If you missed Part One, you can read it here. You’ll find a brief introduction to Romania’s history and a tour around the citadels of Sighișoara and Brașov plus Viscri’s fortified church, Rașnov Fortress and Bran Castle.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, we’d just completed our Brașov walking tour. Sudden extreme stormy weather the next day meant we decided to do as Airbnb suggests and ‘live like a local’. This consisted of nipping out in the rain to the nearest bakery and supermarket then hunkering down in the cosy apartment, spending the day playing Bananagrams and watching TV! Bliss!
LIBEARTY BEAR SANCTUARY
Thankfully that weather didn’t last as we had a lot to pack into the next day. It started with the bears. The bears! Libearty Bear Sanctuary is Europe’s largest and home to 97 brown bears in a 70-hectare forest in the Carpathian Mountains. Caged and chained bears used to belong to restaurants, petrol stations, tourist attractions and private individuals but this is now illegal. This landscape of lush vegetation and cooling pools are a long way from the torture they have endured.
The NGO’s aim is to rescue all the captive bears in the country – only a few still remain – although they also take in orphaned bears and some from other countries. We were very fortunate because, as we arrived early in the morning, we were given a private tour (peak season/time English tours can have a hundred people in them apparently)! The only downside was that we were a little early for feeding time. The adorable creatures are omnivores and are fed with the food from supermarkets that has exceeded its use-by date.
Many of the bears have adopted territory far away from the visitor route but those who reside closer are well-known to the guides. We were told several sad background stories about the cruel exploitation they have experienced. Most were malnourished and kept in confined spaces and have consequently not grown to full size; many had problems with their feet from walking on –often hot – cage bars all their lives; some had been intentionally blinded or had their teeth or claws removed; almost all had scars from being shackled or beaten.
Our guide very sweetly declared his love for this one, Max, who is completely blind.
I know they’re potentially dangerous animals but they don’t half look cute and cuddly, especially the babies!
With more time and money, you can watch wild bears from a hide so maybe we’ll have to do that next time.
They also had 5 wolves and a dog-wolf hybrid!
PELES AND PELISOR CASTLES
While driving to our next destination, the sun came out and the beautiful blue skies appeared. Peles Castle was truly amazing inside and out. I’ve been to a lot of National Trust properties and the like but this was something else!
Building began in 1875 on this, the summer residence for Romania’s first king, Carol I. It is the work of not just architects and builders but talented artists, sculptors and woodcarvers too. A tour is compulsory and photography inside is forbidden if you haven’t paid a steep fee so you’ll have to take my word for the splendour (or this site has several photos).
My favourite things were the secret passages and doors disguised as bookcases, wardrobes and walls; the impressive armoury; the retractable giant glass roof of the entrance hall; the substantial theatre; the bubble-gum pastels of expensive Morano glass chandeliers; the intricately carved walnut spiral staircase; the Cordoba leather wallpaper; and the Turkish room complete with floor cushions, shisha pipes and glorious colourful carpets. I whole-heartedly recommend a visit!
A short walk away was the Art Nouveau style Pelisor Castle. It was built for King Carol I’s nephew and heir. We didn’t go in this one but just enjoyed it’s exterior, nestled into the autumnal trees.
In the same beautifully forested area also resides the Sinaia Monastery, home to a small group of Christian Orthodox monks who live in the one-storey whitewashed buildings around the edge of the complex. After the busyness of the castles, its courtyard was a welcome breath of serenity and calm. The first church you see as you enter was built in 1846 to accommodate the growing religious community.
But through a gap in the buildings that surround it, you can reach another more intimate courtyard with the original, quaint, much smaller church at its centre.
After that, it was back home for our last night in Brasov.
It’s a bit of a mouthful but basically the Transfăgărășan Highway – also known less dramatically as the DN7C – is a 90km paved mountain road that winds its way through the Carpathian Mountains. It was called ‘the best road in the world’ by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear in 2009! It’s not for the faint-hearted; I had to close my eyes at several points as it’s full of hairpin bends and steep sections! For weather reasons, it usually closes in late October so we were lucky to be able to access it.
Rocks and evergreen trees lined the roads and every so often we pulled over to take in the view.
Strictly speaking, for us, this was just a giant detour (accompanied by a Robert Webb audiobook). We had notionally told ourselves that we would drive the northerly section up to the glacial Bâlea Lake (at an altitude of 2034m) and back but, when we got up there we could see no further than the edge of the water lapping at the shore because we were in the clouds! So no photos of that!
As you might imagine at that altitude, there was a fair amount of snow on the ground which was fun!
Our penultimate night was spent in the Sibiu, one of Transylvania’s seven medieval citadels (see Part One) which once hosted Strauss, Brahms and Liszt and which remains a bohemian, creative hub of the area. It was a fleeting visit during which we popped into the church, admired the city walls and wandered the streets of picturesque buildings.
It’s famous for its eye-lid shaped windows like these viewed whilst standing on the Bridge of Lies (so-called either because of dishonest merchants or the promises of young lovers!) and some at the end of the street we were staying on.
In the largest of the town squares, the buildings made you feel as though you could be in Germany or Belgium. We warmed up with some indulgent hot chocolates as the sun went down!
Our last day involved a long drive back up to Cluj-Napoca but we incorporated two stops along the way. The first was Corvin Castle. Yes, I know, another castle! But, as with the others it has been restored and kept in its own unique way. This 14th century marvel was impressive from the moment you set foot on its long wooden drawbridge.
As we entered, we were transported back in time as a musician played a lilting melody on a set of panpipes which drifted across the stone-walled inner courtyard.
We explored the Knight’s Hall and meandered through passageways and up steps to towers and in and out of rooms, following our audio-guide.
There was an interesting, if rather harrowing, torture museum spread throughout some of the rooms. It’s said that the castle was cursed by three Turkish prisoners who were forced to dig a well for 15 years to earn their freedom but instead were killed. There was also a bear pit for that special Romanian brand of torture.
I’m not sure if I liked our final stop of the trip or not! It was an enormous salt mine which had been turned into a kind of eerie, dark amusement park, even incorporating a boating lake! The main mine was impressive and the small amount of history we gleaned about it was interesting but, at 112 metres deep, we opted for the lift rather than the stairs!
Well that’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed your Transylvanian tour. I’ll leave you with my favourite sign of the trip and another which neatly points toward our next destination!