This morning I decided to take Romania’s 2 Most Popular Transylvania Castles in 1 Day Tour. Quite the hashtag, I thought. I met up with the bus at the Romanian Athenaeum, conveniently located just two blocks from Anka’s apartment.
Of course, I’d taken my fair share of tours around the world. My father had always believed it was a smart way to get acquainted with a new city. I agreed, but there was also something about being confined to a group of wanderers like myself without being able to hit the “eject” button if the urge to disband should arise. But I suppose it was just nice to be around people I could converse with and fellow countryman at that.
The gentlemen who led the tour was named Serban, a 37-year old native of Bucharest. To say he was born to be a tour guide would have been the understatement of understatements. Serban had a wicked sense of humor and I don’t just mean the parlance that was lost in translation, which there was a lot of.
He was also smart as a whip, kind, and energetic. I half wondered if underneath his shirt there was an IV feeding him Red Bull. He didn’t seem to have an “off” switch.
As we made our way through the city center he pointed out interesting historical facts about Bucharest and its people, which led to tales of communism and Nicolae Ceausescu, the former dictator of Romania, and not a nice guy in case you were wondering. He was eventually killed on Christmas day 1989.
Soon, we made our way beyond the city limits. The shopping malls, roundabouts, and communist era buildings gave way to beautiful, verdant, and nuanced landscape full of dramatic mountains and bright sunflowers.
After making a brief pit stop at a gas station we eventually arrived at Peles Castle; a Neo-Renaissance castle near Sinaia, built between 1873 and 1914 by King Carol 1 as a summer residence.
Serban led our group, which consisted of 11 people. I mainly spoke with a man named Mike, a single 42-year old doctor from Tampa, Florida. He was an affable chap and incredibly earnest in his interactions and attempt to win over everyone on the bus.
There was also a lovely-middle-aged couple from Portugal, a mother and daughter team who’d been in Romania the past week as part of an effort for Habitat for Humanity.
Aside from making a wise crack about the castle at our second stop, I didn’t really get a chance to converse with the other three girls from the States who clearly knew each other.
Peles Castle was really remarkable. The craftsmanship of the wood panels and doors, the lavish adornments, and even the weapon room, which housed over 800 ways to kill someone was something else. To think this was only a summer home boggled my mind. It was also at this particular abode where Romania skillfully avoided participating in World War 1 by remaining neutral with the stoke of a pen.
After we bid Peles farewell we headed towards our second stop, Bran Castle, situated on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, and perhaps most famous for the inspiration of Bram Stoker’s, Dracula.
As I expected, Serban distilled the myths of the real life Dracula, explaining, yes, there in fact was a Dracula, but he was neither a vampire, nor had he ever likely stepped foot in the castle. It was kind of like discovering Santa Claus didn't exist; a fable dismissed in my own home when I asked my father one Christmas Eve if he thought Saint Nick would care for some milk and cookies. "I think Santa would rather have a beer," he said." That's when everything fell into place.
The drive through the mountains and hillsides was beautiful, but also very windy. As I fought off both a spell of fatigue and nausea I listened as Serban rapped more about life in Romania between stories about his wife and newborn son. “Romania is not cheap. But it is never expensive either.” It seemed more and more like Romania was the Goldilocks of Eastern Europe.
After a pleasant lunch where we all sat face-to-face for the first time, we exchanged travel tips and stories. Afterwards, we made our way to the castle. "Nobody knows precisely when it was built or by whom. Perhaps it was by peasants, or maybe Ottoman soldiers. My theory is that it is somewhere in the middle, “Serban said. “And most likely 600 years ago.”
This particular edifice was less impressive to me than the first, not that I’d suddenly become a castle aficionado, or worse, a snob. It just didn’t have the same character and backdrop as Peles, but it was still quite impressive.
We reached the top after paying our dues through narrow and long corridors that must have been eerie to climb 500 years ago, Dracula or no Dracula.
A pleasant little breeze greeted us when I overheard Serban say half-jokingly, “Romania has the best wind.” “What does that even mean?” I mumbled.
Our day ended with a stop in Brasov, just twenty minutes from the Bran Castle. This was undoubtedly my favorite stop on the tour. We were each given an hour to wander around this magical city of 250,000 made up of medieval Saxon walls and a Gothic Style black church. Each nook and cranny seemed to represent a real-life postcard. Serban said that if any of us were 5 minutes late the bus would be forced to leave without us. I briefly considered taking him up on his offer.
I walked through cobblestoned streets while window-shopping and passing by tourists clinking large mugs of beer. As always, bookstores beckoned and the sirens of delicious sweets tempted, but I returned to the bus unscathed.
The ride home was quiet for much of the time. Everyone seemed exhausted and delightfully dazed. As the doors of the bus opened back on Franklin Street in Bucharest where our adventure began nearly 12 hours before, we said our goodbyes knowing it’d be our first and last.
Coming together in this foreign place to share deeply memorable and even personal experiences with complete strangers only to abruptly part ways seemed a bit odd the more I thought about it. Still, moving on was unavoidable and I settled for handshakes and well wishes. After all, there was nothing to lament about. Today was a good day.
Serban, the 37-year old tour guide from Bucharest offered this bit of advice, “Be very much adaptable. This is not a country with rules. And take a chance to use a toilet whenever you have one.”