By Katie Hammel
Howling wolves and things that bite in the night. Transylvania conjures up images of storm battered castles and flaky old counts out to drink your blood. However, if you dig beyond the cliché spawned by Bram Stoker’s infamous novel and a series of Hammer Horror films that followed, you’ll find this region of northwest Romania abundant in dramatic landscapes, artisanal traditions and warm welcomes. Transylvania is more than just Dracula, so here are seven reasons why it should make your bucket list.
Transylvania Castle of Bram
The Medieval Landscape and Natural Beauty
Cradled by the jagged peaks of the Carpathian Mountains and bordered in the west by the rolling Apuseni Mountains, lined with dense and ancient forests and rolling green hills, Transylvania is perhaps one of the very few regions in Europe with an unspoiled medieval landscape.
While many imagine Transylvania to be a mountain wilderness (and it is in parts), the agricultural landscape of the Transylvanian Plains and the rural fields of Székely Land are marked with unfenced grasslands filled with flowers, bales of hay stacked up in rounded piles, with very few signs of modernity in sight.
Stepping into the Transylvanian countryside is not only a step back in time to a world of dark forests filled with bears and wolves, but a rural village life that has preserved its culture for centuries.
The hiking and biking trails, caving opportunities deep in the mountains, its lakes, hills, forests and ecological curiosities are enough to put Transylvania at the top of any nature lover’s list.
Transylvania’s landscape is ancient, and so is its history. The mysterious Dacians, an ancient race related to the Thracians, once inhabited the land before the Romans conquered the region and turned it into another piece in Rome’s province collection.
Transylvania eventually became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary and then became a principality in its own right. Even though it kept its autonomous status, it was still under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before being swallowed up into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Transylvania had a bit of an identity crisis as far as borders were concerned in the 20th century; it became a part of Romania after the fall of Austro-Hungary following WWI, and then shifted back into Hungary in WWII, and then became Romanian again.
Through Transylvania’s crumbling castles, historic towns and fortified churches, the regions complex history hides in the shadows waiting to be explored.
Even though Transylvania conjures up images of rural villages and remote nature, it has its own fair share of exciting cities. Cluj-Napoca is the largest city in the area and also pegged to be one of Europe’s next up-and-coming cities. Cluj-Napoca is known for its cobbled streets, baroque houses and wide boulevards dotted with cafés; it’s home to Romania’s largest student population and the film capital of the country and also has a vibrant nightlife scene.
Bra?ov’s medieval labyrinthine streets, Sibiu’s baroque squares, Alba Iulia’s citadel and Sighi?oara’s fairytale cityscape all make Transylvania worth a visit, so even if hiking through mountains are not your thing, then enjoy a coffee and some sightseeing in the medieval streets of Transylvania’s urban landscape.
Villages with Fortified Churches
Some of Transylvania’s many curiosities are the unique fortified churches. There are more than 100 which nod back to the region’s tumultuous past. Most of these churches, some of which are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites in their own right, were built by the Transylvanian Saxon population in the Middle Ages, as a safeguard against the Tatar and Ottoman invasions.
These Saxon settlements have grown in a dense and clustered network of streets around the fortified church, and have become a defining character of Saxon Transylvania.
Transylvania might be in Romania, but the complex history of the region has left it with a diverse population of Hungarian, Saxon, Roma, Serb and even Armenian communities. While Romanians make up the majority of the population, there are pockets in Transylvania where you’ll find Hungarian-speaking communities. Székely Land contains the majority Hungarian Transylvanians, but there is also a sizeable community in Cluj-Napoca and Târgu Mure?. The town of Aiud has a Hungarian-language collegium and the nearby village of Rimetea (Torockó in Hungarian) has an ethnic Hungarian population of over 90%.
It’s impossible to travel Transylvania and not come across a variety of languages and cultures. Whether you walk into a Hungarian mass in the cathedral in Cluj-Napoca or Târgu Mure?, or pass Roma villagers decked out in brightly colored outfits, Transylvania’s rich cultural tapestry makes it just that more interesting to visit.
From embroidery to woodcarvings, Transylvanian crafts rank high up in the arts and crafts of Europe. Whether you buy a delicately embroidered shirt from an old lady in one of the historic city streets to the touristic markets in Székely villages or artisanal workshops on the roadside, it’s impossible to leave Transylvania without picking up a piece of folk art to take home.
Transylvania doesn’t exactly have the reputation for being a big wine country, but the fertile valleys in the Transylvanian Plateau near the Apuseni Mountains make for great wine growing conditions.
Around the Alba Iulia and Aiud in Alba County, you’ll find some interesting wineries and cellars. The area is predominantly rich in local, indigenous white grapes, but some wine makers, like the Takács Cellar in Aiud, have produced some excellent red wines. If you’re a connoisseur, keep on the look out for white wines with the 2003 vintage, which was the best vintage in the area; many local wineries have won countless awards for the whites of that year.
For the most interesting wine tasting, try to get into the Archbishop’s cellar in Alba Iulia. This was once a prison, and now houses the Archbishop’s cellar under the Archbishop’s palaces in the Alba Iulia citadel, but it’s possible to go down for a tasting as a group.
Of course it’s hard to avoid the tacky Dracula-themed attractions, particularly around Vlad the Impaler’s birthplace in Sighi?oara, or Castle Bran near Bra?ov, but Transylvania is not a theme park made up of vampires and crucifixes – it’s a land that lives and breathes and is waiting to be discovered beyond the clichés.
–Contributed by Jennifer Walker