This scene was what we were rewarded with after arriving at the Cabana Curmatura in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and hiking on for another hour. I dream of returning to amazing Transylvania. Too bad people’s only notion of it is the legend of Dracula: there is SO much to enjoy and explore there!
On the day we finished the four days of hiking in the Transylvanian Alps, on our way back to Braşov we took a slight detour to visit two very beautiful castles in the Sinaia area of Romania: the Peleş Castle and its sidekick, the Pelişor Castle. While these two castles are not as old or as “famous” as Bran Castle (of Dracula notoriety), they are beautiful and quite evocative of a time and life past. So this post is for “other”, lesser-known castles in surprising Romania!
Brief History of the Peleş and Pelişor Castles
Peleş Castle began being built around 1873-5. It was ordered built by King Charles I of Romania. It became an official summer royal residence around 1883 and it remained so until after World War II when it was confiscated by the communist government. In 2007 it was returned to the ex-royal family though not its contents. The family rents it back to the government to serve as a museum though I have also read that the family sold it back to the government (this could be more recent news). (By the way these are the same ex-royals who still parade themselves at weddings and funerals of other European royal families still using royal titles – I think some folks need to get a grip… But I digress.) A lot of the objects in the castle originated from Austria or Germany. Its main tower reminded me a little bit of the tower of Palace of Culture, in Iaşi.
Pelişor Castle, which sits a short walk away from Peleş, was also ordered built by Charles I but for his heir (and nephew), Ferdinand, to live in. It was built around the turn of the 20th century from 1899-1903. Since then, it shares the same history as Peleş.
Indoors and Outdoors at Peleş Castle
I was about to say (er, write) that my favorite part of this castle was the courtyard and the front yard. Then I remembered the chandeliers I saw and some of the incredible rooms (especially the “oriental” room – how cool!). The castle is worth the detour and worth paying the photo fee to take pictures.
Indoors and Outdoors at Pelişor Castle
While Peleş felt more “grown-up”, Pelişor felt more like a regular home. Not only because it was smaller, more manageable than Peleş but also because it had rooms for little kids on exhibit – it truly felt like a family’s home. You could be forgiven for thinking that at any moment, kids were about to run in.
So while Bran Castle is much better known (or, perhaps, the only known) castle in Romania to folks far from that country, it is a shame if a visitor to Romania makes it to Bran to see its castle and does not take the short detour to see these two gems of castles nestled in the lands around Sinaia. It is well worth the effort!
So my trek to Romania is fast approaching. I shared here about the hike in Romania in support of a local orphanage (donations welcome at www.trekkingforkids.org; mark me as the trekker!). I have been preparing and planning to visit the Alps in Transylvania, made famous (or better known) by the story of Dracula…
The hike will take place over 4 days where among other places we will stop at the castle that inspired the story of Dracula (Bran’s Castle). We will staying in chalets or other accommodations in the area and we will visit other castles in the area. We will be hiking for 5-6 hours every day and ascending to upwards of 9,000ft above sea level. I have done 3-4 hr hikes in Kennesaw Mountain, about 20 minutes north of Atlanta, along trails they have up and around the mountain. I have also been relying on the treadmill doing hour-long walks at 10% incline or more. I sure hope this and my overall general fitness level help make this hike something less than a painful experience!
Pre-Hike Visit to Moldova
I don’t generally miss an opportunity to see a new place so I thought to myself that if I am going to Romania, I needed to do something in addition to Romania in this trip. In terms of Romania, I get to see Bucharest, Brasov and the Transylvanian Alps so I was leaning to go somewhere outside of Romania.
The Greek Isles definitely beckoned but the lack of direct flights to the islands (taking into account all the stuff I will be lugging around for the hike) made me -sadly- kill that option. A strong contender was neighboring Serbia. But as I looked at the map more, there was one obvious candidate destination that I may otherwise not get to… the ex-Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova. I hear it still feels somewhat Soviet but I have also heard great things about fortresses, monasteries and wineries so it makes sense for me to explore it. I decided to make it there before the hike.
