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 Dropdown content, the Turda and Bicaz gorges and around the high passes; there are spooky Gothic citadels, around Braşov Dropdown content and at Sibiu Dropdown content, Sighişoara Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, Hărman Dropdown content, Prejmer Dropdown content, Viscri Dropdown content and Biertan Dropdown content. 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 Dropdown content and Retezat Dropdown content ranges can last several days, but it’s perfectly feasible to make briefer yet equally dramatic forays into the Piatra Craiului Dropdown content or Bucegi mountains, or to one of Transylvania’s many spectacular gorges. To the north and east, cities such as Cluj Dropdown content and Târgu Mureş Dropdown content have a strong Hungarian influence, while Miercurea Ciuc Dropdown content and Sfântu Gheorghe Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, while Alba Iulia Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, Rimetea Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content.
Top image © Andreea Photographer/Shutterstock
The historic tension between the Romanians of this area and their Hungarian overlords is symbolized in ALBA IULIA, 14km north of Sebeş, by the juxtaposition of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals in its citadel. This hill top was fortified by the Romans and then the Romanians before the Hungarian ruler, István I, occupied it and created the bishopric of Gyulafehérvár – the city’s Magyar name – in 1009. Only after World War I did the Romanians take power here and build their own cathedral. The town is dominated by its huge citadel, shaped like a wonky star; in effect the upper town, this has been spectacularly restored in recent years. The lower town has been tidied up since it was partly cleared for “rationalization” in Ceauşescu’s last years, and is home to a scattering of low-key Art Deco buildings.
BISTRIŢA (Bistritz), 68km east of Gherla, and the forested Bârgău valley beyond, are the setting for much of Bram Stoker’s Dracula; it was in Bistriţa, on his way to Dracula’s castle in the Borgo (Bârgău) valley, that Jonathan Harker received the first hints that something was amiss. The town was first recorded in 1264, when Saxon settlers arrived; they built fine churches in many villages (less fortress-like than those further south) but the bulk of the Saxon population left after World War II. Bistriţa was heavily fortified, but nineteenth-century fires have left only vestiges of the citadel along Strada Kogălniceanu and Strada Teodoroiu, including the fifteenth-century Coopers’ Tower (Turnul Dogarilor), now housing a collection of folklore masks and puppets.
Bistriţa hosts various enjoyable festivals but there are more interesting ones in the villages of the Bârgău valley to the east. In town, the International Folklore Festival is held in the second week of August, the Brass Band Festival in September and Bistriţa Folk in mid-November. Prundu Bârgăului, 22km from Bistriţa, is host to the Festival of Regele Brazilor (King of the Fir Trees), traditionally in late June but now in mid-August. This is an opportunity to hear traditional songs and the part-improvised lamentations (bochet) telling of a deceased person’s life and deeds. Also here are the Raftsmen’s Festival on the last weekend of March, when unmarried men crown their usual attire of sheepskin jackets with a small hat buried beneath a plume of peacock feathers, and the Toamnă Bârgăuană (Bârgău Autumn) in early November.
With an eye for trade and invasion routes, the Saxons sited their largest settlements close to the Carpathian passes. One of the best placed, BRAŞOV (Kronstadt to the Saxons and Brassó to the Hungarians) grew prosperous as a result, the economic power of its Saxon elite long outlasting its feudal privileges. During the 1960s, the communist regime drafted thousands of Moldavian villagers to Braşov’s new factories, making it Transylvania’s second-largest city. Economic collapse led to riots in November 1987 and December 1989; since then more factories have closed, and the city’s population has fallen by about sixty thousand, but tourism has become increasingly important.
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.
POIANA BRAŞOV sits at an altitude of 1000m on a shoulder of the spectacular Mount Postăvaru, 12km south of Braşov. Coming by car, it’s worth stopping at some great viewpoints over the city at km4.5. This is Romania’s premier ski resort, and while it’s a great place to learn, with lots of English-speaking instructors, experienced skiers may soon be bored (although some slopes are steep and often icy). It’s crowded at weekends, and it’s no longer cheap, but there has been considerable investment in lifts and new pistes (23km in total), as well as snow-making and grooming equipment so that the season can extend into late April. Ski gear can be rented at hotels and the cable car and gondola terminals.
