Transylvania: Dracula’s land of castles, old cities, and mountains
After Bucharest, Chika needed to get to Thessaloniki, Greece where she was starting work. Romania is a country that I had wanted to visit for many years now, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to see its most famous region, Transylvania.
Transylvania is most likely familiar with most people as being the home of fictitious character of Dracula, originally a novel written in 1897 by Irish author Bram Stoker. I had not realized it, but Dracula was very, very loosely based on an actual person, named Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler). After doing research, he found Vlad Dracula, the Wallachia Prince who lived in the 1400s who was perceived as being an absolute brutal and cruel person.
Originally sent by the Ottoman Empire in Turkey to be the leader of the Wallachia region, Vlad started to rebel by not paying their taxes to the Ottoman Empire. Knowing that the Ottoman Empire would soon be attacking his region, and that the Wallachian army was a tiny percentage in size compared to the opposition, he decided he needed to do something to scare the attackers. To do this, he started to impale captured Ottomans. Impaling means that he would stick a pole up through the anus which would be pushed all the way up to the mouth, missing all important organs. The victim would then be stood up and left to do a slow, painful death. This is what gave him the nickname Vlad the Impaler. Although he didn’t rule the Transylvania region, it’s known for being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler and several castles in the region, a few that were supposedly used by Vlad the Impaler.
The region is full of nice towns and small cities with beautiful old towns, old churches, and small cobblestone streets that make you never want to leave. I visited several places, including Brasov, Sighisoara, Sibiu, and Sinaia. Rather than make a separate post about each one, I’ll highlight each of them in this post below.
My first stop along the way was Brasov. I arrived early evening after taking a beautiful 2.5 hour train ride north from Bucharest. It passed by the Bucegi Mountains. I was shocked by the size and steepness of the mountains, and located just an hour north of Bucharest in the town of Sinaia. At that moment, I decided I had to come back to Sinaia on my way back down south.
I arrived in Brasov right when it was getting dark. After settling into my hostel, I went for a walk. I didn’t have high expectations, but I was happily surprised by what I found. I walked to the Piața Sfatului (Council Square) and down the small pedestrian streets. Council Square is a place that feels like a fairy tale, similar to Prague, where it’s hard to pull yourself away from it. For being early September, it was fairly cold, and not wearing a jacket was a mistake!
The following morning, I woke up early to catch the best part of the day just after sunrise when there are still few people out and about. From one of the bakeries, I grabbed a covrigi, an extremely popular pretzel sprinkled with sesame seeds. They typically cost about 1.50 Romanian leu, or about $0.40. These and other fresh baked goods are a great way to get filled up for cheap. Another popular one is plăcintă, a salty pastry filled with cheese. It seems that most countries in this region have their own version of this meal, and it has been a staple for me in these few weeks or travel.
After snapping some pictures of the town, I went back to my hostel and grabbed my bags. After just a quick night in Brasov, I was heading to Bran Castle and then a mountain village, called Magura, to stay for a few nights. Frankie, a Taiwanese guy I had just met at my hostel, came along with me to Bran Castle for the day.
Bran Castle is one of the most famous castles in Transylvania. Completed in 1388, it’s known as “Dracula’s Castle”. However, it wasn’t so much Dracula’s Castle as a castle that Dracula stayed in maybe once or twice. Being great marketers, they knew that claiming it to be Dracula’s castle would draw more tourists and more money. Several castles try to link themselves to Dracula, but Bran Castle seems to have done it with the most success.
Bran Castle is set up on a hill overlooking the small town of Bran, located in a green mountain valley. It was a strategic location on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, used as a defense against the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s. In 1920, the castle became a royal residence of the Kingdom of Romania used by Queen Marie. It was later inherited by her daughter, Princess Ileana who used the castle as a hospital in WWII. It was then taken by the communist regime, and then later returned to descendants of the former royal family. It is now for sale for $80 million. Here is your chance to buy that fancy castle up in the mountains that you’ve always wanted!
To be honest, the castle is not as impressive as you might think, neither in size nor in style. That doesn’t mean it’s not nice, though. From outside, it’s easy to see that the castle is nothing enormous. Inside, its wooden floors and stairs lead you up, down, and around the castle’s small hallways and through small rooms that are now decorated with décor used by the royal family. Rooms contain signs giving great historical information. As you’d expect, there is a room dedicated to Dracula, which gives interesting information on Vlad Tepes, Bram Stoker and the book “Dracula”, and Dracula in modern use.
