We had you at “Transylvania,” didn’t we? Half of you went, “Oooh, Transylvania!” and the other half went, “Eeew, Transylvania.” It’s OK if you’re the latter; we can still be friends. But Transylvania, which is a region in Romania, not a city or country itself, is somewhere we have always wanted to go. Well, ever since we both read “Dracula” in high school, anyway. We’ve always been intrigued with the dark, mystical, mythical places of the world (neighborhood graveyards included), so when we found ourselves traipsing across Europe for two months, it seemed like a Romanian road trip in Transylvania would be a natural choice after spending so much time in big cities like Berlin and Prague (which are great but aren’t Romania).
Indeed, Romania is a curious little country with an up-and-coming capital (Bucharest), but the majority of the country still has a very old world feel with its horse-drawn carts, women in traditional dresses and headscarves, and villages comprised of hodge-podge hand-built homes. Many parts of it are charmingly stuck in the past, but that’s what makes it so intriguing and the legends born there so eerie.
But before you get all excited, no, there is no Dracula’s Castle. Not really. There are plenty that claim to be, though, or at least claim to be either the inspiration for the book or have ties to the real-life Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler, as you might know him). Our mission: to find as many of them as we could in five days. And in between, we visited historic villages, fortified churches, stumbled upon local festivals, and marveled at mountain lakes. Want to see what we saw? Follow this Romanian road trip itinerary for the Transylvanian road trip of a lifetime.
The Rental Car Debacle: We flew into Bucharest from Athens in the evening and took a shuttle to pick up the rental car we reserved. It was crazy cheap. So crazy cheap we really should have known better. As in $6/day crazy cheap. But somebody didn’t read the fine print (*coughjoshcough*) and see that Romania has a mandatory $10/day insurance fee, even if your travel credit card covers auto rental insurance, which ours does. Then there was a whole thing about how he booked the car in his name but we only had my credit card and suddenly a $35 car rental turned into $185 because debit cards apparently incur an additional non-refundable security deposit…There is always a breaking point on every long trip and this was mine. But by some miracle of God, we ended up waiting and debating amongst ourselves so long that another employee had to check us out. I don’t know if he didn’t notice I was paying with a debit card or what, but we ended up only being charged $75 (the rental fee plus insurance fee). As soon as he swiped our card and gave us the keys we were out of there before he had a chance to realize what he had done and charge us double.
After that, it was only a matter of battling traffic the likes of which I had never seen to pick up our friend Jimmy at the bus station. We first met Jimmy in 2015 at a HelpX work-stay in Australia–a yoga retreat outside of Sydney–and had become friends with the Irishman after working together for two weeks. We had stayed in touch and found out we were all going to be in mainland Europe at the same time and invited him to join us on our road trip in Transylvania. He enthusiastically accepted. He had taken the bus in from Sofia and we planned to swing by the station and pick him up on our way to our Airbnb.
The apartment only cost about $10 per person and was even located above a Mega Image, which, in case you’re wondering, is a grocery store, not a photography studio or giant billboard, all of which were things we had prognosticated Mega Image meant in the directions. A grocery store. So we stocked up on sustenance like pasta and bread and incredibly cheap (and terrible) beer, and went over our route for the next day (Josh planned everything down to the last detail–what a champ!).
After a quick breakfast, we left early for Bran Castle, eager to get out of the city and into the countryside. It took about 3 hours, part of which was spent trying to decide if we would pay the fee to enter the castle or just look at it from below. It was the most expensive entry fee of the trip at 35 Lei ($9) per person. But once we arrived, there was very little discussion and absolutely no regret after wandering through the picturesque castle. Of all the castles we visited, Bran Castle not only had the most information available but was the most comfortable and charming on the inside. It’s said this castle was the inspiration for Dracula’s Castle in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” but there aren’t really any solid ties to Vlad the Impaler or Stoker. There were lots of informational signs about vampires on the walls, though, and vampire-themed gifts in the souvenir booths lining the entrance to the grounds. I was also very disappointed to find out that we were just a couple weeks too early for the Halloween soiree held in the castle. I’m pretty cheap, but if there’s anything I’ll pay $60 for it’s a Halloween party in “Dracula’s Castle.” We all agreed if we were to purchase a castle to call our own, this one would do nicely.
