Once upon a time there was a castle in Romania. Actually there were a bunch of castles, and tour buses filled with curious older folks flocked to these castles from all across the land…

There was Peleş Castle, in Sinaia, the most popular tourist destination in all of Romania. It was quite beautiful, with large, intricate façades and an expansive green lawn that made for terrific pictures. Unfortunately, because this castle was so popular the Romanian government had decided to charge a very high price to enter, plus an even higher price if you wanted to take photos inside, which probably doesn’t come up much. I mean, you rarely see people taking photos of things these days, it seems, probably because it is such a cumbersome process and all. Not as simple as a button on your phone or anything. Then, on top of that, all visitors were required to tour the castle as part of an organized group. The group would most likely be led by someone who speaks your language, but if not, well, you’ll get the gist of it because you’re basically just looking at the “extravagant furnishings”, all of which have origin stories, I’m sure, but it’s not like you’re going to remember any of them anyway. Long story, well, sort of long, we didn’t go inside, but did spend some time wandering around outside enjoying the general area, taking photos from a variety of angles (at the low, low price of $0/photo!) and occasionally discussing the fact that at every single tourist attraction we visited in Romania there have been people taking wedding photos.

Then there was Bran Castle, which probably would have been even more popular than Peleş if it was more conveniently located. Nonetheless, Bran was also surrounded by thousands of tourists, partially because it is a very interesting castle located up on an imposing hill that makes it look fairly ominous and, of course, exceedingly villainous. But mostly people were there because Bran Castle is known as Castle Dracula. You know, Count Dracula from the books and movies. Fictional books and movies, that is. Which means it can’t really be Dracula’s castle because, well, Dracula is also fictional. Of course, the character is apparently based on a real life figure from Romanian history, Vlad Tepeş, also known as Vlad Dracula, and even more commonly, and definitely more fearsomely, as Vlad the Impaler (not Impeller, as we explained last time around). He was a famously ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator, as you probably guessed from the name, who ran things in these parts during the 15th century and presumably had much in common with the infamous fictional Dracula except for, I have to assume, the whole vampire thing. Of course, as far as the castle goes there are several more problems with this comparison other than, of course, the difference between reality and imagination. One being that not only did old Vlad never really live in Bran Castle but, in fact, only ever visited it once (or maybe twice, accounts vary), and for most of its recent existence it was occupied by members of the Hapsburg dynasty. And as for the castle being the inspiration for book, well, the author, Bram Stoker, apparently never once actually travelled to Eastern Europe and obviously had never even seen it (presumably Instagram didn’t enjoy the same popularity in those days). Nonetheless, despite all the question marks surrounding the entire concept, from the moment we parked our car we were inundated with tacky Dracula paraphernalia and vampire-themed clothing, souvenirs and, occasionally, burgers. Most annoyingly, though, from a practical standpoint, was that all the historic information and explanatory boards in the castle were provided only in Romanian except, of course, those pertaining to Dracula. Those, apparently, were well worth translating even though, you know, none of it was real. The first rule of show biz, “know your audience”. Or maybe the second rule, I’m pretty sure the first rule is actually “never pass herpes on to your co-stars, only the set crews and maybe the gaffer”. Either way, the point is we enjoyed looking around in it but didn’t really learn much, other than that the Hapsburgs must have been a pretty stumpy group to fit in beds that short.

A third stop was at Raşnov Citadel, located, conveniently enough, in the town of Raşnov. This one looked pretty imposing from the outskirts of town, set high up on a hill where it can loom over the town like the uncle who’s had too much to drink and hovers over his nephew demanding to hear what he learned in school today. He must have learned something! Much like all historic ruins, however, as well as female rappers, the closer you got the less impressed you became. In the end it was a nice place for a short stroll, and was fairly imperial from certain angles, but not the kind of place that etches a special place in your memory. Plus, there wasn’t even a single set of novelty vampire teeth for sale, so that was disappointing.

