Sinaia: Romania's Hidden Treasure

January 27, 2016
Melinda Caliendo

When you look up Sinaia, Romania, on Trip Advisor, there are exactly 11 attractions listed for the town. It's not the home of a famous literary antihero, it doesn't have the cachet of the Swiss Alps. But the nickname "Carpathian Pearl" absolutely fits the town.

Melinda Caliendo is an American freelance journalist who recently returned to the US after living for more two years in Antwerp, Belgium. She has covered a wide range of topics in her career, including healthcare, higher education, sports and travel. All photos were taken by Peter and Melinda Caliendo.

I sat on the terrace, trying to memorize every tree branch, every mountain peak, every window on the castle. King Carol I of Romania knew what he was doing when he built his summer home here.

Peles Castle

My husband, Peter, and I were visiting Peles Castle — and Romania – on a lark. Cheap airfare and a cheap hotel were all the motivation we needed to take a few days off for an adventure. We could have gone to Transylvania, to see “Dracula’s Castle”, or we could have gone to the Black Sea. Instead, we chose to take a day trip from Bucharest to Sinaia, a ski resort town tucked in the Carpathian Mountains. No expectations, no real plans.

When you look up Sinaia on Trip Advisor, there are exactly 11 attractions listed for the town. It’s not the home of a famous literary antihero, it doesn’t have the cachet of the Swiss Alps. But the nickname “Carpathian Pearl” absolutely fits the town.

The day started with a little bit of what we refer to as “expert level” travel skills. With a little bit of Google help, we took the Bucharest Metro to the city’s train station, bought train tickets, grabbed coffee and croissants, and boarded the train to Sinaia with about 5 minutes remaining before the conductors closed the doors. Smooth and confident, as if we had been in Bucharest our whole lives.

We sat with a mother and her two small children for the hour-and-a-half ride. They had a game pad that played nursery songs, and every time a new song came on, they danced with delight. Until, that is, we heard a familiar tune and I started to sing “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.” The little girl looked at me as if I had 3 heads, and refused to sit next to me the rest of the trip.

Our first adventure when we got off the train was to take the cable cars to the top of mountain the city is built upon. You can either take a small gondola, that fits about 4 people and looks relatively new, or you can take the telecabine, a subway-car looking box from the 1970’s. We chose to jump in with the skiers and snowboarders in the telecabine, and ride it all the way up to Cota 2000, the highest point.

It was nearly 65 degrees that day, but at the top, the temperature was close to freezing and the snow was deep and thick.

The author, atop the mountain.

We traipsed around the peak, dodging those more suitably outfitted for the ski slopes, and took photos of the beautiful Carpathian Mountain range. They sky was clear, minus a bit of haze in the valley below, and you could see white caps pointing upwards for miles and miles. It was such a surprise to me to be taking in such a vista in Romania.

I am not a winter sports person at all, but hearing little kids giggle going down snow mounds on sleds and the bright sun on the clean snow suddenly inspired an intense, sudden desire to learn how to ski. Or to at least make a snow angel. A few weeks ago, we had been in Interlaken, Switzerland during the peak ski season — the crowds and the stress and the expense of it all made me believe that skiing, snowboarding, and snow in general were just to be avoided. On Cota, though, snow was fun again.

In addition to the skiers, sledders, and photographers, Cota was also the hangout for the wild mountain dogs. They, too, took advantage of the sun and picked out some prime sunbathing spots amongst the humans, and didn’t seem to mind being photographed very much.

The lodge at the top of the mountain was packed, but we caught 2 window seats when another couple got up. Our view looked over the valley town of Sinaia, past a river and on to the next mountain. The whole cabin was built out of wood, with exposed beams and hanging sheep skins as décor. Romantic without being tacky, traditional without being cliché. I put my head on my husband’s shoulder, amazed at how fortunate we were to be there in that moment.

We ordered hot wine and the house soup, which was packed with vegetables, beans, and pork belly. When the bill arrived, we were completely shocked at the 35 Lei price — at the current exchange rate, that equaled about $9 USD. We would have paid that for the mulled wine and views alone.

Bellies full and toes warmed, we descended in the telecabine, first to Cota 1400, then back down to the town. On the way down, we saw Peles Castle at the edge of town — our next destination.

We asked a hotel concierge to confirm we were walking in the correct direction, and he gave us a great shortcut, up a hill and around the monastery that the town is named after. We followed his directions — stopping to admire the gold-leafed mosaics on the monastery buildings – and found ourselves on a tree-covered pedestrian path leading right up to the castle.

Peles Castle doesn’t have a moat, and isn’t the type of stronghold fortress that is often synonymous with the word castle. But it does not lack in regality or impressiveness. We wound our way past wooden booths, selling Romanian handcrafts, up to the terrace of the castle.

From every direction, the view from Peles Castle is of deep forests and mountains. Despite all of the development around the town since the late-1800s, the reason for the royals’ attraction to this quiet mountain spot was still quite clear.

We bought our tickets and slipped protective booties on our shoes as the guide took us through the first floor of the castle. One of the first buildings in Europe with electric lighting and central heating, the modern amenities did not interrupt the grandeur of the palace.

The central room had a Tiffany’s-style stained glass ceiling about 50 feet up, which the guide informed us was retractable when the weather was nice. Along the dark wood-paneled walls are statues, busts, and suits of armor. We wound up stairs and around columns, into aptly-named rooms such as the Moorish Reception room and the Turkish Smoking room. There were paintings by Rubens, Van Dyke, and Klimt — everything you’d expect to see in a French palace, but maybe not in the woods of Romania. Every parlor, library, and hall were exquisitely furnished from floor to ceiling.

The Moorish Reception room.

While the Romanian royal family ruled for less than 100 years, the castle is a long-lasting reminder of what Carol I and Elizabeth were able to accomplish. After the tour, Peter and I stopped at what looked to be an out building renovated to a tourist center for a cappuccino and a crème-filled pastry. We sat outside on the terrace, admiring the location of the castle and how wonderfully different it was from any other castle we have seen.

It was from this spot that I tried to memorize the purple woods, the red bushes, the blue sky and the cream turrets. The sun was starting to dip, adding a rosy glow to the clock on the tower. How had we not known about this place before? Why hadn’t Romania been a priority destination for us, instead of a whim? In that wonderful moment, I felt so grateful for the opportunity to explore places like Sinaia and a desire to capture that day in permanence. Unexpected, exhilarating, romantic, beautiful Sinaia. I can’t wait to go back.

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