HUNEDOARA (Vajdahunyad/Eisenmarkt), 16km south of Deva, would be dismissed as an ugly, run-down industrial town were it not also the site of Corvin Castle, Romania’s greatest fortress. Patrick Leigh Fermor found its appearance “so fantastic and theatrical that, at first glance, it looks totally unreal”. Founded in the fourteenth century, it was rebuilt in 1440–53 by Iancu de Hunedoara, with a Renaissance-style wing added by his son Mátyás Corvinus and Baroque additions by Gabriel Bethlen from 1618. A remarkably long footbridge on tall stone piers leads across a 30m-deep moat to a mighty barbican, built by Iancu in 1440–4 and altered in the seventeenth century to replace the castle’s original entrance; below are the dungeon (with a prisoner in a cage) and torture chamber, with the usual replicas of a rack, a chair of nails and execution axes. The castle is an extravaganza of galleries, spiral stairways and Gothic vaulting, most impressively the Knights’ Hall (immediately to the right), with its rose-marble pillars, a display of weaponry and a statue of Iancu. To the southwest a long gallery bridge leads to the isolated Neboisa Tower (from the Serbian nje boisia or “be not afraid”), built by Iancu in 1446–56; to the east the Council Hall is similar to the Knights Hall, divided by a row of columns. To the north, the Mátyás wing, which sports a fine Renaissance loggia, houses a display of costumes and sixteenth-century Florentine cassone chests. Viewpoints outside the fortifications give views of the fifteenth-century rhomboid pattern on the exterior of the Painted Tower, and of the steeple added in 1873, with a bronze knight on top.
The capital of Hunedoara county, DEVA, 30km west of Orăştie (and 150km east of Arad), lies below a thirteenth-century citadel that was transformed into one of Transylvania’s strongest fortifications by the warlord Hunyadi after 1444. It crowns a truncated volcanic cone – supposedly the result of a stupendous battle between the djinns (spirits) of the Retezat mountains and of the plain, hence the nickname Hill of the Djinn.
Heading north from Braşov towards Sighişoara, the River Olt is lined with fish ponds (supplying roadside restaurants, and also attracting many birds in the migration seasons) and various Saxon villages with fortified churches; Regio trains stop at most, including Feldioara (Marienburg), where the Teutonic Knights built a citadel, refashioned into a basilica after 1241 (and now being refirbished); Rotbav (Rothbach); and Maieruş (Nussbach).
VISCRI (Deutsch-Weisskirch) is 80km northwest of Braşov, turning left off the main E60 at Rupea and then right before entering Dacia, on a road which is deliberately left unpaved to keep tour buses away. The village, overwhelmingly populated by Rroma and with just fifteen Saxons left, nevertheless has a forceful Saxon local councillor, Caroline Fernolend, who has worked with the Mihai Eminescu Trust to restore the church and at least the facades of over fifty buildings. Viscri has in fact become a tourism hot spot, and the MET is trying to direct tourists to other villages. The village is also prospering thanks to a rather less likely source, namely sock-making. What started a few years back as a small-scale operation involving a handful of women has become a fairly substantial cottage industry.
There are plenty of attractive guesthouses in restored Saxon houses; many people will tell you that Prince Charles has a guesthouse here, but this is now a training centre for The Prince of Wales’s Foundation Romania.
HAŢEG, 20km southeast of Hunedoara, is the gateway to Transylvania’s greatest Roman remains and to the north side of the Retezat mountains. You’ll also find some interesting Romanesque churches in the surrounding area, all reachable by bus with a little effort. The area is also known for its dwarf dinosaur fossils and other geological features: the Haţeg Country GeoPark is an innovative scheme to use these for sustainable tourist development. From the central Piaţa Unirii a slightly odd one-way system (signed to Prislop) leads to the GeoPark’s visitor centre, where there’s a Dragons and Dinosaurs exhibition (legend has it that the dragon Balauri was killed by the brave Cânde, lord of Sântămăria-Orlea and an ancestor of Prince Charles).
