There's much more to see in Romania than just Dracula's castle
On a fine, sunny fall morning, we are bouncing around in the back seat of a van as we drive along a rocky road leading into the dense, leafy forests of Romania's Cozia National Park. After 20 minutes, we round one last bend.
Before us lies a hidden valley. A tiny church stands nestled in a dell against steep, forested hills. Wisps of early morning mist still shroud the grounds.
We jump out of our vehicle and descend the winding path to the church. As we approach the chapel, admiring the delicate woodwork and perfect geometry of its hexagonal central tower, an elderly church warden in a long, black robe and bushy, white beard emerges into the empty courtyard. He greets us cheerfully, urging us to come in for the service about to start.
He then hoists a large, yoke-shaped plank from a hook by the door onto his shoulder and begins striding around the church, clanging a high-pitched rhythm on the wood with a mallet to announce the start of prayers. Near the back of the building, he almost bumps into the priest turning the corner.
The warden pulls his cap off and bends low in front of the priest, who touches his bowed head and blesses him with a prayer. The warden then goes right back to clanging as he completes his circle around the church.
Standing at the crossroads
The lost-in-time setting, the warden's and priest's traditional garb and their ritual exchange all are part of the mellow charm that Romania offers visitors willing to set aside Gothic fantasies of Dracula Land and give the country a fresh look. Standing at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, Romania has long traded with — and been invaded by — all its neighbors. The country and its people have absorbed the multiple influences and transformed them into a unique cultural tapestry.
A four-day road trip in southern Walachia and the central province of Transylvania offered multiple glimpses of the country's allure.
We each had visited Romania before — after the end of the Communist dictatorship — on environmental and energy work. The devastation of rivers and towns was often severe, as in Ploiesti, where roving packs of feral dogs and sulfurous air from old oil refineries left a strong impression.
Even then, though, the drive between badly contaminated places offered a glimpse of gently rolling green hills in central Transylvania, picturesque villages, and mysterious and cool forests in the mountains. We both left Romania feeling that there were many beautiful things to explore.
When Eva moved to Bucharest recently, we decided to visit the countryside again, to see if the lovely views glimpsed in the 1990s survived. Eva designed a circuit that would take us through mountains, a national park and to several beautiful monasteries in an easy road trip out of Bucharest.
We left the capital midweek, driving west on the modern main highway through Pitesti — then veering north to Curtea de Arges, on the threshold of Transylvania. After a quick visit to the town's spectacular Byzantine and Turkish-inflected cathedral, we struck out on the Transfaragasan highway.
This scenic route, famous as one of the most sinuous and panoramic in Romania, wound first through dense forest. We had to stop twice while herds of sheep, baaing and clanging their way down from their summer pastures to winter ones, engulfed our car for several minutes.
The road then became so steep and narrow that we almost missed our next stopping point: Cetatea Poenari, a castle built by Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes, the historical model for Dracula. Located strategically to block Turkish invaders from the south from entering the fertile, valuable Transylvania territory, the citadel perches on a cliffside high above the road.
Tourists eager to prowl the ruins of “Dracula's castle” just need to climb 1,480 steps to reach it.
As we continued toward the Carpathian ridge, the forest closed in once again and the road folded into hairpin bends. Every now and again, awe-inspiring views of deep mountain canyons opened up at the bends. We eventually emerged above the tree line, into fog-shrouded mountaintops. Fortunately, the road was of high quality and had clear side markings all the way.
We passed numerous cabanas, guesthouses and restaurants, including a large mountain cabin at the highest point of the Transfaragasan highway, which serves as a starting point for hikes across the mountains. Then we swung west to enter the picturesque Olt Valley.
Our first day ended with a simple but hearty dinner at one of the many roadside restaurants. Waiters brought each of us a small tureen of traditional ciorba soup, with chunks of root vegetables jostling cubes of meat. It was served with a whole raw spicy pepper on the side, for bites between spoonfuls of soup.
After dinner, we headed into the small town of Brezoi, just a couple of kilometers off the main road. There, we checked into our spare, clean and spacious rooms in the visitors center of Cozia National Park, where we planned to hike the next day.
