Romania: The Crazy Roads, Churches and The Real Dracula

If one had asked me before we went if we would go to Romania I would have probably said no. The country wasn’t much on our radar. We had discussed discovering the Balkans, maybe Croatia and Slovenia. Time was of the essence in deciding to visit the country more famous for its pictures of huge poverty-stricken-Soviet-era orphanages, “Ceausescu’s children” than its history, culture and influences. We only had two weeks left before hopping on a ferry back to the UK for Izzy, the motorhome’s MOT. Romania’s next door to Hungary whereas the former Yougoslavian countries meant driving further and probably more discussion about which one to do and avoid.

Reading positive comments about campers who’d adventured it out here was decisive too. Whilst Jamie was looking at maps of Romania online for a potential route, I started scrolling through our Lonely Planet guidebook. Luckily, Jamie had downloaded a few Eastern European guidebooks prior to visiting the Czech Republic (Motorhoming with Family in South Germany And Czech Republic).

Reading aloud and writing a few key points about the country we’re driving to have become a kind of a routine pretty much since we started travelling. From the Romanian language section, I scribbled down a few words, mainly greetings such as “Bună ziua” [boona zeewa] (Hello), “Pa” (Bye) and “Mulţumesc” [Mooltsoomesk] (Thank you). The currency is the Romanian New Lei. One pound equals approximately six lei. A coffee is roughly 4Lei (£0.63) and a loaf of bread around 3.50Lei (£0.55). The country is a central point on the trading route to the East. Thus Romania’s Eastern and Western influences have left indelible marks. Moorish-influenced houses and buildings sit side-by-side with Victorian-types from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Orthodox churches can be seen alongside Mosques. Reading aloud to Jamie Romania’s history and culture gave us a good introduction in understanding its current position.

There are only a few camping grounds in Romania, but this wasn’t too much of a problem as wild camping is legal unless signposted otherwise in certain areas. For example there are allocated areas in the Danube Delta. We played it safe on our first night and stayed at a small and lovely family-run campsite, Camping Route Roemenie in Miniş. The friendly owner welcomed us in perfect English and kindly told us to come and see him once settled.

At 15Euros per night (prices were advertised in Euros rather than Lei), the campsite was expensive compared to others in Romania. The price we were told didn’t include electricity (4Euros) either which meant a total of 19Euros per night which is roughly 75Lei. We eventually discovered at the end of our two weeks tour that this was by far the most expensive campsite we stayed at. Camping Route was 16Lei more than the next most expensive campsite we stayed which had even better facilities. But, after a long and tiring drive, we weren’t going to start hackling or arguing. We spent our first night and the next day relaxing as heavy rain and storms enveloped us. We treated ourselves to Romanian-cuisine on our first evening sharing the only table at the campsite restaurant-cum-family dining room, watched the penultimate episode of The Wire (a great addiction!) and strolled through the village in-between rainfalls.

The busy border crossing M43 (Hungary)- A1 (towards Arad, Romania).

The queue of lorries on the other side of the road (towards Hungary) goes on for miles. Luckily our side was going pretty fast.

Lorries form all across Europe, Asia Minor (Turkey) and even this one from as far afield as Iran were queueing up!

The next day, Jamie and I go for a walk in Miniş, the village where we're camping, and come across this abandoned house.

The village was once a prospering town with its own railway station. Jamie's standing on the abandoned track.

Camping Route Roemenie in Miniş.

Armed with a new PAYG (Pay As You Go) Data-SIM card bought at the Orange shop in Auchan’s commercial centre in the town of Deva for 43.57Lei (roughly £6.88 or 9.70Euros), we were ready to explore some of its Soviet-era engineering road projects; but also its pretty villages; wooden churches; natural wonders and a detour to the castle of the original Dracula.

Thus far, we hadn’t visited any caves on our trip. Slovakia and Hungary had some impressive ones, but, limited for time, we missed them. This time around, one of Romania’s most famous caves, Pestera Ursilor (The “BearCave”) was on our route. The damp, narrow and dark walkway with stalagmites and stalactites on both sides lead us to the cave’s highlight; a big chamber with hundreds of thousands of cavernous formations of all shapes and sizes. Before our eyes were strange displays from phallic-shaped fountains to sharp-teeth monsters. Although it was an enjoyable visit, it was a shame every visitor has to join a half-hour Romanian-speaking guided tour. We were unlucky as we arrived just as a tour had left so had to wait about 20minutes. The full visit for two adults including parking costs 60Lei (5Lei for parking; 20Lei each; 15Lei to take photographs), about £9.50 or 13.50Euros.

After a quick coffee and toilet break opposite the cave, we drove on passing through the picturesque village of Brădet. We stopped briefly on the side of the main road crossing the village to take a closer look at Brădet’s beautiful wooden church. In state of disrepair, the church was rebuilt in 1733. Its metallic-tiled spire and roof combined with its wooden body is a wonderful blend of new and old. Perched on a hill in the centre of the village, its overgrown cemetery dotted with rusty crosses and old stone graves give Brădet’s church a romantic-feel. That evening we overnighted in the Asupeni National Park (click on the link to read our brief review under "Romania"). It was a nice and quiet free camping spot surrounded by pine trees.

We pass through a lot of farmlands and villages on the way to Pestera Ursilor aka "The Bear's Cave".

The narrow pathway leading to the Cave's main chamber.

