How did I find myself staying overnight in an Ice Hotel in Romania?
On a whim, I decided to book a trip with one of my Meetup.com travel groups to Romania. The title of the trip called to me, much like Dracula out of Bram Stoker’s novels, and I found I couldn’t resist it: “Ice hotel, Dracula’s castle, snowmobiling and sledding – Romania adventure“.
The trip was so much more than that title; that’s the trouble of working on a character length restriction. It was a true experience in the countryside, and cityscape, or Romania. It also encompassed a second castle, a cable car, views of stunning landscapes, and a walking tour of Bucharest. And neither of those lists even begin to take into account the food or even the general views of a seriously beautiful country.
There were some surprising revelations while I travelled in Romania:
- Finally understood the full meaning of what a ‘snow-capped’ mountain was.
- Winding roads in Romania were equally beautiful and terrifying and rivalled the levels of fear and awe I experienced on the coastal mountain passes in Ireland.
- Condensation on a van window freezes in the most amazing patterns, which are shaped by the wind and aerodynamics. I could forgive the frozen windows for the sheer beauty of lay between me and the Romanian countryside that the frost was obscuring. (On the right)
- Bran Castle, despite being known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, actually only has a tenuous relationship to Vlad the Impaler.
The Itinerary & Experiences
Day 1: Travel. A lot. London to Bran.
Bus. Train. Plane. Van. Bran.
Waking up before the crack of dawn is not usually anything I get excited for, in fact, I usually consider it to be a bad start to a day. Usually, these early wake ups also involve a frantic attempt to bury my phone (and therefore my alarm) beneath a mound of pillows with the intent to shut it up. Surprisingly when the reason for waking up before the crack of dawn involves travelling I have no problem with jumping straight out of bed and rolling out the front door.
I caught my first glimpse of Romania from the air; our pilot kindly told us when we’d passed from Hungary airspace to Romania airspace and I plastered my face against the window like a five-year-old on their first flight. The first glimpse I saw of Romania was the snow capped mountains, and what a sight it was to behold. Instantly I was excited about the trip and energized for what was ahead (no coffee required).
We arrived in Bran, our first stop, in time to watch the sunset behind Bran Castle. One word: Enchanting. Unfortunately, I was not visited by Dracula that evening and was left cursing the imagination of Bram Stoker for that particular disappointment.
Day 2: Castle. Snow. A lot of snow. Bran to Bâlea Lac. Ice Hotel.
Bran Castle. Van. Cable Car. Chalet. Snowmobile. Ice Hotel.
The morning started early with a visit to Bran Castle, and I’d been itching to get inside of it since we’d arrived the night before. Despite being known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’ we quickly learned that the link between Vlad the Impaler and the Castle was tenuous at best and that the current owners had done quite a lot of work to have the Castle reflect it’s origins and not the myths. This revelation did not, surprisingly, disappoint me, but then again… I did have an entire castle to ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ over. Complete with hidden staircase.
After a winding ascent into the mountains, we boarded a cable car. Wind conditions were a challenge but by the time we reached the first pylon, we had the green light to proceed. The cable car was shaky under the pressure of the wind, but once at the top the view, and then the biting wind stole my breath, and decidedly well worth the trip. I definitely did not anticipate that particular mode of transportation; in my mind, it was a safe and comfortable gondola that would be unaffected by the heavy bursts of wind that had our cable car swaying uncomfortably. Once at the top I realized that the ascent was well worth the effort. We caught our first glimpse of the Ice Hotel and spent the afternoon playing in the snow (snowmobiles & tubes). Snowmobiling was completely invigorating… rushing across a frozen lake beneath the shadows of the mountains, nothing quite like it.
The Ice Hotel lived up to its name. It was, without a doubt, built of ice.. from the walls to the roof and including the bed itself. There were sculptures in each of the rooms and various furniture crafted of ice as well. Now, to preemptively answer your questions: Yes, it was all ice. Yes, it was cold, but we had thermal sleeping bags that kept us warm. The only time I really felt the cold was the 3 or 4 occasions during the night where my arms fought themselves free of the constrictive sleeping bag to sprawl across the blanket covered ice bed; once they were returned to the safety of the sleeping bag I was all warm and toasty once more.
