My Journey Through Spectacular Transylvania
Transylvania (Transilvania) is best known for its magnificent Carpathian Mountains and incredible castles which have inspired tales of bloodthirsty vampires. It’s been on my “must see” list for some time, so I was incredibly excited to be finally going. My husband and I made our way into Brașov, a popular tourist city in Transylvania, from Budapest on the overnight train. It's a long journey but the fascinating landscape kept us entertained.
If you're planning to take this train, then be prepared to be woken up by the rather serious Hungarian border guards at 11pm, and then the Romanian ones at 12am. As we were not expecting it, we were rather surprised to be woken in the middle of the night by someone banging on our door demanding our passports, so have them in easy reach.
Where Is Transylvania?
Transylvania is located in the central part of Romania. Romania is a member of the European Union (EU) and is located in Southeastern Europe. It borders the Black Sea between Bulgaria.
My Transylvanian Journey
Beautiful historic city.
Enjoy the views and hiking in the Piatra Craiului National Park Mountains
Enjoy fantastic views whilst driving one of the most hair raising roads in the world.
Home to the magical Peleș and Pelişor Castles.
Bustling city with magnificent buildings and architecture.
Beautiful mountain top village. See the Transylvanian traditional way of life.
This town is the gateway to the Bucegi Mountains.
Part of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, Bucegi provides magnificent views and hiking trails.
Home to Bran Castle (and some Vampires).
Surrounded by the peaks of the Southern Carpathian Mountains, this historic city is known for its gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture.
Eventually we made it into Brașov by about 10.30am. Brașov is a small city surrounded by the peaks of the Southern Carpathian Mountains. It's known for its historic gothic, baroque and renaissance architecture. The Gothic Black Church dates back over 500 years. The city centre is set up for the tourist trade so there are plenty of cafes and restaurants providing outdoor seating areas to enjoy a drink on a sunny summer’s day. The city square, Piaţa Sfatului, is a popular place to enjoy a drink and some people watching.
Brașov is overlooked by Mt Tâmpa, which displays its own Hollywood style “Brașov” sign. A cable car takes you up to the mountain from the city centre and only takes about 10 minutes. From there it’s a short walk around to the sign and viewing point. It's a really great way to see the city and allows you to see the original layout with the old city walls. From here, you can either take the cable car back down again or enjoy a leisurely walk back down into the city through the trees. We took the latter as it was a gorgeous sunny day.
The next day we collected our hire car and set out to Sinaia, a popular place with tourists because of its proximity to the Bucegi Mountains as well as the stunning Peleș Castle. Traffic can get very busy as you near the town, but while you’re waiting in traffic you can stop off at the many local roadside stalls to buy yourself some souvenirs or some delicious wild berries sold in little hand woven baskets by the locals.
Sinaia was where we first encountered Romania’s serious stray dog problem. It was heart breaking to see throughout our trip how widespread this problem has become. It seemed like on every corner there were puppies and dogs begging and searching for food. A Romanian friend who works in the environmental sector told me that this has also become a problem for Romania’s wildlife population as they form packs and hunt.
Visiting Peleș Castle in Sinaia was a real highlight of our trip. The castle is just like one I imagined as a child reading fairy tales. The beautiful Bucegi Mountains create a picturesque setting which will have you grabbing for your camera. As we arrived late in August, most of the tourist rush had gone and we only had to wait about 15 minutes to buy a ticket and join an English tour. I definitely recommend paying for the more expensive ticket that gets you into see all of the areas in the castle that are open to the public. Be aware that you have to pay extra for permission to take photos inside the castle – and they do police this quite strictly. Some people complained about the price of the entry, but it seemed reasonable to me considering a holiday in Romania is in general very cheap and that the castle must cost a lot to upkeep.
Peleș is one of the best preserved castles that I have ever visited and it still has its original extravagant furnishings. Construction began in 1873 and it was opened in 1883. Despite its age, it has all of the modern conveniences that you would expect in a modern home today, including central heating, electricity, plumbing and even a ducted vacuum cleaner system. There are also many secret passageways which really adds to its wonder. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the castle and really set the atmosphere with interesting stories about the castle's history and royal families.
Beside Peleș is the smaller Pelişor Castle which was built for the King's heir and the much loved Queen Marie. Many people skip this castle and only visit Peleș Castle but I think this is a real shame. Although Pelişor Castle is not as large and elaborate as Peleș, it definitely has its own special features. Once you see the gold room, you will know what I mean. You can wander around this castle without joining a tour, but I would definitely recommend joining one as the tour provides much more information about the castle's history and the royal family. I enjoyed the stories about the quarreling and difficult sons, Prince Carol II, who was known for his romantic affairs that ended his marriage, and Prince Nicolae who caused family embarrassment by marrying a divorced woman which was considered shocking at that time.
