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Published: October 13th 2016
We nearly went to Italy – again. Not that there is anything wrong with that but we were in danger of becoming serial visitors, automatically going off to Italy at every opportunity – well, it is pretty fabulous but then there are a whole lot of places that we have never visited that are also pretty fabulous. So we decided to visit Romania, Transylvania specifically.
At Bucharest airport we collected our rental car and headed off for our first stop, Brasov, where we would be spending 5 days. We had intended to stay the first two days in Sinaia to be close to Peles Castle and the mountains but after reading that they were closed on Monday and Tuesday (the days we were supposed to be there), we decided it would be better to stay in a bigger town and make day trips from there.
It was a good decision. Lots and lots to do in Brasov – a well preserved historical center, full of cafes and restaurants and Mt Tampa looming over it with its Hollywood type sign has great views over the town. We spent the days visiting different places around Brasov and the afternoons walking round
the streets, admiring the buildings and eating our dinner outside at one of the cafes in the evening. We stayed at a hotel for the first two nights and then moved to an apartment above the town about 10 minutes down the hill to the center, mostly didn’t take the car and took a taxi back. Prices are very reasonable in Romania. We stayed in 4 and 5 star hotels and in some very nice apartments that were half the price you would pay in other European cities. We didn’t just walk around taking photos and eating all the time – although we did quite a lot of that.
I had read that the walk up Mount Tampa is not too strenuous for fairly fit people and although we walk the dog several times a day and exercise sometimes, we don’t exactly qualify as fairly fit, so we decided to walk down instead. Nothing written about that. We took the cable car to the top and bought a little basket of berries, admired the view and then started our walk down. Bit of a mistake. The path was rocky and at times extremely steep, at the steeper parts there
Goat herder with his sheep and goats
This is the first person we met on the road out of Bucharest
was a rail and stairs, at some points it seemed I was literally hanging off the rails. The forest is nice but I wasn’t really looking at it because my eyes were glued to the path. About half way down, Micha said something about bears – no, no bears here, too many hikers and too close to built-up areas – I thought – but I did get a bit worried and found myself scanning the trees every now and then for signs of a bear attack.
The Carpathian mountains has a population of about 6,000 bears, the most in Europe after Russia. They are cousins of the American grizzly. Under Nicolae Ceausescu only he was allowed to hunt them and it was illegal for everybody else so the bear population in Romania grew while in most of the European countries the bears and wolves were wiped out hundreds of years ago. Today many people regard the bears as little more than a nuisance and hunting is big business with an alpha male bringing in about 10,000 euros. On the other hand, tourism is growing and it helps to preserve the wildlife and forests and for the moment the bear
population is fairly stable. I didn’t actually see any bears but I knew they were there and was a little nervous just the same. When we finally got down the mountain after an hour and a half, my heart missed a beat when I saw the big sign warning of bears.
We came out a long way from our starting point and we still had a long walk back to our car, passing our rented apartment along the way but although very tired and with aching legs, we were starting to feel rather pleased with ourselves. First of all we had a lucky escape (ha, ha) and then whenever we looked up at the mountain above the town we would remember that we walked down -- it seems we got it wrong though, we were supposed to scale the mountain, walking down doesn’t sound so impressive. But really, it was quite a walk.
On our second day we drove back on the road to Sinaia to take the cable car up to the top of the mountain. The carriages seemed quite old – I don’t have a problem with that but the windows hadn’t been cleaned in a
long time which was a shame. The views were spectacular. The clouds were also very big and dramatic and seemed to be rather close, looking like they were going to swallow everything in their path. Every day of the first week that we spent in Romania, the clouds would roll in at about noon and it seemed like the end of summer was imminent but then after two hours they would disappear and the sun would be back in blue skies.
We took the cable car to the second station at 2000 meters and just had a bit of a walk around and admired the views. There are lots of hiking paths for all levels – but evidently not for our level which must be the lazy level. It’s a good idea to walk down from the second station at 1400 meters. You can also drive there instead of taking the cable car. The tree line starts at 1400 meters and it is a nice walk through the forest.
We then drove on to Busteni but didn’t go up to the Bucegi mountains. It was that time of day when it looked like a huge storm was coming
so we visited the painted chapel at Caraiman Monastery. It was really fantastic. Religious paintings of vibrant colors covered every surface. No photos, as it wasn’t allowed. The Monastery is at the foot of the Caraiman Massif and is an uphill walk from the town. The road between Sinaia and Brasov goes through a pretty valley between tree covered mountains. There are lots of cute little wooden houses and forests of fir trees. It’s very picturesque.
