death of her only child, a daughter Maria who was not yet age 4 when she died of scarlet fever. It was after her child’s death that Elizabeth began the writing under the pen name of Carmen Sylva. She wrote numerous works in English, German, Romanian, and French.
As relatively recent construction, for a castle that is, Peles features some pretty neat conveniences like an elevator and a central vacuum system. All the maids hooked hoses in at the same time and then the switch was turned. Dust all over the castle was sucked in. More significantly, Peles was the first European castle to be lit entirely by electric current which was produced by hydro power at the castle’s own plant.
The castle also features a secret passage from the library to the king’s bedchamber above. You pass through Carol I’s office. Rumor is that he always stood during audiences so the meetings would be shorter. There is also a 60-seat theater. Shortly after the first film was produced in the world, the castle theater was renovated to accommodate a screen. Romania’s first screening of a film took place in this theater.
After completing the interior tour, Alex gave us time to take photographs and tour the gardens. The great thing about the private tour is that you can choose to allocate your time as you wish. When we left Sinaia, the crowds, as well as the traffic, had grown. Peles is on the historical route from Transylvania to Wallachia. Carol I had also chosen this location for the beauty of the landscape and its similarities to the Black Forest in Germany. I would have to agree.
Our next stop is Bran Castle in Transylvania. Large wooden markers identify the spot where you pass from one region into an other. Alex had picked up on Boris’ comments regarding his love for World War I history. He pointed out that each village had a monuments to local members who had died in each of the world wars. In route to Bran he pointed out the statute of a particular soldier who lost an arm in battle and asked to be returned to the front; the solider drew grenades from the trenches-the statute depicts this feat.
Alex also told us about cemeteries at the site of certain battles where soldiers from both sides were buried. He made an unscheduled stop at one of the cemeteries for us. Both German and Romanian soldiers are buried in marked graves and a large monument marks the site. There are also wooden crosses erected by the church. Alex said that while the soldiers had fought against each other, all were comrades at arms in death as each served bravely for their own countries.
We passed through a village where a gypsy settlement was just beyond the houses along the road. While Sasha Baron Cohen stayed at a resort in Sinaia, this is where the mythical village of his homeland in Borat was filmed. In perfect timing, we slowed behind a wooden gypsy cart being pulled by a horse. The gypsy people are an ethnic minority in Romania; to a limited extent, they are still a nomadic people.
As we neared to Bran Castle, Alex gave us the real history of “vampires” and Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes Dracula) who was said to inspire Bram Stroker’s Dracula. If you want to go on believing in the myth, you might want to skip the next paragraph. Vampire really is a word used by the Romanians. Alex’s grandmother uses it to describe those “who have a thirst for blood”, but not in the literal sense. The word is used to describe those who enjoy the kill but not by sucking blood from a body through their mouth. His grandmother knows nothing about Dracula. The guides liked to joke that the real Romanian vampires are in Parliament.
Vlad the Impaler was a real figure in history; in fact, he is considered a hero by the Romanians. His father was Vlad Dracul, a surname that came from the word dragon or devil. The younger Vlad watched his father and older brother be killed by the Ottomans who took he and a younger sibling to be raised in their culture. This was a common practice. As adults, they returned the young leaders to their homeland contemplating their loyalty and the swift payment of their taxes. Vlad saw his younger brother be used for the sultan’s pleasure. He learned their language and their tactics.
When returned, Vlad had no love for the Ottomans. He refused the payment of taxes and defeated the tax collectors. At night, he infiltrated their camp with his warriors dressed as Ottomans and speaking their language. He murdered thousands and left the bodies impaled on spikes along the path the survivors had to take to return home. Thus he earned his moniker.
However, Vlad was the ruler of Wallachia, not Transylvania. The medieval Bran Castle was really a customs stop, not a home or fortress. Vlad stayed there only a few times in route between the two regions and usually for less than 24 hours a visit. The castle sits at a strategic location between Transylvania and Wallachia.
In other words, there is very little connection between Vlad and Bran, but that has not stopped the tourism industry. One fun story (depicted by a photograph inside the castle) reports that a British tourist looking for the site of the mythical story asked two local peasants who did not speak English if this was Dracula’s castle. Upon their affirmative reply, the connection was born. The castle was very crowded during our visit. They clearly promote the connection. Alex has even brought young American tourists here, dressed in costume, for Halloween. The holiday (not really observed by Romanians) is well celebrated at Bran.
After our interior visit, we walked down to the small lake to take pictures of the castle from below. Visitors lounged on the hillside on this sunny day. We stopped at the souvenir booths outside the castle gates for cold water. Boris also found a traditional Romanian mask that can be worn over the head featuring real wool. Of course, he bought it. We met up with Alex in the parking lot to head toward the Transylvanian city of Brasov, Alex’s hometown.