Bucharest - Skiing red runs with Dracula
Written by Arnie Wilson
Thanks to Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula, it’s hard to mention Transylvania without conjuring up images of vampires. But far from being a turn-off to people thinking of skiing in Romania’s main resort, Poiana Brasov – 187km (116 miles) from the capital, Bucharest – is often part of the allure.
What’s more, it’s cheap – perhaps the cheapest skiing in Europe. Apart from making a ski holiday more manageable financially, being cheap was one of the reasons the area was chosen for many of the exteriors in the Hollywood movie Cold Mountain. But with only 14km (8.7 miles) of skiing on Mount Postavaru (5,800ft), served by some ten lifts, the resort is definitely on the small side; yet there’s a surprising amount of enjoyable terrain, and plenty of non-skiing attractions to savour.
It would be fun to pretend that Poiana Brasov, with its Dracula connections, was a death-defying, gung-ho ski area with sheer cliffs and bottomless crevasses – a resort you could only ski by moonlight with bats swirling near you for company. Although there is night skiing, as ski resorts go it’s a bit of a pussycat (a nice warm pussycat though, because the area is surprisingly far to the east of Europe, next stop the Black Sea, the weather can be quite balmy, with Californian temperatures). Even the Dracula myth – based on an unpleasant real-life historical character, Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. the Prince of Wallachia (1431–1476) – is more than a little hyped, particularly after 1897, when the Irish writer Bram Stoker published the fanciful book which made Dracula famous. There is, however, a ‘Dracula’s Castle’ (real name Bran Castle) not far from the ski area, near the picturesque medieval city of Brasov some 13km (8 miles) from the slopes – although in reality even Vlad probably spent only the occasional night there.
Romania – so called because it was once part of the Roman empire – is bordered to the north and east by Moldova and Ukraine, to the south by Bulgaria, to the southwest by Serbia, and to the west by Hungary. Poiana Brasov – purpose-built where the Transylvanian Alps meet the Carpathian Mountains – is the country’s only serious destination ski area. The main runs, with recently added snowmaking, are reached by two cable cars and a new gondola.
They serve a handful of unhurried green and blue runs, as well as some more demanding terrain, which seems to be marked red or black (intermediate or expert) according to the width of the pistes rather than the gradient. But most of the instructors (there are 160 at peak times) speak English, so you’ll be in good hands.
Instructors such as Cristian Hanzu, who also acts as a rep for the long-established British holiday company Inghams. “There are many things I love about skiing In Poiana Brasov,” he says. “Little details, like very friendly, helpful, and skilled ski instructors, and nice skiing surroundings with breathtaking views from the top of the mountain make it a visit to remember!
“With time, I have developed a close friendship with the whole mountain, but most of all I love the three-kilometre black ‘Lupului’ run with its 750-metre vertical drop. But after a few breathtaking runs on Lupului, I really enjoy the intermediate ‘Sulinar’ and then end the day on the gentle blue ‘Drumul Rosu’ slope that curves its way down through the snow-laden pine forest. After relaxing with a few glasses of Glühwein (mulled wine), maybe some traditional Romanian plum brandy, or Murfatlar wine, sharing a warm toast with close friends at the Poiana Bar in the Ana Hotel – our most famous après ski pub – I often end my day with night skiing on the ‘Bradu’ nursery slope nearby.”
As for Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler, he was the son of Vlad Dracul, dubbed a knight of the chivalric Order of the Dragon by the then Hungarian king. All the members of the order had a dragon on their coat of arms, and that is what brought him the nickname of Dracul (which meant the Devil, as well as dragon). Impaling was one of Dracula’s favourite punishments for those who conspired against him.
By coincidence, one of the instructors assigned to our party during my visit was called Vlad (though this is not an uncommon name). He was a nice enough chap, and a great skier, but I did keep an eye on what he was up to with his ski poles. Just in case.
The medieval city of Brasov, with its pubs and cellar bars, is well worth exploring – especially as the skiing may not keep you busy all week. The city is home to Europe’s narrowest street, Rope Street, which is just four feet wide.
Alternative resort activities include paintballing (one wonders how Vlad the Impaler might have viewed this latter-day confrontation), and a visit to a folkloric evening in a Romanian yurt, complete with gypsy dancing, spicy sausage starters washed down with hot brandy, and a main course of steak – later discovered to be wild bear.
A side trip to Peles Palace, near Sinaia is well worth the experience. This fascinating and richly decorated castle was built for Romania’s first monarch, King Karel, a German prince who accepted the throne in 1877.
There’s also an ice hotel at Lake Bâlea in the Fagaras Mountains 90 minutes from Poiana Brasov.
Cheap skiing – cheap movie
Cold Mountain, the 2003 movie about the American civil war, starred Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, and Jude Law. The film tells the story of a wounded deserter from the Confederate army, close to the end of the war, who makes a perilous journey back to the love of his life, Ada Monroe.
The Poiana Brasov countryside is reminiscent of New England (even bears are plentiful) – hence the decision to make the film here. With Romania’s low cost of living, all the production costs – including the extras’ wages – were considerably lower than would have been the case in the USA.
Another bonus was that Transylvania was visually less affected by 21st-century life than the Appalachians, with fewer power lines, electric poles, and paved roads.