Peleș and Bran

We took a few days last week to escape Bucharest and drive to the countryside. Our goal was a cabin just outside of Bran (of Transylvania/Dracula tourist fame). The cabin was a peaceful experience – we overlooked a small hayfield and mountains were in the distance – but getting there was not. Kevin always draws the short straw when it comes to rental car driving and I attempt navigation. I knew where we were going, though trying to determine how to get through some of Bucharest’s intersections defies all logical road rules. Sometimes turning left on green requires first going into the right lane and waiting for a second light to change. Drivers here also tend to stop by the side of the road with no warning and for any reason. It’s all very unpredictable.

Local wildlife, old fashioned haystacks, our cabin once the grass was mowed.

On the highway to Bran we stopped for a few hours to tour Peleș Castle, the summer residence of the royal family from the late 1800s. King Carol I made a brilliant choice. Peleș is in the mountains where summer is cooler and hiking and hunting were abundant. The castle feels very Bavarian (Carol I was actually German), and looks like a cabin on steroids.

Peles Castle on the walk up and the castle courtyard.

The palace interior is anything but cabiny – Venetian glass, marble, carved walnut, all the amenities the turn of the century could provide. I think it is the first castle we’ve been where electricity and telegraph lines were installed as it was built. And when an interior courtyard was covered over to make a grand staircase and reception hall, the King and Queen had the foresight to put on a retractable roof. Clearly, someone in the family was loaded.

The castle’s weapons collection, stained glass on the retractable roof, and oversized doors.

The tour at Peles lasted about 45 minutes, and then we were back on our way. We arrived at our cabin mid-afternoon, just as a thunderstorm was rolling over the top of the mountains behind us. Thinking Bran Castle would be at its eeriest with rain and lighting as a backdrop, we found an umbrella and walked into town. Contrary to what many photos had us believe, Bran Castle isn’t situated alone in the mountains – there is a small town at its base that serves tourists and is full of souvenir shops and restaurants. Despite this, the castle sits separated in a park of its own and manages to look at least a little ominous.

Not-so-frightening castle door, tower!, and the secret staircase (because all quasi-haunted buildings need one).

Of course, it used to be homier than it is now (the interiors currently are almost completely white and very stark). Queen Marie used this castle as her own summer retreat and a few swatches show it would have been painted with floral motifs and been much cozier.

Two rooms were dedicated to the Dracula legend and all the movies that have come out of the Bram Stoker’s book. Bran Castle does seem to be an inspiration for the story, but Vlad didn’t live there. It just conveniently looked like the castle described in the book and was suitably close to Bucharest.

Castle Bran’s courtyard, looking toward surrounding valleys from a hike above Bran.

Castles aside, the Romanian countryside is gorgeous. The plains felt Midwestern. Corn and wheat were growing in abundance. We passed shepherds with small flocks of sheep and cattle every few miles. Horse drawn carts were still in use in the smaller towns. Up in the mountains, many roadside stands were offering berries, and livestock grazed next to the road, watched by their handlers. Traditional hay meadows, still scythed by hand, dot the tops of smaller mountains. Haystacks are also made by hand and are scattered throughout the small fields. Our neighbors were making one the morning we left – a tall pole through the middle and a tripod of legs make the base for the stack.

Horse & cart patiently waiting for their owner, hay drying on the lower barn roof, an Orthodox church.

Driving back into Bucharest was less stressful than getting out of the city. We returned on a Friday, and there was a steady stream of nice cars going the opposite way. Something to do with a holiday weekend and the 90+ degree temperatures we returned to. In any case, we were happy we had the chance to escape mid-week and I’d definitely love to return to the Carpathian Mountains in autumn.