Romania’s Best Castle
When the sign said either fork in the road would take me to Castle Peleş, I figured that when seeking the ornate palaces of wealthy noblemen, uphill was always a safe bet. I don’t know where I went wrong, but the road dead-ended at the gate of a boringly modern house. How was one of the top Things to See in Romania so poorly signed? I snuck around the gate and down along the outer edge of a barbed wire fence, through a verdant wood, and eventually plopped out on the boulevard of tourist kitsch vendors that led to the castle grounds. The stalls sold nearly nothing to do with where we were, instead purses and skirts, carpets and clocks, mugs and an astonishing array of dangerous looking knives. I was not in Germany.
That comparison was on my mind (not because of the two Germans who made the same pathway decision I had, but) because Castle Peleş (pronounced “Pelesh”) is an epitome of neo-Baroque architecture, with clear kinship to its more photographed cousin: Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Both built by monarchs at the end of the age of monarchies, harkening back to a former golden age, even as they created their own. Two palace-castles, alike in nature, quite distinct in experience.
When I took you to Neuschwanstein, I picked up our tickets at least 60 minutes before our strictly scheduled entry, booked months in advance. If I showed up only 59 minutes early, they wouldn’t have let us in. At the appointed time, you had a five minute window to scan your ticket and pass the turnstile, where you were promptly met by a site guide who distributed audio handsets with alacrity, then led you through a crisp 27 minute tour of the castle, following a prescribed and closely monitored path and pacing. Photos were strictly forbidden, a rule that was rigidly enforced. You exited through the tidy gift shop, while the guide repeated the exact script with the next group. Clockwork. Nearly mechanical. There is a beauty to such organization, and it enables sixty gujilion people to visit Neuschwanstein each year.
At Peleş, the rambunctious and semi-sensical souvenir gauntlet was framed by Roma selling snacks. Corn was shucked, roasted, and hawked below, walnuts were shelled and sold by the cup above, and beyond them, wizened grandmothers pushed woven baskets of raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. The Roma are a topic for another time, but it was poignant to watch visiting adults ignore the Roma as usual, while their children gazed hungrily at the ripe fruit and wondered who these people were.
Near the top, a pair of boisterous restaurants served good food at relatively fair prices, and families scrambled among the statuary in the ornate castle garden. The line that snaked into the courtyard didn’t take as long as I feared, and I opted not to buy the additional permit to take photos inside the castle, figuring I’d find better versions online anyway.
The ticket-taker at the door was asking where people came from, and we had a laughing conversation about Huntington Beach as she let me in. Inside, there was no pretense of checking for the photography permit as everyone snapped away, and my law-abiding tendencies were quickly overwhelmed by the desire to appreciate the rooms through a lens. Peleş Castle is gorgeous.
Ornate hand-carved woodwork, exquisite furnishings, and extravagant rooms of a million perfect details kept my eyes wide and camera snapping. I bought the two-floor ticket, while most of the crowd was satisfied with one, and on the second level I was often nearly alone in the opulent rooms, which somehow felt both intensely luxurious and yet oddly plausible for occupation. Returning to the ground floor felt like going back to the main party we were all attending.
Neuschwanstein deserves its fame, but something in the relative chaos of Peleş felt more accessible, more authentic. Wandering from room to room among families being noisy families, I felt like I was in a living house, albeit an unusual one, and I could feel the texture of the royals-yet-humans who had lived there. That stood in contrast to the museum-like quality of Neuschwanstein (augmented by the fact that no one ever actually lived in that one) which feels like someone special’s dream, but nothing like any house I’ve ever seen. The two castles are clearly kin, their inaugurations coming just three years apart, and both are well worth the visit, while the contrast in their experiences has deepened my appreciation for them each apart.