The tour ends in a courtyard located in the heart of the castle, probably the most interesting part of the castle. Looking up, others touring the castle are looking down from each and every side and from many different levels of the castle. One can imagine young princes and princes playing down in the courtyard hundreds of years ago as their parentspeek down occasionally to make sure the kids are fine.
Although not the most impressive castle in Transylvania, it’s still worth a visit. Just make sure to lower your expectations before arriving!
From Bran, I took a bus to Moieciu de Jos, a small town at the end of the bus line even further from Brasov. The owner of my hostel then picked me up, as we had arranged, so that I didn’t have to walk uphill for an hour and a half with my backpack. I recently wrote a guest blog post for a blog based out of Magura, so I’ll leave the link here. To sum it up here, Magura was an incredible place to visit. A traditional mountain village of sheepherders and farmers, it was a beautiful and quiet place to spend a few days. Read more in detail from the link above!
After two nights in Magura, I had to return to Brasov before heading north to my next stop, Sighisoara. This night in Brasov just happened to have been the opening night for their 10-day Oktoberfest festival, the German festival celebrating all things Bavarian, like beer, dirndl dresses, and lederhosen. The festival started with a parade, which lead to the Oktoberfest grounds. Inside the grounds was a tent holding at least a thousand people, a stage featuring a German band, and several food stands and beer stands. The wooden tables spread out were full, as friends and family conversed while others made friends with random people on nearby table. By the end of the night, the rowdy ones were dancing on tables. I went with several people from my hostel, including Frankie (the Taiwanese guy), a Japanese guy, and 3 travelers from Slovakia. We had a good time celebrating Germany in Transylvania!
With my lack of time, I almost passed up Sighisoara to head straight to Sibiu. With a recommendation from Frankie, I decided to stop for just one night. “Sighisoara is small but very beautiful,” he told me, “One night is perfect. Two nights and you’ll be bored!” I looked up the train schedule on the CFR website (Romania’s national train service) and found the cheapest and most convenient one to Sighisoara from Brasov. The slower the train, the cheaper it is. Because all I had was time, I was willing to take a 50% discount at the expense of an extra hour. The CFR website was a very helpful tool when planning out transport in Romania.
Although train travel is slower than bus, I really enjoy the experience. Train tracks take more scenic routes, tickets can almost always be bought 10 minutes before the train leaves, and it’s very smooth. This last one is ideal for someone who gets motion sick fairly easily. I can rarely read on buses, but I was able to finish a book in 4 days while traveling in Transylvania due to the smoothness of the trains.
Waiting for the train to leave in Brasov, I started talking to a guy from Pittsburgh who was in his mid-50s, named Jeff. After some discussion about Romania, he asks me, “Do you ever get crap from other people about being American? Jokes, insults, and just rude commentary?” I thought about it. “Actually, no,” I responded, “I don’t remember getting this one time.” I wondered if it was because he was a bit older and the people he meets still have this “typical American” image in their heads, that of the loud, obnoxious, and annoying American. The Ugly American some may call it. “I have no idea why you get it so much,” was how I ended that part of the conversation, almost feeling bad for the guy.
We hopped on the train when it finally arrived and sat next to each other to continue chatting. Over the next three hours, I learned why he was always at the butt of these jokes. It’s because HE IS THAT GUY! He was one of the rudest, most obnoxious, and pessimistic people I have ever met. He openly admitted that he hates people. He told me stories of how his ex-wife ruined his life. How he’s retired, has all the money he needs to live, but he’s absolutely bored and has no idea what to do with his life. He has no friends or family who care about him. Because I was bored and wanted to talk to someone, I tolerated his absurdity. At times I wanted to feel bad for him, but I know that he brought it all on himself. He even criticized me several times and offended me a few of them. But he was interesting enough and I was bored enough to tolerate him for a while.
One of my favorite things about traveling is having no idea what a place looks like until you’re actually there. For this, I do my best to avoid seeing photos beforehand. As the train got closer to Sighisoara, I could make out the old town in the distance. I could see the walled citadel on the one solo hill in the town. The Clock Tower, the Bergkirche Church on the Hill, and the Monastery Church were all located up on the dominant town looking out over the village below.
