Romania’s Best Castle
At the souvenir gauntlet outside Castle Peleş, mixed in among the customary snow globes and magnets was a selection of more unusual items. The array of carpets, clothing, and card games was a little unexpected, but the semi-toy knives downright alarmed me. Until I realized what they meant. The eclectic assortment of items meant these vendors were trying every notch and niche they could think of to appeal to passersby, because I was well off the thoroughly trampled Tourist Circuit, with all its conventions and clichés. Yes, as I passed a caricature artist whose examples went beyond John Lennon to include celebrities I’d never seen before, it was clear that I was not in France, Italy, or Germany.
That last country was on my mind 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 were 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.
If I took you to Neuschwanstein, I picked up our tickets at least 60 minutes before our strictly scheduled entry, which was booked months in advance. If I had shown 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 a site guide distributed audio handsets, and led you through a crisp 27 minute tour of the castle, following a prescribed and closely monitored path. Photos were strictly forbidden, a rule that was rigidly enforced. You exited through the two gift shops 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. But did it feel…human?
At Peleş, the rambunctious souvenir gauntlet was framed by Roma selling snacks on either side. Corn was shucked, roasted, and hawked below, walnuts were shelled and sold by the cup above, and further 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 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 fair prices, and families gamboled and took selfies 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. I felt like I’d just made a new friend, and was about to ask her to grab a beer later. Inside, everyone was snapping away with their cameras, and my law-abiding tendencies were quickly overwhelmed by the desire to appreciate the rooms through a lens. Because 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 said “wow” out loud more than once. (I also sometimes swear in admiration, usually in Spanish, but I think I managed to hold that in, out of deference to their highnesses.) I bought the two-floor ticket, and on the upper level I was often 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 together.
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 extremely 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 a home. The two castles are clearly kin, their inaugurations coming just three years apart, and both are well worth the visit. But the best part was that, as I departed Peleş, I realized that seeing both had deepened my appreciation for them each apart. Feeling the way travel experiences can continue to grow and augment each other, I smiled all the way back to the village below.