A weekend of roaming Romania

By | Category: Travel destinations

the monastery in Sinaia

Declaring my intention to visit Romania, in Europe’s southeastern corner, led to a few snide remarks from acquaintances; wasn’t it a rather poor and backward country, without that many places of interest and didn’t I in actual fact have a secret rendezvous with a few frisky vampires? Undeterred by such scepticism I set off for this comparatively little-visited nation, of which my knowledge was sketchy at best.

The flight from Luton Airport to Romania’s capital, Bucharest, was fairly swift and uneventful, as was the pick-up of the pre-booked car at the airport. My friend and I had decided to spend one night in the province of Wallachia, a short drive from that place of Dracula myth, vampire legend and cinematic gore: Transylvania. Wallachia, rather like Romania itself, has a long and somewhat confusing history. It seems different peoples simply couldn’t get enough of this corner of the world and invaders made plenty of “courtesy visits” over the centuries. The Romans, giving the country its name, obviously dropped by; the Turks overstayed their welcome; the Saxons and the Hungarians spent quality time here and that’s just to mention a few. Clearly a small Swedish-Welsh invasion of two was going to make little difference in this land of constant forays and incursions!

We drove north from the airport along the main road through what is essentially Romania’s oil belt. Perhaps not the very prettiest of introductions to the country – I was quite relieved to leave Ploieşti, the main oil town, behind us. Our stop for the evening was Câmpina in northern Wallachia, also part of the oil belt and, like Ploieşti, heavily bombed during WWII because of its “black gold” connections. It might seem an odd place to stop, but I’m all for checking out little-visited places and Câmpina’s location, between Bucharest and Braşov in Transylvania, made it a good stopping off point for the night. A quick walk around town proved it to have more than initially met the eye, including a castle, a museum to well-known Romanian artist Nicolae Grigorescu, several markets and a picturesque lake with lakeside bars and restaurants, where we sampled some Romanian fare for dinner.

Heading north from Câmpina the following morning, the scenery rapidly changed from rather flat and agricultural to increasingly mountainous. Crossing into Transylvania, we were surrounded by the Bucegi mountains, part of the Southern Carpathian range. The highest peak, Caraiman, reaches 2,260m and the landscape all around was turning more wild and woolly by the minute. Apparently the wolf population in Romania is on the rise and in mountains like these I could well believe it.

frescoes in the monastery in Sinaia

For some excellent views closer to the peaks, we stopped in the small, scenic spot of Sinaia, formerly mostly home to monks and shepherds, these days a popular resort, great for skiing and hiking in the surrounding mountains. For the very best views we took the brand new and somewhat scarily pink telegondola ski lift, open year-round and taking visitors up to almost 2,000 m for stunning views over the town and the Prahova river valley. Cows were grazing sedately along the slopes as the gondola gently swung its way upwards, the landscape a wilder version of Alpine hills. There was even a café open up top, selling hot chocolate with whipped cream, a perfect “cuppa” for the chilly morning air. This being August, there was obviously no skiing going on, but a few energetic hikers were taking morning strolls towards loftier peaks, while we were content to just admire the scenery and sip the chocolate.

Sinaia has rather a lot going for it as a tourism hotspot. It is well worth a visit for its natural beauty alone, but culturally it’s even more fascinating, home as it is to two of the area’s main sights – a castle and a monastery. The painted monastery of Sinaia, founded in 1690 after local Prince Mihai Catacuzino made a pilgrimage to Mount Sinai (which in turn gave the town its named), is open to the public and has a splendid display of frescoes in both the main monastery and the old church, within the compound. Still a working monastery with monks tending the gardens, this wonderful place manages to retain an aura of peace even during busy times with plenty of visitors.

Peleş Castle

Only a short walk from here lies another cultural gem, Peleş Castle, completed in 1883 for Prince Carol I. This richly adorned building was constructed to resemble a Bavarian castle, surrounded by an English garden, something that gives it a rather unlikely, if undeniably beautiful, appearance. The gardens can be visited free of charge, but the interior can only be viewed on a guided tour. Within the same area there are a further two palaces worth a visit – Pelişor Palace, in German Renaissance style, and just above it, the smaller Foişor Lodge. Sadly there wasn’t a single (or married) vampire in sight in any one of these three abodes, much to my disappointment.

It would have been easy to spend several days in Sinaia and the surrounding mountains, but another gem awaited us slightly further north; the medieval Saxon town of Braşov. One of the main towns in Transylvania, Braşov has been a popular place for centuries – in fact settlements here date back to Neolithic times. Admittedly the Germans, known as “Transylvanian Saxons”, arrived a little bit later than that, in the 12th century. By the early 13th century, Teutonic knights had fortified the village of Braşov, known to the Saxons as Kronstadt, to protect what was, in essence, a major mountain trading hub, from Tartar and Ottoman raids.

the main square in Brasov

Today much of the formidable fortifications remain and the old centre of Braşov has retained its Saxon feel. German is still more widely spoken than English and there are a number of interesting medieval buildings to be viewed, many of them surrounding the main square, Council Square. A fortress wall and several bastions are also intact and offer good views of the old town below. Similarly to Sinaia, Braşov sits surrounded by mountains and also here there are multiple skiing and hiking opportunities, depending on the season.

A café-bar near the bastions, overlooking the old town, seemed a good place to reflect on our Romanian weekend, by now rapidly coming to an end. I felt I’d found some good answers to my friends’ slightly sarcastic comments – Romania does have plenty to see and a weekend isn’t nearly enough to cover it; although poorer than some European countries, in no way did it come across as backward; and no, sadly there was no exciting, secret rendezvous with wicked vampires. Maybe next time.

Getting there:

National carrier Tarom flies directly from London and Dublin to Bucharest, British Airways links Heathrow and Bucharest. The low cost carrier, Blue Air, has flights from both Dublin and Luton to Bucharest and Wizz Air also links Luton and Bucharest.

For further information about Romania, click here.

Images © Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

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