Exploring Transylvania | Pelisor, Peles, and Bran Castles

On day two of my Romanian adventure, I headed out to the mysterious mountains of Transylvania – a place where fairy tales, legends, vampires and mysteries abound.

The home of everyone’s favorite vampire…

Transylvania, the geographic center of Romania, has been a popular destination for business-people and travelers for centuries. Its position at the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East and Asia put it at the center of more than its fair share of territorial claims over the years.

It’s perhaps most famous for the territorial claim of one man, Transylvania’s most famous resident. His name was Vlad Dracul,  or, as he was known in the middle ages, Vlad the Impaler. He was immortalized in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. 

Looks like the type of castle a vampire would live in.

The region has often been referred to as one of the last remaining medieval regions in Europe, and I must admit, I can see how it got the reputation. Endless fields plowed by farmers using methods from the olden days (think horse-drawn carts) eventually give way to villages with still-dirt roads and thatched roofs. It’s stunning – certainly not untouched, but only very lightly touched by modernity.

We started the day at Pelisor Castle – the little sibling of the famous Peles Castle. (Peles Castle is closed for cleaning in November.)

Pelisor Castle was built by King Carol I for his nephew.
Construction took place between 1899-1902, and the castle was officially usable in 1903.
all of Honor are covered in oak panels.
Though much of the original furniture has been lost over the years, Pelisor has been re-decorated to resemble what it might have looked like when the royal family lived in it.
A fine place to have tea, I believe.
There were lots of seemingly hidden rooms, like the landing in this photo.
Just a quick nap is all.
Queen Marie, the wife of King Ferdinand (for whom the castle was built) was an artist. This was the room she used for painting.
This room is entirely gilded in gold leaf – an idea brought to life by Queen Marie.
More of the gold gilded room.
The main dining room.
The castle had just been cleaned, so all the guests were given some fashionable shoe covers to keep it that way.
Exterior of Pelisor Castle from the back.

Then, though we weren’t allowed inside, we got to spend some time on the grounds of Peles Castle.

Peles Castle is the most famous castle in Sinaia.
Construction began in 1873 and was finished in 1914. King Carol I moved in the castle in 1883.
It’s nestled into a valley of the Carpathian Mountains.
And you thought Vlad was scary…
The garden was so much larger than originally met the eye!
Peles was home to the royal family up until 1947, when King Michael was held at gunpoint and made to renounce his throne.
The castle was closed to the public while dictator Nicholae Ceausescu was in power.
It was reopened as a museum in 1990.
Now, up to a half million annual visitors stop by to see this piece of Romanian history.
They were the kind of woods I could have spent hours wandering.
Some detail on the outside of the castle. The inside is supposed to be even more extravagant!
More exterior detail.
Before it was time to go, we made a quick stop at a nearby cafe. The tea and cake that I picked up made for a lovely bus ride through the mountains to our next destination: the former home of Vlad the Impaler himself.

Bran Castle, located just outside of the little village of Brasov (which we’d visit later in the evening – stay tuned!) might just be the oldest building I’ve ever been in. It was first built as a fortress in 1211, when a the Teutonic Knights – a Catholic religious order – was tasked with defending the border of Transylvania. Over the years, it became home to numerous royals and dignitaries of Romania, including its two most famous residents – Vlad the Impaler in 1459 and later Queen Maria.

There it is! Bran Castle is situated at the very top of a small but steep hill.
All around the hill are English-style gardens, courtesy of Queen Marie. It was a summer residence for her and her family.
A stone cross memorializes all those who lost their lives at the castle.
Though the fort was built in 1211, the castle itself began to take shape in the 1300s, under the jurisdiction of the German Saxons of Transylvania.
The interior of the castle was renovated by Queen Marie during her stay, and much of the furniture on display is original.
Can you spot the secret tunnel?
Into the secret tunnel! It runs from the first floor to the third floor.
Think Vlad the Impaler used these tunnels to escape his victims?
The secret tunnel let out into a cozy library.
This fireplace looked like the perfect place to sit back and enjoy a good book – maybe even Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The 1897 vampire novel is said to be inspired by the life of Vald the Impaler, even though Stoker himself never saw Bran Castle in person.
Though he never saw the castle, Stoker took inspiration from the ruthless ways Vlad Tepes (his nickname was Dracula, meaning “son of the devil” – his father was named “Vlad Dracul” – “the devil”) skewered and murdered up to 80,000 enemies. Bit of a contrast from the cheery Christmas-ready castle we were exploring.
It looked like a scene from a fairy tale, not a horror novel! The picture-perfect castle scene was made complete by the inner courtyard and surrounding mountains.
Our tour guide said that this was the desk of Vlad Tepes himself. Can’t you just see an evil ‘vampire’ working here? Though many historians stand up for the fellow – calling up his tumultuous childhood and the cruelties he was exposed to at an early age to explain his unyielding, murderous ways.
Interesting paths and staircases at every turn.
We got to see some armor and other costume displays in the rooms, giving us a better sense the people who might have walked these floors before us.
This ornate fireplace used to heat much of this portion of the castle all by itself. I guess that’s why Queen Marie only stayed here during the summer.
We got to see traditional Romanian garb in this costume display.
Because the castle is perched on a hilltop, that well had to be dug 60 feet deep to reach water. Eventually, Queen Marie turned it into an elevator, complete with a new, 30-foot-long tunnel into the gardens. She used it to be lowered down into the gardens to get some fresh air instead of having to hike up and down the hill.
Looks like the type of castle a vampire would live in.
But at the same time, it was a total fairy-tale scene.
Visited Dracula’s house and lived to tell the tale!

We explored the area around the castle, which was mostly a little market set up to look like a village, selling both touristy souveniers and traditional Romanian crafts. We also stopped to get a snack – a Kürtőskalác – or, a doughnut cone covered in cinnamon and sugar. (es – it was just as tasty as it sounds.

Then, it was off to Brasov  – a nearby village known for its medieval structures and charm.

Welcome to Brasov!
The cobble stoned town square of Brasov was decorated for the season.
Andrew and I befriended a group of travelers from Finland and had an early dinner/late lunch with them at one of Brasov’s restaurants.
Like everything we’d seen that day, Brasov was an intriguing representation of Romania’s past.

After the tour we headed back to Bucharest, where Andrew and I explored a little more of the Old Town, grabbed a bite to eat at one of the more famous restaurants, and took a walk over to the Parliament Building to see how much of the second-largest administrative building in the world we could see. We ended up getting stopped by a guard before we made it too close, but we still got to see the outside, and the walk there and back turned out to be a great time to reflect on our time abroad.

After all, this weekend in Romania was the last out-of-Italy trip I’d take for the semester.

And honestly, I wouldn’t have chosen any other place for that honor.

Final Gelato Count: 55

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