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.
MIERCUREA CIUC (Csíksereda/Szeklerburg), 100km north of Braşov, is an important transport hub and capital of Harghita county, though it is less charming than its other towns. Its main claim to fame these days is as the home of Ciuc, one of Romania’s better beers (Csiki sor in Hungarian, pronounced “cheeky sure” – and now owned by Heineken). The city centre, with the windswept Piaţa Libertăţii at its heart, was extensively rebuilt in communist concrete, made worse by a rash of ugly modern churches, and aside from some Secession and Art Nouveau touches on Strada Petőfi, the Mikó citadel and the adjacent 1890s Law Courts and City Hall, there is little of architectural merit here.
The great Catholic pilgrimage on Whit Sunday gives a great insight into the Székely culture. It takes place at Şumuleu, a Franciscan monastery 2km northeast of Miercurea Ciuc. The complex was founded in 1442 by Iancu de Hunedoara in thanks for the Székely victory over the Turks at Marosszentimre (and rebuilt in 1733–79); a Baroque pilgrimage church was added in 1804–76. The festival, however, commemorates the 1567 victory of the Catholic Székely over János Sigismund Báthori, who was attempting to impose Calvinism on them. At least 200,000 black-clad pilgrims attend, singing hymns and queuing to touch the miraculous statue of the Virgin (carved in limewood in about 1515) behind the altar, before processing on to three chapels on a nearby hill top, which gives a good view of the plain, dotted with Székely villages.
The counties of Sălaj and Bistriţa-Năsăud (and the northernmost part of Cluj county), stretching from the Apuseni mountains to the Eastern Carpathians, are historically referred to as Northern Transylvania. Travelling from Cluj to Maramureş, or eastwards over the Carpathians into Moldavia, the roads are fast and direct (the railways less so), but it’s worth considering detours in this little-visited region. To the west, the chief attraction is the idyllic rural scenery of unspoiled Sălaj county, with its many old wooden churches.
The monastery of NICULA, 7km southeast of Gherla, is the oldest and best-known centre of painting icons on glass, a Transylvanian speciality since the seventeenth century. There’s an eighteenth-century wooden church, moved here after the monastery burned down in 1973, and a miraculous icon of the Virgin and Child painted in 1681, which shed tears in 1699 and is the object of a huge pilgrimage on August 15 (the Assumption of the Virgin Mary).
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.
ORĂŞTIE, first recorded in 1224 as the Saxon Stuhl of Broos, is a quiet town 38km from Sebeş on the main road and railway west towards Deva, Timişoara and Arad. It’s the jumping-off spot for various Dacian citadels deep in the mountains to the south, six of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the most interesting, Sarmizegetusa, 39km south of Orăştie. The town museum (Tues–Sun 9am–5pm), at Piaţa Aurel Vlaicu 1, whose exhibits include ceramics, textiles, old clocks and Dacian relics, is to the right off the pedestrianized Strada Bălcescu, as is the old citadel (often closed) immediately east, with large Hungarian Reformed and German Evangelical churches (dating from the thirteenth century and 1823, respectively) crammed close together, along with the remains of tenth-century fortifications and a chapel.
From Sinaia to Predeal, the River Prahova froths white beneath the gigantic Bucegi mountains, which overhang Buşteni with a vertical kilometre of sheer escarpment, receding in grandiose slopes covered with fir, beech and rowan trees. These mountains are the real attraction of the area: the easiest walks are above Sinaia and Predeal, with more challenging hikes above Buşteni. Even if you don’t stop off to hike in the range (or ride up by cable car), the valley’s upper reaches are unforgettable: sit on the west side of the train for the best views.
SINAIA, 122km from Bucharest, was the preserve of hermits and shepherds until King Carol I built his summer home, Peleş Castle. It became an exclusive aristocratic resort, but nowadays hordes of holidaymakers come to walk or ski in the dramatic Bucegi mountains. Though actually in the province of Wallachia, it has much in common with the neighbouring Transylvanian towns and is included in this chapter for convenience.
