If you think Romania has nothing but a fabled vampire’s castle and horses pulling carts, you have a lot to learn my friend. We visited some of the most incredible and history rich medieval towns during our short stay. Including Sibiu with its churches and towers galore, narrow streets, colourful houses and cobbled squares all protected by imposing city walls. Brasov, the fortress surrounded by nature and mountains. Founded in 1211, it boasts the black church (and some spine tingling stories to go with it), mountain walks and some of the best plum brandy (like a home brew vodka) in the country. Then there was Sighisoara, a town that goes all the way back to Roman times. Here we learned all about Vlad the Impaler, visited the supposed birthplace of Dracula, checked the time on a 14th century tower’s clock, and saw 500 year old frescoes in the Church On The Hill.
We travelled through rural Romania which was like stepping back in time, think 2 metre high haystacks with pitchforks in them, and yes, horses and carts. And of course, we visited Bran Castle, I feel like we all know it’s a tourist trap, but go anyway! Even after all of this, Romania still continued to surprise and get better. On our last night, we had the pleasure of staying the Hotel of Ice, built every winter in the Carpathian mountains and one of only a handful of its kind in Europe. A scenic drive got us as far as we could go before snow and ice took over the road, then it was a bit of a waiting game.
Weather isn’t always particularly important most of the time – with proper preparation, we can explore rain, shine or snow! On this occasion though, we had to rely on the temperature being cool enough to keep the Hotel of Ice standing, and the wind being light enough for us to catch the rickety gondola the rest of the way up the mountain. At that time of year, the road over the mountains was thickly coated in snow and ice, so we only had the one option. Waiting patiently for the call, we milled around in the lone restaurant drinking warm beer (I suppose they weren’t expecting guests so didn’t turn the fridges on!), to pass the time. Eventually we were given the OK, so hurried to board the little gondola before they changed their minds.
Although it felt like we might fall right through the floor, it was a stunning journey to take. Climbing ever so slowly, we were dangling right over the famous Tranfargarasan highway (from THAT Top Gear episode), seeing its epic curves and length from above. It was a really interesting snowscape, bits of tar seal peaked through and the waterfalls stood mostly frozen. We disembarked (rather quickly) near the frozen over and completely hidden Balea Lake at the top of the Carpathian mountains. After dropping our things in the main building, we started off on our walk along the rest of the highway. The road is obviously inaccessible to traffic in winter, to be honest, there was no sign of a road at all until we reached the tunnel. It was the weirdest thing walking through a scarcely lit, temporarily abandoned tunnel, with icicles sharply protruding from cracks in the walls, knowing there was thousands of tonnes of snow sitting overhead. I am terribly afraid of the dark too, but the adorable hotel dogs that had followed us offered some comfort and showed us the way. Soon we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and stepped out to some incredible views. Snow ball fights and bum sledding quickly ensued.
There was loads of fun stuff to do in the snow. You could tube down the slopes, jump on a banana boat sled or get behind the wheel of a snowmobile and whizz around on the lake (or where the lake usually is). It was at this point we realised we may not have packed the best gear for a snow stay – me in leggings and slip on sneakers, Kieran in jeans and dress boots, but we weren’t about to admit that or let it stop us having fun. After a good few hours of playing like absolute children in the snow, we were ready for a piping hot meal in the frozen restaurant, ‘Sub Zero’. Set inside the Hotel of Ice, you wrap yourself in a blanket or two, and take a seat on your frozen chair at your frozen table. We enjoyed a 3 course meal made by a very talented Romanian chef and were able to have cold beer this time! The whole thing was brilliantly bizarre, after a few drinks everyone was up singing, dancing and desperately trying not to slip over and lose all dignity.
The hotel is constructed with blocks of ice from the frozen lake, stacked and packed together with snow. There are incredible ice sculptures throughout the restaurant hall and all of the rooms too. The grand piano in the entrance way was one of our favourites. Each year, there is a different theme inside the hotel, this time it was countries of the world, and we landed the room dedicated to Romania! We had a solid ice bed base and side table, some traditionally dressed Romanian ice figures to keep up company, and a neon Ciuc beer sign to light the room up in bright red. There was a proper mattress on the bed base, we were given a sleeping bag and told to jump inside that first, then snuggle under all the other layers of blankets to keep us toasty. It was actually so warm we slept in our usual (minimal) PJ’s and even shed some blankets throughout the night.
Around 6:00am the next morning, when it was still dark, I reeeeeally needed to pee (all those damn beers), so we fumbled around locating jackets, trousers and shoes to wrap up in before we wandered off to the main building where the bathrooms were. There hadn’t been a lot of snow in the last few days, it was coming to the end of the season and the climate was warming up, so the last thing we expected was to walk out into a dense flurry of snow. It must have been falling for a few hours too, because our feet were completely disappearing into a white abyss with every step. Luckily there was no one else around because we must have looked like drunk flamingos awkwardly hopping through the snow with limbs flying in all directions. Many a laugh and many a stumbled was had, it was both hilarious and beautiful. The best ending to our ice hotel experience.
Jean Claude Van Damme had us all kicked out the next morning so he could film a Coors Light TV ad – seriously, you can watch it here. Apparently it was still safe to take the little old gondola down even after it had been transporting heavy loads of filming equipment up the mountain non-stop, so although we didn’t want to, we had to leave this weird and wonderful place behind… for now.
Who knew you could find all this and more in Romania huh? What is the most surprisingly awesome destination you’ve visited or want to visit?
Need more travel inspo? Take a look at some of the other awesome stuff we’ve done.