To most people, the word Transylvania conjures vivid images of a wild territory full of vampires, bears and thick forests. While for sure these – except real vampires that is – can be found, more and more people also start to slowly discover the cultural and human charms this Romanian region has to offer.
I began my journey in Romania's capital, Bucharest, located on the vast plains of Wallachia. The city might not be as evocative as others in the region like Budapest, and it surely has its share of massive communist apartment blocks which look even more gloomy on this winter evening.
Yet for those who look around more, the city offers much more than you might expect. The museums are great, the city is cosmopolitan with a great nightlife and food scene, and even on the eye there are dozens of beautiful art nouveau and neoclassical buildings hidden away by which the city got its nickname of “Little Paris of the East”.
After a short walk through the old town and some hearty Romanian fare in the magnificent Gothic surroundings of Caru' cu Bere, the city's oldest restaurant, it was time for an early night to save energy for the next day's drive to Transylvania.
The Stavropoleos Monastery, a beautiful example of Romania's typical Brancoveanu architecture in the old town of Bucharest.
Caru' cu Bere in the old town of Bucharest is a city institute beloved for its hearty Romanian food by tourists and locals alike.
From Bucharest, Sibiu is a five-hour-long drive away. Romania might have a bad reputation for potholed roads, but the road quality on the main roads is good. Just with most of the country's planned motorways still being under construction, distances can be long on Romania's provincial roads, especially when crossing mountains or driving in more rural parts.
When arriving in Sibiu, a medieval city in the heart of Transylvania, it is easy to spot how different the city is from Romania’s bustling and chaotic capital of Bucharest. Sibiu breathes pure history and beauty with its old, stately buildings, and the soaring snow-capped Carpathian Mountains which offer an awe-inspiring backdrop.
One of Sibiu's cobblestoned streets which ooze Medieval charm.
Thanks to German settlers who moved here in the 12th century and to years of Austrian-Hungarian rule, on the looks Sibiu feels more like Nuremberg or any German city than it feels like the average Romanian city.
And even if nowadays descendants of the original German settlers make up only around 1 percent of the population, with a trained ear you can still hear citizens talk in their age-old Saxon dialect.
For those who keep their eyes and ears open, traces of the original Saxon settlers are still found in Sibiu, like in this German-language sign for a wine bar and restaurant.
Cristina is my guide for the day and explains the city's history while we walk around the imposing central square of Sibiu.
She said: “You might expect the town to be as Romanian as any other, but our shared history and culture does still has its influence and makes us sibieni different not only from people from Bucharest, but even from those from other historical Transylvanian towns like Cluj.”
The surrounding houses with their colourful facades and steep gabled roofs with windows the shape of eyes staring down at you are all perfectly preserved. Since being the European Capital of Culture in 2007, an even bigger social rebirth has taken place in the city.
The roofs in Sibiu have eyes staring down at you!
Strada Cetatii - the street along the former city walls - is arguably one of the most beautiful streets in Romania.
Cristina said: “The people of Sibiu always held culture and a well-maintained city in high regards, you won't find any other city in the country with a quality of life like you can find here.”
“Even people from other cities will say the same”, she shouted out as if I am not convinced enough.
And if someone can make this claim, it is my guide Cristina, having lived in a few other Romanian cities as well as abroad in the Netherlands.
She said: “I have been to quite a lot of places, but still I never feel as safe and relaxed as when I'm walking around Sibiu!”
Piata Mica- or Small Square - the focal point of life in Sibiu. A pathway under the tower as seen in the distance links it to Piata Mare - Big Square. The tower ("Turnul Sfatului") has sweeping vistas over the city if you climb the stairs.
It is exactly this laid-back feeling which is the most intoxicating about the city. Sure, there are enough great museums, parks, churches and other sights to keep one occupied, as are there lots of cosy cafes and restaurants.
But it’s in those people like Cristina where you can really see the qualities of the city. Soft-spoken, cultured and with an instantly likeable charm, the friendly folks in Sibiu do really turn this already beautiful city in a place where you can really unwind. It’s the calmness on the streets and the air of sophistication which makes Sibiu an ideal destination for those seeking a city break away from the daily rigours of life.
