Coming up with the perfect family vacation had eluded us. We had dragged the kids to Rome and Athens on a 10-day self-guided tour of museums and archaeological sites that, judging from their whining, had fallen flat. They loved the gelato in Italy and found parks and playgrounds they happily tore through in Athens. But the crowds in what one of my daughters called the Sixteen Chapel were tough to navigate. The audio tour for young people at the Colosseum lacked the kind of lion-eats-man details to hold their interest. And in Greece, they loved the food but the hike up to the Parthenon was a slog, unlike the Athenian high jinks of the children’s Greek mythology graphic novels and Percy Jackson DVDs.
My husband diagnosed the problem as an urban one. Children need to roam free in nature, he argued, insisting that for this vacation we spend more time outdoors. As long as we did not have to sleep in a tent, I was game. A colleague of his had just returned from Romania and told him about mountain hikes, hearty meals and hotels that did not kill his budget. My thrifty husband was sold. That we could visit a Transylvanian vampire castle said to have inspired the Dracula story was a bonus for our 10-year old son and 8-year-old twin girls.
Our plan involved a quick stay in Bucharest and a drive through the Carpathians where we would hike, wander through castles and, for a grand finale, go on a bear-watching trek.
Our trip started to go sideways almost immediately. But it wasn’t Romania’s fault.
We landed in Bucharest and soon realized that my husband had left his driver’s license back home. I was of no use. My license had been stolen the week before, when I left my wallet on the seat beside me at a cafe in Berlin. Don’t judge; I’m the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times and travel a lot, which means I sometimes let my guard down when I get tired.
At the airport, we tried sweet-talking and then arguing with the car rental workers who were not willing to bend the rules. The agents were unimpressed by the printout of my temporary driver’s license. We panicked. Our whole trip was in trouble.
Then it came to me: One trick we had learned was that splurging on a hotel after a red-eye flight seems to make everyone happy. The plush bathrobes. The chocolates on the pillow. The powerful Wi-Fi signal. And guess what fancy hotels are good at? Making guests happy.
We had booked a room at the Grand Hotel Continental, an opulent 1800s-era hotel, and the lovely receptionist was more than pleased to help us right our rental-car wrongs. Soon enough, I was sitting in the marble lobby across from a man in a black leather jacket who rented me a town car after unquestioningly accepting a license that looked as if I had typed it in my mom’s basement. Perseverance triumphed. And the hotel was wonderful — old and ornate but not rundown, and the rate was a relative bargain compared with the snazziest hotels in Vienna or Berlin.
Automobile secured, we spent the afternoon in the drizzle wandering old Bucharest and stumbled into the Caru cu Bere restaurant in the district of Lipscani. We had no reservation and what seemed like a school-field-trip number of children in tow compared with the rest of the clientele, all childless. The tall ceilings adorned with stained glass and dark wooden balconies made it resemble the nave of a chapel more than the late-1800s belle époque bar that it is. My children thought it was gorgeous. The patrons slurping tall beers at the bar cringed at the sight of us.
We were quickly ushered into the basement, where service was slow but the food was hot and heavy, just what we needed after the cold rain. We nibbled cuts of pork, including cheese-stuffed pork sausages, hearty pork and bean soup, all for a fraction of what a similar traditional French meal would have cost us in Paris. We staggered back to the hotel happy.
The next morning we headed for the mountains. As the only licensed driver among us, it was up to me to get us there, a daunting task if you believe the online reviews of traveling in this country.
“If you’re going to drive in Romania, the first thing you want to keep in mind is that it’s not driving so much as it’s like being in a nightmare carnival arcade,” read one.
But I’m here to tell you that if you’ve ever been behind the wheel on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York, you can handle Romania. The biggest problem along the Dambu Morii Highway outside Bucharest involves drivers who are fairly aggressive at passing. Once you catch on to that, driving is a piece of cake. Even in a car that resembled something out of the detective unit at Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct.
