Thanks to Bram Stoker and Hollywood, Transylvania (from the Latin for “beyond the forest”) is famed as the homeland of Dracula, a mountainous place where storms lash medieval hamlets, while wolves – or werewolves – howl from the surrounding woods. The fictitious image is accurate up to a point: the scenery is breathtakingly dramatic, especially in the Prahova valley, the Turda and Bicaz gorges and around the high passes; there are spooky Gothic citadels, around Braşov and at Sibiu, Sighişoara and Bran; and there was a Vlad, born in Sighişoara, who earned the grim nickname “The Impaler” and later became known as Dracula.
But the Dracula image is just one element of Transylvania, whose near 100,000 square kilometres take in alpine meadows and peaks, caves and dense forests sheltering bears and wild boar, and lowland valleys where buffalo cool off in the rivers. The population is an ethnic jigsaw of Romanians, Magyars, Germans and Gypsies, among others, formed over centuries of migration and colonization. Most Hungarians view Erdély (“the forest land”, their name for Transylvania) as a land first settled by them but “stolen” in 1920 (with the signing of the Trianon Treaty) by the Romanians, who continue to oppress some two million Magyars. Romanians, who call it Ardeal, assert that they appeared first in Transylvania and that for centuries it was the Magyars who oppressed them. Meanwhile, Transylvania’s Gypsies (Ţigani) go their own way, largely unconcerned by prejudice against them. The result is an intoxicating brew of characters, customs and places that is best taken in slowly.
The Saxon colonists, invited by the Hungarian monarchy in the thirteenth century to guard the mountain passes against the Tatars, settled in the fertile southeastern corner of Transylvania, along the routes from Braşov to Sibiu and Sighişoara. After the 1989 revolution, many of their descendants left the villages, with their regimented layouts and fortified churches, for Germany – today, under ten percent of the Saxon population remains. The Stuhls, the former seats of Saxon power, remain very striking with their medieval streets, defensive towers and fortified churches. Sighişoara is the most picturesque and an ideal introduction to Transylvania, followed by the citadels and churches of Braşov and Sibiu. However one of Transylvania’s greatest pleasures is the exploration of quiet backwaters and the smaller Saxon settlements like Cisnădioara, Hărman, Prejmer, Viscri and Biertan. The other highlight of this southeastern corner is the castle at Bran, which looks just how a vampire count’s castle should: a grim facade, perched high on a rock bluff, its turrets and ramparts rising in tiers against a dramatic mountain background.
The Carpathian mountains are never far away, one of Europe’s most beautiful, least exploited regions for walking. Hikes in the stunning Făgăraş, Apuseni and Retezat ranges can last several days, but it’s perfectly feasible to make briefer yet equally dramatic forays into the Piatra Craiului or Bucegi mountains, or to one of Transylvania’s many spectacular gorges. To the north and east, cities such as Cluj and Târgu Mureş have a strong Hungarian influence, while Miercurea Ciuc and Sfântu Gheorghe are the cultural centres of the Székely, a closely related ethnic group.
Southwestern Transylvania is a region of peaks and moorland peppered with the citadels of the Dacians, rulers of much of Romania before the Roman conquest. It’s also an area where the legacy of Hungarian rule is apparent, but the peasantry has always been Romanian. Over the millennia, the tribes that huddled around the caves and hot springs of the Carpathian foothills developed into a cohesive society, and eventually into the Dacian kingdom, with its strongholds in the hills south of Orăştie. The Roman conquerers marched up from the Danube and founded their capital nearby in the Haţeg depression, which became one of the earliest centres of Romanian culture in Transylvania, with some of the country’s oldest and most charming churches. Just north, Romania’s greatest medieval fortress is in Hunedoara, while Alba Iulia is dominated by its huge Vaubanesque citadel.
The area surrounding Cluj (Transylvania’s largest city, with a lively cultural and social scene) harbours some of Europe’s richest, most varied folk music, particularly in villages such as Sic, Rimetea and Izvoru Crişului, where almost every street has its own band, and there are rich musical pickings at spring and summer festivals. To the west of Cluj the wide green pastures of the Apuseni massif offer easy walking and caving opportunities, particularly on the Padiş plateau.
Top image © Andreea Photographer/Shutterstock