Friday, July 22, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Peles Castle, Sinaia and Simon Village

Having left the Princely Court of Vlad Dracula in Targoviste, we made our way through the Romanian countryside up into the mountains for a visit to - what turned out to be - one of the most interesting castles we've ever been to, Peles Castle. I have added pictures associated with this post to my overall set on Romaina on my Flickr Photostream HERE.

Winding our way up the Carpathian foothills hills to a summit, we passed through a number of typical Romanian villages and increasingly glimpsed views of the beautiful peaks on our way to the small mountain pass town of Sinaia. There are other things to do in Sinaia than see the castle, and indeed it's a popular destination in the summer for hiking and biking and in the winter for skiing. The day we arrived, the town was full of people enjoying the sun. In the distance up on the peaks, you could see a large gondola ferrying people up to the meadows and mountain tops for summertime hiking and sight seeking.

We made a bee-line to a nice old hotel for a lunch on the balcony overlooking the city park. We had delicious soup, home made bread and some leafy salad. Once done there, we drove up some more and to the site of Peles Castle, tucked away in a very large wooded park. (Below: Peles Castle.)

Peles (pronounced pell-esh) Castle is not very old in the context of European history, as it was built only just more than 100 years ago. However, it's significant because it was the residence of the very first king of a unified and independent Romania under the monarch King Carol I. Prior to that, "Romania" was actually just a series of principalities (Wallachia, Transylvania, etc.) ruled by their respective princes and loosely bound to the Hungarian King and/or the Church. As a side note, it's interesting that King Carol I was a close relative to the Kaiser of Germany. All these European monarchs were (and are) related. For example, a 110 years ago the Czar of Russia, King of England and Kaiser of Germany were are cousins. And King Carol I was part of that big family tree too.
At any rate, the castle is also significant because, well, it's very pretty from the outside and quite impressive inside. No Dracula angle here, just a visually pleasing castle.

Touring the grounds and the interior was delightful. The diversity of rooms, styles, art and color themes wowed us. Certainly there are bigger and even flashier castles in Europe (Versailles for example), but even up against those bigger and better known palaces Peles really stands out. Massive wood carved statues, banisters and spiral staircases; beautiful Moroccan style rooms; glitzy Venetian mirrors and chandeliers; impressive displays of armor; secret passageways and grand hallways; opulently decked out apartments; sweeping staircases; spiky turrets; cozy library and study rooms - all these and more make Peles one of the most diverse and interesting royal residences we've toured.

After our enjoyable tour inside, we walked the garden-rich grounds outside for a view of the castle from close up and afar. All and all, a very nice visit and a pleasant surprise.

And then we were off - on the road down from the pass and toward the town of Bran where we would stay in a guest house in a nearby village called Simon (pronounced she-mon).

We blew through the main part of Bran on our way in and only got a glimpse of the famed castle there. But, knowing we'd see it the next day we didn't care too much. Onward we went a couple miles until turning off down a road that soon led to Simon. Many villages in Romania are linear - as in, they are not clustered around a central plaza. Rather, most villages are one house or building deep along a road on both sides. Most structures are homes and then of course your typical other buildings like a school, post office, general store, bar, etc. interspersed here and there. Simon is like that - linear. (Left: The guest house we stayed in and our vehicle.)

About a quarter of the way through the village we stopped at the guest house where we would stay. Basically, a guest house is what we would call here in the states a bed & breakfast...except you get dinner too. The owners of this guest house were a couple - Magdalena, who is the village doctor, her husband who is a teacher/administrator at the local high school and their teenage son.

On this day, the father and son were out in the yard cutting down the tall grass with scythes. These are long sticks with a sharp, curved blade at the end that are swung with the blade right at ground level to cut the grass. I tried this. Not as easy as it looks. Anyway, they were cutting the grass to create hay for use by their neighbors. Everybody in Simon seemed to be doing this as we say it everywhere. (See picture above of neighbors piling up cut grass for hay on a horse cart.)

Our original plan for our tour called for us to take a 2-3 hour hike to end the day after arriving in Simon, but since it was already 5 p.m. we postponed until the next day. Too tired.

We did, however, decide to take a nice, leisurely walk along the much of the length of the village. We visited some neighbors as they piled up hay onto a horse cart, observed local farm animals and ultimately stooped at the Magazin Mixt shop (like a 7-11) to get some icy cold Romanian beer that we drank while taking in the view from the yard associated with the shop. (Right: View from our walk through Simon village, Left: view as we drank beer in the garden next to the convenience store in Simon.)

Strolling back, we ended our day with a wonderful meal made by Magdalena featuring a hot polenta and cheese appetiser dish, pork, salad, potatoes, locally made wine and desert. Wonderful.

When planning this trip, I asked the tour company if they could dial back the price a little, and the option given was to stay a few nights in guest houses instead of hotels. I wasn't sure what that would get us, but now that we experienced it first had, I am a big fan. In fact, it would have been great to stay more nights in village guest houses. An excellent way to meet people, see "the real" country and eat some seriously good food. (Below left: Church on main road through Simon village.)

Another interesting thing we learned about guest houses was that following the 1989 revolution, there were a lot of people out of work - particularly in the rural areas. The new government felt that tourism could be and would be a major component of the new Romanian economy and incentivize rural families to build guest houses and learn the basics of the "hospitality" industry. Our guide Andrei actually got involved with that program back in the 1990s and that's how he initially got into the tourism industry. However, as Andrei is quick to point out, the promise of flocks of Romanian, German, British, Russian, French, Dutch and even American tourists flooding the picturesque Romanian countryside to spend their money on accommodations, food and drink has not materialized. Sure, some come. But not as many as hoped. As a result, villages like Simon - so beautiful and well located - are full of nice guest houses with virtually not guests during tourist season.
Our thought was that Romania ought to invest in getting "adventure traveler" to their country. With so many peaks to hike and climb, rivers to raft, parks to mountain bike in and so forth, it seems a natural. We'll see. Anyway, it was kind of nice to have Simon to ourselves as tourists.

Bedding down after our late dinner, we looked forward to the next day's adventures - seeing the famed Bran Castle and visiting the beautiful town of Brasov. Satisfied that we'd had a great day, we quickly drifted off with only the occasional farm sounds in the inky darkness breaking the rural silence. (Left: view from the main road of Simon village.)

NOTE: All pictures in this post were taken by Marc Osborn and are not authorized for any use without written permission.

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