The vibrant student city of Cluj-Napoca, located in legend-riddled Transylvania, and has proclaimed itself as Romania’s ‘city of the arts.’ A multi-cultural city with its origins in Roman times, Cluj’s profile is currently riding high as European Youth Capital for 2015. Thanks to its proximity to many of Romania’s unique attractions, exploring Transylvania from Cluj-Napoca is a sightseer’s delight.
Cluj is the largest city in Transylvania, a thoroughly modern meeting of bohemia with academia–with several art and natural history museums and a number of religious landmarks to discover. The city fans out from the 14th-century cathedral of St Michael, built in Gothic style with an interior adorned with the remnants of medieval frescoes and a curvy Baroque pulpit. The most eccentric of all Cluj’s sights is Mirror Street, whose façades were built in the 19th-century in the style of Paris’s Boulevard Haussmann and are exactly identical on both sides, down to the tiniest architectural detail.
As well as its myriad sights, Cluj is within easy reach of several other lively Transylvanian towns. Elegant Brasov is a thriving city well ensconced on the tourist map and sits in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains southeast of Cluj, with a cluster of Gothic and Baroque churches, market halls and monasteries at its medieval heart.
Lying between Brasov and Cluj are two fine fortified towns; Sibiu and Sighisoara. Twelfth-century Sighisoara is notorious as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – the 15th-century tyrant who inspired the story of Dracula – and sits on the Târnave Mare River. It has an ancient heart of unparalleled beauty, with winding lanes gaily lined with Baroque buildings in cheery sunshine shades. Nearby Sibiu has a jumble of lanes and piazzas lined with Gothic and Baroque townhouses, churches, monasteries and synagogues. It is also home to Transylvania’s most impressive art collection at the five-stranded Bruckenthal Museum, where Romanian and European works of art are on show. There’s also the open-air ASTRA ethnological museum, where a cluster of historic buildings – thatched farmhouses, wooden churches, ancient windmills – have been brought together from across Transylvania.
Once outside Transylvania’s sophisticated cities, with their café culture, multi-lingual populations and eye-catching Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, the region has maintained much of its medieval vibe. Seemingly untouched by the 21st century, cliff-top castles, fortified churches and hilltop citadels are strewn through the rolling, forested landscape—testament to the days when Romania’s Saxon settlers were compelled to protect their land and trading routes from Ottoman and Mongol invaders. Transylvania has many fortified churches, including a series of seven that are UNESCO World Heritage-listed; of these Biertan, Calnic and Prejmer were constructed between the 13th and 16th centuries by Teutonic tribes to protect their local communities from attack.
Cluj is reasonably close to the most famous Transylvanian sight of all – the dramatic, sinister Bran Castle, poking out over the forested foothills of the Carpathian Mountains – most famously known as the fictional home of Count Dracula. However, this castle is almost outshone in the Gothic-horror-stakes by the simply spectacular 14th-century Hunyard Castle near Hunedoara, where Vlad the Impaler – the man behind the Dracula myth – committed thousands of murders between 1448 and 1476.
For those who like to submerge themselves in the culture and traditions of a region completely can cycle up to the agricultural lands of Calata, were life continues virtually unchanged across the centuries. Populated mainly by Hungarian speakers, Calata is known for its medieval wooden villages and the spectacular Baroque church at Manastireni, swathed in delicate frescoes and topped with onion-doomed double spires. So rich in tradition is the region that workers in the fields are often spotted in colorful traditional costume.
One of Europe’s most remote corners lies to the north of Cluj-Napoca; the Bukovina and Maramures regions appear little altered since medieval times, with UNESCO-listed monasteries painted in Byzantine style at Voronet, Moldovita and Sucevita. Explore the rustic charms of timeless wooden villages such as Breb, where farmhouses have steep, shingled pitches and transport is by horse-drawn cart. However, even in this far-flung corner of Romania, the evils of Communism were felt, as is portrayed by the thought-provoking memorial sculpture of struggling torsos at the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance at Sighetul Marmatiei.
Cluj-Napoca is an excellent springboard for multi-day adventures in the rural haven of Apuseni Natural Park for its spectacular karst formations, gorges and cave systems; cycling trips into the sheer canyons along the Turda Gorge; and the subterranean wonders of the salt mines at Salina Turda.
And thanks to the lack of crowds, the roads around Cluj are quiet, perfect for motor-biking trips through the back country of Transylvania. Confident motor-bikers and car drivers can also challenge their skills on the Transfagarasan Highway, which switchbacks its way through the Fagaras Mountains in one of Europe’s most demanding driving experiences.
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