Bran and Fundata Valley
This was supposed to be a whimsical stop-off at the supposed setting of Dracula’s castle, (based on the real more-gruesome-than-fiction warrior, Vlad “The Impaler” Tepeş) which just happened to be on Halloween. We were headed up from the flatlands of Bucharest, through the gates of the Carpathians, into Transylvania. Then we planned another stop at Braşov, a historic German city with old roots, just inside the gates to the Transylvanian Plains, after that we were to move on west to Timisoara.
But big surprises awaited us. Not the kitschy, horror movie variety, but as our adventure unfolded, many surprising twists awaited, unbelievable coincidences, and a heroic tale of determined souls battling huge giants with little hope of success.
The story started out seemingly pleasant enough when we headed north on the Parhova plains, leaving the Capital city of Bucharest. The gentle slopes of the Carpathean foothills gave way to magestic-looking mountains that guard the entrance to the Transylvanian Valley.
We drove north towards the town of Sinaia, our next stop. It was a good road, once we left the City behind. The flatland changed to hills and the hills turned to mountains. The road got windy. We thought the region looked like the Sierra foothills in California. The architecture changed in the small villages, looking reminiscent of Grass Valley or Nevada City with thier wooden porches. We made it to Peleş Castle, the summer home of Carol I shortly after the grounds had opened that morning.
We parked on the street and walked up the cobblestone drive. It was a lovely castle build in the 1860’s and finished 20 years later. It was a little too ornate for me, but still, the effect was attractive. It was closed for cleaning for two weeks, so we couldn’t go inside, but the grounds were pretty.
We stopped at a hotel for lunch, and once again, we were the only ones eating. We sat outside, glad of the sunshine and listened to the stream nearby gurgle as it flowed by.
Heading to our Airbnb farther up, near Bran, our GPS guided us to the wrong place. Woody called Ioana and she gave us directions to her parents’ place. She said her dad would be waiting for us at the “yellow bridge” and sure enough, he was.
We are in a small valley with high hills, in fact looking out our window, the hill climbs up high enough that it blocks the sky from my vantage point.
Our hosts are VERY kind and speak almost no English, but we have gotten our points across. A while later Ioana, their daughter, arrived–lovely and full of life. She has dark hair and long bangs that frame her face, and a charming overbite. She speaks English pretty well and we chatted. I needed to rest, but Woody stayed and talked.
Our hosts, Aron and Maria displayed the quintesential politeness that is at once incredibly charming and just a tiny bit distancing. Aron kissed Rebecca’s hand, a gesture that I have seen here before that is a form if the highest respect. He has a gentle spirit and joyful attitude. He gestured to his heart when saying, I assumed, that he was so glad that we are to be his guests. He tried an occasional word in English or German if we don’t seem to get something, and then he throws in some Italian and an occasional word in French. “Merci” he says as he offers us a cookie that Maria had brought in for us. Between the kind, welcoming expressions, arm waving and multi-lingual efforts to communicate, we could pretty much understand everything he was saying.
Maria gave us our choice of rooms, speaking almost no English at all, and demonstrating a sort of apologetic sense of inadequacy in English, she quickly left us on our own, not wanting to be in our way any longer than necessary. Both Aron and Maria go back to work while we unpack and settle into our room.
Not long after we had unpacked, we heard someone at our door, asking if everything is alright. It was Ioana, their daughter, (pronounced like Joana, without the J sound.) Joana is sunny, cheerful, and full of enthusiasm, and she spoke English with a sort of energetic search for the right word. She is tall, thin, and has a winning charm. We sat with her and explained all about our trip around Romania, and my Romanian background. She was delighted that we are here and wanted to know all about us.
She helped us plan some activites around the area. She gave us a map of some hiking trails around the nearby hills and valley known as the Fundata Valley. She also gave a suggestion that we see Bran Castle early in order to miss the crowds. We found out that she lives and works in Braşov, about an hour to the north, so she drove all the way from there, just to help her parents greet the guests. She runs the web Airbnb portal so that she can help orient the guests to the area, translate when clients have questions about the place, and keep track of who is coming and when. She also has a full-time job and does some volunteering for a non-profit on the weekends! Busy girl!