World Heritage site
Cozia is not the largest or the best known of Romania's national parks. But it harbors an exceptionally high diversity of plants and animals in a small area, has rare inverted tree-growth patterns and includes two areas of primary forest — never cut or planted with other species. This is almost unheard of now in Europe, and a big draw for nature lovers. UNESCO just declared its two old-growth beech tree stands a World Heritage site.
The accommodating park managers arranged for an early morning ride from the visitors center to the head of our trail at Stanisoara Monastery. We picked up the trail just behind the building, and it soon grew steep; we were glad we had brought hiking boots and trekking poles. Our knowledgeable guide, one of the park's seven rangers, pointed out late-blooming wildflowers and untouched stands of majestic beeches, and explained the forest's unique ecological features.
We sighted chamois deer several times during the day and numerous bird species. We didn't see any bears, although our guide said he had encountered some recently.
As we gained height, sweeping vistas of the Olt opened up before us, and we stopped several times to admire the silver ribbon of river glistening below us in the distance. At about noon, we reached the peak of Cozia Mountain, where we stopped on the terrace of Cabana Cozia for a picnic lunch, surrounded by magnificent scenery. A couple of local shepherds joined us for a beer, eager to practice their broken English, acquired over years working in Western Europe, and letting us practice our broken Romanian. A steep return descent — trekking poles constantly deployed — plunged us back into the forest and eventually released us into the rising evening fog at Turnu Monastery, where our ride back to the park's visitors center waited.
Our next day in the Olt Valley immersed us in the world of serene Orthodox monasteries along the river. We returned to Turnu and discovered a small complex of a whitewashed chapel, two-story buildings for monks' quarters, and a tiny cemetery and garden tucked in a glen just out of sight of the valley's thronging highway. Glowing in the morning sunshine, the buildings were lovingly bedecked with hanging flowerpots. One part of the monastery grounds — tiny caves carved painstakingly out of the rock face — stood in stark contrast. These were the homes of Turnu's early hermit monks, who consigned themselves to barren, rough-hewed spaces with barely enough room to sleep.
The Cozia Monastery, a few miles down the road, is larger and more prosperous. Its church has the red brick and white stone stripes typical of Byzantine buildings on the outside, but inside, its wooden walls shine with color and gold. Pictures from the lives of saints and the Bible cover every inch of the interior walls, instructing and inspiring generations of the faithful who couldn't read. The pictures climb the walls, leading the eye to a central image of Christ at the center of the domed ceiling, high above the viewer's head.
Loveliest of all
Possibly the loveliest and most atmospheric monastery in the region, however, is the one at Horezu. Founded in 1690 and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, it maintains an intact estate of rolling fields, orchards and active pastures. The religious complex includes five chapels, and is a premier example of Brancovenesc architecture, unique to Romania.
On the outside, brown and gold touches adorn its cream-colored walls, with an intricate interplay of round elements — plaster medallions just under the roofline and rounded outer walls of back chapel — lending dynamism and tension to the beautifully proportioned rectangular main body of the church. Its interior walls, like those of other monasteries in the region, are alive with the icons and scenes from the Bible that long made these monasteries such draws for villagers from throughout the region.
The monastery runs its own guesthouse on the grounds, with simple but very comfortable and spotless rooms. Overnight guests can stroll in the inner courtyards in the evening, after most visitors have left and the outer gates have shut. The guesthouse administrators are informal about arrival and departure. Encounters with the nuns made us feel like friends who had stopped by for a visit.
Tourists who tire of the chapels at Horezu can enjoy many other attractions in the surrounding countryside. The potters' community of Olari, where local artisans welcome visitors into their home workshops, is an excellent place to discover authentic and affordable souvenirs. Winding country roads tempt bikers to explore the region on two wheels, while several horse farms in the area offer opportunities to go for another type of ride.
Numerous roadside stands sell honey, cheese and the freshest produce — a great way to get a taste of local flavors and meet locals from family farms.
Our four-day road trip in Romania revealed a charming, peaceful and varied landscape, with memorable glimpses of culture, spirituality and natural beauty at every turn. It stood up very well to a second look, and its low prices and good accommodations make it both economical and convenient; as we headed home, vampires were the last thing on our minds.
Christine Pendzich and Eva von Falkenstein are Washington Post contributing writers.