Taking the Sinaia Gondola to the Bucegi Mountains
Nestled in a slender fir clad valley the Bucegi Mountains are a wonderful natural attraction and to experience them in all their glory you have to travel to the top. The area teams with hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter. The peak, Omu, rises 2505 meters above the pristine Prahova Valley. The Bucegi Mountains are a highly-concentrated section of the larger Carpathian Mountain Range, which forms an arc across much of Eastern and Central Europe. However, in years gone by, the Bucegi have become newsworthy not because of their picturesque peaks or abundant wildlife but rather because of fantastical claims of alien occupiers and international conspiracies. These paranormal claims, which first emerged in 2009, obscure the mysterious true history connected with the mountains. One of the must-see attractions in the Bucegi National Park is the Romanian Sphinx and the Babele. Perched high up on the Bucegi Plateau, these rock formations were formed by eons of wind and rain. The Sphinx is so called because it resembles the Egyptian Sphinx of Giza and the Babele (which means old women) are shaped like mushrooms. These formations occurred naturally due to erosion. However, some have come to believe that the Sphinx is a signal of an extra-terrestrial presence on Earth. The conspiracies hinge on the underground, labyrinthine tunnel network within the mountain. These rumours started in 2009 with the publication of a book titled Transylvanian Sunrise. The book posits, “In 2003, the Pentagon discovered, through the use of satellite technology, an anomaly beneath this ancient sphinx”. I have to admit we didn’t see any evidence of this; however we did see a structure which looked strangely like “The Tardis” from Doctor Who, so perhaps there is something in it?
There is a parking area at the bottom of the gondola which cost 15 Lei (£3) (GPS45.349919 25.533294). The cost for the telecabin to the top was 55 Lei pp return around £11.
From here our intention had been to go to Peles castle and then on to Brasov, however being August the queues for the castle were enormous so we bypassed it and headed straight for Brasov with the aim of staying on a site just out of the city. We arrived to discover the campsite was now a building site, and after 1 ½ hours trawling around the city looking for suitable secure parking; we gave up and continued north.
Peles Castle taken from the Gondala – the best way to see it in August
With a heatwave forecast in many parts of Europe we made our way to camping Aquarius in Sighisaora (GPS 46.223055 24.796795) which is part of a swimming pool complex and only a 10 minute stroll to the citadel. It appears most places we have visited in the Transylvania region have had some connection to Dracula or so they tell us and Sighisoara is no exception. Its claim to fame is as the birthplace of the famed slaughterer, although he only allegedly lived there until he was 4 years old. For the small fee of 5 Lei (or £1), you can still visit the room he was born in which is now part of a restaurant which also sports a Dracula themed menu. This little bit of “cheesy” tourism aside Sighisoara is definitely worth a visit and is easily accessible on foot.
With a history dating back to the 1100s, back then, the Hungarian king was begging Saxons to move to this part of the world in order to help defend his borders. German craftsmen and artisans took him up on it, and what resulted is today a fairy-tale-like fortified city.
With cobbled streets, colourful buildings, and a pedestrian-friendly Old Town, it’s difficult not to fall in love with Sighisoara.
The Citadels (which is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site) main attraction is the Clock Tower, a 64 m high tower built in the 13th century. Today it hosts a small history museum which unfortunately only offers descriptions in Romanian, but it’s still worth doing for the view over the cities gingerbread rooves from the top.
There is a covered staircase, which leads up to the Church on the Hill and the cemetery. The church contains frescoes and an old gothic crypt (we are a bit churched out so didn’t bother paying to go inside), and the cemetery contains many German tombstones.
Yes, it’s a touristy place. And yes, it can feel a bit crowded in the summer. But it’s still well worth a visit.
As a major tourist attraction there are numerous restaurants, and tourist shops lining the streets, so after consulting trip advisor, we opted to take lunch at the Central Park Hotel’s restaurant and weren’t disappointed. We were both keen to try Romanian cuisine and we chose well, a soup with smoked pork and vegetables served inside a hollowed out loaf of bread and a couple of ham hocks with a bean stew served in plush surroundings all for less than £10!
