Romania – not your first choice holiday destination? Well, think again – especially if you’re a historical horror habitué. The country is split into 3 major regions – on the top right is Moldavia, with Wallachia at the bottom and on the top left you’ll find…Transylvania.
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As legend has it, Transylvania is the mysterious land of blood-thirsty vampires and howling wolves. Some may think it’s fictional, but this central Romanian region is a real place, bordered to the east by the magnificent Carpathian Mountains. It conjures up a vivid landscape of mountains, castles, fortified churches and the supernatural. You’ll discover all that (well, maybe not the supernatural) and much more.
Landing in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, you can start your drive right from the airport, ready to kick off your exploration of the country. If you’re a fan of Dracula folklore, then I’d recommend the following route from Bucharest in Wallachia, all the way through to Bran in the heart of Transylvania.
Snagov is a village approximately 40km north of Bucharest. The village is built around Snagov Monastery, located on an islet on Snagov Lake which is a popular holiday resort, where many villas have recently been built on the shores of the lake.
The monastery allegedly houses the tomb containing the headless corpse of Vlad III Drăculea, better known as ‘Vlad the Impaler’, whose history is completely at odds with the sheer tranquillity of the surroundings.
From Snagov, it’s an increasingly more scenic route across the Carpathian Mountains to Sinaia.
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Sinaia is named after Sinaia Monastery, which in turn is named after Mount Sinai in Egypt. A popular destination for hiking and winter sports, it’s particularly famed for downhill skiing. It’s often claimed that the town has a refreshing and stimulating, even restorative climate – beneficial to your health.
On the outskirts of Sinaia, is Peleș Castle (Castelul Peleș), a neo-Renaissance castle nestled in the Carpathians, on a medieval route linking Transylvania with Wallachia. One of the most magical castles in Transylvania with spiralling turrets, lush green meadows and grand reception halls – it was intended to be the summer residence of King Carol I, Romania’s longest serving monarch.
Throughout history, the castle has hosted many important figures from artists and politicians to royalty, and became the world’s first castle to be fully powered by locally produced electricity.
From the relaxing and refreshing atmosphere of Sinaia, your next stop is Râșnov.
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Approximately 15km from both Brașov and Bran, Râșnov links Wallachia with Transylvania. It houses a citadel built in 1215 by the Teutonic Knights which was conquered only once in its history, in around 1600 by Gabriel Bathory. The citadel is an historic monument and landmark, built as part of a defence system for villages in Transylvania exposed to outsider invasions.
An interesting fact for movie fans: in 2002, the citadel and surrounding forests were used extensively during the filming of Cold Mountain.
A short drive from Râșnov is the town of Brașov.
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Brașov features a cosmopolitan medley of stunning architecture and chic sidewalk cafes, all punctuating the maze of bohemian cobbled streets. The centrepiece square is Piata Sfatului, a mecca for people-watching fans! Legend has it that the Pied Piper re-emerged from Hamelin in Brașov, which you can well imagine with the enchanting fairy-tale turrets dotted around. While exploring, you may stumble across Rope Street, the narrowest street in Romania and rumoured to be the narrowest in Europe.
Brașov is home to the Black Church, Biserica Neagră, an imposing building dating from 1477. It acquired the unusual moniker after being blackened by smoke from the great fire of 1689. The name Black Church is also linked to a mural painted in the South porch that shows the Virgin Mary (dressed in black) and Jesus, pictured between St Catherine and St Barbara.
An impressive 4,000 pipe organ, believed to be the only Buchholz preserved in original form is housed within the church, along with the largest collection of old rugs from Asia Minor, which were donated by craftsmen, merchants and residents of the town.
Waving a fond farewell to this diverse town, we head to your final destination and the spiritual home of Dracula, Bran.
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Winding your way from Wallachia to Transylvania, you travel along some spectacularly twisting roads, with stunning mountainous scenery and upon reaching Bran – the castle is immediately obvious. Perched high on a cliff peak, complete with towers (and obligatory bats), Bran Castle really does look like it’s been lifted right off the pages of your favourite vampire novel.
The 14th-century pile near Braşov, once besieged by Vlad the Impaler, has been restored of late and brings in the crowds accordingly. Construction of the castle was ordered way back in 1377 by King Sigismund of Hungary, and guarded a strategic trade route between Transylvania and Wallachia.
Made famous in modern times when Queen Marie received it in the 1920s, 25 of the 57 rooms are open to the public to tour alone, or with a guide (each offering their own level of historical and entertainment value).
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I was fortunate enough to be one of a small party at Castelul Bran who were allowed unrestricted access to the entirety of the castle, after dark. Having toured the castle during the day with the crowds clamouring for stolen glimpses of the restricted rooms, the atmosphere totally changes after sunset – when it becomes much quieter, and far more sinister.
When I arrived for my spine-chilling night visit, the bats were circling the castle courtyard, just as a spectacular thunderstorm began overhead, charging the already electric atmosphere. Creeping around in the dark, torches in hand, we discovered secret stairways, torture chambers and shadows that seemed to reach out towards you as you looked at them. Our guide once again joined us to reveal more about the history of the castle, the Dracula myth and the links with the British Royal Family.
After several hours of fear and intrigue, it was time to bid farewell to Dracula and Bran Castle, ready to head home to safety – suitably terrified.
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