In Brașov county you will find some of Romania’s nicest destinations, such as medieval towns and villages, or mountain resorts for winter sports. The two places I will be writing about in this post are close to each other and well connected with Brașov, so you can easily plan a trip to include all three, with accommodation in either Brașov or Bran.
Bran village and its attractions
Every year, Bran Castle attracts so many tourists excited to visit what is sold as Dracula’s Castle, and every year, many of them leave disappointed to find a castle that is becoming too commercial and fake.
To those of you coming to Bran to walk on the footsteps of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I would like to point out a few things: 1. Bram Stoker’s book is fictional, and the historic character was not an actual vampire, even though he might have looked and behaved just as scary as one (OK, this one’s pretty obvious, but I have met people who actually believed there are vampires living in Romania, so there you go!). 2. The actual Dracula, or Vlad Țepeș (Vlad the Impaler), was much cooler than any vampire book character (and I promise to tell you why in another post), and 3. Vlad Țepeș never actually lived at Bran Castle (he was just assigned to defend the passage to Transylvania, where the castle was), but our most interesting queen, Marie of Romania, wife of King Ferdinand, did live at the castle, and hers is a fascinating story, that I shall tell you more about.
How do you reach Bran?
Bran is both the name of a commune in Brașov county, and the name of the village where Bran Castle is. If you are not renting a car, then the easiest way to get to Bran is to travel to Brașov first, and then take a bus to Bran village.
Every day, there are a lot of trains heading to Brașov from Gara de Nord in Bucharest, and apparently, there are also a few direct trains from Otopeni airport. To see the train schedule for a certain date and time, access the CFR website, where you need to select the date, the time, the departure station (Bucuresti Aeroport, Bucuresti Nord, or a different train station, if you are not leaving from Bucharest) and the arrival station (Brasov). One of my previous posts details the procedure for train tickets reservation.
You also have some bus services going to Brașov, and these might be faster and perhaps cheaper, but can be less comfortable (small space in the minibus, no air conditioning, fast driving, etc.), and sometimes trips can get canceled. MementoBus is probably your best choice if you don’t want to take the train (tickets can be bought online and are cheaper when bought in advance).
When you arrive in Brașov, there is a bus station right as you exit the train station. This is known as Autogara 1, but you will be taking a bus from Autogara 2 to Bran, and for that you need a city bus transfer. Buy a single or return ticket from the ticket booth in front of the train station, then cross the street towards the right side, where you will find the bus station named Gării. From there, take any of the buses going to Autogara 2 (23, 23b, 25 or 29). You will have 6 stops until Autogara 2 (don’t forget to validate your ticket in the machines, there are frequent checks on Brașov buses).
From Autogara 2, you have buses to Bran almost every hour, so if you miss one, you’ll have the chance to catch another. The trip takes about 1 h, but please be prepared for the buses going to Bran. Some of them are very old, dusty and squeaky and very…personalized, courtesy of their drivers. You will understand what I mean when you see it :). But it is part of the experience, so try to enjoy it if you can.
Before getting to Bran, I should tell you that the destination is becoming quite crowded and not as charming as it used to be. I would advise you to avoid noon time around the main attractions, because you will feel suffocated. Mornings and evenings are better, as many people arrive by car in the late morning and leave in the afternoon. Also, when choosing accommodation, you might want to look at places that are further from the castle, even if it will mean walking for 15 min to your guesthouse. Besides, that might mean that you’ll be staying in a charming mountain setting, as opposed to the crowded center.
Like this place, where I stayed the last time I was in Bran, a guesthouse managed by a family who live in a separate area of the house. Our stay here was like living on a farm, with dogs and cows and chickens in the yard, while in the same time we could climb up the hill at the back of the yard and have a nice picnic, watch the sunset and look at the deer who came to play down in the valley.
There are a lot of similar guesthouses in Bran and in the nearby villages as well (Moeciu, Predeluț), so you will have many options for unique accommodation.
The central area of Bran (where the bus leaves you, close to the castle, the Royal Park and the souvenir stands) is also where you’ll find restaurants, banks, a pharmacy and a few small grocery shops. Near the visitor entrance to the castle there are a lot of gift stands selling both authentic and not-so-authentic souvenirs, clothes, etc. In the same area, there are a few street food places (do try the Kurtos Kalacs) and several stands selling local products (mostly cheeses and cured meats).
