42nd country – Romania which I visited during the short 5 days over the Memorial Day holiday; May 24-29. Why Romania; it is never on my bucket list? I was looking for a country in Europe that I never been to work on my country count and since I already visited most of the Western Europe countries, I started to looking eastward. My choices are limited by flight options….obviously, it doesn’t make sense for a 5 days trip if getting to the destination will take over a day. Also, there’s no direct flight from Boston to Eastern Europe so I need to connect somewhere. My search started with finding a cheap connection point…..Paris, London, Barcelona, Madrid; those are the usual ones that have cheap direct flights. Then, the next segment from those connection points to possible destinations….direct flight, cheap, and enough time to make the connection since I’ll book separately. It was like a math problem to solve but with multiple variables.
During my search, I saw the direct flights to Dublin was on sale for $486.50 round trip with Aer Lingus. Then, I searched direct flight from Dublin with Google Flights…..and found to Bucharest, Romania for $60 one way. The way back was a direct flight from Cluj-Napoca to Dublin for $89 one way. The time worked nicely too! At that point, I really don’t know much about Romania besides the beautiful Peles Castle that I have seen over the internet. I did further research and found many more beautiful castles and old towns; both are my favorite types of things to see 🙂
My flight experience with Aer Lingus was that you need to check in at exactly 24 hours so set your alarm! I checked in three hours after that 24 hours mark and on the page to select a seat, I saw the ridiculous $50 per person price tag….that’s like 20% extra of the total flight cost if you pay for seat round-trip! I was thinking usually airlines are good assigning the seats together if you book under the same reservation (except for the evil Ryanair) and plus if not, I could always pay to just pay one seat change. I was so wrong! I was shocked to see our seats after completed online check-in, we were stuck in the middle of different rows (Aer Lingus seat configuration is 2-4-2). I tried to go to change my seat but there’s no option to do so, urg, how poor design is that!!!
At the airport, I asked the gate agent if it’s possible to change my seat so we can sit together. He said sorry the flight is full but I can try to ask the person who will be sitting next to me to change seat and usually that works out, oh gosh! Luckily, the wonderful woman who sit next to me (on the aisle seat) was willing to switch with my husband!!! Thank you!!!
Other than the seat assignment issue, the flight was above average….great selections of movies (they have a whole menu dedicated for Marvel movies….all my favorite Iron Man and Avengers) and edible food with great Irish dessert.
The flight from Dublin to Bucharest was with Blue Air, the first time I heard of it, and the plane was very old. They even limit the carry on to just one piece (not one carry on plus one personal item that we normally allowed). The staff bag tagged our carry on but at least we don’t need to pay extra. On the return flight, on the other hand, Jason had to jam in the camera backpack into the carry on luggage and glad he made it fit! Once we arrived at Bucharest Airport, we went through another passport control to get our passports stamped even though Romania is in the EU so I wasn’t expecting to get a second stamp after Dublin…I was quite happy to collect another new stamp 🙂
We were told that we can collect our luggage at the gate but ended up we need to collect at the baggage carousel. Bucharest Airport is surprisingly small considered it’s the capital airport but we had to walk through this very long hallway and then downstairs through another narrow hallway to the baggage carousel. We waited for a few minutes and the carousel bell ring and the belt started to move. Guess what, the first luggage came out and got stuck at the turn corner so it jammed the other luggage. One traveler pushed the “stop” button to stop the belt…..perhaps that’s why there’s a “stop” button there, I never see such a button at other baggage carousels. A guy jumped in and pulled that luggage out, problem solved right? Nope! The belt didn’t restart……a few people tried to push and pull that “stop” button but didn’t work. An airport staff came and she couldn’t even figure out too! She called and spoke in Romanian so I have no idea of the conversation but that didn’t work either. We waited over 20 minutes and finally, it was fixed…….not a great start!