We told her that after these two days at her parents’ house we would be going to Brasov next, and asked her if she would be willing to give us some ideas of things to do there, as well. She volunteered to meet us after her work on the day we leave here and show us around. She also gave us the name of a friend that rents out a nice AirBnB in Braşov for the days we were planning to be there.
Ioana left to get back to Braşov and work the next morning, and Rebecca and I enjoyed our first night in Cheia. The next morning, we would set our early to see Bran’s castle.
Our host served us a huge breakfast–and we only ate about 1/3 of what was there: Cheese, olives, bell peppers, a cheese omelette–toast and dried meats. We got on the road early, so we could be at Bran Castle before it opened. We found a free place to park and walked up tot he gate and waited a few minutes for the castle to open.
It is a small castle, as castles go, and much older than the Peleş castle we saw yesterday. It is made of a mishmash of building materials–stone, bricks, lumber, and plaster. There are two round, pointed towers and one square one that is more of a facade than a tower. It has no real connection to the Dracula story–no one seems to know how it got connected. They say they aren’t even sure if Vlad the Impaler visited it. Anyway, it is a charming castle. We hadn’t really planned to be here on Halloween, it was kind of by chance, and I really think I would have liked it better without all the plastic skeletons and bats and cobwebs they had placed around to capitalize on Halloween.
A number of generations have lived here since it was built in the 14th Century to keep the Ottomans away from the valleys to the north.
They had rooms decorated with furnishings of the different periods and some beautiful clothing on display. We took pictures with the Express newspaper–thought it would be fun to share it with people in the town of Winters.
The castle is a national monument and a beloved landmark for Romanians. Having served as the summer cottage of their favorite queen Marie, it has most recently been beautifully restored and is actually quite charming and cozy. Rebecca said that she couldn’t imagine anything so nice as having tea in one of the many nooks that overlook the lovely Fundata valley to the south.
The castle was a fortress against the Ottomans, strategically located above a narrow pass between the Wallachia and Transylvania. The infamous “Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a Vlad Tepeş” seems to have had nothing to do with the castle, much less the Dracula character, whose author, Bram Stoker, never knew anything about this castle. Vlad was, however, a member of the knights of Dragon, (or Devil), and Vlad’s name appears in the list of “secondary” lords of the property. However, there is no mention that Vlad ever set foot on the property. Not his cup of tea, I guess.
Despite all the tawdry Halloween decorations, we enjoyed the warmth and charm of the castle with its winding stairways, hidden balconys, and meandering halls that lead to yet another cozy room and fireplace. Still, there was something lingering in the valley below that was to come, a manace that, on balance, was far more threatening than vampires or Halloween spirits. We had noticed it all around, but did not understand the true danger that had seeped into the ground, and not just here, but all over Romania.
Back in Cheia, near Moises de Jos, we were planning on hiking in the hills where Ioana directed us. We drove up the hill until we saw a place to turn off to look at the viee. It was at a restaurant. Woody said he thought it was the one we could see up the steep hill from our room in Aron and Maria’s place, and sure enough, it was. We looked down-almost straight down, and there was our place. We could roll down the long, steep hill and we’d be back there in no time.
On our way up the hill, we got to a lookout point that looked over the mouth of the Fundata Valley. We got out to take pictures. Ironically, there from the vista point, all you had to do was look down and see a mountain of trash. I couldn’t understand why, here of all places, trash would be in heaps, right where people are supposed to enjoy the view.
The roads were the roughest and narrowest we had been on so far in Romania. I began to worry that I might hit high-center some of the stones that were in the middle of the roads. I also worried that if we decided to turn back that we might not find a place wide enough.
From time to time, we found highly technical maps with elevation contours and routes made by some Eco Tourism organization. “Who does this stuff in Romania out in the middle of nowhere?” I wondered to myself. Little did I realize that we would soon find out and stay overnight with them.
Our curiosity led us to find out what the “Eco Tree Adventure Park” was, with a logo of a zip line on it. Every so often we would see a sign saying something like Eco Park 3.1km. It got the best of us and we finally arrived at Eco Park, ready for anything.
