Visiting Castle Poenari was a dream of mine for a long time, but when it came time to do the research on how to get there, there weren’t many websites with a lot of good information. Here I’ll tell you about how I got to Poenari, as well as a few other options that exist.
I visited Castle Poenari on my second trip to Romania, during a long, one-month voyage across a handful of countries; Switzerland, Austria, Romania, and Slovakia. Most of my traveling in Romania was in buses and minibuses, which are a very efficient and inexpensive way to see a lot of the country, as you can easily travel to a new town every couple days.
Curtea de Arges: the perfect starting point for your day trip to Poenari
My research had told me that Castle Poenari was near a town called Curtea de Arges, and that the easiest way to visit the castle was to stay the night in Curtea de Arges, set out in morning the for the castle, and return to Curtea de Arges that same night. So that’s what I planned on doing.
A bit earlier in the trip, I was staying in a hostel in a wonderful Romanian town called Sibiu, and I had an extraordinary stroke of luck: I met a Romanian man who had been living in America for 16 years, and he was back in Romania to visit his family and travel a bit. It turned out that he was born in Curtea de Arges! So he gave me a lot of great advice for getting to Curtea de Arges and also a little about visiting Poenari. Like nearly all Romanians, he was surprised I knew about Poenari and was puzzled about why I wanted to visit it.
Plotting the course from Sibiu
First, my friend told me a little about getting to Curtea de Arges from Sibiu. I had heard a few times that the roads are very bad in some parts of Romania, but I hadn’t seen this myself. I’d even heard that roads in some parts of the country are closed at certain times of year due to flooding (in the lowlands), ice and snow (in the mountains), general disrepair, etc. On the map, I could see roads that looked like they would go from Sibiu, South to a town called Ramnicu Valcea, and then due East to Curtea de Arges, where I’d stay the night. I planned on finding buses or minibuses that would go these routes. My Romanian friend advised me that the road between Ramnicu Valcea and Curtea de Arges was small and he’d heard it was flooded recently, so he suggested I take a longer route that would stay on bigger roads, which were more likely to be open. He suggested I go from Sibiu, South to Ramnicu Valcea, continue South-East toward Pitesti, and then head North to Curtea de Arges. So that’s exactly what I did. This took one long afternoon of travel, maybe about eight hours total, changing buses in each of those towns.
Buying bus and minibus tickets
Fortunately, buses and minibuses in Romania are relatively easy to use, even if you don’t speak Romanian. Every bus station has very clear signs about what towns you can get to from the one you’re currently in, and prices clearly marked for everything. So just saying the name of the town to the ticket person will do the trick; don’t be surprised if they speak a little English or German to you!
Locating your bus
When you approach the buses or minibuses, they always have the name of their destination printed on a sheet of paper and stuck inside the windshield; nice and easy. I always check with the driver to make sure anyway. Just say the name of the town as a question, and the driver will let you know if you’ve got the right bus.
Hotels in Curtea de Arges
So, I arrived in Curtea de Arges with no problems, and was surprised to find that it’s a very nice and modern Romanian town; I’d pictured a primitive little village, like many I’d seen while traveling around Transylvania. My Romanian friend in Sibiu had drawn me a small map of the town, which is really just one main street running North-South through the whole town, with most important things located right on that street.
I’d read that there were no hostels in Curtea de Arges, so I’d have to stay in a hotel. I’d read that there was one large hotel in town, called the Posada, and I’d asked my friend about it. He said the Posada was fine, but he knew of a smaller, less expensive, and in his opinion, nicer hotel not far away, called the Montana. So this is where I stayed. The Montana was absolutely great; after staying in lots of hostels, a nice, clean, modern hotel room felt like a real luxury. The staff at the Montana were extremely friendly and helpful, but didn’t speak a word of English, so checking in was slightly challenging, but not at all unpleasant. The room was great, with everything you’d expect in a modern, inexpensive American hotel; great shower, comfy bed, television, etc. I highly recommend staying at the Montana if you’re in Curtea de Arges. Also, the downstairs floor is a restaurant (with a menu translated into English! hooray!), and I had an amazing pizza there made with local sausage from Sibiu. That was one of the best meals I had in Romania, and I had plenty.
[Update: see some simple maps of hotels in Curtea de Arges, in the comments section below.]