Mocanita Steam Railway
I seem to remember my last ride on a steam train when I was about 4 years old was a very frightening experience. The noise scared the wits out of me so at 49 years old I was ready to put this behind me and try again! Rather excitedly we turned up at the terminus and went in search of the ticket office, only to receive the disappointing news that it was fully booked for the next 2 days. We thought about driving on somewhere else and putting it on our list for next time, but after some consideration decided that we should book for the 1st available day. As it was luck was on our side as that afternoon and the following day the weather turned stormy with heavy downpours so our experience and views would have been marred. As our friends Karen and Myles were also in this region we decided to hook up again for a couple of nights and enjoy it together.
As one of the last remaining steam railways in Europe and the only one in Romania it was built after the 1st world war for hauling logs down from the mountains and surprisingly it’s still used for this purpose today. The importance of wood in the Maramures region can be seen all around in the wooden churches and monasteries and carved gates. The route takes you through the Vaser Valley on a 21km ride back in time. Although there is nothing more than a picnic spot at the end of the line, it was an enjoyable experience and not one you get to do every day.
Romanian folk dancing
The parking area at the terminus charges 50 Lei (£10) inc electric for a night’s stay (GPS 47.714853 24.443238)
As soon as you drive into the Maramures region the importance of timber is strikingly obvious, with churches and monasteries created solely from wood at every turn. These carefully crafted masterpieces really are a work of art and you could easily spend a week just visiting them. Even the local houses utilise the wood with grand double wooden gates leading to more humble homes beyond. Some of the churches date back to the 14th century and reflect a time when Orthodox Romanians were forbid by their Hungarian rulers to build churches in stone.
Who says that death can’t have its lighter side? Certainly not Dumitru Pop. For about 30 years now, he’s been taking away some of the sting and adding a little zing to the dreaded inevitable. Behind the Church of the Assumption in this small town in northern Romania there’s a unique cemetery, known as the Cimitirul Vesel – the Merry Cemetery. It’s called that with good reason, each grave is marked, not with an austere, cold stone, but with a lively, beautifully carved wooden cross, painted in a radiant blue and decorated with a painting and an original poem that disclose a little something about the life and character of the plot’s eternal inhabitant. Some of the verses are wickedly funny, others are more whimsical. Some are heart-breaking, telling of lives tragically cut short by accidents or illnesses.
Pop creates each of these little masterpieces, carrying on a tradition begun in the 1930’s by his mentor Ion Stan Patras, who carved the crosses until his death in 1977. When someone in the village dies, the family comes to Pop and asks him to create a cross, which he hand-carves from oak in the small workshop behind his house, just around the corner from the church.
The Memorial Museum Sighet Marmatiei
In 1950 the decision was made to round up all the people who had influence over Romania lifestyles and beliefs that did not comply with the communist dictum. Over 2 million people were arrested and imprisoned of which 160,000 were executed (or murdered dependant on your point of view), many of them without trial, by the secret police. Some were held in prisons for years, some were placed in psychiatric hospitals, whilst others sent to forced labour camps. The memorial museum is on the site if one of these former prisons, you see where they slept and where and how they were tortured, the possessions they were allowed and how manacles were used to ensure they didn’t escape. The faces of the victims are portrayed on the walls along with a map of Romania showing how numerous these prisons were. Officially the detainees mainly died of illness, but that doesn’t appease their relatives as to why they were buried in mass graves near the Ukraine border. It’s what human beings will do to each other in their pursuit of power and wealth.
We stayed at camping Iza a small campsite within walking distance of the town and museum the cost was 60 Lei inc elec around £12 (GPS 47.933648 23.904857)
As our time in Romania comes to an end we will update the blog soon with our round up and top tips.
Until then Andi and Paul x