After an hour or two of wandering and a quick walk up the wooded hills opposite the castle to get a different photographic perspective, it was only a 30-minute drive to Rasnov Fortress. This would be the first of many fortified villages and churches we would see. Admission was 10 lei ($2.50), a small price to pay to wander around the crumbling stone edifice. No one lives inside anymore, but many of the rooms have been rebuilt and historical information was scattered around on plaques and signs. Located on top of a hill (as any good fortified city should be), you could see for miles: the hills in the distance, the village in the valley below, the trees covering the landscape on every side. What a stunning location to fend off the constantly invading Ottoman Empire!
Perhaps an hour onward was Brasov, where we would be staying for the night. Fun fact: this quaint little town actually has a raw vegan cafe! Unfortunately, it was closed the day we were there, but huzzah! We were a little early to check into our Airbnb, so we peered inside a Greek Orthodox church then headed “downtown” where all sorts of surprises were in store. There were beautiful old churches, colorful shops and businesses, charming outdoor patios around the main square and six giant letters on the hillside, Hollywood style, spelling Brasov. It was lovely and we could have gladly spent an hour or two wandering. But we were tired and hungry and had a date with an Airbnb host to get some keys, so we headed there, whipped up a traditional backpacker dinner (spaghetti noodles and canned pasta sauce), and relaxed, enjoying each other’s company immensely.
In the morning, we set off and drove an hour or so to Prejmer Fortified Church. This was a worthwhile stop. It was only 8 lei ($2) to get in, and inside there was a simple cross-shaped church and rooms upon rooms to explore within the walls. The whole village would have lived and worked in the walls, from schools to blacksmiths. And almost every room was connected to another with a rickety staircase and a small passageway. Mesmerized, every one of us, we climbed from one room to the next, getting willfully lost until we ended up inside the exterior wall, the one where the military would have walked, fought and shot arrows at the invading Turks through the tall, narrow windows in the stone. We walked a full circle around the inside of the wall, giddy and giggling, the only three people who had ventured that far. Not that there were more than about 20 people in the whole place. The Asians and Europeans looked far too dignified to creep through the dark openings and over narrow, dirt-covered steps, anyway. No doubt about it, Prejmer was a treat, the most impressive fortified church of the trip.
Three hours later, we were in Sighisoara (pronounced sig-ee-shwar-uh). There was a brief pit-stop beforehand at Viscri Village, another fortified city, but we couldn’t imagine after looking at it from the outside that it would be as interesting as Prejmer. Plus, a tour bus had just arrived and we didn’t feel like fighting the crowds. Of course, in Romania, “crowd” doesn’t often entail that many people, which is great. But Sighisoara was quite the ride. Quaint, colorful buildings lined the street, a steepled chapel stood at the top of a fortified hill, espresso cost 1 lei ($.25). It was beautiful. We took a walk in the woods, admired the architecture, read Wikipedia entries to learn about the history, and enjoyed a good solid wander.
About 30 minutes away was quiet little Biertan. Not a lot of tourists stop here. Hardly any Romanians stop here. We might have seen four other people total who didn’t live in the tiny village that was still stuck in time (say, 100 years ago). I can’t say I know why Josh chose to make Biertan a pitstop, but because of it, we got a closer look at rural Romania and the way the people live far outside city limits. It was a simple life: dogs in the streets, kids in the dirt, man-powered farming equipment and horse-drawn carts toting wood to (presumably) heat their houses. It was the kind of place you wouldn’t expect to find TV’s or internet, but there were plenty of wide open fields and beautiful paths to walk around. We found a couple of walking trails and took a stroll, chatting all the way, smiling at the villagers who probably were as curious as to what we were doing here as we were. It was lovely. And it’s when we knew we had left the tourist trail for authentic Romania.
Our Airbnb for the night was just a few miles farther down the road in Nemsa, but on the way, we stumbled upon a local neighborhood festival in a town that probably 300 people called home. How could we pass up an opportunity like this? We were probably the only people there not from Romania, and we certainly got some interesting looks, but we listened to a local band in traditional dress play music we didn’t care for, Jimmy purchased a steak fresh off the grill, we all dug into Kürtoskalács (sugar-coated chimney bread), and reveled in the warmth of authentic travel, of seeing the way the people who live here actually live, love and celebrate.