Just behind Sinaia's monastery, a long cobbled path lined with souvenir stalls leads to one of Romania’s most popular and rewarding sights, Peleş Castle. Set in a large English-style park, the castle outwardly resembles a Bavarian Schloss. Built in 1875–83 for Carol I, and largely decorated by his eccentric wife Elisabeta (better known as the popular novelist Carmen Sylva), it contains 160 rooms, richly done out in ebony, mother of pearl, walnut and leather – all totally alien to traditional styles of Romanian art – and stuffed with antiques and copies of paintings housed in Bucharest’s National Art Museum. How a man of such reputedly austere tastes as Carol managed to live here is something of a mystery, and indeed it hasn’t been lived in since his death in 1914. Peleş was opened to the public in 1953, with one interruption when Ceauşescu appropriated it as a “state palace”. In 2008 the castle was finally handed back to the king, reuniting Mihai with his birthplace and childhood home; it remains open to visitors, as does Pelişor, which is still state property.
Routes southeast from Haţeg skim the northern reaches of the Retezat mountains, although access is slightly harder here than in the other Transylvanian mountain ranges. Whereas in the Făgăraş or Piatra Craiului you generally find yourself following a ridge walk, with little opportunity to step aside and view the summits from a distance, here you’ll find yourself surrounded by well-defined peaks, often reflected in clear alpine lakes. There is a large network of hiking routes, so you’ll meet fewer walkers and have a better chance of seeing wildlife such as chamois and eagles. The northwestern part of the massif is a scientific reserve (Ceauşescu treated it as a private hunting ground) and entry is restricted.
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.
TÂRGU MUREŞ is still at heart the great Magyar city of Marosvásárhely, although recent Romanian and Gypsy immigration has diluted the Hungarian influence – around half the city’s 180,000-strong population is now Hungarian, although that figure probably includes the Gábor Roma, more visible and stylishly dressed here than elsewhere. The city was briefly notorious for ethnic riots in 1990, but is better known as a centre of learning – its university is small, but both the medical and drama schools are renowned nationally; in fact foreign students now flock here for cheap English-language medical courses. The Complexul Weekend, east of the city centre between the railway and river at Str. Plutelor 2 is where everyone hangs out in summer, with various pools (including an Olympic-sized one and a boating lake), sports facilities, restaurants and bars.
The Rroma or Gypsies (ţigane in Romanian, cigány in Hungarian) left northern India in the tenth and eleventh centuries and arrived in Europe around 1407, at the same period as the Tatar invasions. Almost at once many were enslaved and became vătraşi or “settled Gypsies”, working as servants or farm labourers, as well as being musicians, while others were left to roam as nomads. Wallachia and Moldavia finally freed their Gypsies in 1837–56, as cheap grain imports from North America flooded Europe and the economic system that made slavery viable broke down. Many in fact stayed with their former owners, but many also emigrated, reaching Western Europe in the 1860s and North America by 1881.
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.
West of Sibiu is the Mărginimea Sibiului (Borders of Sibiu), an area that’s fairly densely populated, mostly by Romanians rather than Saxons, with a lively folklore recorded in small village museums. There are many sheep-raising communities here, and you may see flocks on the move, with donkeys carrying the shepherds’ belongings. The main DN1/7 (E68/E81) and the railway pass to the north of the villages, and Regio trains between Sibiu and Vinţu de Jos (the junction just beyond Sebeş) halt several kilometres from some villages – notably Sălişte and Tilişca – making public transport slightly problematic; however, there are good guesthouses in every village.
Mountains dominate the skyline around Bran. To the southeast is the almost sheer wall of the Bucegi range – it takes about seven hours to hike from Bran to Mălăieşti or eight hours to Mount Omu, where there are cabanas. To the west, gentler slopes run up to the Piatra Craiului, a 20km-long narrow limestone ridge known as the Royal Rock. Now a national park, it’s home to bears, lynx, chamois and over a thousand species of flowers including edelweiss and the endemic Piatra Craiului pink.
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.