Finding the minibus to Arefu
Okay, back to getting to Poenari! I’d planned to set out the next morning. The night before, I went to the supermarket in town to stock up on some food to bring with me to the castle; pretzels, fruit, a Coke, etc; nothing huge. I’d read that the castle was near a town called Arefu, about 25 km to the North, and that there were minibuses that went from Curtea de Arges to Arefu. I wandered a bit on the main street in Curtea de Arges and arrived at a place where several minibuses were parked in a row. I asked one of the drivers, “Arefu?” and “Poenari?” (phonetically AR-AY-FOO, and POE-EE-NAR; the “i” is silent!) and it took him a minute to figure out what I was looking for, but when he did he set me in the right direction. It turns out the buses that go up to Arefu are not parked on the main street, but there’s another side street on the West side of town where they go by. So he told me — all in gestures — that I need to put myself on this side street over to the West, wait for a minibus (fortunately “minibus” in Romanian is “minibus”), and flag it down.
A note about minibuses: While there are real bus stops and bus stations, it seems like it’s normal in Romania to just stand on the side of the road and flag down a minibus as it goes past; I saw this happen many times, and it seemed like a normal practice. So, I wandered down a side street, away from the main North-South street, and very soon found myself at the edge of town, with wide, green fields in front of me, and another North-South road that seemed like it could be a main route. There was an old woman waiting on the corner, which seemed like a good sign. I took out my notepad and wrote “POENARI” on it so I could show the driver when the bus arrived, rather than try to make him understand my terrible accent.
The minibus ride to Arefu and Poenari
No more than fifteen minutes later, a minibus arrived, and I noticed that the paper in the front window said “AREFU”! Fantastic! The bus pulled over, and I said hello to the driver in Romanian (“Buna ziua”) so the guy could hear my terrible accent and understand that I don’t speak Romanian. I then held up my pad of paper upon which I’d scribbled the word “POENARI.” The driver glanced at it, thought about it for a second, and then gestured “get in,” and explained something to me in Romanian, which, of course, I didn’t understand, but he seemed like a nice guy and it was clear he wanted to help me out. I paid 2.50 lei (less than a dollar, I think) and climbed in the crowded minibus. It felt so strange to get onto this rickety minibus full of mostly old women in traditional dress, clutching big bags of groceries and clothes and stuff. I have never blended in less in my life.
Everything worked out great though. I rode through 20-some kilometers of beautiful hills and farms and tiny villages, going basically in a straight line the whole time, and then we reached a point where the bus was going to make a left, and the driver pulled over and gestured to me to get out and walk straight down the road, in the direction the bus had been heading before the turn. He looked pretty confident that he was telling me the right thing to do, and I basically had no options and no way to get more information, so I got out. I enjoyed pretending that the bus driver simply wasn’t willing to go any closer to Dracula’s castle, but the real reason the bus turned away there is because there’s no town near the castle, so practically no one goes there. For the most part the local Romanians aren’t interested in Dracula or his castle (and the majority of them aren’t aware of our Western Dracula mythology) so it must have seemed really strange to the old people on the bus that this tourist wanted to get off here.
The walk to Castle Poenari
I walked in a straight line, as indicated by the driver, and pretty soon had some signs that I was doing the right thing. The minibus trip had been through green hills and fields, but there were dark green mountains coming up ahead, which seemed correct, because I knew the castle was on a mountain. Soon, on my right, I saw a small house with a carved wooden image of Vlad Tepes out front! This was “Pensiunea Dracula,” a restaurant and inn, and one of the very few things you’ll see in Romania that’s cashing in on Dracula tourism (but I’m sure that will change steadily in the coming years). I took a picture and continued walking.
[Update: see some simple maps of the bus stop and Pensiunea Dracula, in the comments section below.]
A note on stray dogs
It was around this point that I was adopted by a pack of stray dogs. One thing any traveler going to Romania will inevitably read/hear about is all the stray dogs all over the country, which are described as being a nuisance at best, and rabid and aggressive at worst (although I never saw any dogs being aggressive with humans!). My first time in Romania, I did see strays all over the place, but they were very calm and not at all dangerous. They’d hang around and hope you’d feed them, but they never got too close or growled at you or tried to snatch food away from you or anything. I saw them in every town I visited, but it was never a problem, and I got used to them quickly. I’ve read recently that the Romanian government has taken great strides to eradicate rabies in the country, so a lot of the dogs are innoculated and set free, and like I said, I definitely never saw any dogs showing any signs of being rabid. However, as I walked from the bus to the castle, I was adopted by a pack of wild dogs who wove in and around me and generally stayed very close to me the entire way to the base of the steps that lead up to the castle. It was a little unnerving, since I was walking on a rural road with no other people around anywhere, and I was carrying a bag of food, and these dogs were really filthy and wild-looking, and a little more aggressive, at least with each other; they’d sometimes get in each other’s way and growl or snap at one another, at the same time I was trying to untangle myself from them and step over/around them. It was a little bit tense the whole way, but fortunately nothing too scary happened. The pack finally scattered near the castle. So, no problems, but it was a little annoying, and a little scary when the whole pack were there and sniffing after my bag of food.