Early the next morning we left before sunrise for Balea Lake. It would take two hours or more to get there and we had lots to see before the end of the day. But Balea Lake turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. Not only was the winding road up into the mountains the most beautiful mountain drive I had taken in years, the lake was stunning. We were lucky we made it all the way there. A week or two later (we were there in mid-October) and the road might have been impassable due to snow. As it was, there was already 6 inches on the ground, though it had been plowed from the street. At first, I was disappointed at the fog that covered the peaks in the background, but I think you’ll agree that the fog may have actually made the visit even more of an experience. I mean, just look at that view!
We trudged through the snow, went sledding atop our jackets, photographed and threw snowballs to our hearts’ content. Then Jimmy dug into a sausage from a stand across the street and Josh and I demolished an ear of boiled corn on the cob.
Two hours later we made a brief pitstop in Sibiu. Josh had read about historical landmarks and gilded churches and popular community squares. All of that was in Sibiu, alright, but it was far from as fascinating as our other stops, so we moved on.
To Corvin Castle, to be precise. It was only an hour away, so we had plenty of time to explore the halls and exhibits before it closed. The cost of admission was 25 lei ($6.50). This was one of the castles that claimed ties to Vlad the Impaler, though no one knows for sure if he had much to do with the location. There was a dungeon, though, with medieval torture devices on display and everything, so there’s that. There’s also a whole museum about medieval torture right outside the castle. We were tempted but didn’t have time to indulge. Corvin Castle was probably the most impressive castle from the outside with its spires and towers and bridges. The fact that the only English the ticket seller took was enough to read numbers and say Thank you was an extra bonus.
Our last night before heading back to Bucharest we stayed in Hateg at an Airbnb and ate dinner, kicked our feet up, and watched a movie together.
In the morning, we had about a four-hour drive ahead of us before we arrived at Poenari Castle. This was the castle Vlad the Impaler definitely called home, at least for a while. To emphasize this point, there were even mannequins on stakes outside the entrance. It was only 5 lei ($1.30) to enter, but the physical cost was a bit higher. To get to the ticket booth and the castle you have to go up over 1,000 steps. There’s not a whole lot left of the castle–ruins, mostly–but the view from the top of the hill is incredible. Every view in Romania is incredible, but this one saw hillsides covered with trees dressed in their autumn best, a river running along the valley, even a shepherd guiding his flock back home along the waterline. Totally worth it and we shared the space with only four other visitors during the 45 minutes we were there.
After that, it was back to Bucharest. The drive was significantly less impressive once we got to the main road and it was the only time the entire trip that any of us napped instead of chatting up a storm. We were all very content.
Technically we could have all flown home that evening or the next morning, but we wanted a chance to decompress before we all flew back to our respective homes. Romania was the end of the line for all three of us: we were flying back to the states the next day, Jimmy was headed back to Ireland. But we had one more day filled with sleeping in, pancakes, philosophical musings and a bit of exploration around Bucharest. We took an Uber into the city to avoid the crazy driving and traffic and parking (thank goodness for Uber!). It was super cheap so we didn’t mind paying even though we already had a car. We found a three-story bookstore, which all of us were totally into, bought a few postcards and souvenirs for folks back home, found the bust of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) in the middle of the city, and generally just wandered aimlessly until we were hungry and ready to head back to our Airbnb.
The next day we dropped Jimmy at the airport, said our goodbyes, and Josh and I took a walk in the woods to kill some time before our flight. We reflected on the trip, in Romania and Europe as a whole, and relaxed. We had explored a place that meant something to us, that turned out so much better than we could have imagined, and we couldn’t have been more pleased. Unless the trip had ended with a direct flight to Boston instead of a flight to Brussels followed by a night spent in the airport (again) followed by a layover in Reykjavik followed by a flight to Boston. We definitely could have been more pleased with that.
Planning your own Romanian road trip? Have you been to Transylvania? Feel free to share below! Wander on!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com