My environment is decidedly eerie. It’s like I’m trapped in a horror movie or a nightmare. I’m alone in the dimly-lit basement of a Gothic castle amid dense alpine forest high in Romania’s Transylvanian mountains.
This wild, isolated swathe of Romania is intrinsically linked to Vampires. Sitting at home on the couch, these blood-bingeing beasts had always seemed like a fantasy. But standing here in their fabled homeland, I’m beginning to feel a bit jumpy.
Of course, this monster is merely a product of the inventive mind of Irish author Bram Stoker, who wrote the horror novel Dracula in 1897, setting the sinister story in Transylvania, a huge, central region of Romania. Back then, for many of Stoker’s Irish and British readers, Transylvania must have seemed an extremely distant, mysterious place.
Yet the wild success of Dracula, which spawned endless film, stage and TV adaptations, has ensured Transylvania remains more strongly linked to Vampires, in the collective consciousness, than anywhere else on Earth. Dracula’s mythical menace continues to reverberate through the verdant mountains and valleys of the region.
So much so, that in the basement of Peles Castle, I was thinking of him even though his supposed home, Bran Castle, was 45km away across the Carpathian Mountains. The ancient fortress of Bran is one of the icons of Romania, an astonishing example of Medieval architecture which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Its appeal lies not just in its fanciful backstory and splendid appearance, but also in the wondrous Alpine landscape of Transylvania’s mountains. Sinaia is similarly blessed by its setting. Perched on the mountainside, two hours by train from the Romanian capital Bucharest, this quaint town is a ski resort.
With its timeworn wooden chalets, boutique hotels, and cozy bars and restaurants, it is a popular retreat for Bucharest residents. Foreign visitors are more likely to be drawn by the two extraordinary castles concealed in its thick forest.
Set against a canvas of snow-draped mountains, Peles and Pelisor castles are striking structures, built for Romanian Royal family in the late 18th century to an incredible level of opulence. It was constructed as a retreat for King Carol I of Romania, under whom the country gained independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Set on having a unique getaway, the King demanded a design which did not merely mimic other famous European castles. He certainly got his wish, as Peles Castle is truly unusual in its appearance, fusing elements of disparate schools of architecture.
Its exterior design borrows heavily from German Renaissance architecture, yet inside and out there also are obvious influences of Gothic, German Baroque, Italian Renaissance and French Rococo styles. Further adding to the eclectic look of this royal complex, the neighbouring Pelisor Castle – built by the King for his nephew and heir Ferdinand – was designed in the unmistakable Art Nouveau style which was so popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Pelisor may be significantly smaller than the imposing Peles, but it’s scarcely less lavish. Visitors are free to wander most of its more than 50 rooms, including one particularly gaudy space which has walls plastered in shimmering Gold leaf.
Otherwise, however, it is an impeccably-decorated castle which, like Peles, does not stick to a design theme and instead keeps you guessing as to the appearance of the next room.
Tourists have similarly extensive access to Peles and many of its more than 160 rooms. In Peles’ huge weapons armoury, full steel battle gear rests against the walls, alongside a cache of fearsome weapons, including swords, daggers and firearms. But this was not a fortress intended for war time. Rather it was a place for Royal recreation and relaxation. This explains its sweeping staircases, sumptuous ballroom, expansive dining spaces, huge library and Arab-styled Shisha room.
The quality of the craftsmanship that went into its constructions is extraordinary, highlighted by stunning stained-glass windows and intricate woodwork and stonemasonry. So gorgeous is Peles that it’s the kind of place one would be happy to spend their final moments. Except, of course, if you are in the company of a Vampire.
- Sinaia is the first major stop on the rail route from Bucharest into Transylvania. It is one of Romania’s main ski towns and offers fine skiing in the colder months, typically November to March, with very affordable ski costs and hotel prices.
- Tourists typically reach Sinaia on their way to Brasov, a city of more than 300,000 people which has arguably the most beautiful Old Town in all of Romania. This historic precinct boasts ancient churches and synagogues, as well as the remains of the original walled city.
- From Brasov, it is just 35 minutes by road to Bran Castle, the mythical home of Count Dracula. Entry tickets are very reasonably priced at just AUD$12, which includes permission to take photos and video.