Through a recommendation from someone in TripAdvisor, I contacted a local guide who will take me around for the 3 days I will be in Moldova to explore this -to me- mysterious country. The local guide recommended I see Romania’s cultural capital, Iasi (population ~350K, inhabited since 400BC!), very close to Moldova on the west and that he could pick me up there. So Iasi got added to the itinerary though I will spend less than a half a day there unfortunately.
Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, will be my base those three days. I have decided to stay at the Best Western Flowers which seemed well located and got good reviews in TripAdvisor (one of my preferred sources).
I am excited to get to explore one of the smallest and lesser known European countries and enjoy its charms before I do the hike.
Getting to Romania
I wanted to use frequent flyer miles to get to Bucharest but, as everyone has heard, airline miles keep losing value. I had hoped to make the trip business class as I never get to do that on international flights. However, what used to be a 90,000 mile business class seat can be now over 200,000 miles! Inflation of awards outpaces any normal inflation metric… Clearly a mental note has been made to earn points where possible outside of frequent flyer accounts (Marriott, for example, has a great and valuable rewards program).
Sure enough, I couldn’t get anything under 200,000 miles. I had more miles than that to use but I refused to spend that many miles. I tweeted in frustration, promising I would diversify my airline choices in the future. A direct message came in from the airline asking if there was anything they could do to help. I replied, rather skeptically, explaining further and adding “if you can get me there on business class for much less, I’d take it”. Long story short, that person contacted me 2 hrs later (after various exchanges clarifying date flexibility, etc.) with an itinerary that was 150,000 via Amsterdam (trans-Atlantic leg with KLM! but 8-hr layover…) BUT it could not get me out of Bucharest to the gateway city (Paris) – I’d be on my own for that. I was quite pleased. I realize 90,000 was a dream especially in peak summer season so I understood that I got as good a deal as possible. My itinerary though does require 2 stops going over and 2 coming back BUT on the return I have to overnight in Paris anyway so I will make it a 2 night/1 day visit (I lived in Paris for 6 months many years ago so getting to stop there is like going home for me).
Getting to Moldova
Now, the only item left was getting to Moldova. Trains are a great way to see more of a country but I was trying to maximize time in Moldova and the train ride was not a short one. Since Iasi, Romania seemed worthseeing, I was going to fly there from Bucharest and then just return to Bucharest to join the hike group by flying out of Chisinau. I land in Bucharest from the US at around midnight on the night of the 15th of July and catch my flight to Iasi at 11AM the next day. Clearly I will not have time to unpack and repack for this 4 day trip so I will have to pack my bags in the US so it is a matter of leaving my hike luggage at the hotel in Bucharest and take one smaller bag for the Moldova trip. (I am scoring a room at the JW Marriott for practically nothing! I will stay there again the night I come back from Moldova.)
But heaven help me if the Romanian airline’s (TAROM) website wasn’t a royal pain the rear! After many attempts, I ended up just going to good ole Expedia to book my flight and end the non-sense. I hope the experience with TAROM is not a sign of things to come!
Sadly, I will only have one good day to see Bucharest so I will book some sort of tour to be efficient about seeing the key sights. I hate not getting to spend more time and get a feel for the city but checking Iasi and Moldova out seemed more off the beaten path and that will always trump other options!
So with less than 2 weeks to go, I am slightly daunted by the logistics of packing up all the right things for a hike in the mountains: do I have all the things I need (they gave us a gear list but still trying to decide what to buy, what to borrow, and whether to buy cheap alternatives or the real things…), which bags are the ideal bags (my huge backpacker backpack, a duffel bag, etc. considering the multiple plane changes and the darn hiking poles), and how to strategically pack my bags.
However, any anxiety or eagerness to resolve all these pales in comparison with the excitement about the hike, the orphanage we are working with, and the sights and sounds I am about to experience in this corner of Eastern Europe!