After we collected our bags, we walked out and the signage was pretty poor to the rental car counter. We walked back up the stairs and then saw a sign to the rental car counter. Once we got there, we saw all the rental car company’s counters except ours – Payless, OMG! I walked to the Avis counter and ask the lady where’s the Payless counter? She said oh they no longer in the airport but there should be a representative to escort us. What??? I booked Payless through Expedia because it’s in the terminal!!!! I read the confirmation again and it said the counter is in the terminal! We walked back to the arrival area to see if there’s any Payless representative…there were a lot of people holding signs but none said Payless GRRR!!! Next, we walked out to the shuttle pick up area and nothing about rental car shuttle. Lastly, I called the Payless direct number (thankfully I have T-Mobile so the international call at 25 cents/minute was reasonable). After navigating through menus, there is a pre-recorded message to meet the representative in front of the “flower shop”. I remembered we walked by a flower shop so I hang up and we walked to the flower shop. NO Payless person there! Another guy who was waiting for somebody was nice enough to ask us who are we waiting for. We said Payless and he said the Payless guy walked out but should be back shortly. That was a relief and a better impression of Romania – helpful locals who speak good English! Well…after another 15 minutes of wait, I called again and this time to speak with an actual person. I told the guy on the phone that we are in front of the flower shop and no representative here. The guy asked the name under the reservation and said “he’ll be there soon”. That “soon” was not another half an hour!!! So I called again and the same guy said in 15 minutes. We were super frustrated and hungry…our flight landed on 3:40 PM and it was 5:15 PM already!
The guy finally here and walked us out the airport at the other exit and his coworker drove the van over. The Payless counter is located like a mile away tucked in this park and ride parking lot. The staff who was handling our paperwork was making coffee oh gosh, that was his priority -.- I confirmed our return will be at Cluj-Napoca and got a map of the Payless Cluj-Napoca location (that was impossible to find…story later). After all those wait and frustration, we got the car out just before 6 PM and made our 2 hours drive to Brasov.
The drive was “interesting”…when I looked at Google Map, it looked like a straightforward main road all the way from the airport to Brasov via route DN1. I thought DN1 is like a “highway” but it wasn’t! It was surrounded by residential houses, small shops, and even fruit stands on both sides of the road. There weren’t much traffic lights but lots of pedestrian crosswalks so we had to pay attention to pedestrians and slow down as needed. Then, it was mostly like curvy mountain road with only one lane on each direction…occasionally, two lanes to cut. Our rental car was super slow in acceleration that made it hard for Jason to cut the car in front of us on one lane. We constantly got cut by Audi drivers though LOL! We were surprised to see so many Audi in Romania; I would say 50% are luxury cars and out of those 50%, 90% are Audi! Half an hour before we reached our hotel in the old town of Brasov, we drove through this hairpin curves mountain section. I was joking to Jason, doesn’t he wish he was driving his own car on this road?
We finally arrived at our hotel – Residence Hirscher. The parking spots in front of the hotel were all taken so Jason pulled over so I can walk into the hotel to ask. I contacted the hotel in advanced to inquire about parking and the receptionist confirmed that they have reserved a spot for us, phew! He walked out with me and removed the “reserved for hotel” cone that blocked the spot for us. I am so glad that I contacted the hotel in advance and guaranteed a parking spot, it saved a lot of hassle, plus it was super cheap at 18 Lei per day (~$4.28 USD per day).
Our room was room 303 (I think) and it was unbelievably spacious consider it only cost $123 for two nights! The amenities can be compared to 4* hotels, they even provided slippers.
The closet area in front of the door:
Clean and modern looking room:
Plenty of space like a suite!
The bathroom is also spacious and modern with toiletries provided.
After the quick photos of the room, we went back out for dinner; I was super starving! We walked to Dei Frati, an Italian restaurant located in the old town. I picked this restaurant because of its good ratings and I found that Romania cuisine tend to be heavily meat-based like Czech Republic and Hungary. The restaurant was full but luckily there was a table outside which we don’t mind to be seated outside, it was warm enough. The waitress spoke okay English but I need to point on the menu to show her exactly what we want to order.
For appetizers, we both ordered mussels but it wasn’t the steamed fresh mussels that I totally miss. Instead, it was like baked with garlic and olive oil and served on a plate that reminded me of French escargot. The mussels did not taste fresh but the fried garlic was pretty good to dip with bread.
The main dishes, we ordered a salmon and seafood spaghetti. I like the spaghetti sauce, it has this seafood and creamy taste. It would be even better if the seafood were fresh but since we were nowhere near the coast, most of the seafood we ate during this trip weren’t fresh.
