Discover more places in Romania
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
Most visitors make a beeline for the largely Baroque Old Town, around Piaţa Sfatului, a strikingly handsome, quintessentially Germanic square dominated by the Black Church. Nearby, all coiled beneath Mount Tâmpa, are museums, medieval ramparts and the Schei quarter. The town’s proximity to a host of attractions – such as the Piatra Craiuluimountain range, the alpine resort of Poiana Braşov, the fortified Saxon churches of Hărman and Prejmer, and “Dracula’s Castle” at Bran – makes it an excellent base.
Hidden in the foothills of the Poiana Ruscă mountains 15km northwest of Haţeg, Prislop monastery was founded in 1400; it’s one of the country’s oldest convents but was very tranquil and little visited until a revered monk (and future saint) called Arsenie Boca was buried there in 1989, and is now overrun with Romanian tourists. It lies just off the direct road from Hunedoara to Haţeg, but most traffic goes via Călan, on both the train line and the DN66 (E79) south from Simeria, now just a crossroads where a huge steelworks used to rise; the town (a spa dating from Roman times) lies across the river to the east, with the lovely little church of Streisângeorgiu on a hillock on its southern fringe. This was built in 1313–4, with frescoes painted at the same time.
One of the best villages to hear traditional music in this area is SIC (Szék), 20km southeast of Gherla, with a number of churches and municipal buildings testifying to its importance as a salt mining centre since Roman times. Every street in Sic seems to have its own band (normally just three musicians, on violin, viola and double bass), typically playing ancient Magyar and Romanian melodies woven in with Gypsy riffs. The village festival is on August 24, when the largely Magyar population wear their distinctive costumes – men in narrow-brimmed, tall straw hats and blue waistcoats, and women in leather waistcoats, red pleated skirts and black headscarves embroidered with flowers.
The Retezat National Park was set up in 1935, becoming a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1980. To enter, you need a permit, available from an entry post or from a patrol; you’ll be given a rubbish bag and a ticket with a basic map – it’s worth buying a more detailed one in advance. Visitor centres are at Ostrovel (entering Râu de Mori) and at the park’s headquarters just north of Nucşoara; boards here and at Câmpu lui Neag give information in English and German on the trails and the park’s dozen camping sites. Guides can be booked through the National Park.
World War II brought the Porajmos or Devouring, the Nazi attempt to wipe out the Gypsies; at least twenty thousand Gypsies were deported to Transnistria by Antonescu’s regime, and a higher proportion died than in any other European country. The communist regime confiscated Gypsies’ carts and forced them to settle on the edges of villages; in 1956, 38 percent of Gypsies over the age of 8 were illiterate, but by 1966 almost all their children at least went to elementary school. There are now over two million Gypsies in Romania (of eight million in Europe), almost 10 percent of the population and Europe’s largest minority. Around forty percent of them no longer speak Romani and these consider themselves barely Rom; very few are still nomadic, and even these usually spend winters camped at a permanent settlement.
There is widespread antipathy towards Gypsies, given their great increase in numbers and visibility, and they have received very little international aid; discrimination, particularly in employment, has inevitably pushed many into crime. After the fall of communism there was an alarming rise in crime against the Rroma, with many instances of fights leading to mobs burning down Gypsy houses and driving them out of villages, with several cases of murder. In almost every case village authorities condoned the attacks, police kept away, and there have been no arrests.
Rroma people are highly visible in Târgu Mureş – particularly the very natty Gábors, but also the less fortunate residents of the Valea Rece shanty town on the south side of the city. As a rule it’s not easy for tourists to see much of their culture, but one excellent solution is a tour organized by Tzigania (June–Oct). Day-trips go to nearby villages such as Vălenii or Glodeni for meals, or to Ceauş for music, and it’s possible to stay overnight in Vălenii.
The gateway to the park, and a good starting point for hikes, is ZĂRNEŞTI, some 25km west of Braşov and reachable by bus and train via Râşnov. The town was notorious in communist times for its 1 Mai bicycle factory, which in fact produced heavy artillery and ammunition, largely beneath a hill just east of the centre.
After the separation of Transylvania from Hungary, Kós, a native of Timişoara, was one of the few Hungarian intellectuals to accept the new situation, choosing to remain in Cluj (and his country home near Huedin) and to play a leading role in Hungarian society in Transylvania. He continued to work as an architect, and travelled around Transylvania, recording the most characteristic buildings (of all ethnic groups) in delightful linocuts; these were published in 1929 by the Transylvanian Artists’ Guild (cofounded by Kós himself), with an English translation published in 1989.