The next day we got up early and headed to the village of Buşteni to get the cable car into the Bucegi Mountains, which are part of the Southern Carpathian Mountains. There is parking available by the cable car and is a very cheap 10 lei for the day. Because the Buşteni cable car is old, it doesn’t carry many people so the queues can get ridiculous in summer. However, by getting to Buşteni early we managed to get the first cable car of the day. Alternately, you can take a cable car in Sinaia that goes 2000m up into the mountains and because it's a modern one, it can carry much more people than the one at Buşteni so the lines there are usually much shorter.
We purchased a return ticket up to Babele which is the top plateau and is where the famous rock formations called ‘Babe’ can be visited. Some food and drink can be purchased up there, but I recommend taking a picnic and enjoying a walk on one of the many trails. The views from the plateau were magnificent, but the clouds were moving in fast so we headed out on a hike that took us up and over the mountain and down into the meadow valleys on the other side. Although we had missed the wildflower season, there were still plenty of pretty flowers in bloom to enjoy. Farmers graze their animals in these mountain meadows and because the animals wear bells around their neck, the valley was filled with the chiming of bells. It created a really authentic Romanian mountainside experience.
Animal Bells in the Meadows of Bucegi Mountains, Southern Carpathians, Transylvania, Romania
The following morning we headed out to Bran to visit the castle famous for its ties to Bram Stoker's iconic Gothic novel, Dracula. Funnily enough Bram Stoker never actually visited the castle. This medieval fortress has a long and interesting history and lived through many fortifications and invasions. In more recent years it was home to the much loved Queen Maria who restored it for use as one of the royal family’s residences. It was then used as a hospital for soldiers during the war before communism finally took over, and it was taken from the royal family. Following the fall of communism in Romania it was given back to the surviving family who now run it.
Bran Castle, now commonly known by foreigners as “Dracula’s Castle”, is very popular and the line to enter can get rather long. However, there is plenty on display at the local market stalls to keep you entertained whilst you wait. If you can, try and avoid visiting the castle during the summer weekends as it gets even busier during these times. There is no limit to how many people they let into the castle and this, combined with the fact that the castle rooms are very small, leads to rather cramped spaces. There are information boards that provide information in English so you do get the chance to learn more about the castle and how each of the rooms was used. Although I enjoyed Bran Castle, it was not as spectacular as Peleș Castle. If you have limited time and can only see one of them I would definitely recommend Peleș Castle over Bran Castle.
From Bran we headed out to the Piatra Craiului National Park which is in the Southern Carpathian Mountains. As we planned to stay in Măgura, we took the road from Bran through Zărnești as it was recommended as being safer. The road from Bran to Zărnești was pretty good going, despite it being gravel. Unfortunately it began to rain as we drove through Zărnești, and as it had been raining in the area for several days the gravel road from Zărnești to Măgura was becoming washed away. Apparently this road has been in dire need of repair for some years and the rain just made it even worse. Large potholes and deep ravines had opened up making it a rather hair raising drive. We literally crawled up the mountainside wishing we could have afforded to hire a 4WD. We were told by locals that a contract had just been signed off to have the road repaired, so for those of you planning your trip to this area, it should hopefully be much improved by the time you get there.
We eventually made it in one piece to Măgura where I had booked to stay at Casa Hille, a budget friendly guest house run by a lovely couple. Our room came with magnificent views of the mountains and countryside and that evening we got to watch some locals preparing for a wedding. A horse drawn wagon loaded with celebrating men singing traditional music stopped outside our guest house as they rounded up the groom and fellow revellers.
This guest house was one of the best places that we stayed during our trip around Transylvania, and the couple plied us with home made wine, cognac and sherry as well as large traditional Romanian home cooked meals (the meal plan is an optional extra). Traditional Romanian food does not always look or sound very attractive, but it is really delicious, comfort food. My favourites were the stuffed cabbage rolls called sarmale and the mămăligă (polenta). Now I am not normally a fan of cabbage, but when they are stuffed with Romanian style spiced pork and rice, they are very good! Many of their dishes are served with sour cream which they call smântână and it tastes so much better and creamier than the kind you get from the supermarket.
Romanians also have a sweet tooth and enjoy baking and desserts. Popular sweet dishes include cakes, strudels and crepes. Kurtoskalacs or chimney cakes are a popular sweet cooked and sold on the street. However, my favourite was the Gogosi, a donut filled with fruit or custard or simply sprinkled in icing sugar. There are lots of delicious bakeries in Romania, so take advantage of the booths that allow you to make impulse purchases as you stroll past.
Romania also has great wine and beer. It is one of Europe’s biggest wine producers and although their wines are aimed at the budget end of the market, there are some excellent wines being produced. Romania also has a good range of beer as well as local alcohol such as palincă which is made from fermented fruit, commonly plums.
Our host kindly helped us plan our two full days of hiking as well as providing us useful information about the area. There are lots of walking trails to enjoy in the Piatra Craiului National Park and all levels of fitness are catered to. However, before heading out, make sure that you are adequately prepared and are fit enough to traverse the trails that you have chosen as there are many very challenging ones.
