High up in the mountainous Bucegi Natural Park just south of Brasov, the tiny white Orthodox monastery of Ialomicioara sits underneath a sheer cliff face; it was built in the early 16th century by Wallachian ruler Mihnea cel Rau, who was the son of Vlad the Impaler. Made of wood and guarding an enormous cave complex, the monastery repeatedly burnt down over the centuries and its last refurbishment came in 1993 after another fire. Its exterior is gleaming white and adorned with simple biblical figures; the interior is awash with frescoes and icons.
The caves themselves extend deep under ground through limestone caverns and galleries and recent investment has seen them transformed with new lighting, staircases and bridges. More than 1,300 ft (396.25 m) of accessible paths lead through grottoes and chambers adorned with stalactites and stalagmites; the most ethereal are the St Mary Grotto, named after limestone formations that resemble the Virgin Mary, and the enormous Bear Hall, which was full of 10,000 year-old bones of cave bears when it was first discovered in 1870. Ialomicioara caves are accessed by guided tour; there’s a lot of walking involved and they quickly get cold, so wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes.
Bucegi Natural Park itself is a popular destination for hikers, climbers and — in winter — skiers. It’s also close to the mysterious castles and fortified towns of Transylvania.