Transylvania: it's not all about Dracula, darkness and danger, you know! Visit during any season for a cultural and historical heaven - with some amazing scenery thrown in.
“Transylvania?” Friends and colleagues tend to look at you with a “Why would you want to go there?” expression before the proverbial penny drops. “Ah, going to hunt vampires, eh?”
Well no, actually. Despite being a fan of horror films since the age of seven, and having read Bram Stoker’s Dracula at ten, I decided to see what Transylvania had to offer during a long weekend in the not-very-sinister early summer.
Lemon sunshine, verdant fields, forests brimming with a sea of vibrant, lime-green leaves fluttering gently in the warm breeze…not really conducive to conjuring up visions of the fanged undead! Word has it that many Transylvanians are a bit sick of the whole ‘vampire’ thing anyway. And the truth is, you don’t need an ominous wintertime backdrop and a vivid imagination to make a trip to this (in)famous region of Romania worthwhile. Transylvania is beautiful - and there’s plenty of history, culture and scenery to immerse yourself in – regardless of season.
How to get to Transylvania / Where to stay
On a tour organised by Explore (www.explore.co.uk/) our group flew to Bucharest with national carrier Tarom Romania (www.tarom.ro), and stayed in a guesthouse in Moeciu (Casa Zada guesthouse, Casa Zada street, Moeciu village), a 2.5-hour drive north from the airport. A more convenient location in which to stay if you’re travelling independently and don’t fancy hiring a car or paying for a taxi, however, is the medieval town Brasov, which is easily accessible by public transport.
Where to Visit
The medieval city Brasov was founded by German settlers to protect trade routes into the Carpathians. Boasting architecture dating from the 14th-18th centuries, cobbled streets and a vivacious atmosphere – particularly when there's traditional music and dancing in the town square - it’s well worth visiting.
The square itself is bordered by souvenir shops, restaurants and open-air cafes – those under awnings perfect for relaxing with a liqueur coffee when the temperature drops, the sky darkens and you realise you forgot to bring an umbrella. There’s also a street market offering a great selection of wines, cheeses and various other foodstuffs you really want to buy as presents but wonder whether would deteriorate or simply be smashed in transit. Easy answer: buy presents for yourself and indulge before leaving Romania!
To the south of the square lies the Black Church. Constructed between 1383 and 1480 this Gothic church is the largest of its kind between Vienna and Istanbul. Named following a fire in 1689, the church boasts some impressive statues, frescos and, draped from its balconies, a striking collection of Turkish rugs dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the forests around Brasov, bear-spotting has become a lucrative prospect for tour operators. Even though bears only appear to venture out at certain times of day (i.e. when they're hungry), for obvious reasons it’s advisable not to head off into the forest alone! We were accompanied on a mid-afternoon stroll by a ‘large carnivore expert’. To our dismay we merely encountered a pile of bear dung and a foul stench as it clearly wasn’t large carnivore dinnertime - but a longer visit at a more appropriate hour would likely yield more favourable results!
At the base of the fir-tree festooned Bucegi mountains lies Prahova Valley – and often referred to as ‘the pearl of the Carpathians’, Sinaia is its highlight. From 1875 Sinaia was the summer retreat of King Carol I, and the magnificent century-old Peles castle was constructed at his request. Plush and ostentatious, it's designed to make an impact – and it certainly does! Taking 39 years to construct, it was the first castle in Europe to boast electricity, central heating and vacuuming – and it was therefore rather unfortunate that the king passed away shortly after its completion in 1914.
Nearby and in stark contrast to Peles castle is the smaller, more modest Pelisor ("Little Peles") castle, built for King Carol’s nephew (and heir) Ferdinand and his wife Marie. Queen Marie allegedly disliked the overt grandiosity of Peles and desired a more understated residence. Pelisor’s outer appearance is consequently one of rustic charm, while the interior reveals the queen’s love of Art Nouveau. Both the Golden Room, with its gold stucco walls festooned with thistle leaves, and the marble-adorned chapel are particularly eye-catching.
Sinaia also boasts a relatively small but nevertheless handy shopping centre, with a supermarket (great for stocking up on snacks!), plenty of souvenir shops and several restaurants. When my trusty SLR camera died on day one (impeccable timing, eh?), I was able to pick up a cheap point-and-shoot disposable for 33 leu (about £6.50) at a small camera shop in the mall.
Where to eat in Sinaia
At Snow Restaurant, situated alongside a ski shop and just under the gondola lift on Str Cuza Voda, the prospect of a ‘snow pancake’ proved intriguing. Still full from a lunch of Hawaiian pizza (who said it’s all about tradition?), a light meal seemed a sensible choice. The waitress arrived with our order. I gulped. The snow pancake (nothing to do with freezing white stuff, by the way) was about the size of a sleigh, packed with chicken, onions and various other vegetables, and smothered in a creamy dill sauce. It was tasty and easily worth 24 leu (around £4.71) – just be sure to fast for a few hours before tackling this mammoth meal!
Some handy advice when ordering fish in Romanian restaurants: pay attention to the pricing system, as it isn’t always clear! One of my new travel buddies ordered trout at Hotel Marami’s restaurant and did a double-take when the bill arrived. She called over a waiter to enquire why she’d been charged double the price listed on the menu. The answer? The price on the menu was per 100g – and nobody had informed her that her fish weighed twice that…
Built around 1378 by Saxons as a defence against the Turks, Bran castle allegedly inspired Bram Stoker – yet it never belonged to the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes (AKA Vlad the Impaler). That said, it certainly looks as though it should have. Set on a peak in the valley between two forested mountain ranges, and with its angular structure and jutting turrets, this castle is the stuff of fairy- (or should that be horror?) -tales. And local stallholders are quick to exploit that with all manner of Dracula-related trinkets from mugs to jewellery and toys.
Queen Marie lived at Bran castle from 1920, and it served as a summer residence for the royal family until King Michael's enforced abdication in 1947. Since 1957 it’s functioned as a museum, proving extremely popular with tourists. It’s therefore advisable to arrive early in the day in order to enjoy a leisurely visit before the crowds surge in!
The following interactive map of Transylvania will give you an idea of where to find the aforementioned locations: http://iguide.travel/Transylvania#/Map
So, a summertime visit to Transylvania can now be ticked off and highly recommended.
Nevertheless, a return trip to witness an ominous wintertime backdrop where visions of the fanged undead can be conjured up is definitely on the agenda!