The next day the rain had passed and the sun was shining. We headed out on a trail from our accommodation over to the village of Peștera on a mix of walking paths and local roads. We made a detour to visit the local monastery and although it had only been recently built, it was richly decorated inside with beautiful, colourful murals. It was like seeing history in the making. After some food and rest in the afternoon, we ventured up a rather steep path through fields behind our guest house. Once we reached the top we were rewarded with a stunning 360 degree view of the mountains. It was so peaceful up there that I didn’t want to come back down.
The following day we drove a little ways down the mountain and left the car to take a rather steep hike up the mountain and through the forest. Once we eventually made it to the top, it opened up to lush meadows. From this point we chose to head along to Cabana Curmătura, a mountain hut that provides accommodation and food for hikers. This is the perfect place to stop off if you’re walking in this area. We took the opportunity to rest and enjoy a hot drink and some delicious home made apple pie whilst taking in the magnificent mountain views.
Once we had regained our strength, we continued to follow trails down the mountain, through forest and tranquil meadows. We ended our hike walking through a deep gully surrounded by amazing canyons. It was a wonderful place to end our time in Piatra Craiului.
A word of warning to those of you planning to hike in these areas – be very careful when walking near grazing animals if there are guard dogs. We came upon a herd of sheep that were spread over the path we were on and suddenly we were confronted by a sheep dog in full attack mode and another dog coming up our rear. We were literally moments from being attacked before the shepherd finally appeared and managed to get the dogs under control. I would recommend taking some bear/dog spray to keep you safe as these are not the normal kind of farm dogs that I grew up with, but ones trained to protect the animals from bears, wild dogs and wolves.
The next day we left Măgura and made our way carefully back down the rutted road and towards the famous Transfăgărășan DN7C road. On our way we decided to visit the Libearty bear sanctuary just outside of Zărnești. The 66 acre sanctuary is home to over 70 rescue bears that were once kept in cruel conditions. Some visitors struggled with the concept of the sanctuary and confused it with a zoo, not understanding why our visit time was limited to the morning (to reduce the disturbance to the bears, but at the same time trying to get everyone who turns up an opportunity to see them) and why they didn’t breed the bears (their aim is to reduce the number of bears in captivity, not create more). However, the staff did their best to explain the sanctuary’s ethos and share each bear’s heartbreaking story. It was a real pleasure to see the bears run and play in the water.
We decided to head towards the Transfăgărășan road from the south through Bran. Most people don’t go this way and only approach it from the north and then leave by the same road as it is a bit faster. But we had time on our hands and the drive was so beautiful it was well worth it. We had breathtaking views of mountains and meadows the entire drive and the roads were in good repair. Travelling around the Transylvanian countryside is like stepping back in time. Families loaded onto horse drawn carts to travel into town are commonplace. As we were there at the end of summer, everyone was out and about helping to gather hay for the winter. They cut the grass by hand using scythes and then rake it up into big piles to be loaded onto horse drawn wagons. This grass is then dried and stored on traditional hay stacks.
We drove until we reached the Vidraru dam where we stopped for the night. We spent the afternoon walking around the dam and admiring the magnificent engineering. Vidraru dam is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in Europe and provides beautiful views of the Vidraru Lake. I loved the statue of Prometheus holding a lightning bolt above his head. You can get a closer look at him by climbing up the staircase on the side of the road.
The next morning we decided to get up early to drive the remainder of the Transfăgărășan. This is the most famous part of the road and gets very busy, so getting up early was well worth it. We were one of the few cars on the road and so got to enjoy it without the usual tourist hustle and bustle. The views were amazing, and although it looks rather scary, the road actually drives very well. At the highest point of the road there is a cable car and some markets. This is also the best place for views of the squiggliest part of the road.
As we neared the end of the Transfăgărășan, the road was beginning to get busy again as a classic car rally, which was part of the Sibiu Rally Championship, had commenced. We drove on to the small historic city of Sibiu, which was built in the 12th century by German settlers known as Transylvanian Saxons. It was one of the largest and wealthiest of the seven walled citadels, so there are many impressive buildings. This city is perfect for strolling around, getting lost amongst the beautiful buildings and enjoying a meal and some people watching in the square.
Planning to Drive the Transfăgărășan?
Due to weather conditions the Transfăgărășan is only open from the 1st of July until the end of October. However, be aware that these dates may be adjusted according to the weather.
At this point in our journey we were sad to be nearing the end. We drove on to the vibrant city of Bucharest, where we were scheduled to fly out the following day. The weather had become extremely hot but we managed to visit the main sites before collapsing at a bar to enjoy a cold drink whilst reflecting on the many wonderful experiences we had enjoyed.
Tips for Travelling Around Transylvania
- A good GPS with European maps is essential if you're planning on driving around Transylvania. However, you can save money and just use Google's free offline maps on your phone.
- Transylvania uses 230V and the sockets take a European rounded two prong plug.
- Visit Transylvania in the spring to see the spectacular wildflower season.