If you think Romania is just about vampires lurking in dark castles, just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists, think again. Transylvanian vampires loom large, of course, but Romania is so much more than Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and his Brukenthal Palace. Romania does have its share of medieval castles, but it also has pretty alpine scenery hat offers skiing in winter and hiking in summer. It’s got quaint villages and painted churches that are awesome. Just as awesome are the millions of birds that can be found in the Danube Delta where the river empties into the Black Sea. An overview of the top tourist attractions in Romania:
When foreign rulers of Maramures refused to let the people build long-lasting stone churches, they turned to wood instead. They built about 300 wood churches over a 200-year period; only about 100 of these churches remain in use today. These Gothic structures are mostly Orthodox but there are a few Greek Catholic churches. The churches, usually with tall, slim bell towers, reflect an advanced degree of carpentry. They are both simple and elegant at the same time. Hand painted murals decorate the inside of many churches.
Take a trip back in time as you ride through the forests of the Carpathian Mountains on a steam-powered train. Running along the Vaser River, the Vaser Valley Forestry Railway has been in operation since 1932 when it was used to haul logs from the forest to the mill. Today, it also hauls tourists who like the romance of old, narrow gauge trains traveling through pretty, tree-filled landscapes. The ride stops at Paltin where you have two hours to enjoy the scenery and a picnic lunch.
If you’re a nature lover, indulge yourself at the Danube Delta, the largest preserved river delta in Europe; the largest part is in Romania. Be sure to bring binoculars with you, as this is a paradise for watching wildlife, especially birds. Birds flock here from as far away as Egypt and China to breed or winter over. The willow-lined canals offer a great environment for the 300 bird species found here. You’ll also find wildlife such as wildcats, wolves and the occasional boar.
When you get tired of seeking out vampires, consider Poiana Brasov for a change of pace. It’s the most popular ski resort in Romania that also draws skiers from all over Europe. Located in the Carpathian Mountains, the ski resort has seven slopes that offer a combined 25 km (15 miles) of skiing. The resort also hosts competitive alpine skiing and figure skating events. After a day on the slopes, warm yourself up with a traditional mulled wine or try some tuică, a plum based pepper-spiced drink.
Corvin Castle is an imposing medieval, Gothic structure, considered the most impressive medieval castle in Romania. It also is known as Hunyad Castle after the high-ranking official who built it. Corvin Castle is a fairytale castle that is accessed by a wooden bridge that bears a statue of St. John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of bridges. A raven wearing a gold ring is a symbol of the 15th century castle. See, too, the bear pit and the dungeon where people were tortured.
The Sucevita Monastery is architecturally unique, no doubt about that. Somehow the blend of the Gothic and Byzantine styles, plus Moldavia’s painted churches comes together in a spectacular building. The front is cylindrical, topped with a conical roof while the back is rectangular and topped with a small tower. Inside, you’ll find painted murals from the early 1600s and tomb covers embroidered with silver thread. The monastery, located in northeast Romania, is considered one of the most important painted churches in Moldavia.
If you feel like you’re working in a salt mine at home, then you should feel comfortable at Salina Turda. The salt mine, which dates as far back as the 17th century, was used for everything from a cheese storage center to a bomb shelter in WWII after excavations stopped in 1932. Today, it has been transformed into an incredible sci-fi theme park. Located in Ciuj County, Salina Turda has been called one of the coolest underground places in the world. When you visit, you’ll head down about 120 meters (400 feet) before reaching the submerged wonderland. Once inside, you’ll find an amphitheater, a bowling alley, an underground lake with prow boats, and even a Ferris wheel.
The Transylvanian Alps, also known as the Southern Carpathians, aren’t as high as the Rockies or the Himalayas, usually under 2,000 meters in elevation. The exception is Mount Moldoveanu, at 2,544 meters (8,346 feet), the highest point in Romania. The rugged mountains, dotted with sheep-filled meadows with wildflowers, offer some pretty good hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Couch potatoes can visit a mist-shrouded Gothic castle instead as they hunt for legendary vampires on their own turf.
Biertan Fortified Church stands head and shoulders above the other buildings in Biertan, It was originally a Catholic church built when the region belonged to Hungary. It became a Lutheran church after the Reformation. Rather than build a fortress to defend against Ottoman invaders, townspeople fortified the church. Built in Late Gothic style, it is one of the largest fortified churches in Romania. The church is noted for its towers, including one used to store food during sieges and another to imprison husbands who wanted a divorce.
Surrounded by medieval buildings, the Plata Mare, or Big Square as it’s known in English, is a must-see sight in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. The square had its beginning as a cereal market in the early 15th century. A few decades later, the Tailors’ Guild building went up. It was followed by houses, a Jesuit church and Brukenthal Palace. Big Square was a place for public gatherings, including festivals and beheadings. It was place to see troublemakers as they were displayed in the “lunatic’s cage.”
Merry Cemetery in the town of Sapanta isn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill cemetery. It’s more like a folk art gallery, with colorful tombstones, crosses and statuary celebrating the lives of the deceased. This colorful tradition began with a 14-year-old boy who began carving crosses in 1908. He added poems and painted a portrait of the deceased on the cross; sometimes he even painted how they died. And thus a tradition was born. The background on everything is deep blue, with other colors symbolizing life, death and fertility.
Peles Castle doesn’t have a history of sieges and warfare but it does have something other European castles don’t: spectacular beauty, sitting as it does on a Carpathian hillside. This Neo-Renaissance castle was built by King Carol I who vacationed here in the 1860s. Fairytale-like in appearance, it’s considered one of the most stunning castles in Europe. A 4,000-piece weapons collection reflects the king’s military interests, while a movie room decorated with frescoes reflects the queen’s artistic interests. The first movie shown in Romania aired here.
In a country where medieval buildings abound, there’s nothing medieval about the Palace of Parliament in the capital Bucharest. It is a thoroughly modern complex that is considered the largest administrative building in the world. It took 20,000 workers, working around the clock, 13 years to build it. It is an architectural wonder involving 700 architects and design specialists. The palace is a popular tourist attraction with foreigners, but not so much with the locals since it was built by Romania’s hated leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu.
If you have preconceived notions of what medieval life was like, Sighisoara Historic Center will certainly fulfill them. Old Town Sighisoara is definitely medieval at its finest. Found by 12th century Transylvanian Saxons, Sighisoara is a great example of a fortified medieval town. It has the traditional narrow streets flanked by colorful stone buildings. It is the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sighisoara celebrates its medievalness every July with a festival that includes rock bands.
Bran Castle is often associated with Dracula as his home, though there’s no indication that author Bram Stoker even knew of this medieval castle. The castle, a Romanian landmark, has a fairy tale quality, peeking out from forested a hillside near Brasov in Transylvania. With roots dating to the 13th century, this medieval castle today is a museum showcasing art and furniture collected by Queen Maria. It also is home to an open-air museum featuring Romanian peasant buildings from around the country.