Transylvania, the land of Count Dracula and vampires. Wait, that’s just a very used cliché, which I am not a big fan of. Many Western Europeans associate this region of Romania to vampires, due to Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror novel, Dracula, and to the legend of Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia in the 15th century. But definitely not me. When I think of Transylvania, I picture beautiful mountains, spectacular landscapes, traditional food, rich history and well-preserved medieval towns. It’s probably the best destination, not far from my home, where I can escape the busy city and daily routine.
The region’s geography is dominated by hilly areas (Transylvanian Plateau), almost entirely surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. It’s a joy to drive between the villages and towns, the European and national roads are in general very good, and the scenery is beautiful. The cultural diversity has definitely been influenced by the fact that Transylvania has been under the reign of different people and countries, throughout its history: from Dacians, Romans and Bulgarians to Huns, Slavs, Magyars and Habsburgs…and the list is even bigger.
In order to see the most of what Transylvania has to offer, you will probably need weeks – which, of course, I didn’t have. So this article is far from a complete guide. The experience limits itself to a few hours spent in Brașov and Sighișoara, probably the best preserved medieval cities in Romania, and to the discovery of a few of the stunning traditional villages, part of Brașov county. No wonder that this region is considered “the last truly medieval landscape in Europe”.
An interesting fact is that Transylvania is home to more than 150 villages with fortified churches, built between the 13th and the 16th century. Seven of these (Biertan, Câlnic, Dârjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea Viilor, Viscri) are listed as UNESCO Sites, which demonstrate that the heritage of the Middle Ages is still alive today in the area. The reason for this large amount of fortified churches is that hundreds of years ago, Transylvania was the scene of many Ottoman invasions, so its people had to build fortifications, for their own protection. In the smaller communities, the easiest way was to connect them to a church.
Guide to Brașov county
The first stop was in Brașov, one of my favourite cities in Romania. Founded in the 13th century as Kronstadt (City of the Crown) by the Teutonic Knights, the settlement developed really fast thanks to its position, halfway between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe. It’s a popular tourist destination all year long; in the summer, the weather is very pleasant, and many people come here to escape the hot temperatures, while in the cold season, most of them come to practice winter sports – Poiana Brașov, a neighborhood of the city, is actually the biggest Romanian ski resort.
The old part of the city (Șcheii Brașovului) is lovely, and it’s a good example of medieval architecture. It’s not the moment for a full guide, so I’ll just name a few sights: the Gothic Biserica Neagră (the Black Church), a major symbol of Brașov for more than 500 years, Strada Sforii (the narrowest street in Romania), Catherine’s and Șchei Gates, Piața Sfatului (the Council Square) and the First Romanian School Museum (first Romanian classes were held here, at the end of the 16th century). Tip: follow Republicii Street, from an end to the other, and you will find many shops and restaurants, both international and Romanian. One restaurant that I like is La Ceaun (Michael Weiss 27), the prices are decent and the traditional food is delicious. And on the same street you’ll find Dr. Jekelius, a cool place, built to resemble an old pharmacy from the 19th century, where you can grab a coffee or a tea.
Next on my list were a few villages and small towns, with fortified churches or citadels. Many of the houses around respect the traditional architectural style,and will give you the impression that you had traveled back in time a few hundred years. Prejmer, located 18 km northeast of Brașov, has one of the best preserved fortified churches in Eastern Europe. It’s really impressive, both on the outside and on the inside. The entrance fee is cheap, 10 RON (that’s just over €2), so it’s definitely worth a visit.
Rupea, a small town northwest of Brașov, impresses with its citadel, situated on a small hill and overlooking the valley. Having an ascending spiral design, on three levels, the citadel was recently rehabilitated and offers a spectacular panoramic view. Entrance fee is 10 RON.
Nearby, the village of Criț awaits travellers with its fortified church, unpaved streets and colourful houses.
The day couldn’t have ended better. A few hours spent in Sighișoara (Mureș County) are always priceless. This enchanting medieval town is the pearl of Transylvania. The citadel (an UNESCO Site) is dominated by the impressive Clock Tower, 64 meters in height, hosting the museum of history. Other attractions of the citadel are the nine towers, each one belonging to a different guild in the Middle Ages, and the small narrow streets. If you wish to grab something traditional to eat, I would recommend Gasthaus Alte Post (Piața Hermann Oberth), a hotel and restaurant situated in the old post office.
The last village I’m going to present is the most beautiful: Viscri. It’s true that it has been heavily promoted in the past years by the Prince of Wales, Charles, who owns a house here and comes to visit quite often. But it’s a place almost forgotten by time, with old houses, some of them over 200 years old. In its center, you will find (you guessed it) the fortified church. The village is surrounded by wooded hills, with large meadows that reveal wonderful landscapes, and traversed by an unpaved road. Tip: be really patient and drive slowly if you choose to get here by car, because the road is simply horrible, with a lot of bumps and holes. If you can rent a bike in one of the nearby villages, do it. It would take more time and effort, but the experience is probably a lot better.
I wrote this article in order to promote the beautiful part of my country, which has a huge touristic potential, but unexploited, in many cases. Transylvania is an exception from my perspective, because people here understood that it is very important too keep the old traditions alive and offer tourists what they are searching for, from time to time: a return to simplicity.
This was just a small part of what Transylvania has to offer. Stay tuned, more will follow soon.
Pe data viitoare, Transilvania!
Author: Marian Bulacu
Live. Love. Travel. Make a difference.