A monster-like entrance through the rocks.

A view from one side of the Bear's Cave.

Close up of some of the weird formations.

Coming through the nice village of Brădet.

The pretty wooden church in the centre of the village of Brădet.

Our free camping space for the night in the Asupeni National Park.

The next day wasn’t so good. We drove a long distance at an unusually slower pace, mainly due to the state of the mountains roads, whilst trying to avoid insane Romanian drivers and truckers overtaking us at full speed on blind corners! Oh and there was the state of the roads too... In the morning, the tarmac road suddenly turned into a dirt track. The only solution was to turn back. Back on road 75, although better than the last, still had pot holes the size of craters! Izzy, The Motorhome’s full speed on good roads/motorways is 90km. Here, our pace was an average of 20 to 50km per hour! Very, very slow indeed. Like a hedgehog crossing the road trying to avoid becoming crows’ feed. Little troubles followed us through the night that day. Free camped on the side of road 74, the police moved us on as we were too near the road. We were both very tired and hadn’t really given it much thought. They were certainly right, but it was a pain!

Finally reaching the iconic Soviet-era Transalpina, the old road’s condition wasn’t much better than others. Although Romanian driving style and the poorly managed roads were hard work, we enjoyed driving through the mountainous forested landscapes and small villages surrounding the iconic road.

So the road was nice and ok at first...

40 minutes later, it wasn't so good...

We were only surrounded by woods for a while.

An (very small) example of some of the holes on the Transalpina.

This was a little too much!

Finally back on tarmac! After three hours, we will hopefully find a decent free camping place before dark.

We were en route to another dramatic road, the Transfăgărăsan via Curtea De Argeş and Poenari (the real Dracula castle). As we entered Curtea de Argeş, we stopped for a short while to look at the Orthodox church of St Dimitris (“Biserica, Sf Dumitris”). Its bright mix of red bricks and white stones with colourful frescoes caught our eyes as we drove passed. The building was closed. But there were plenty of things in its courtyard to catch our attention; frescoed ceiling pergola, a detailed mosaic of a battle, an old water pump and the church building itself. In the centre, Curtea De Argeş’Orthodox Cathedral is the focal point for pilgrims and tourists alike with its flamboyant Moorish building. The intrinsic designs, inside and out, are an artistic mastery. So detailed is its interior that it is almost hard to focus on one particular area. My eyes kept wondering off trying to not miss anything.

Here we saw people’s dedication to the icons and, ultimately God. Simple shrines housed candles people had lit up. They lined the way to the simpler, red brick building complex of the monastery. Here it wasn’t “exit through the gift shop”, but more an “entrance and exit through the gift stalls”. Yes, it wasn’t just the one stall outside selling cheap religious tat from icons to crosses and magnets, there was also a stall inside the monastery itself just before the chapel. Before their prayer, pilgrims could “absolve” themselves buying their miniature saint or God. Most believers and tourists seemed to like it. Gathered around the souvenirs, they were like bees swarmed to their beehive.

Farmlands and bad roads en route to Curtea De Argeş.

As we come in to Curtea De Argeş, the Orthodox Church of St Dimitris grabs our attention.

Once parked further down the road, we walk down the road passing this former school building.

The church of St Dimitris.

Some close ups of the frescoes on the front of the building...

The church's pergola.

And the well right by the church.

The front view of the impressive 19th century Orthodox Cathedral of Curtea De Argeş.

Inside, it is all about the details.

From floor to ceiling, it is an ode to icons and God.

We were lucky; we weren't stopped wearing flip flops and shorts!

At the back, the red brick monastery building with its chapel, stalls and shrines.

Inside, the fresco on the ceiling of the chapel.

Many tourists are "exiting through the religious gift shop/stalls".

Back on the road, we made a stop further on to explore the ruins of the 13th century Poenari Castle. Perched high above the valley and between mountains, the castle appealed to Vlad III The Impaler known in popular culture as the “real Dracula” who used it as one of his main fortresses in the 15th century. There are no blood sucking stories attached to the Romanian King, but rather a barbaric method of choice to kill his opponents [hence the name]. Although the tortures he inflicted on those captured were horrendous, Romanians respected- and still respects him to this day as he managed to defend the region and the country from fierce invasions.

En route to Poenari Castle, we drive passed many different architecture-style.

On the right track to the fortress of the "real Dracula"

The small car park down the 1,450 steps to climb up to the ruins of the fortress.

Already stopped after ten steps!

A few signs like this one are displayed to let you know how you're doing... Yes, it is very steep!

At least, the climb's shaded all the way up. Quite a few people were struggling to make it to the top.

Near the top!

Time for a quick break.

Some torture displays outside the fortress...

The gory mannequins... Were they really necessary?!

I must admit that I was a little disappointed. At the end of the very very very steep 30minute climb up the 1,450 steps to the fortress, sweaty and out-of-breath, I expected something better than cheesy ridiculous gory mannequins demonstrating the “impalement” and small ruins walked around in two minutes! The view didn’t seem to be as dramatic as I’d expected either. For only ten lei (roughly £1.50 or 2.20Euros), I guess I would probably have been disappointed if we hadn’t stopped either thinking we’d missed the opportunity to visit a monument with such a big myth attached. Bram Stocker’s popular myth is just an imaginative horror story which happened to be set in Romania’s Central region, Transylvania. 

To Be Continued