We whizzed by snow-haired women who looked as if they had walked out of a painting of 1600s-era peasants, selling chrysanthemums and moonshine roadside. Their home brew was toxic; it tasted like rubbing alcohol with a splash of prune juice.
After about an hour of curves that devolved into hairpin turns, we started seeing signs for castles and decided to pull over at one, Peles Castle, near a town called Sinaia. King Carol I, Romania’s first king, had scouted the site for its mountain views, according to tourist websites. A thrifty guy, he built the castle with its pointy towers on a budget, rejecting the first three blueprints as too expensive. The castle has served as summer residence of Romanian royalty.
We wandered through light rain up a steep, slippery hill to the entrance, where we joined a group of Chinese tourists on a guided walk through some of the 160 or so ornate rooms, many themed after European countries. The children loved the Turkish room with its intricately colored tiles and lanterns. The thrones and crowns and chandeliers along a mirrored hall were another big hit.
We drove to our Airbnb rental, a lovely three-story home with a fireplace tucked at the base of the mountains outside Brasov and a less than five-minute walk from the trail head of Seven Ladders Canyon.
Our children are closeted lovers of hiking. They loudly protest the mere mention of going on a hike, but once they’re out and moving, they enjoy the freedom of running ahead on a trail, splashing through rivers and finding sticks to commission for sword fights. The real key for them is having a goal to reach on a hike. We weren’t sure what the Seven Ladders were, but they were enough of a mystery to motivate them.
We took advantage of our only sunny morning to set out on the trail, where we watched shepherds guiding huge flocks across the impossibly sloping sides of mountains. The meadows were speckled with mounds of mud, signs of wild boars that had been rooting around for food. We were careful to avoid run-ins with protective sheepdogs and piles of bear poop that were just about everywhere.
The Seven Ladders were just that: long, steep ladders propped alongside raging waterfalls that sprayed cold water all over the freezing steel rungs, making them difficult to hang onto. The children loved the thrill of the climb and we scurried up the circuit, and then did it again before our hands cramped.
For dinner we drove our mud-splattered car into Brasov, where we wandered the old town square before settling on a Mexican-Romanian restaurant, because it sounded weird. We were escorted into the basement, again, for a dinner of mediocre guacamole and pork-based soup in a soggy bread bowl. But it was toasty warm in the candlelit cavelike room, and the ambience made the food taste better.
The next day we set out through the rain to Bran Castle, of Dracula lore. The actual tie to Dracula is a bit elusive. Vlad the Impaler, sometimes considered the inspiration for the Dracula character, is thought to have been briefly imprisoned in the castle. The structure itself fits the description of Dracula’s Castle in Bram Stoker’s writings: high above a valley atop a rock with a flowing river below.
We hadn’t wanted to freak out the children by inundating them with vampire tales. When reading them the story of the castle as we prepared for our trip, I had even censored the part about the belief in the existence of evil spirits called steregoi in the villages near Bran. Even so, the kids were a little nervous about setting foot in Dracula’s castle.
It turns out the castle isn’t that scary, and it’s not that much of a castle. It looked like a fancy old mansion. The interior was a little beat up but not in a creepy way. Signs posted throughout offered reminders that vampires were imaginary and cautioned of the building’s weak official ties to the Dracula story — until the top floor, which was papered with giant posters that lend credence to the story of Dracula and vampire legends. It left us all a bit confused.
We decided to ditch the spiritual world for the natural one. We got in the car for a long drive past speeding Mercedeses and clompy horse-drawn carts to an eco-lodge where we had reserved a guide to take us to see the brown bears of Transylvania.
The odds of seeing skittish animals in the wild while traveling with three noisy youngsters seemed slim. By the time we reached our guide, the kids had been cooped up in the car for a couple of hours. To make things worse, our trek was scheduled to start during the witching hour, 5 p.m., when children are worn out and getting hungry.