Visiting the castle costs 35 lei (schedule and fees) and you are allowed to take photos inside free of charge. However, you should know that most of the stuff inside (furniture, decorations) are not from the original castle, but actually bought in various antique shops. It really a funny story how this happened. The castle, built by Transylvanian Saxons (on their own expense) in the 14th century on the place of an older fortification, was owned in turns by Wallachia, Hungary, and finally, the Romanian state. In 1920, the Brașov City Council donated the castle to queen Marie of Romania, and it became one her favorite residences. After the communist period (when all private possessions were taken over by the communists), Princes Ileana, the heir of the castle, regained ownership. Later, she donated it back to the Romanian state. And this is where it gets interesting: in 2007, following a trial, the castle was granted to Princess Ileana’s heirs. Which means that now the castle no longer belongs to the Romanian state, and this is why it became what it became (nothing more than a business meant to bring profit). The original furniture belonging to Queen Marie has been moved out and spread into other museums (e.g. Pelișor Castle in Sinaia), and now the castle looks like a joke with its interior decorated mostly with junk.
Photos of the interior from 2008, with some of the original furniture
Photos of the interior from 2015 (the blazons on the left are reproductions, the dress is part of a fashion exhibit)
However, Bran Castle is still a cool looking fortress, perched on top of the hill, making you think of Transylvanian vampires and counts.
Inside it, to get to the last floor, you have to take the secret stair (a very narrow stone stairway with no windows or openings), and from up there you have nice views of the mountains, as well as the interior courtyard.
The village museum is also quite nice to visit on your way out of the castle, and so is the park around the castle. In the same area, you will often find local craftsmen selling their products, so you can buy here souvenirs of better quality, such as traditional pottery, Romanian blouses (ie), peasant sandals, wooden carved icons and other objects.
As promised, I will also tell you some things about Queen Marie (Maria) of Romania, who took residence at Bran for a while. She was a beloved figure to her people and had a very romantic and controversial life. Declared one of the most beautiful and sensual women of her time, she married very young (at 17) to prince Ferdinand of Hohenzollern and became queen in 1914, when Ferdinand was appointed king. It seems that she never really loved her husband (who actually did love her madly at first, but did not know how to make her love him back) and the couple led separate lives, although never getting a divorce (she actually wanted to, but because of her status, she was not allowed to go through with it).
Raised as a free spirit, she was broken by the rigid rules of royalty and took refuge in several love affairs through the years (one of her children, a girl, seems to have been the fruit of one such love affair). With her love for beauty, she brought her touch to the places she lived in. She wrote her memoirs in a book called The Story of my Life (available here), which is a fresh leap into the mind of this interesting woman, and a very honest and beautifully phrased account of her life.
After her death, her body was buried at Curtea de Argeș, and her heart (yes, the actual body part, embalmed) locked in a silver box was sent to the royal chapel in Balcic (a Bulgarian seaside resort that once belonged to Romania), as an old tradition which symbolized leaving one’s heart in a beloved place. After Balcic became part of Bulgaria, the heart was brought to Bran. It was then kept at the Bucharest history museum during the communist regime, and only in 2015 was it moved to Pelișor castle, which is the place where she died. The silver box that once contained the heart is still displayed at the National Museum of History in Bucharest.
It is believed that her presence is still strong in some of the places where she lived, and her oriental perfume made of violets (her favorite flower) was felt in certain rooms (especially at Pelișor castle) on several occasions after her death. So who needs vampires at Bran, when you have the romantic ghost of a beautiful, unhappy queen wandering around?
While in Bran, you could try to walk around on the streets that are further from the center. You might spot some charming houses and get a glimpse of local life, and if you take secondary streets, you can easily stumble onto beautiful orchards or meadows used for growing grass for the animals.
Although these spaces are usually private, it’s unlikely that someone will bother you if you’re just walking around and stumble onto their lands. Just be careful not to cause any trouble, like breaking something, littering, making a lot of noise and so on.
From Bran to Râșnov, you can take any of the buses belonging to the Transbus Codreanu company from the main bus station, Bran Centru (see the buses stopping at this station and going to Râșnov). The trip takes less than 30 minutes and the buses are quite frequent, but do check beforehand the schedule displayed in the bus station.
Râșnov is famed for Râșnov Citadel, one of the best kept fortifications in Transylvania. Although it suffered various modifications and extensions throughout the years, the oldest parts of the citadel seem to have been built in the 13th century, also by Transylvanian Saxons.
The citadel had an interior courtyard, with houses for the villagers (to provide protection during sieges), and an exterior one, where the animals were kept.
Now, the citadel is open to visitors. Inside the walls, the former houses have been turned into boutiques selling gifts, and there is also a feudal art museum.
The windows in the citadel’s walls and the many high spots reveal beautiful scenery of the mountains and the village below.
The area nearby Bran and Râșnov is also known for the Rucăr-Bran passage, that would historically connect Transylvania to Wallachia (DN73, from Bran to Moieciu, Fundata, Rucăr). This route provides wonderful views of hills covered in fir-trees, sheep cots and sleepy villages, so a rented car would be a great option for further exploring this beautiful area. You can also find accommodation in Moieciu de Sus, Moieciu de Jos, Fundata, etc., small villages with beautiful scenery that make for charming winter destinations.