I should mention, I’ve received an e-mail from a Romanian woman in response to this page, telling me that the dogs I met weren’t “wild” or “stray” and that they all lived in the surrounding villages, and scolding me for painting a negative image of Romania. However, I’ve never seen dogs this dirty and scrawny, even in poor villages.
But whether they were wild or not, it doesn’t really change anything about my experience with them, and I’ve tried to stress here that I don’t think the dogs were dangerous. One more note about the dogs, an American woman I met through this page mentioned that she and her husband were also joined by a group of dogs on this same road, and they actually made friends with them, even carrying a tiny puppy up to the castle with them. I would personally not recommend touching any unsupervised dogs you meet anywhere in Eastern Europe, but these folks were fine!
At last, the castle!
So anyway, my new furry friends and I continued walking down that same road, and we soon entered into the mountains and joined up with a small river running alongside. This turned out to be the Arges River, which runs directly in front of the castle. And once I was in the mountains, I caught my first glimpse of the castle! I’d been somewhat concerned that it might be possible to not see the castle from the road, and that I might miss the stairs leading up to it, but it turns out this impossible, fortunately! You’ll definitely see the castle from below, and the stairs are easy to locate too.
As I got nearer to the castle, the road turned a bit and eventually I was able to see the hydroelectric plant in the distance; another great sign. As I mentioned in the Castle Poenari photo gallery, most sources that talk about Castle Poenari mention that it’s located right next to a large hydroelectric plant. Once you reach this hydroelectric plant, the castle steps are just beyond it.
After passing the hydroelectric plant, I was surprised to find a metal sign indicating the castle, with historical information in Romanian, English, and French! Immediately after, you’ll arrive at the parking lot for the castle. At the time I was there (in October 2006), there was a newly constructed snack bar with a few picnic tables, beyond the parking lot. Anticipating a potentially difficult hike, I bought a small cake, even though I already had some food in my bag.
The stairs that lead up to the castle were easy to locate, just behind the snack bar and to the left.
I was somewhat surprised to see that the stairs were concrete and had a metal railing; I was expecting more of a hike on dirt and rocks. Climbing the (approximately) 1500 stairs was surprisingly easy.
As for the actual visit to the castle, I think I covered that as well as I could in the Castle Poenari photo gallery pages.
Getting back to Curtea de Arges
After visiting the castle, getting back to Curtea de Arges was easy. I simply walked back to the point where the minibus had dropped me off, and waited for another one going in the other direction. There’s an actual bus stop here, with a huge Romanian flag painted on the side. After no more than twenty minutes of waiting, a minibus pulled up, and I asked the driver, “Curtea de Arges?” (which sounds a little like COR-TA DE AR-GESH). He nodded yes, and I climbed inside. Couldn’t be easier.
Other ways to get to the castle
I’ve been told you can reach Castle Poenari a few other ways, but I haven’t tried any of these myself, so please do some research before setting out!
I’m told there are tour buses that go directly to the castle from Bucarest, which is of course a big city so you can fly or take a train there, and then take a bus from there.
If you’re planning on going to Curtea de Arges but don’t want to take a minibus and walk, I’m told there are tour buses to Poenari from the Posada Hotel in Curtea de Arges.
Of course, you can also rent a car and drive to Poenari, and there’s a convenient parking at the base of the mountain below the castle. I’ve never driven in Romania, but I can tell you that in looking at maps of the area, it looks like you can approach Poenari from the South (i.e. from the direction of Curtea de Arges) or from the North (i.e. from the mountains). In doing my own research about hitchhiking and taking minibuses to the castle, I’d considered approaching from the mountains in the North, but then I read that some of the roads up there are closed in winter due to ice and snow. So beware of this if you’re traveling during the colder months!
Good luck, safe travels, and don’t forget your cross and your garlic!
— Manning Leonard Krull