I surprisingly liked the salmon since it’s quite lean and not fatty so I can eat more before feeling heavy.
It was a good meal for only 156 Lei (~$37 USD) for both of us! All the restaurants we went accept credit card, however, when I asked the waitress to add the tip, she doesn’t tend to care and ignored it. I found out after a few meals that there isn’t any easy way to tip with a credit card and even one waiter told me “no need”. I took out 400 Lei from the ATM but no small change to tip. I wondered if what I read is accurate….the suggested tip is 10% but I never see any guests around us leaving a tip on the table, hum! After dinner, we walked to a small 24 hours market nearby to buy breakfast items – bread, butter, juice, and water. The market accepts credit card as well. It was a short walk back to our hotel where we rest and recharge for the adventures ahead!
I set the alarm to wake up at 7 AM for me and 7:30 AM for Jason, we must leave the hotel by 8 AM to make our 1 hour drive to the first sightseeing spot – the famous Peles Castle in order to get there by the time it opens at 9 AM to avoid the crowds. We got out 15 minutes earlier and had to drive through that hairpin road up the mountain, look at the Google Map! Jason got a lot of experiences driving those curvy mountain roads after our previous trips so easy job for him haha!
Peles Castle is located in the town of Sinaia which looked like a resort town with many hotels, restaurants, and tourists of course.
We drove into the castle road which there is a booth that we paid the parking fee, forgot the amount but it was very little like 10-15 Lei for the convenience. I have seen people parked right outside the road to the castle, there were a lot of parking spots there but required a much longer hike up to the castle. Since we arrived early, we were able to find a spot in the parking lot closest to the castle. The parking lot:
It was like a good 10 minutes walk up the slope to get to the castle, we didn’t see the castle until almost the very end as the road was covered by tall trees on both sides. There it is! Isn’t it beautiful?
We got there at exactly at 9 AM but already some tourists there and then a tour group was arriving. We didn’t waste time hanging around, we walked all the way to one end near the “garden” area to get some photographs of the castle before the crowds came.
I didn’t bring a wide angle lens with us this time so we need to walk further away in order to capture the castle without cropping off the top. I didn’t realize that the space was limited, you can’t go off to the grass area on the hill, so I highly recommend to bring a wide angle lens if you have it!
Many castle ground areas are closed….they looked like they are still working on it. It’s different than other castles we visited where the garden is huge…..here is limited space.
Once we got the pictures we wanted, too bad there were some clouds hanging over the mountain so it looked like cloudy…..there was some sun! We walked to the ticket booth to purchase the entrance ticket….there are two types: 1. ground floor for 30 Lei and 2. ground floor + 2nd floor for 60 Lei. There’s also a photography fee of 35 Lei so you can take photos inside….you’ll get a piece of paper paperclipped to your clothing, staff will check! We purchased the ground floor + 2nd floor and the photography fee. By the way, they take cash only! All other castles we visited in Romania (with lower admission fees) accept credit card so I found it odd that the largest and most famous castle doesn’t accept credit card!
The exterior details of the castle with beautiful paintings on the wall.
Here’s the chaotic part…the queue to get in. There’s no instruction or anything besides a long line of people that barely move an inch. I found out the long line is due to they only allow x number of people (not fixed but more like an estimate) to get in at a time and need to be guided by one of the staff in the castle. They separated each “group” by like 5-10 minutes, once again not timed so sometimes the line move faster and then totally stopped for another 10 minutes. In addition, it appeared to be two lines, one for the general public (like us) and one for tour groups. They take turn letting the two different groups in…..however, sometimes they let more tour groups in probably the staff know the tour guide and you can hear some people from our line complaining about it! I also see people cutting the line, grrrr!!! This queuing process is very inefficient and unfair; we waited over an hour to get in! They should assign timed slots and each with fixed number of people, first come first serve basis, will be more controlled and organized!
After an hour of wait, we finally got in and we had to put on shoe covers provided by the castle. Our group was like 20 people or so and with an English speaking staff who guided us from one room to another and provided information on each. There were many times we had to wait for the group in front of us to be done and move over to the next room…once again, very inefficient. The first hall we entered, it was on the dark side even with electrical lights on (remember, Peles is the first castle to have electricity) and surrounded by beautiful woodwork and artwork on the ceiling.
