Fly to Bucharest airport and transfer to Braşov. During our drive through the scenic Wallachia region, you’ll be introduced to rural Romania: see locals watching the world go by, perched on wooden benches in front of their traditional homes, and take in the lush fields stretching towards the horizon. As we near Transylvania, the magnificent Carpathian mountain range gradually comes into view. We stay for three nights in the medieval town centre of Braşov at the four-star Aro Palace Hotel, with breakfast.
Brașov began as a Saxon settlement in the sheltered Carpathian foothills close to the passes. It has since prospered to become Transylvania’s second-largest city, yet it still retains a small-town feel. Brașov’s skyline is a jumble of medieval watchtowers, spired churches and forested mountains. The Old Town is largely baroque and holds local folklore as colourful as its pastel-coloured, red-roofed houses – one story tells of the Pied Piper of Hamelin making a reappearance here! This morning, we are introduced to the Old Town by our local guide, starting with Piaţa Sfatului, the attractive and typically Germanic square dominated by the Black Church. This imposing structure is one of the city’s most famous landmarks, with Gothic spires spearing the sky and blackened walls still standing, refusing to succumb to the fire set by the Austrian army in 1869. Under Saxon rule, Romanian-speaking citizens had to live beyond the ramparts in the historic Schei quarter. Located within this now-peaceful residential area are the Gothic church of St Nicholas and the First Romanian School, home to several Romanian firsts: Romanian language books, a printing press and the country’s oldest bible, written on goatskin! Next, we take a drive to Bran to visit its legendary 14th-century castle, said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although its connections to either Dracula or Vlad Ţepeş are tenuous, Bran Castle is a magnificent sight to behold and one that easily stokes the flames of your imagination. Perched precariously on a jagged outcrop at a height of 61 metres, the castle stands guard over the town with its striking towers and turrets. This remarkably preserved castle appears much as it would have in its heyday, when the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, Queen Marie of Romania, spent her summers here from 1922 to 1938. Several of the fascinating exhibits within the rooms are devoted to the royal family, while others display medieval armour, weaponry and statues.
Our day begins with a drive northwest to wonderfully atmospheric Sighişoara, overlooking the River Tarnava Mare. Originally a Saxon settlement and one of the most remarkably preserved medieval citadels in Europe, Sighişoara is utterly enthralling and the embodiment of a fairy-tale town. Within its fortified walls is the picturesque historic centre, situated on a rocky ridge supporting an array of ancient, red-roofed buildings and entirely deserving of its UNESCO-listed status. After a short tour on foot, there’s time to wander Sighişoara cobbled streets and admire the colourful houses, now converted into cafés, hotels and quirky shops selling a variety of curiosities that make interesting souvenirs. Visit the mighty 14th-century Clock Tower to see its fascinating mechanical display: one of seven figures emerge from the niche facing the citadel to indicate the day of the week, while two figures representing day and night face the lower town. Nearby is the house where Vlad Ţepeş was allegedly born. The more energetic may wish to follow the covered Scholars’ Stairs up to the Church on the Hill to admire its Gothic altars and 500-year-old frescoes. Continuing our journey back in time, we take a short drive to Biertan, a veritable Saxon village. Rising sharply on a hill above a huddle of pastel-hued buildings is the commanding fortified church, the most famous of all Saxon churches. This UNESCO-listed monument is set within not just one, but three sets of imposing walls! Built between the 15th and 16th centuries, it was the seat of Lutheran bishops for nearly three centuries and their graves can be found inside the Bishops’ Tower. You’ll see the late-Gothic church’s intricate vaulting and Transylvania’s largest triptych altar, comprising no fewer than 28 intricately decorated panels. The views from this elevated position are absolutely breathtaking, so have your camera at the ready. Observe the quaint village of Biertan, where families still work the land in horse-drawn carts and livestock can be seen trotting along the streets – you might even see the odd stork’s nest atop a chimney, which is said to bestow good luck upon the residents! This is rural Romania at its very best.
This morning we depart Braşov for the impressive Saxon citadel at Prejmer. This superbly preserved complex boasts Transylvania’s most powerful fortified walls, encircling a Gothic church with a marvellous vaulted nave. Visit the church or wander the grounds and see the numerous store rooms, numbered like a massive advent calendar. Each room once belonged to a family and was filled with produce that would keep the village fed during a siege. Historical records attest that in all its 500 years of existence, the fortress was besieged 50 times but captured only once in 1611 by Gabriel Báthori, the Prince of Transylvania, when the town was forced to surrender after supplies had run out for several days. Next, we drive south enjoying pastoral landscapes: flourishing forests, shepherds tending their flocks and locals passing on horse-drawn carts. Before long, we arrive in the resort town of Sinaia, once the preserve of shepherds, nestled peacefully in a fir-cloaked valley set against the jagged crags of the Bucegi Mountains. Here, we tour extraordinary Peleş Castle, Romania’s most opulent palace and the summer retreat of Romania’s first king, Carol I. Reminiscent of a Bavarian schloss, this neo-Renaissance masterpiece of towering spires, hidden passages and classical statues took 40 years and dozens of artists and builders to realise. The castle boasts more than 170 lavishly decorated rooms and we visit a selection of them, including the sumptuous reception hall adorned with intricate walnut carvings and the weapons gallery filled with more than 4,000 weapons. We see the extravagant themed rooms, such as the Moorish hall with a marble fountain and the Florentine Hall with Murano chandeliers. Later, we resume our journey south and arrive in Bucharest, where we stay for two nights with breakfast and dinner on the first evening at the four-star superior Sheraton Bucharest.
Bucharest is a captivating capital city of contrasts, whose eclectic mix of architectural styles tell us so much about its colourful past. The Brâncovenesc style, which blends Byzantine, Ottoman, late-Renaissance, Baroque, Orthodox Christian and Islamic influences, can be seen in the Stavropoleos Monastery, one of the city’s most striking churches. As Romania grew more Western-oriented, its architecture took on neo-Classical and Romantic elements, giving rise to numerous Parisian-style boulevards, elegant fin-de-siècle buildings and impeccably landscaped parks. There are also wonderful examples of Art Nouveau and Art Deco design throughout Bucharest, alongside imposing concrete developments that attest its communist past. This morning, we enjoy a tour of the city with a local guide, learning about its rich history and the rise of communism in Bucharest. We visit the fascinating Village Museum, an extraordinary, open-air collection of traditional homes from all over Romania, located within Herăstrău Park. These lovingly preserved buildings, which date from the 17th century to the early 20th century, offer an immersive experience and fascinating insights into traditional Romanian life. We then have a guided tour of the immense Palace of Parliament, which has to be seen to be believed. The world’s heaviest building and the fourth-largest, the palace is a marvel to some and a monument to vanity to others with its exaggerated dimensions. To locals, however, it’s a testament to the high standard of Romanian craftsmanship. The palace’s marble staircases, resplendent crystal chandeliers and beautifully embroidered curtains are locally sourced and created. Afterwards there is free time to continue exploring the city at leisure, Bucharest has much to offer. Perhaps see the former royal palace, now the National Art Museum which features the superb gallery of medieval art, and the Athenaeum with its impressive Baroque cupola and remarkable acoustics. There are also some splendid Orthodox churches and squares, including Revolution Square, named after the 1989 uprising that swept away Ceaușescu’s regime.
Transfer to the airport for your flight home.