The remote Romanian region of Transylvania is forever associated with vampires and spooky castles - but those who visit find an authentic charm that's all but disappeared elsewhere in Europe
“One of the wildest and least known parts of Europe,” wrote Bram Stoker in 1897. Over a century later, his description of Transylvania still rings true and the region, for most people, conjures up images of vampires and spooky castles.
But this remote part of northwest Romania is much more than a surreal backdrop to a Hammer horror film, and retains an authentic charm that has all but disappeared in other parts of Europe. There can’t be many other places in the western hemisphere where the fields are still tilled by hand, people drive around in horse-drawn carts, and crime is so low you can leave your back door unlocked overnight. The milkman even rattles down the road in a wooden cart.
It’s a land rich with medieval Saxon towns, majestic castles, soaring mountains and brooding forests, where you can still find brown bears, wolves and lynxes roaming undisturbed.
Sibiu was the European Capital of Culture 2007 and is the chief town of Saxon Transylvania. It has one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in Europe and tens of millions were spent on restoring the town in time for its grand investiture. It’s a pretty concoction of gingerbread houses in ochre, saffron and peach, public squares, twisting alleyways, towers and turrets. Visitors shouldn’t miss the Astra National Museum just outside the town, a complex of traditional Romanian houses and pre-industrial machinery set in 250 acres of stunning woodland, lakes and nature trails.
Viscri, founded in the 12th century by Saxons from Luxembourg, has just 450 inhabitants, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has the honour of having Prince Charles as patron, thanks to the tireless efforts of Caroline Fernolend, director of the Mihai Eminescu Trust. The trust aims to keep this fascinating, if crumbling, legacy for future generations and help local craftsmen relearn long-forgotten skills.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sighisoara (pronouned “Ziggy-shwara”) is arguably the best preserved fortified town in Transylvania, chock-full of beautiful medieval architecture. Climb up to the top of the 17th-century clock tower, which looks like something out of Hansel and Gretel, and you get a magnificent view of the city and surrounding hillsides.
Sighisoara also prides itself on being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), who was born here in 1431. His house has been turned into a restaurant, imaginatively called Casa Vlad. Rumour has it that Vlad, who liked to impale beggars and thieves as well as Turkish invaders, once organised a feast for some of these poor unfortunates, herded them into a room where the spread was laid out, and then locked the door and torched the place.
Bran Castle, a huge fairy-tale pile built by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century and situated on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, is often referred to as Dracula’s castle (Bram Stoker again), although he never actually set foot in it. The castle is certainly impressive – it was enough to lure Roman Polanski, who filmed Dance of the Vampires here in 1967.
Brasov, at the foot of the Carpathian mountains was one of the key towns of Saxon Transylvania. History buffs should visit the massive Gothic Black Church. Built in 1477, it’s the largest church outside Vienna and Istanbul. Brasov is also good for shopping and there are some decent restaurants to choose from, such as the Outlaw’s Cabin, set high on a hill and done out like a Wild West saloon. Romania’s premier skiing resort, Poiana, is just seven miles away from the city centre.
The Bargau region, immortalised as the Borgo Pass in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a stunning region of hills and mountains covered in thick pine forest. A horse and carriage ride through the pass is an enjoyable, if eerie experience. Englishman Julian Ross came to this remote area of Transylvania 10 years ago, and now runs the Stefan cel Mare Equestrian Centre, which offers riding holidays and treks.
You can stay in the Hotel Castle Dracula, a huge Gothic-looking affair (actually built in 1976) that puts on regular “Dracula” balls and tours of the “crypt” for guests.
Count Kalnoky, a blue-blooded environmentalist whose great uncle Gustav was prime minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire, spent years restoring his estate in the village of Miclosoara before opening it to guests. Each of the guesthouses has been renovated with antique furniture in keeping with its 19th-century origins. The food here is superb - everything is organic and grown locally – and there is an extensive wine cellar. It’s also ideal for nature-lovers and children, as there are many fresh air activities on offer – from camping in the woods to hiking, fishing and bird watching.
Famed not just for its Communist-era carbuncles, Bucharest was once known as the "Paris of the East” and is full of beautiful old buildings and parks. It’s worth spending at least half a day looking around. Visitors shouldn’t miss (well they can’t really) the Palace of Parliament, a veritable monster of a building. Built by Nicolae Ceaucescu, this colossal structure is second only to the Pentagon in size and contains a huge nuclear bunker and 1,100 rooms spread over 12 storeys.