The main “hall” right after we walked up to the stairs from the entrance hall is this 3 stories high and beautifully decorated with more amazing woodwork and a stained glass ceiling that is electrically controlled to fully open or close; it is still working today! The green wall color really compliments the dark brown wood.
You can see the group behind us waiting for us to move before they can proceed.
Another thing that stand out in the castle are those incredible stained glasses, there are a lot of those.
We probably shown like 15 rooms: music room, library, weapon, a room that is Arabic/Turkish bath style, dining room, and many bedrooms. My favorite is the dancing hall with huge colorful Murano chandeliers:
The ceilings are covered by lavished artworks as like other castles in Western Europe.
According to the staff, there are a few secret doorways in the castle. Where do you think will be?
Inside that closet is one of them haha! After the ground floor, those who purchased the extra ticket to the 2nd floor followed the staff…it was like less than 10 people only. There weren’t as much rooms as we saw on the ground floor but with lesser crowds, I felt like it was more enjoyable. The 2nd floor has more bedrooms like the one above, breakfast room, and toilets – with running water. Overall, I do recommend to go in to see the interior of the castle despite the long waiting queue. I didn’t know they let people in the ground before the castle opened so my tips is go there earlier to take the ground photos and be the first ones to line up to enter the castle at opening time!
By the time we were done touring the 2nd floor, it was already 11:30 am so it took much longer (queue plus slow moving pace) than I expected. I was super hungry by then so we decided not to visit the other castle, Pelisor Castle. There is a cafe/restaurant next to the castle but we didn’t have lunch there. Instead, we drove into town to Restaurant Snow.
On the path walking down, there were people selling baskets of cherries for 15 Lei, the price included the handmade basket. I thought it was cute so I bought one…but the cherries weren’t sweet though!
The town was super busy, it was so hard to find parking on the street near the restaurant; they have a few spots in front of the restaurant but were all taken. We ended up parking at a parking lot near the restaurant which cost like 15 Lei for the whole day. Once we parked, a lady came by to collect the money and gave us a slip to put in front of our car’s wiper.
All the tables outside the restaurant were occupied so we were seated inside and it was pretty empty inside.
I ordered a chicken noodle soup and it was okay, I was craving for some hot soup and it did the job.
Jason ordered the traditional beef soup, the waitress said it is a little bit spicy but we didn’t taste any spiciness. His soup was much more flavorful than mines.
For the main course, I ordered a curry chicken. When the waitress delivered the plate, the curry and herbs smelled so good. But when I took the first bite, it was so salty!!! I was so disappointed that it smelled much better than it tasted ugh! Even more, the chicken was super lean….like 100% lean that it was super dry! It was so salty that it was hardly edible geez!
Jason ordered ribs which is highly rated in TripAdvisor. It turned out to be tasty and the meat is super lean without any fat!!! I was thinking are meat in Romania lean since not mass farm-raised unlike meats in the US?
Our lunch was 114 Lei, once again, not possible to add tips with credit card payment. After lunch, our next destination was the famous “Dracula Castle” – Bran Castle located an hour away. It took longer than that because of road construction so only one lane was opened for both traffic directions in some sections. There was a traffic light at each section to allow one direction to travel at a time so if you are unlucky and arrived when it just turned red, the wait time was more than 10 minutes each! Like at the castle, there were locals selling fruit baskets at the traffic light which was clever of them. I already bought a basket at the castle so I said no thanks.
We finally reached the castle and found street parking. There is no machine to make payment, not even parking meters, it was all manual with people walking up and down the street to collect money. I wonder if the amount of money one collected in a day is enough to pay for that person’s salary? Parking is super cheap as well, at only 4 Lei per hour. The guy came to collect the money but I don’t know how long we’ll take to visit the castle and the guy nicely said it’s okay, pay 4 Lei now and if overtime, I can pay the extra when I leave. Romanians are very friendly and have trust in people!
The walk up the castle is a steep hill but with steps so it wasn’t too bad. The castle is built on this rocky hill. The admission fee was 40 Lei and they accept credit card.
Unlike Peles Castle, it is not lavish or anything like that. Bran Castle is more like a defense castle with minimal decorations. Even though the castle got famous by the horror novel – Dracula, the castle is not scary at all. On the other hand, it’s quite bright inside with some costume displays.
