The alpine village of Sinaia, in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, has long been a favoured haunt
of monks and royals. Bernard O’Shea goes to haunt it himself.
The most beautiful building in Romania is probably Peleş Castle, and not surprisingly the remaining claimants to the Romanian throne are fighting over it.
The Castle, near Sinaia in the Carpathian Mountains, was built by the first king of Romania, Carol I, in the 1870s-80s as a … well, you know what wealthy royals are like – when it comes to royal getaway homes, quaint cottages simply won’t do! They just want to hang out in style (that is, in a palatial mansion) in the most glamorous of locations. And as far as locations go, few are better than this.
King Carol wanted a castle but not one in the traditional sense and he rejected a number of proposed designs before settling on the concept that we see today – a palatial alpine villa that imparts its own sense of majesty in the splendid mountain setting. A perfect place to escape the heat and bustle of Bucharest in the summer. Later another residence, Pelişor Castle, was added nearby and the Foisor hunting lodge makes up a third component – there is plenty to explore on the property.
The royals didn’t hang on to Peleş Castle for too long. After the second world war there was a forced abdication, and the communists took over the property. Fortunately they didn’t do much to it, but kept it shut most of the time. Since the communist regime fell it has been opened to the public and been part of the national heritage, but for the past decade or so the Romanian government began to recognise the property rights of the ousted royals and returned to the castle to King Michael I – the king who was forced to abdicate in 1947 and who is now in his 90s. However, his nephew, Prince Paul of Romania, is now staking his claim. It’s a complicated saga – Prince Paul’s parents’ marriage was annulled by Paul’s grandfather, King Ferdinand I, and so there is the question of legitimacy and so on. It’s complicated.
Still, leave the tensions to the courts, and let the tourists enjoy the splendour and tranquility of the castle grounds and the wider Sinaia region.
The castle is high on a hill but the slope that winds up to it is gentle and shady; on hot summer days, the cool air of the forests is sensuous and soothing – it caresses your skin like a lover. On the way you will come to the Sinaia Monastery (Romanian Orthodox church), which was built between 1690-1695 and is well worth an hour or so of exploration. Further on, you will pass rivers and weirs, and little kiosks selling tourist paraphernalia, but really the goal is to keep walking till you get to Peleş Castle. (Vehicular access is restricted and the walk is not more than 2 kilometres.)
Visitors are free to roam the garden terraces – the views of the surrounding forests and mountains are spectacular – and for the interior have two tours to choose from, the “Regular Tour” of the ground floor, which lasts for 45 minutes, or “Optional 1” which takes in the ground and first floors and lasts 75 minutes. It would be a pity to go all this way to see the castle and not make the most of it, so opt for the latter. A 45-minute tour of Pelişor Castle is also available. The prices are comparatively cheap: 20 RON (Romanian New Leu) each for the Regular and Pelişor tours, 50 for Optional 1. In Australian dollars, that works out at about $6 and $15 respectively. Photography costs extra, and guides are available in English, French, Spanish and Italian as well as Romanian. It’s possible that the second floor will soon be made open to the public too.
Inside is a mixture of the solemn and sombre – the Hall of Honour, the King’s Study – or the colourful and sumptuous, rich with period furniture and decoration: the imperial apartments, The Florentine Hall, The Rococo Room and – an eye-raiser in this part of the world – the Moorish Hall, inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. Lovers of spears, swords, suits of armour, pistols and will enjoy the Great Hall of Arms (spears, swords, suits of armours, pistols and wot not).
Note, the castles are closed on Mondays (and on Tuesdays too in winter), but the gardens are open.
For virtual tours and current prices, go to the official website. http://visit.peles.ro
Sinaia is a pleasant little town and although there is nothing remarkable about its more modern parts, the historic resorts around picturesque Dimitrie Ghica park give it grandeur, and the surrounding mountains make a splendid backdrop. The most notable building is the Casino Sinaia (shut down by the non-fun-loving communists), which is now a conference centre, and worth touring when the opportunity presents itself – depending on how busy it is as a conference venu. Another eye-catching building is the Caraiman Hotel, built in the 1880s.
Sinaia is about 125 kilometres north of Bucharest and is easily reached by car or train. It is in a part of the Carpathians known as the Bucegi Mountains and there are some splendid drives nearby – plus ski resorts in winter. A good option if you are pressed for time is to head north on the Highway 1 towards Brașov, then just before Predeal (another scenic place) take the 73A road to Râșnov, where there is a historic citadel built circa 1215 that is worth exploring if you have half a day to spare, and then head south to Bran to see the famous Bran Castle. But Brașov is one of Romania’s most beautiful cities, and is only just 44km from Sinaia, so go the long way round and see them all. Trust me, you won’t regret it. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Romania at his own expense. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.