In the true spirit of adventure, a flight to Bucharest was booked with less than 24 hours before take-off and a week later another flight back to London from Sofia. The vague plan? Get from point A to B in between hunting Dracula in Transylvania.
Having just booked a few nights accommodation to start with, this trip turned out to be one of the best yet. Castles, a road trip and the biggest cheese platter of my life – what more could you want? Here’s what that 7 day journey looked like and some lessons learned along the way…
DAYS 1-2: Bucharest
We arrived in Bucharest with little expectations and even less information to go off. A Google search will tell you that this “modernising” capital of Romania has impressive Soviet style architecture and due to this was known to be the ‘little Paris’ of Eastern Europe but what does it make it now?
Our first impressions were that it was cold – really cold – and as I struggled pulling up my skinny jeans over thermals I recalled my friend’s response who had visited Romania last year when I told her I had booked my tickets.
“You’re going at this time of year?! It will be f***ing freezing!”
Yes, yes it was dear friend. However, despite that one time I almost cried because my hands were so sore from the cold that after we escaped into a beer hall I actually sat on them Bear Grylls style to prevent frostbite, it actually wasn’t too bad. While layers are essential, you can’t argue that snow makes for good photos and is also great for throwing snowballs at boyfriends who wake up late (true story).
Bucharest is worthwhile visiting but as we found, can mostly be explored in about two days. The architecture is definitely impressive and big, and we stood in awe of the Palace of Parliament – the fourth largest building in the world – for quite sometime taking it all in (which had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that we couldn’t enter that day due to some official gathering). Along with the buildings, wide streets and their very own ‘Arc de Triomphe’, you can see why a similarity would be drawn between Paris but it did seem to stop there. Bucharest has its own feel, more akin to Budapest perhaps but not quite as cool. However still, we spent a nice time wandering the streets while enjoying the coffee shops (Origo was one), parks and restaurants. We also celebrated Valentines Day at a rooftop bar and then moved on to Alt Shift, where you will find the holy grail of cheese platters.
- Studio apartments are good value and give you a nice feel of how the locals live. We met the owner upon arrival who kindly left complementary beer, soft drink, water, red wine and chocolate! Would highly recommend Victoria Studio.
- Food for vegetarians is quite scarce and while I am still working off all the carbs I ate, I can tell you the pizza and cheese pastries are good!
- Uber is really the way to go here however if you are travelling from the airport, make sure you book a cab inside the terminal, that way you are less likely to be scammed.
- Deemed Bucharest’s oldest beer house, Caru’ cu Bere is “touristy” but is in no way a tourist trap. Somehow without a lunch reservation we managed to score the best seat in the house – on the second floor overlooking the violinists playing everything from Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon to Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando. Feasting on homemade bread, aubergine dip and soup, it was the perfect pitstop to escape the cold.
DAY 3: Bucharest to Brașov
After some initial hesitation we finally decided to brave the potentially icy roads and drive through Transylvania, listening to the reassuring advice of a friendly Romanian guy who we sat next to on the plane. While we had read plenty of warnings against it online, the roads had been well cleaned of ice and snow, the only real danger being ourselves and our ability to drive on the other side of the road!
We had booked three nights in Brașov and decided to use it as a base. Being a central location with some key sites nearby, it’s a safe and convenient option – saving the hassle of booking numerous places to stay.
- Book the rental car in advance rather than on the day at the airport like we did! This may result a long wait or worse, no cars available (booking online also has cheaper deals).
- Stay somewhere with breakfast if possible like Casa Albert on the main pedestrian street. We got the Blue Suite, which we later realised was had 2 rooms for “the kids”. Considering our lack of, we used this room to store all our snacks (another hot tip… bring snacks for the road!)