Bran Castle is small so we finished the whole loop in less than 30 minutes even with stops for photos…..not that many photogenic spots anyways.
Since it got famous by Dracula, there is a poster on Dracula…that’s the only thing I found related to Dracula.
The bedroom is quite simple:
I heard there’s another type of ticket to see the torture rooms but no thanks!
Instead of water in the well, there were a lot of coins 😉
We were done with the castle in 45 minutes and walked back down. Just before the entrance of the castle, there are a lot of souvenir shops selling traditional blouse (which they are famous for), crafts made out of wood and ceramic, and of course Dracula themed souvenirs. None of the souvenirs caught our attention as we are not into Dracula stuff. Also, the magnets looked very mass produced and not cute at all. We didn’t get anything from those shops.
We walked back to our car and we just made it at the one hour mark! I gave the parking slip to the guy and he said you’re good to go. The drive back to our hotel at Brasov took over an hour due to the construction traffic, there was no other route. Once we get back to Brasov, parked our car in front of the hotel, went into our room for a bio break, and came back out to the old town square for photos. Brasov’s old town is super cute with colorful buildings surrounding the old town. Can you see the “BRASOV” Hollywood sign on top of the mountain?
We walked to the Biserica Neagră (Black Church), there is a admission fee to enter. I forgot how much but it was very minimal. However, there is no photo allowed inside so I couldn’t take photos to share with you. The interior is just like other average church…doesn’t really have anything that stand out to me. Legend has it that a Bulgarian builder pushed an annoying child off the church tower and to conceal the crime, he buried the corpse in the wall of the church.
After the church, our next stop was Biserica Sfântul Nicolae (St. Nicholas Church). It was a 14 minutes walk and we passed by this massive line of people. We were curios as what the line is for and found out it was for this gelato shop – Gelato Mania! Crazy, I have never have seen a line like this for gelato, not even in Italy!
There are colorful paintings on the church’s walls:
No photography allowed too so we didn’t go in. Adjacent to the church was the First Romanian School!
The church taken from this square is so photogenic so make sure don’t miss this photo op!
Afterward, we headed back to our next stop: Catherine’s Gate. But along the way, we passed by the massive line for gelato again and Jason decided to join the queue LOL! He said he want to try how good this gelato can be for this massive line! It was a good 30 minutes wait, crazy for gelato! The flavors were written in Romania except for “mango”. There is a little window to place the order and pick up, I asked what are the fruit flavors they have, the guy quickly translated mango, cherry, lemon, spicy chocolate….
Without holding the line back, I quickly ordered mango, cherry, and spicy chocolate. The verdict: worth the wait! The gelato was super smooth, creamy, and full of natural flavors. The mango was super good but what exceeded our expectation was the cherry. The spicy chocolate was interesting. The large cone with 3 flavors and huge scoop was only 15 Lei!
We managed to finish the gelato by the time we reached Catherine’s Gate. This fairy-tale looking gate has a not so fairy-tale like story behind it. This gate was the only allowed gate (out of the five gates) for Romanians to enter the fortress wall and they can only enter at certain time of the day and pay a “toll”. Romanians back then were not allowed to own any property inside the fortress wall as well!
Isn’t Brasov super cute?
For dinner, we picked Vino e Sapori, another Italian restaurant; I rather have seafood spaghetti everyday than having heavy-meat based meals. We ordered the seafood platter as starter (even though it was a main course). The taste was okay but the ingredients weren’t that fresh…like I said the mussels in this part of Romania are not fresh ones.
The seafood spaghetti was instead of tomato sauce or white sauce, they stir-fried it with olive oil. It was served on a wok so fitting for the way it was cooked. It was our first time having stir-fried spaghetti and it was good. We finished both of our spaghetti! Dinner cost 178 Lei.
After dinner, we walked around the colorful square as the sun set.
Brasov’s old town is very pretty, the style that I like. However, in terms of souvenir shops it was almost non-existent except for blouse shops. Most of the shops in the main street are big international brands and restaurants. I highly recommend Brasov as the base to visit the castles and towns nearby and with great choices of good restaurants! Also, Residence Hirscher is excellent value and one of my favorite boutique hotels.