In 1883, the legendary Orient Express made its first run, connecting the west and east by a luxury train turned five-star hotel. On its way, it stopped in Sinaia, the summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family, where King Carol I himself greeted travelers, inviting them all to visit his castle at the foothills of the Carpathians. The town remained a regular stop on the annual Orient Express journey ever since, but it was the Peleş Castle that put Sinaia on the map, one of Europe’s most luxurious and coveted resorts during its golden age. Perched on the steep, forest-covered slopes of a narrow, green-drenched valley, Sinaia is where Romania’s long-gone monarchy continues to breathe.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Sinaia was on everyone’s lips. It was the place to go, a town fit for a king. If it was good enough for the Royal Family, it was good enough for anyone, and the aristocracy and noblemen of the time were not the only regular guests. Artists often visited Sinaia, bewitched by the towering Bucegi Mountains, hoping to find inspiration at its foothills.
In its heyday, Sinaia was a sight to behold and the Peleş Castle was the star of the show, with quite a story to tell. It all started in the summer of 1866…
Before being crowned king, Principe Carol I of Romania visited these realms for the first time. The way the empty plateaus of the Carpathians disappear under the dark-green forests that seem to fall over this town like a giant cape put a spell on him. He bought a piece of land where he would lay the foundations of the Peleş Castle.
Officially inaugurated in 1883, the Royal Family continued to improve and extend the castle throughout the following decades. Two smaller buildings were added – Pelişor (diminutive for Peleş in Romanian) and Foişor (“pavilion” in Romanian).
The result: a fairy-tale castle, like a toy in the distance, almost too perfect to be true. Inspired by Italian Renaissance architecture, it is the very definition of romanticism. Walnut paneling, bass-reliefs, valuable paintings, statues, opulent furniture and exquisite carpets, stained-glass windows and sculpted linden ceilings can be seen at every corner. A theater room with 60 seats, a fountain made from Carrara marble, a stunning collection of over 4,000 pieces of armory dating from the 14th to 17th centuries, a library with rare books coated in leather and engraved in gold, with a secret door the king used to move around the castle without being noticed, are among the highlights visitors can feast their eyes on.
Peleş was surprisingly modern for its time. With its own generator, it was Europe’s first electrified castle. It had central heating, an elevator, electric glass-ceiling in the Hall of Honor and fire hydrants. It remained a royal residence until 1948, when the Communists confiscated it, and was opened as a museum in 1953. It should be noted that the castle had always been open to visitors, ever since Carol I’s reign, and was built from the king’s personal treasury.
The Pearl of the Carpathians
There’s no better way to get in touch with history and your romantic side than by strolling down the town’s cobbled streets, passing by old villas and manors, making plans to move into a small room in the attic of some old building to live out the rest of your days immersed in books by the dusty window overlooking the mountains.
Nicknamed the Pearl of the Carpathians, Sinaia is a resonant name on the Romanian tourism stage and a major starting point for important hiking routes in the Carpathians. It is vibrant, colorful, overcrowded during summer weekends, but that has its charm as well. With such a long list of attractions, it’s hard to pick one to start with, but I’ll give it a try anyway.
Sinaia Monastery is one of the oldest religious establishments in the country, an important pilgrimage site and home to over 500 volumes of rare old books, as well as a notable collection of paintings and icons. It is Romania’s first museum of religious art.
The Dimitrie Ghica Park, or simply the Central Park, dates from 1881. People get together around the fountain in the afternoon, look for shade inside the pavilion, or have a seat on Carol I’s bench, an old stone bench the king would often sit on during his long walks.
The alleys of the Central Park lead to the Sinaia Casino, another one of the town’s emblematic edifices, built by Carol I in the same architectural style as the Monte Carlo Casino. The building currently hosts art galleries, artistic events and international conferences.
The Royal train stations. No mistake there, it’s plural. Sinaia is Romania’s only city with two royal train stations. The first was inaugurated in 1883, the year that marked the first run of the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul. Once a year, the legendary epoch train rests its luxurious wagons in this train station, the same one all travelers use today to disembark when arriving in Sinaia. The second train station was built by Carol II between 1938 and 1940, a stone-built structure reserved for royal members, currently closed to the public and used only for protocols.
Sinaia is irrevocably bound to Peleş Castle, on everyone’s top of the list when they reach these parts for the first time. But there are many other things to be seen and done here. After all, Sinaia is primarily a mountain resort, and offers plenty of outdoor activities for all you adventure lovers out there. There’s so much you can do here it would take too many pages to lay it all out, so let’s just say that hiking, mountain-biking, skiing and rock climbing shouldn’t be missed.
It is the way the sun timidly makes its way through the valley, shining in the deepest, darkest and wildest corners, making nature boom against all odds, that strengthens my belief that there’s something magical about Sinaia.
How to visit Sinaia? Well, that all depends on you of course. There are many options, but allow me to make a recommendation. Enjoy the mountains during the day, whether you head up to the plateau by cable car or foot, do some serious hiking or mountain-biking up there, go rock climbing or skiing. Allow yourself long afternoons to wonder the streets. Ditch your car (if you have one) and go by foot. Be advised that the old part of town, although not very large, does take a while to visit. Start with the Central Park and the Casino and work your way up the cobbled alley behind the Heroes Cemetery to the Sinaia Monastery. From here, another alley will take you to the Peleş Castle. Remember that it is not just about visiting the inside, spending a summer afternoon lingering in the Renaissance courtyard and on the green grass is equally satisfying. Don’t go back the same way, allow yourself to get lost. What’s the worst that can happen? Discovering new streets and admiring old houses? Doesn’t sound too bad! Top it all off with a cake at one of the confectioneries downtown as you watch the last sun rays fade away and dream with open eyes of an age long gone.