Across Transylvania like the wind

Romania is a curious place. Evidence of its EU membership is rarely apparent outside Bucharest; even motorways are thin on the ground. Instead, dual carriageways with liberal sprinklings of potholes snake through small towns and villages, and people sell apples, cheese, honey, brandy and other homegrown/homemade/home-brewed goodies on the roadside. Compared to western Europe, hitchhiking is a common way of getting around, and not just for backpackers.

But the countryside is enchanting, particularly as we leave the southeastern plains of Wallachia and head into the Carpathian mountains that separate this part of the country from northwestern (and better-known) Transylvania. Helena and I are visiting my Dad, who is taking us and my half-brother, Aram, on a three-day whistlestop tour of his native Transylvania.

Sighisoara, Romania

An interesting shot of Aram looking thoughtful. I’m not sure where the light came from to make this photo turn out the way it did!

Our first stop was in Sinaia, a skiing resort straddling the main pass through the mountains. My recent skiing and hiking forays to France and Nepal were dominated by regions above the treeline, so it was a lovely change to go for a wander through Sinaia’s rich pine forests with Helena. Through the trees, we caught a glimpse of the gorgeous Peles Castle (whose grounds were sadly closed), built by the Romanian king Charles I; clearly, he was as taken with the area as we were.

Peles Castle, Sinaia, Romania

Peles Castle, coyly hiding behind the trees.

Further down the hill, we found Sinaia monastery, the old compound around which the town has gradually grown. Having arrived mid-week, it was wonderfully peaceful, and the simplicity of the buildings along with the quiet and crisp mountain air made for a rather pleasant change from London’s smelly bustle and a 3.30am start to get to Stansted Airport.

We also made the acquaintance of Romanian food – summarised briefly, it contains a lot of meat, cheese and polenta, and plenty of flavour. Unsurprisingly, I’m a big fan…

Sinaia Monastery, Romania

Sinaia Monastery, a picturesque home to about a dozen Orthodox monks.

With just 3 days in the country, we swiftly moved on the next morning, and made our way to a town called Sighisoara (apparently called Castrum Sex in Latin – who knew?!), on the other side of the mountains. The dilapidated industrial belt we initially drove through did not look promising, but we soon pulled into what turned out to be an almost impossibly quaint little medieval walled town restored to look clinically – almost, dare I say it, a little too perfect.

Sighisoara, Romania

High Street Sighisoara…?

On a hilltop overlooking the old town, we came across a small museum housed in a former school. It looked like it was lifted straight out of the 19th century, but to my great surprise they only stopped teaching in the only classroom in 2010. I caught Aram looking generally unimpressed with the situation…

Sighisoara, Romania

Apparently the desks and benches were used all the way up until 2010 – what a different world!

Helena and I stayed in the biggest hotel room I have ever seen – it wasn’t far short of cavernous. It fit perfectly with the character with the rest of the old town, although a healthy dose of early-20th-century luxury and faded grandeur added hugely to its charm. Upon walking into the room for the first time I immediately lost my key, prompting a good 20 minutes of frustration and ill-suppressed swearing – I’m still getting used to being around a four-year-old…

Hotel Room in Sighisoara, Romania

Our enormous room – behind the door is our antechamber (yes, I *will* call it that).

Before heading up to the mountains to my aunt and uncle’s house to spend time with them and my cousins, we made a brief stop at Bran Castle, better known in the west as Dracula’s Castle. Associated with Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, it is located on a spectacular outcrop overlooking one of the main old roads through the  mountains. The ever-expanding warren of stalls hawking tourist rubbish does little to diminish the castle itself, which I imagine would be even more imposing in less friendly weather.

Looking out from Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

Looking out along the old toll road as the sun begins to set.

Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

The inner courtyard shows off the randomised architecture of the castle, designed to confuse attackers, nicely.

Bran Castle, Brasov County, Romania

A staircase beautifully lit by the late-afternoon light.

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