The mythical land of Vlad the Impaler, Transylvania is the wild frontier of once-secretive Romania. It’s a mysterious region encircled by the Carpathian Mountains and is rapidly opening up to the West. It’s home to enticing Saxon-cum-Baroque cities, medieval villages, fortified churches and magical castles. There’s so much to see and do, but here are our picks for the top 10 things to do in Transylvania:
As the major – and most beautiful – city in Transylvania, historic Brasov was fortified in the Middle Ages by Saxon invaders from Germany. Its city walls and their turreted bastions have largely survived, sheltering a pleasing mixture of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance townhouses and cobbled alleyways all leading to the central Council Square (Piata Sfatului). Once the commercial heart of the city, it is overshadowed by the Old Town Hall, a Gothic masterpiece built in 1420 and now home of the city museum, plus the square is also home to the austere Black Church (Biserica Neagra), the largest Gothic church in central Europe. Other treasures of Brasov include St Nicholas Church (Biserica Sf Nicolae) in Schei, but half the pleasure of a visit to this charming city is wandering its medieval streets and enjoying its laid-back café scene.
2. Transfagarasan Highway
The Fagaras Mountains include Romania’s highest peak and some of the country’s wildest terrain and roads, including the Transfagarasan Highway. It is a paradise for sports fanatics as well as petrol-heads who come to race along one of Europe’s most spectacular driving experiences. The Transfagarasan Highway is probably Romania’s greatest man-made achievement, a complex system of switchbacks and tunnels driven through the mountains. Open from June to October, the drive is 56 miles (90 km) in length and its highest point is at 6,670 ft (2,042 m), where there are waterfront restaurants alongside Lake Balea.
3. Bran Castle
A short drive from Brasov, Bran Castle sits high on a rocky escarpment overlooking the River Arges, the most famous of Transylvania’s dramatic defense castles. Built in 1377 to protect an important trading route between the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) and Western Europe, the fortified castle is a striking tangle of turrets and spires, medieval courtyards and half-timbered halls surrounded by forest. It is famously connected with Count Dracula but in truth Bram Stoker never visited Bran; nor did Vlad the Impaler – Dracula’s real-life inspiration – ever live here. In fact it was the favorite residence of Romania’s Queen Maria, who restored the castle to its present, fairy-tale state in the 1920s.
4. Rasnov Fortress
Much of Transylvania’s unique architectural heritage comes from the Teutonic Knights who invaded from present-day Germany. Part of this legacy includes fortified hilltop citadels built in the early 13th century to withstand invasion by Magar tribes from the east. Close to Brasov amid the wild hills of Piatra Craiului National Park, Rasnov Fortress stands high above the village it guarded, its sturdy walls punctuated with defense battlements to protect its maze of courtyards and lanes.
5. Prejmer Fortified Church
There are several fortified churches throughout Transylvania, built with protective walls curling around them to prevent attack. A number are considered so outstanding in their architectural heritage that they have been UNESCO listed; these are Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Saschiz, Prejmer, Viscri and Valea Viilor. Of these, Prejmer is conveniently located close to Brasov. Constructed by the Teutonic Knights, it is a vast, whitewashed church surrounded by 40-ft (12 meter) high and 13-ft (4 meter) thick walls where whole families would huddle in times of attack. During its turbulent history, the church withstood 50 onslaughts and was captured only once.
6. Piatra Craiului National Park
Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains are one of Europe’s last great wildernesses and a mecca for sport lovers. There’s winter skiing at Poiana Brasov and in summer the gorges, mountains, lakes and forests of the Piatra Craiului National Park beckon to hikers and cyclists. Rock climbers and mountaineers also flock to the park to test their skills on the narrow ridges, limestone peaks and bizarre formations of Seven Ladders Canyon (Canionul Sapte Scari). Animal lovers take guided treks into the forest to see brown bears, moose and chamois, and there are also occasional sightings of lynx and wolves. The settlement of Zarnesti is the main point of access to Piatra Craiului.
Notorious as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – the inspiration behind Dracula – Sighisoara stands high over the Tsrnave Mare River, dominated by the sinister battlements of its medieval castle. It was built as a Saxon trading town in the 12th century and its historic heart is one of the wonders of modern-day Transylvania. Almost fairytale-like in its beauty, the town is crammed with narrow cobbled streets lined with Baroque townhouses in clashing pastel colors, churches topped with onion domes and clock towers adorned with gleaming, jewel-like tiles. Sighisoara is also a useful base for trips into the Romanian countryside, within easy reach of the fortified churches at Biertan and Viscri.
Sibiu was European Capital of Culture in 2007 and has an historic Old Town that rivals Brasov’s, with an upper and lower town and a refreshing jumble of Gothic and Baroque architecture along its winding streets and interlinking piazzas. Guarded by fortified walls and turreted strongholds, it is rich in churches, monasteries and synagogues and also offers Transylvania’s best art collection at the Bruckenthal Museum.
9. Targu Mures
An attractive town with a heady mix of Hungarian and Romanian culture on offer, Targu Mures found its feet in the 18th century, when it was an important center of commerce dominated by its wealthy guilds of skilled craftsmen. The town attracts visitors for its peppering of museums, palaces and a fortified monastery as well as one of the best libraries in the country. It is also a springboard for kayaking trips along the Mures River and climbing among the limestone canyons and waterfalls of the tranquil Turda Gorge.
For most part, exploring Transylvania is sightseeing without the crowds. However, for those who like to disappear into the wilderness completely, Calata hits the spot. This is a sleepy agricultural region, rich in Hungarian culture and still following a way of life long abandoned in most of Romania. It is also an intriguing land of ornate churches, stumpy castles and rustic, wood-built villagers where locals produce hand-embroidered, colorful textiles. Calata is also home of a very modern phenomenon; its main town of Huedin is largely populated by the showy, ostentatious mansions of the Roma people, who have grown rich since the fall of Communism in 1989 thanks to economic migration within Europe.
– Contributed by Sasha Heseltine