We visited Sinaia once more, later in the week when Peles Castle was finally open. Many attractions are closed on Monday and Tuesday throughout Romania because they are open on Saturday and Sunday. Most of the castles and churches we visited were, of course, situated on hills, on the higher land with great views of the surrounding countryside. There is a lot of walking up hills and going up and down stairs – which is part of the fun but for some it might be difficult. A lot of the churches are locked but you can usually find a custodian to open them for you, depending on how much you really want to see it because there are just so many painted churches
windows and doors
I never used to take so many photos of windows and doors, not to mention walls. Instagram has changed me ...
and castles in varying stages of preservation, everything from complete ruins to the perfectly restored and maintained Peles Castles and all the stages in between. Peles Castle – which is really a palace – stands in a league of its own though.
Peles is set amongst green meadows and forest. There are other buildings on the grounds but they are not open to the public. Building on Peles was started in 1873 by King Carol and continued until his death in 1914. But this was no building site. They had plenty of time and plenty of money so they would just add another wing every now and then. There are 160 rooms and you can only visit a few of them on a guided tour. The guided tour takes you to the public rooms on the first floor. There were a lot of people waiting to enter but it was organized by language and the groups were thankfully not let in all at once but had a 10 minute interval between them. You could actually hear what the guide was saying and the noise level was not too bad – also helped by the thick walls and doors.
There is also an optional tour of some of the private quarters on the second floor. If you want to take photos it will cost you about 10 euros. I opted for the optional tour and really enjoyed the tour of the bedrooms and bathrooms. I also paid for permission to take photos but I am not a professional photographer and there is a lot of light from windows and chandeliers so my photos were not the best.
The castle is incredibly modern by the standards of the time. By the 1880s they had central heating, electric light, a small lift for the king and queen, hot and cold running water, vacuuming, movie theater, and even a small hydroelectric power plant to supply their own electricity. 90% of the objects inside are original. The rooms are bursting with plush textiles, furnishings, crystal chandeliers, art, stained glass windows and elaborate wood carvings. The fire places in most rooms are purely for decoration as there was central heating throughout and also because there is a large amount of woodwork that the King didn’t want spoiled by smoke. The entrance hall’s glass roof can be manually or electrically opened and closed. It
still works today, as does the central heating and hydroelectric power plant. You cannot say of this family that they had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it. These people made a valiant effort to spend it.
Of the public rooms we visited I liked the men’s smoking room best. It is a small and cozy Turkish style room. The women also had a smoking room in an oriental style – much larger than the mens’ and not as nice, in my opinion. The guide told a story of how the women’s smoking room came to be. Queen Marie (from England) married the German-raised Ferdinand of Romania when she was 17 and came to live at the strict Romanian court. Ferdinand informed her that some of her habits were not acceptable and that she would have to stop. She was a keen horsewoman but in Romania it was not considered appropriate for a high-born woman to ride. She said OK, she wouldn’t ride. Ferdinand also said that she would not be allowed to cut her hair. Anyway she had long flowing hair, so she again said OK, she wouldn’t cut her hair. But then Ferdinand
said that she would no longer be allowed to smoke. She was indignant. As the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England on her father’s side and of Alexander, the tsar of Russia, on her mother’s side, she would do as she liked. The very next day she cut her hair, saddled her horse and went riding while smoking a cigarette. So she got a smoking room where she could smoke freely without scandalizing the plebs and must have been a bad influence on her ladies in waiting and retinue that joined her there.
On the second floor we visited some of the private apartments of the royal family and their attendants. There are 160 rooms in Peles and of those, 80 are bedrooms and 30 are bathrooms. According to my guidebook, the bathrooms were modern with plumbing, toilets, bidets, bathtubs and hot and cold running water. But the guide said that there was no plumbing and that they used chamber pots. Also according to the guide, the king placed his mother and his mother-in-law as far as possible from his and his wife’s chambers, right next to each other, in the coldest part of the castle. The guide said
that King Carol I and Queen Elizabeth hated each other, could hardly stand to be in the same room together.
Peles castle was confiscated by the communists in 1947 and the royal family sent into exile. Ceausescu didn’t like the place and didn’t go there much. It was used to host visiting dignitaries – Richard Nixon, Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat all stayed there -- also Gerald Ford but he seems a bit out of place on this list. The Romanian government gave it back to the royal family in 1990. We wanted to visit Pelisor palace too but it was closed while we were there. It was the residence of Ferdinand and Marie and is where the queens heart was eventually laid to rest after a very long journey around Romania (read about it in my next blog entry). Ferdinand and Marie had a disastrous marriage but I read that even though they had 6 children together it is said that they were not all his. Marie had many rumored lovers. It is said that the beloved queen hated her husband but loved Romania with all her heart. Maybe that is why she was buried next to her husband
but wanted a different burial place for her heart.
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