Sighisoara’s Citadel, put on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999, is pretty much all that Sighisoara has to offer, but that’s not a bad thing. Walking around the citadel, admiring the architecture, trying out the cafes, and relaxing in the small squares is an amazing experience in itself. Going early gives you the peace and quiet, while going late morning or early afternoon means you’ll be around many more tourists which gives the place a different mood. The Clock Tower seen from the old town is an incredible site. I found myself saying this many times in Transylvania, but it was like a fairy tale. It seems more like something you’d see at Disney rather than an actual medieval city that was built in the 12th century by German merchants and craftsmen. One can also go into the building where Vlad Tepes (Dracula) was born, and this is the actual place and not some marketing scheme.
After a few hours of walking around, I had essentially seen everything in the town. Frankie was right, two nights would’ve been too much. I took plenty of pictures. Photography always gives me plenty to do, especially in a medieval city like Sighisoara. After just one night, I was again on a train heading to Sibiu.
After another train ride, this one fortunately without meeting an Ugly American, I arrived in Sibiu, a city of about 140,000 people located about 135 miles northwest of Bucharest. I again knew almost nothing about the city except that it was supposed to be nice. I figured it’d be similar to one of the other cities I had seen. To my delight, it was again very different.
As I walked from the train station to my hostel for the night, I walked through the Piata Mare (Grand Square). I rounded the bend, and the street completely opened up to this massive open square. Surrounded by typical Romanian architecture, the square was hosting a pottery festival. Over 100 vendors had their makeshift shops set up in the center of the plaza, and hundreds of people browsed to see if anything caught their eye that was worthy of buying. Already, Sibiu had a completely different feel than the other places I’d visited in Transylvania. I was pleased.
Because of a lack of time, I only stayed in Sibiu one night, but I really enjoyed it. Small streets wind around the walled city with many small cafes, restaurants, and bars. The Turnul Sfatului (Small Square) was another beautiful place. There was even a Roma market going on, where one could buy anything from moonshine (called Pálinka) to wooden bowls. Climbing the stairs of the Council Tower, located in between the Grand Square and the Small Square, is a great way to get a nice view of the city. Unfortunately, it’s enclosed and there is no open-air viewpoint. But inside is an art museum. I believe the cost was 2 Leus, or $0.60.
It was another quick stop on my whirlwind trip around Transylvania, but it was well worth the visit. I wish I had had one extra day in Sibiu. I wouldn’t be able to decide which I liked better between Sibiu and Brasov, but both were beautiful cities.
I made a quick stop in Sinaia on the way back down to Bucharest. As I mentioned before, I was intrigued when seeing it from the train and had to make a visit. Getting there on a Monday proved difficult, as many things were closed, including the chairlift that carries you up to the top of the mountain. But it turned out to be a good day anyway.
The highlight of the town of Sinaia is the Peleș Castle. It takes a 20 minute walk up from the city center and through a wooded area to arrive at the Peles Castle. When you see it from a distance, you notice right away that it’s something special. Whereas the Bran Castle is far away from what you’d think of a castle to be, the Peles Castle is exactly what you’d hope a castle in Transylvania to be. It’s enormous, built for a king, surrounded by mountains, and its neo-renaissance architecture make it known to everyone that it’s a place of power.
The Peles Palace, built for King Carol I, was started in 1873 and finally completed in 1914. The king had visited this area several years before and fell in love with the location in the Carpathian Mountains. The 34,000 square foot, 170 bedrooms castle cost $120 million to build. Today, the castle is used as a museum. Unfortunately for me, the castle is closed on Mondays, so I wasn’t able to go inside. However, just walking around the outside was fascinating in itself.
From Sinaia, I took the train back down to Bucharest and then hopped on a bus that took me straight to Thessaloniki, Greece. With that, my time in Romania had ended. I was only in the country for about a week and a half, but I definitely did quite a bit. Between the medieval towns, mountain villages, the hiking, and the festivals, Romania became one of my favorite countries that I have visited. It seems to be relatively undiscovered by international travelers, especially Americans. And this makes it all the better, at least for now. Although not one of those fancy places like Paris or Rome, I’d recommend Romania to anyone traveling to Europe wanting to do something off the beaten track!