Romania was not what we expected; it was a surprise in more ways than one. When we first decided to travel to Romania we weren’t sure how to go about it. Visiting the capital of Bucharest seemed a bit out of reach; being far eastward we could train there fairly easily, but finding a quick & direct path out to our next destination was proving impossible. Armed with a list of other promising destinations & recommendations, we decided to mix it up with a rental car. We had been on trains so long I’d forgotten what overseeing your own logistics was like & we figured what better way to get a sense of the country?
This is how I wound up in the passenger seat of the tiniest little Renault Clio grasping the “oh s***” handle, rolling back & forth around curves & being launched over bumps. Romania was quite literally a wild ride…we had no idea the countryside would be like this. It is one of the most gorgeous countries we’ve ever seen, & one of the most scenic drives we’ve ever had. Landscapes are almost indescribable, rolling hills of lush green, deep valleys & soaring peaks. Every time we turned an s-curve or crested another peak, it was some breathtaking view.
It was also a ridiculous ride. We were traveling one of the more major roads, we think, but by its conditions, I don’t know if I’d want to see the worst! Swerving, we avoided potholes or missing sections of the road, & were launched over a few bumps big enough I went airborne. With our own classic rock & roll road trip tunes, it felt like a scene from a bad (maybe funny?) movie with the appropriate theme music – “Magic Carpet Ride”. Ah & the drivers! We hadn’t seen driving like this since Nepal! Blind passes around bends, Mario Cart style, weaving in & out from behind large industrial trucks or to avoid the various local horse & buggies that clamored along the road with either goods or people; it was quite fun really when I wasn’t faced with a near collision. When Ben asked for some new tunes, I replied only saying I would use music to express my feelings to him. I promptly hit play, “Living on a Prayer”
The drive will forever be one of the most memorable parts, though this particular stretch was not why we had actually come to Romania. Our intention had been to explore & enjoy the cities & beautiful surroundings. Thankful, we lived to do so.
We began our little trip in the city of Brașov, an ancient city settlement later dominated for years by German settlers. A very interesting city complete with its own version of the “Hollywood Sign”.
In the heart of the Transylvania region, Brașov is the perfect location to check out Romania’s best-known castles; Bran & Peles Castle.
If Bran Castle sounds familiar, you probably know it better as “Dracula’s Castle”, the 1897 Bram Stoker’s novel set in Transylvania but that’s about all that’s accurate. Reportedly, the historical figure Vlad the Impaler was an inspiration for Count Dracula but even if so, Vlad hardly spent any time in Bran Castle if any at all! Still this doesn’t stop everyone from capitalizing on the books; families & throngs of vampire lovers flock here daily.
In all actuality, I found the real history of Bran Castle to be far more interesting; completed in 1388 it was still used by the last Romanian Royal family until the 1940’s. I had no idea & being a sucker for any famous or infamous royal (especially strong women), I soaked up every bit of walking the castle’s halls.
So, if you do go, go on your own & go early! It is easy to find parking & if you arrive close to or just after opening you will have less trouble. We walked right up & strolled in when we arrived. As we were leaving though, lines were forming out the door & down the castle’s entry way…hundreds of people now stood in line in the sun awaiting entry. The picture below shows just a small amount of the people waiting as we left.
Peleș Castle is very different though only slightly less touristy. Built between 1873 & 1914 it was a summer castle for King Carol I. Nestled beside it is Pelișor Castle, residence of the future King Ferdinand & Queen Marie. Set amongst the beautiful Carpathians, in a quaint little town & surrounding by forest, I guess it is easy to see why it was their own little escape.
The Transfăgărășan mountain road (DN7C), named by Top Gear as the greatest road in the world, absolutely lives up to its name. Built as a strategic military route in the 1970’s, the Transfăgărășan passes between Romania’s two highest peaks connecting Transylvania to Wallachia regions. As we drove from the southern end of the road to the north, we began to understand the true beauty & majesty of what the road has to offer. Continuous switchbacks, steep climbs & descents, & incredible views truly make this a driver’s paradise. I think Ben was in some sort of heaven driving our little car up & over the Carpathians.
From Poenari Castle to Lake Vidaru, the road passes some of the most majestic viewpoints and natural wonders the Transylvania region offers.
Finally, at the top, the curvy mountain pass brings you up to Bâlea Lake, a beautiful oasis created by glacial runoff. Loads of local Romanians flock here on the weekend to hike, paraglide, zipline, or just enjoy the natural surroundings outside the cities. We of course partook & were rewarded with some of the most amazing views we have had on our trip.
This road is truly embraced by locals and tourists alike. Motorcycle groups, car enthusiasts, & even cyclists flock here from all over the world and for good reason. We would absolutely recommend anyone to come drive this wonder of Romania. Come early in the day and bring a sporty vehicle for the best experience!
Nestled on the northern side of the Carpathians sits Sibiu, a picturesque town & previous capital of the Principality of Transylvania. It was one of the most highly recommended cities we had been told about & its wasn’t hard to see why once we arrived – it is beautiful! Not only the immediate old town areas like them all, but the surrounding city was full of beautiful buildings & great food. We had one of our best meals & completely stuffed ourselves with local cheeses & fantastic Romanian wine. Yum!
Finally, our little trip brought us to Timisoara, a boarder town not far from Serbia. At first, we ended up here only because it seemed the only place to grab an easy train to Belgrade (though that was a flop, but a story for another time) & did not realize the historical significance of it. Though we weren’t there long, it deserves an honorable mention & cheers to being named the European Capital of Culture for 2021.
For those of you interested in how we made the trip or want to see our route, check out the map below!
Along the way we’ve had many places surprise us for various reasons, & a few we could not have imagined doing this trip without visiting them. Romania is one of those places. It was nothing like we thought it would be, though for the life of me now I couldn’t tell you what our preconceived notions would have been. I am so glad we came & saw all it offers for ourselves; the beautiful lakes & mountains, food, & wine will certainly be something we always remember.