Meanwhile, immediately prior to all this castle-hopping, in the extremely hilly ski town of Sinaia which, like most ski towns is full of pizza places but lacks any really good bars, we undertook a wide variety of activities:

Had mediocre lasagna in a restaurant built in an abandoned building.

Took the cable car up to 2,000 metres in the Bucegi Mountains and hiked for a couple hours across the plateau. Good views at the beginning and end, and a really weird hotel in the middle that we mistook for a mining camp, with a lot of industrial equipment and its own Olympic-size running track.

Repeatedly climbed up and down, to and from our hotel located a solid 15-minute trudge up the hill from the main area of town.

We lost Looney for a full 24 hours to large quantities of alcohol and a brief encounter with love. Don’t worry, we eventually found him again, seemingly unharmed, maybe even a bit more tired and sluggish than usual, but now with a look that always seems just a hair away from becoming a smug smirk. Somehow, he seems to pull it off, in between yawns.

Our final Romanian destination was a remote hotel spectacularly located up on a thin ridge near Piatra Crailui National Park. The only way we could manage to hit Raşnov, Bran and make it to this well-hidden location was by renting a car in Braşov. Unfortunately, although we booked an ever so slightly larger vehicle that promised to be ever so slightly more able to handle the rigors of the rough roads we would face, the rental company did what rental companies always do, which is generally not pay any attention to what you want, and instead just give you whatever vehicle they happen to have sitting around. Which is how we found ourselves painstakingly creeping up a narrow, winding, rugged dirt road alternately doing our best to carefully squeeze around heavy machinery and hugging the inside corner as far from the sharp, imposing drop-offs as possible in a tiny bubble of a compact car. “The Opel Astra, Nobody’s Idea of an SUV.” Or at least that what’s their slogan should be. Either that, or maybe “The Only Car Round Enough to Roll Down a Hill Without Using Wheels.” But eventually we discovered our destination, a small collection of studio apartments that share a small but festive pavilion highlighted by one of the more stunning views one could hope to enjoy while drinking an ill-advised amount of beer and home-made plum firewater the night before tackling a difficult hike. Views or not, drink we did, some of us to the relatively reasonable hour prior to midnight, others continuing diligently on into the less conventional, and certainly more destructive, wee hours to drink even more and bond over heavy metal in the “big house”.

The following morning, all hangovers aside, our biggest issue soon turned to be actually finding the trailhead, something we were struggling mightily with until we finally came to a steep, gravelled hairpin turn which our childish ride proved embarrassingly incapable of conquering. The second time we found ourselves rolling backwards down the hill working hard to avoid careening off the edge, we decided to turn around and head back from whence we came, were lucky enough to procure directions from a helpful German hiker (who was clearly heading the opposite way to which he sent us) and before you know it found ourselves in the “big” parking lot described to us in extremely vague terms by Vlad the Hotelier the previous night. From there we hiked up through impressive Zarneşti Gorge, where it was all we could do to keep Chris from obsessively climbing into every dark corner even remotely resembling a cave, much like a cat that simply can’t resist a paper bag left lying on the carpet, then followed a side trail straight up the side of the hill for about half an hour before the trail levelled out just shy of Cabana Curmatura, then threw one last really steep stretch at us once we could already see the building, taste the cold beer waiting inside, and all too easily picture ourselves reclined on an old wooden picnic bench with our sweaty, disgusting feet airing out for all to grimace at. Well, my feet, anyway. Altogether it took about 4 hours, provided some nice views and was of great help when it came to the excretion of a certain toxin or two, which we knew was necessary to make room for all the new toxins we still had waiting in our fridge that certainly weren’t coming with us out of Romania the next day. A long, hectic day involving car washes, sweltering buses, a short flight and some train station chicken that surprisingly enough didn’t lead to any gastroenteric emergencies, but a day that nonetheless all ran as smoothly as one could hope. Which brings us to Greece. But that, my friends, will have to wait for next time…

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