A young man with a heavily bandaged hand came out to greet us. Tudor was his name. Behind his house, was a lovely older house. There was a a new building down the hill that had all the gear for zip lining. As we walked to the tree with the platform, I wondered how safe it all was . No safety oversight laws here, I’m sure. He gave us a quick lesson and said he’d go first and one-handed, away he went. I went next. It was a long ride and part of it was over a much deeper ravine than I had expected, but boy it was fun! I was worried I’d slam into the tree so I slowed down (by pressing my hand behind the pulley with a glove, as he had instructed) a bit too soon. so then I had to haul myself up to the platform the last five feet or so. From there, I unclipped so Woody could come. Then Tudor (and only after I had unclipped said, “oh, you always need to be clipped on–it’s a long way to fall.” Yes, I was on a small platform about 40 feet up. It should have been common sense. I quickly clipped on to the next cable and waited for Woody to come. He came zooming in and he didn’t slow down enough and hit the tree a little hard!
I went on the next one, waited for them, and then back across the valley to the third stop. It went through some treetops, made you think how high up you were. We all got back safely and headed up the hill–such fun! We paid 50 lei for both of us, ($12.50 or about $6.00 each).
The zip line adventure was not the most treaturous or perilous type of outdoor activity I have seen. But there was something… something unsettling about it, like the fact that Tudor had a bandaged hand that was wrapped in an elbow-to-finger bandage that looked as if it were covering up dozens of stitches. “You didn’t get that bandage from riding the zip line, did you,” I said, hoping to be right.
“Oh, no,” Tudor said. He went on to explain about preparing some wooden carvings for his wedding… accidentally slicing his palm, but still going through with the wedding, two weeks ago.
“Oh good,” I said. (Well, that didn’t come out right. Good that he didn’t have an accident on the zip line–not good that he had an accident on the day of his wedding.)
Still there was something uneasy about the way he gave us those all-too-brief instructions on what to do while riding, how, when, and why to slow down and something else… I couldn’t remember. Then, zip, he was off and Rebecca and I were to follow. Then, we heard him shout “LIBER,” meaning that it was clear for the next person’s turn. And off zipped Rebecca. It did look fun!
When I arrived last at the first platform, everything was fine, so I started getting ready to go on the next, shorter line that would take us to the return line. That’s when Tudor he reminded me of the fourth thing I had forgotten… don’t ever unhook completely!
Both Rebecca and I had, in the rush of the moment, unhooked all our safety lines 15 meters up on a tiny platform. Yikes! We both hooked back in quickly! They both zipped away and I was last to make it in. My knees got shaky when I realized that I probably should not be up here by myself, unsupervised.
When we were done Tudor told us of some other sights to see that afternoon. We said goodbye to Tudor and followed his advice over small roads to a national park called Dambovicioarei, that runs through a steep gorge.
The walls are so close together in the beginning, it hardly let a road through. The river beside it, that carved the gorge isn’t very wide, but it is the beginning of the river that we saw in Bucharest called the Dambouvicioar. We were disappointed to see how much garbage there was in it.
From there, we drove up a steep road that had commanding views of valleys on both sides of the ridge and the mountains beyond. But at every stop to take pictures, there was trash everywhere. What is the difficulty?
We got back by six and Ioana had come back just to be with us and join us for dinner. So sweet. We convinced her parents to eat with us, something Ioana said they never do. We had a lovely time–the food was fine but too heavy. Cream and cheese–and potatoes and more cheese. We talked, laughed, and Aron kept plying us with wine and palinka. He got more animated as the night went on. Ioana was kept busy translating. We woudn’t have had this experience if she hadn’t joined us. I’m glad she did. This is first Halloween I have not dressed up ever, I think.
It was a very full day. It was an excellent day, seeing a beautiful, charming castle, dispelling the myth from the reality. Rebecca going for a zip line ride on the eve of her birthday, and overcoming fears of the unknown. We saw a majestic gorge and had seen stunning vistas (ignoring the trash) in a valley so rural that we doubted that any westerner had ever seen. We capped it off with this wonderful dinner with new friends with generous hearts sharing their warm hearth.
It did not even come to mind until the next day that we had slept in the legendary valley below Bran Castle on Halloween Evening. And although we planned to leave the next morning to stay with an acquaintance of Ioana the next day, we assumed that we would probably never see these people again, But things would change for us. We would be coming back here in two days to learn more about the real threats facing the Fundata Valley and heroes who are fighting them. Stay tuned…