HĂRMAN (Honigberg), 12km northeast of Braşov, features a Saxon church, once ringed by three concentric walls (the outermost has now gone); a long narrow passageway pierces the inner wall, some 12m high, reinforced with seven towers and lined with storage rooms on two levels. The church itself is a Romanesque basilica, dating from 1293; it was rebuilt after a fire in 1595 but still displays clear Cistercian influence. Of particular importance are fifteenth-century frescoes of the Last Judgement and the Crucifixion, uncovered only in the 1920s – they are in the east tower of the ring wall, which was used as a funerary chapel. A small museum includes recordings of the local Saxon dialect.
PREJMER (Tartlau), 7km east of Hărman (on the railway, but off the main road), has the most comprehensively fortified and perhaps the most spectacular of all the region’s churches – now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Access is through a 30m-long vaulted gallery with a sliding portcullis in the middle. Built by 1225, the cross-shaped church was taken over by the Cistercians in 1240 and enlarged in their Burgundian early Gothic style. The nave has late Gothic vaulting, and there’s a fine Passion altarpiece (1450–60).
For most visitors the chief attractions of the Székely Land (Székelyföld) are the Székely culture and the scenery. Religion remains important here, as shown by the fervour of the Whitsun pilgrimage to Miercurea Ciuc, the continuing existence of Székely mystics, and the prevalence of walled churches (less grimly fortified than the Saxon ones). Traditional architecture is well represented here, epitomized by tiny hilltop chapels and blue-painted houses with carved fences and gateways incorporating a dovecote above, the best examples being in Corund. The landscape gets increasingly dramatic as you move north through the Harghita mountains, particularly around the Tuşnad defile and St Anne’s Lake to the south, and Lacu Roşu and the Bicaz gorges on the borders of Moldavia.
SFÂNTU GHEORGHE (Sepsi-Szentgyörgy), 30km northeast of Braşov, is an industrial town which has become the heart of the Székely cultural revival. Originally the centre was around the walled church, but in the late eighteenth century it moved almost a kilometre south to the barracks area. It’s now focused on the large green space of Erzsébet Park, on the east of which is the Arcaded House (Casa cu Arcade/Lábasház; 1812), now the tourist office; to the west of the park are a technical college designed by Kós (with his bust in front), and a library where the decision was taken in 1848 to fight the Austrians, local hero Gábor Áron announcing he would cast the necessary cannons. The Zilele Sfântu Gheorghe festival covers the week straddling St George’s Day, April 23.
Kós Károly (1883–1977) was the leading architect of the Hungarian National Romantic school, which drew inspiration from the village architecture of Transylvania and Finland. The Transylvanian style is reflected in the wooden roofs, gables and balconies of his buildings, while the Finnish influence appears in the stone bases and trapezoidal door frames. Fine examples of Kós’s work can be seen in Sfântu Gheorghe and Cluj (notably the Cock Church), as well as in Budapest.
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.
In the ethnic patchwork of Transylvania, the eastern Carpathians are the home of the Székely, who speak a distinctive Hungarian dialect and cherish a special historical identity. For a long time they were believed to be descended from Attila’s Huns, who entered the Carpathian basin in the fifth century. However, it’s now thought that the Székely either attached themselves to the Magyars during their long migration from the banks of the Don, or are simply the descendants of early Hungarians who pushed ever further east into Transylvania. Whatever their origins, the Székely feel closely akin to the Magyars who, in turn, regard them as somehow embodying the finest aspects of the ancient Magyar race, while also being rather primeval. Today, their traditional costume is close to that of the Romanian peasants, the chief difference being that Székely men tuck their white shirts in while Romanians wear them untucked and belted.
From Miercurea Ciuc both road and rail routes cross a low pass from the Olt to the Mureş valley and curve around to the city of Târgu Mureş. It’s a leisurely route taking in the tranquil Lacu Roşu, the untamed Căliman mountains and a plethora of attractive villages. There are far fewer trains than south of Miercurea Ciuc, and you may need to change at Deda for Târgu Mureş; with your own transport you can take a short cut via Sovata, but there are few buses on either route.