It may have been an early start, but it was well worth crawling out of bed at 6.30am to spend the day exploring fairytale castles and country towns in Transylvania. As a lover of history and myths, the chance to visit Vlad the Impaler’s homeland could not be missed, so I was very excited to discover Bucharest City Tours offered a full-day tour that took in the highlights of southern Transylvania including Peles Castle, Brasov old town and Bran Castle – also known as Dracula’s Castle.
Picked up at 8am sharp from in front of the Romanian Athenaeum, Justin and I met our energetic guide Serban, said hi to our fellow guests as we boarded the mini bus and then headed out of the city. Our first stop was Peles Castle, roughly two hours from the capital and as the houses became replaced by woods, mountains and, later, plains, Serban told us all about the areas we were travelling through – even pointing out the town where he was born – and sharing with us some of the history behind the spectacular places we were to visit during the day.
A drive through the Carpathian Mountains
Transylvania is bordered by the Carpathian Mountains, so over time the straight flat highways were replaced with bending hill roads. It had been so long since I’d last been in the mountains that I forgot just magnificent they are to see, and having blagged the spot next to Serban, I had a front row seat to take in the ever-changing landscape as we made our way to closer to our first stop. After seeing pictures of a snowy Peles Castle one afternoon on Pinterest I’d wanted to visit the castle for months and when I finally arrived and it appeared from behind the mountain trees, it didn’t disappoint.
Peles Castle entry cost
The country home of the Romanian royal family, you can visit Peles castle via a basic or extended tour (20 or 50 Lei respectively – which is roughly £3.50 or £8.50) but be warned, if you’d like to take photos, there’s an extra charge of 32 (£5.60) Lei to pay. And if you’re a fan of decadent architecture and extravagant furnishing you may well want to take your camera in!
To save us waiting for the next English speaking tour, Serban kindly offered to also be our castle tour guide, and after donning our shower-cap-like plastic shoe covers (designed to protect the carpets and wooden floors) we began our exploration through opulent hallways and up decorative staircases.
Who built and lived at Peles Castle?
As we wandered the castle’s lower floors we learnt all about the history of the royal family and how Carol I was invited to become King (for more about this quirky tale check out my post Bucharest ‘ashes of communism’ walking tour). As the mountains reminded him of his home in Germany he had Peles Castle built as the royal’s summer residence and as forward thinking man, he had the castle fitted with running water, electricity and heating. In the main hall, with its dramatic wooden decorations and spiral staircases, the roof is actually a glass window that Carol had made to be able to open up on hot summer days. Impressive!
Each room in the castle had its own personality, but one of the ‘loudest’ had to be the War Room, which was covered from floor to ceiling with weapons and armour from throughout Romanian history. All shiny steel and iron, I was much more enamoured with the wooden carving of a bear that adorned the top of the room’s short staircase. I presume he was supposed to appear menacing and powerful, but I actually thought he looked just downright jolly.
Behind the velvet curtain…
Having chosen the extended tour (a wise decision in my opinion) we got to go beyond the velvet red curtain that heralded the way to the upper floors, where we got to wander through the bedrooms and dressing rooms of royalty and their guests. What was interesting was the amount of time, effort and money that the family had put into building a personal guest suite for Franz Joseph I, who in the end never even saw the room.
I always think it’s the stories that bring the place to life, and it was Serban that made our tour that much more enjoyable. As we went from room to room he’d tell us tales such as how the king would meet those requesting an audience standing up in order to keep the appointments short and sweet, or point out hidden doorways that the king had fitted for a quick escape.
Sinaia Orthodox Monastery
Just down the road from the castle is Sinaia Monastery, where we stopped for a short look around before hitting the road to Bran. With an entry fee of only 5 Lei we decided to take the opportunity to pop in and take a look at first the Great Church, before heading through a stone archway to the decorative monastery, that was founded back in 1695.
Beautifully painted images welcome you at the entrance, but as we got closer we found it very odd that all the faces had been scratched away. We later discovered this desecration was committed by invading Turks, who also attempted to burn down the monastery. Such a beautiful, unassuming place of worship, I’m very glad that it still stands.
Travelling deeper into Transylvania we then made our way to Bran, having passed the mountains and entered the Transylvanian plains. Here was a quieter way of life, as we came across more than one man and his horse-drawn cart. During the drives I also noted that we went through what looked like lots of derelict settlements, oddly left to be ravaged by nature. Later I asked a local about these and was told they were mainly properties taken by the communist leader Ceausescu for farming, who forcibly moved families out of their homes and into the cities to work.
Bran Castle and the myth of Dracula
Romania has definitely gone through some dark times, but life is getting better and tourism is growing, as I could tell when we reached Bran and signs for everything from campsites to restaurants became Dracula related. Making the most of the link to the world’s most famous vampire, Bran draws in tourists through the lure of visiting Dracula’s Castle. In reality Bran Castle has little to any ties to the man behind the myth, Vlad the Impaler, who may have possibly stayed there once overnight, although no one knows for sure.
Bran Castle entrance fee
Even so, there’s something about visiting this austere, unwelcoming stone fortress that makes you willing pay your 30 Lei and make the steep climb up and into the castle. A stark contract to Peles Castle, Bran Castle is more of an empty shell, with random pieces of furniture gathered to fill certain rooms and signs telling the story of the owning family. It’s a very ‘higgledy piggledy’ design, with lots of small doorways, winding staircases and random slops and steps that make it quite an adventure, albeit a tiring one, to explore.
I skipped the torture museum, but had to visit the small section of the castle dedicated to the story of Dracula. It doesn’t really have much to show for itself, but I had to chuckle when I came across a supposed picture of the world most famous vampire, which actually was a photo of Keifer Sutherland as David from Lost Boys!
Brasov’s Black Church
After wandering the market outside of the castle for vampire themed tat, it was time for one final stop at the city of Brasov. Arriving late in the day we missed the chance to go inside of the Black Church, so named after having turned black from being burnt several times. Looming over the old town it’s oddly beautiful.
Instead we took the time to wander the cobbled streets around the town square and did a bit of people watching from the warmth of a cosy café. Before we knew it the time had come to return to the minibus and start the three-hour journey home. Getting back into the city sometime around 8.30pm it was a long day, but well worth the travel time. It was a chance to see what life is like beyond the capital, and having fallen in love with the beauty of the Romanian countryside, I hope to one day go back and venture even further afield.
Two Castles in One Day
The Two Castles in One Day tour by Bucharest City Tour costs €75 per person, and this includes entry to both castles. Find out more about the company’s tours by visiting http://www.bucharestcitytour.com/.
My tour was complimentary for the purpose of review, but as ever, all opinions are my own!