romania

Romania is possibly Europe’s most misunderstood country. What do you really know about it? Could you point it out on a map? After a quick survey of a few dozen friends, I discovered that  most of them could tell me little or nothing about this amazing country that didn’t pertain to vampires. Hollywood has forever etched the Dracula fable into our minds with scores of movies about the infamous Romanian bloodsucker. Romania is so much more than that.

That having been said, these legends are the reason that some travelers find themselves in the Transylvania area. Who doesn’t want to catch a glimpse of the undead at Dracula’s castle? Transylvania means “changing woods” and it’s a beautiful area to visit should you find yourself in Romania. The main tourist road heads north from Bucharest into the mountains full of scenic stops and quaint villages. The main draw is, yes, you guessed it! Dracula’s castle.

Bran Castle is the number one tourist destination in Romania as well as a little of a disappointment if you’re looking for vampire stereotypes. It’s scary-looking enough from the outside as it rises on a jagged cliff, but it’s interior is, well, a little less menacing. I was there in the late fall, so the leafless trees and overcast sky in the foreground made for some great pictures of the giant edifice. Once inside, the freshly painted white walls and simple furniture  completely canceled out any passing thoughts of a monster encounter. The inside is nothing special, except for an occasional dark hallway, but the outside of the building makes up for it with it’s fairy tale turrets and twisting roof. The biggest surprise is that there are hardly any vampire souvenirs visible when you walk through the stalls on the way up to the castle. Why? The main reason is Dracula as we have portrayed him in film and other media is quite a different person than his real life counterpart. Bram Stoker wrote the novel “Dracula” in the late 1800s and it became a monster classic. He liked the name Dracula, which translates to “dragon” and is often associated with Vlad Teppes, one of Romania’s most infamous denizens, also known as Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad, it turns out had a bit of a temper. He was raised as a prisoner of the Ottomans and it is believed that his captivity helped turn him into a cruel man with a penchant for torture. He never sucked anyone’s blood but he was known to impale his enemies and leave their bodies out to worry future enemies about their possible fate. Maybe he was a little jealous that his brother was known as Radu the Handsome and had to work off some steam. Regardless, the castle in Bran is often associated with Dracula for two reasons. It’s the only fortress that matches the description of the Count in Bram Stoker’s book and the real life Vlad Teppes spent two months imprisoned there. That’s a bit of a stretch on both counts (pardon the pun) because Stoker never actually visited Romania. Secondly, Vlad never really technically lived there; In spite of the facts, the outside of the castle definitely exudes a creepy-factor and it brings travelers from all over the world. North of Brasov is the town of Sighiosoara where Vlad was actually born. It’s a beautiful yet eerie town that looks like it came straight out of a horror film with it’s funky rooftops and cobblestone streets.  The cemeteries are a must see.This beautiful medieval village was built by Transylvania Saxons and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999.

Between  Sighisoara and Bucharest is the charming area of Sinaia. The mountains that frame the area are breathtaking and one doesn’t have to be content just to look up at them. A cable car leaves from Buşteni to the top of the mountain. The area is called  Babele and is a actually a national park with giant mushroom looking formations and strange shaped rocks. The Romanian Sphinx is the most famous natural sculpture on the top of this other-worldly looking mountain top. It actually looks like an eroded Sphinx if you stand in the right place. Looking down from the top of the mountain is stunningly beautiful. Hiking is popular as well.

Peles castle is located at the base of the mountain and is built in a neo-renaissance style. In a beautiful setting peeking out of a forest, the gardens, murals and statues are amazing. The palace is only about 100 years old but was carefully constructed to make use of older European architecture styles, but not to imitate any other.  It is vaguely reminiscent of Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and takes it’s name from the nearby monastery, another popular tourist site.

Romania is one of Europe’s most exciting, yet overlooked tourist destinations. It has amazing castles, fantastic hikes, medieval towns  and ancient churches that rival anything in the west. Looking for a new travel treasure? Romania might be exactly what you’re looking for.