Day 3: Castles. Bâlea Lac to Bucharest.
Cable Car. Van. Peleș Castle. Pelișor Castle. Van. Bucharest.
Waking up in an Ice Hotel is the equivalent to a single cup of coffee. Crossing a frozen tundra in your pyjamas would be the second cup of coffee. By the time I had changed into my clothes for the day and washed my face I was wide awake, no coffee required. One word: invigorating.
The cable car ride down the mountain was considerably smoother than the ride up the mountain. What seemed to startle quite a few of us though were the two hikers that seemed to be nearly blown off the side of the mountain. It took us a few minutes to puzzle out the footpath that they were aiming for (small, winding and very precariously placed)… not for the faint of heart.
After a short drive, we found not one but two Castles: Peleș & Pelișor. Conveniently they were located next to one another to allow for a convenience factor while visiting. We opted to take a tour of Peleș, the grander of the two, Castle. Peleș Castle actually had the European splendour of a continental palace, which was no surprise was we learned that much of the furniture and paintings were of German origin.
It was after dark by the time we arrived in Bucharest. There was just enough time to settle our luggage, freshen up, and then we were off for a traditional Romania dinner. Feeling adventurous I had the meat plate: bear, boar, venison, meat roll and quail (seemingly out of place as a poultry item, but tasty never the less).
Day 4: Walking around Bucharest.
Bucharest. Bucharest to London.
On our final day in Romania, we managed to stay, relatively, in one place for the day: Bucharest.
We started the morning with a walking tour on the snow covered streets of the city, touring from our hostel, through old city, and stopping (eventually) for lunch at a charming Romania restaurant.
As it was a Sunday church was in full swing and the Romanians, like my Greek ancestors, are of the Orthodox faith. It was really unique to hear the chanting of my church in another language as we toured through the streets of the old town.
Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end and as we boarded the plane to head back to London the enormity of the experience truly struck home, and I realized how much I had enjoyed this extremely unique trip.
A Log of Observations
Throughout the trip, I kept notes on observations I had of the country. Some of them were eloquently written and others are entire illegible (I’ll blame those on the typos). The overall theme of those observations was how beautiful and interesting I found the country to be. I went to Romania with an open mind and an intent to see something different from where all my current travels had taken me.
On Bran Castle…
Amazingly this sizable Castle only took 5 years to construct in the 15th Century and consisted of 57 rooms across 4 levels, build on a pure rock foundation.
“Dracula’s Castle” was stunning even without its claim to fame. Sat high upon a hill, not even my imagination can picture how it was built.
We also learned about the origin of the name Dracula. Dracul translates to Dragon, which in Romanian culture means devil.. ‘the devil’… Dracula means son of the devil.
At a distance, the mountains look like an illusion back-lit by the sun, as if they were rising from the mist. Only the tops of those mountains were visible, the dark tips of the peaks and dips of the ridges, creating a jagged line on the horizon.
There were signs across the country of how poor it is: Stray animals. Occasionally a building was painted in a cheery colour, but more commonly the buildings were battered concrete blocks. Cars were old models, small and cheap, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how they perform in the snow.
The architecture itself resembled much of Europe with the concrete structures that I’ve become accustomed to. However, buildings of a more affluent nature began to show a style that I came to identify as uniquely, and charmingly, Romanian.
As we waited for the descent of the second cable car with the rest of our group I took notice of a beautiful sight on the mountain. The strong wind was blowing the snow from the top of the mountain through the mountain crevices, which made the snow look more akin to mist coming off a waterfall.
Flags fascinate me and that is one of the many reasons I collect them. I learned during the trip what the colours of the Romania flag stood for: Red for the lives lost in revolution, Yellow as they were once known as the ‘breadbasket’ or Europe, and Blue for the Sea.