DAY 4: Brașov to Râșnov Citadel, Bran Castle and Poiana Brașov (Ski Resort)
Now this was one of the best days because we could see so much in the one day (thanks to the car and central location). We first went to Râșnov Citadel, a fortress built sometime in the early 1300’s, which is perched on a rocky hilltop in the Carpathian Mountains. If you think outside the fortress is impressive, wait until you go in – it literally takes you back in time. After looking around, taking in the incredible views and trying our hand at axe throwing (get it, heh heh), we made our way to Bran Castle which is known for the Dracula myth and is a national landmark in Romania. We had some lunch (I got a nice Romania soup and bread) before visiting the castle, which is a very well-marketed tourist attraction that reveals why the belief in a bloodsucking vampire still lives on in Translyvania.
- You do not need to get a train up to the fortress, while they may tell you it’s a 1km up the hill, a generous estimate would be roughly 400 metres.
- Bran Castle gives you an insight into the links between the “real” Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula story – both of which have loose ties to one another but work well to keep the myth alive.
DAY 5: Sighișoara, The Fortified Church of Biertan
Today we drove just over 1.5 hours from Brasov to Sighișoara, which at first glance may not seem like much but once you take a proper look around you will see it is a rich mix of what it means to explore Romania. Arriving there, it is noticeable that there exists a considerably high Roma gypsy population, with kids seen asking for money along the streets. If you make your way to the medieval “old town” by entering the citadel under a giant clock tower you instantly forget what is outside those walls. The colourful UNESCO-protected site dates back to the 16th century and is still a fully functioning town. Walking the cobbled streets you are reminded that locals still live there as they go about their daily chores of sweeping the streets outside their home or attending to their small restaurants, regardless of the fact tourists like us wander around with cameras. After some solid exploring and a thousand photos we then drove to the village of Biertan, another UNESCO-protected stronghold boasting medieval architecture. Driving there is interesting as you pass through smaller villages on the way and inspired by this we decided to take the longer yet more scenic route back to Brasov.
- Sighișoara is beautiful but it does have one of the highest Roma gypsy populations in all of Romania. Another fun fact is that it is also the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler who was born in 1456.
- If you want to enter the Church of Biertan try to arrive early, it was after 4pm and unfortunately by then the gates had closed..
- There are two routes from Brasov to Biertan via Sighișoara… to really see the ‘real’ Transylvania, take the road less travelled (it’s only about 20 minutes longer) on the way back to Brasov. You won’t regret it.
DAY 6 – Peleș Castle, train to Sofia
We did a macca’s run and left Brasov early so that we could fit in a quick visit to the stunning Peles Castle before catching the only train to Sofia from Bucharest. The train took a good 10 hours or so with a stop on the way. After entering Bulgaria by crossing the Danube Bridge which is a sight to see in itself in the snow, by the time we got to Sofia it was quite dark. Nevertheless, being the young adventurers we are (and fearing dodgy taxi fares) we decided to brave walking with our suitcases for a good couple of km’s and still live to tell the tale.
- Coffee is even worse at Mc Donalds in Romania and there are basically no healthy options at Gare du Nord station in Bucharest – prepare to eat takeaway, beer and delicious bakery items.
- Do NOT put your feet on the seats of the train or lie down to sleep… we learnt this the hard way when a stern Bulgarian guard gave us a huge lecture (not in English) then tried to fine us (or worse) for resting our feet on the chair in front. We may or may not have looked up emergency/Australian embassy numbers.. thankfully the person he called to assist him didn’t come and we got let off.
DAY 7 – Sofia, Bulgaria
To end our trip we spent a full day in Sofia, which was most memorable not because of the tourist attractions we visited but for the wonderful white powder that filled the streets overnight. From none at all when we arrived to the biggest snowflakes I’ve ever seen, the city literally transformed itself into a winter wonderland before our very eyes. Having stayed at L’Opera House, which was only a few hundred metres from the famous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, we enjoyed the day playing in the snow and eating some good vegan food, something we had missed during our time in Romania.
- It snows A LOT in Bulgaria.
- Hospitality is a bit different in Bulgaria as is the style of restaurants they run. For example, it was no less than a mission to find DreamHouse that had been listed as one of “best vegetarian restaurant in Sofia” thanks to trusty Trip Advisor. It was basically up a flight of stairs via a passageway off the street (no sign mind you) and next to a hostel that had a bunch of backpackers smoking and drinking beer outside in the stairwell… the food was good though!