Romania is a country of contrasts, candy coloured towns clash with castles fit for the nastiest of Disney villains. You’ll meet wait staff so rude they probably spat in your chips and locals who will invite you in off the street for a freshly slaughtered chicken to compensate. It gets mighty hot in Romania in the summer months, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it for a winter escape, in fact, parts of the country look their absolute best covered in a dusting of snow. Here’s what you should do and where you should go to beat the winter blues in Romania.
Castles and History – Bran and Peles
There’s something about Romanian castles, all those spikes and pointy edges are a far cry from the squat and blocky English equivalents, and you can’t help feeling a bit more mysterious just standing next to them. I’ve lumped Peles and Bran together because of the (likely) possibility that you’ll be a tiny bit disappointed by Bran, Romania’s biggest tourist attraction, and therefore, Romania’s biggest rip off. At 35 lei per person, entry to Bran Castle costs more than most Romanian restaurant meals and you might be a little shocked to discover that despite the Dracula themed shirts/badges/pins/hats/masks/bedspreads/condoms that pile up on every stall in every corner of the town, once you’re inside Bran you’ll find no information on Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Dracula whatsoever. In saying that, if you come prepared to see a beautiful castle and nothing more, Bran is hard to beat, especially with the bare branch, fog shrouded aesthetic of winter.
If you like your castles sans vampire condoms, look no further than Peles castle in Sinaia, with its perfectly pruned shrubs, stone statues and towering turrets, it could easily be the castle that inspired the towering fortress on Beauty and the Beast. The palace, which housed King Carol and Queen Elizabeth of Romania is closed for renovations for the whole month of November, but the outside is so beautiful you can safely allot half an hour of gawking time for the façade alone.
Snow and Adventure – Brasov
Given the Carpathian Mountains is home to a huge bear and wolf population, camping in Brasov isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s not for those that need to be constantly warm either, but waking up to an untouched layer of snow right on your doorstep is pretty special. If you prefer things a little fancier, head to one of the very affordable hotels in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort town that is gorgeous to walk through even if you’re not a skier/snowboarder. For an alternative hiking experience head to the Seven Ladders Canyon, or Canionul Sapte Scari. It’s a 40 minute walk through gorgeous pine forest before tackling the ladders and steel walkways that make up the canyon crossing. The walkways have recently been renovated so are much safer than they used to be, but thrill seekers can take comfort in the fact that there are still no harnesses, so death or serious injury is just a slippery rung away on the higher climbs. It’s only 10 lei per person to get in (a measly €2) but thanks to the wonderfully lax approach to security in Romania there was no attendant there when we did it, so we got in for free.
Colour and Christmas – Sighişoara and Sibiu
Itching for an antidote to Romania’s pointy castles and silent forests? Head to Sighişoara and Sibiu for cobbled streets so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Start in Sighişoara, the smaller of the two, and spend a couple of hours exploring the old town. Every house is painted a different colour and if you’re really wanting to know more about the whole Dracula thing, it was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, making it a much more legit Dracula nerd destination than Bran. Not far from Sighişoara is Sibiu which has got to be the most loveable city in Romania. It’s a mix of pastel-hued old school charm and hipster hotspots (check out City Burger, it’s amazing). Wander the alleyways before climbing the old council tower for a view of the city at sunset. From late November to December the Sibiu Christmas Market is in full swing. Complete with light projections, adorable toddlers in jumpsuits, and so much meat you’ll have the sweats for weeks, it’s one of the best Christmas markets in Eastern Europe.
Ghost town charm and thermal baths – Baile Herculane
Baile Herculane is, simply put, a photographers dream. Simultaneously ugly and beautiful, the former resort town was once the most cherished in all of Europe. Bad management in the post communist 90s led the once grand buildings to their demise. Many are boarded up, but you can still sneak through the Austrian Imperial Baths and admire the decaying hallways and chandeliers from the inside. Many parts of the baths are beautifully coloured and while you’ll have to dodge the beer bottles and faecal matter that cover some of the rooms, the grand hall has remained largely untouched. The surrounding hotels are more difficult to access, but wandering the empty pavements while plastic flaps from the windows is still an eerily magical experience. Baile Herculane still has the thermal springs it was once so famous for, and you can access these for free near Hotel Roman, one of the only remaining hotels in the old town area. Walk past the admittedly hideous communist exterior of the hotel to the side of the river, and you’ll find plenty of red-faced Romanians jammed into the two small baths on offer. If you get too hot, a dunk in the river will earn you the admiration of the locals and guarantees you a prime spot once you get back in the baths. Around dinner time the baths are practically empty and you can take a beverage or 7 to ensure you stay warm on your barefooted hobble back to the car.