From Sibiu I went on to another town with a Germanic origin, Brasov. Already on the drive towards Brasov there are enough worthwhile places to look around. Around 40 kilometres east of Sibiu at Cartisoara is the turn-off to the famous Transfagarasan Highway which links Transylvania over a 2034-metre high mountain pass to the Wallachian plains of Southern Romania.
The Transfagarasan Highway - seen from the top of the pass in the wee hours of an Autumn morning. While the road is usually closed from late October until June, it is full of petrolheads in the Summer season.
The road was dubbed by Jeremy Clarkson as the best road in the world to drive. While the road is closed from late October until June because of the snow, it is possible to go all the way up by cable car in winter and enjoy ice-skating or skiing in beautiful mountain surroundings.
There are mountain bungalows where you can eat and sleep, but the true adventurer might of course want to consider sleeping in the hotel completely made out of ice or in real igloos. Less intrepid souls can still stop by for a dinner in the ice hotel or drink some tuica - Romanian plum brandy - from ice glasses at the bar.
A meal at the Ice Hotel is served on ice plates, with drinks coming in glasses made of ice.
The Ice Hotel has rooms in the main ice building, as well as private igloos outside.
About halfway between Sibiu and Brasov is the town of Fagaras, which warrants a short stop to visit the citadel in the middle of the town. Brasov is for sure worth much more than a quick stop. With its history as the Saxon trading colony of Kronstadt, its big churches, beautiful town houses and massive walls and defensive towers, there is enough to see here to keep a person occupied.
A view over the old town of Brasov, with the Saxon-built Black Church dominating the old town.
But as one of the talkative locals told me while sipping a hot chocolate in a cosy pub, the best attractions are out there around the city.
Mihai explained in perfect English: “What makes Brasov special is the close proximity to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Romania. A short ride by city bus and you are on the ski slopes, and in the summer there are lovely hiking options in the Bucegi Mountains. And our central square, Piata Sfatului, is for sure the most beautiful in Romania.”
Kafe Pub - a cosy cafe/pub in the old town centre of Brasov.
His opinion about the rather tacky Hollywood-style sign with the name “Brasov” on the mountain top overlooking the town was more down-to-earth.
He said: “I’m not a big fan of it either, but at least it reminds me where I am when I get out of the pub completely drunk.”
Piata Sfatului - Brasov's central square.
Mihai was absolutely right that the best sights are those around the city. The mountain vistas are stunning in every direction, and there are still a couple of other gems to discover.
The whole area around Brasov is dotted with great citadels like Rasnov and of course castles like Bran. Probably the most-visited attraction in all of Romania, Bran castle claims its fame as the place where Dracula lived.
Even if Vlad Tepes, the historical character on whom Bram Stoker based Dracula on, only sleptfor one night here and the whole experience of visiting might be a bit underwhelming being drowned out by the amount of souvenir stalls, it is still worth a visit if only for the view of the castle from afar. British-born Queen Marie of Romania made this castle her summer residence in the 1920s, and most of the exhibitions inside the castle highlight her life.
Bran Castle - the home of Dracula according to Bram Stoker's famous book.
The Carpathian Mountains - pictured here near Bran - offer great vistas to tourists visiting Romania.
Fairy tale houses in a wonderful winter landscape, as seen here in the town of Cheia close to Bran.
But the true diamond in the crown of all Romanian castles is Peles, 45 kilometers south of Brasov in the lovely town of Sinaia. This is the palace where the Romanian royal family used to live. The view of the fairytale turrets and a tour through the lavishly decorated rooms will be a much longer-lasting memory than nearby Bran.
Peles Castle - the home of the former Romanian royal family is as beautiful from the inside as it is from the outside.
With public transport being slow and connections for tourists not always straightforward when setting out an itinerary, driving is arguably the best way to go in Romania as it offers greater flexibility and lovely views. Stories of awful potholed roads are exagerated if you stick to the main roads linking the major cities and sights, although the lack of motorways means distances are longer than most tourists are used to!
Driving the two hours back from Sinaia to Bucharest across the Carpathians, I thought about the sheer amount of pleasant surprises this country has to offer.
With mountains as beautiful as those in the Alps, palaces and castles as grand as Versailles and cities as beautiful as any medieval town in Germany, southern Transylvania really packs up a lot of splendour together in such a small territory.
And with the friendly local folks, great food and affordable prices, I would be very surprised if anyone would quickly forget about their travels in this spectacular, underrated country.
How To Reach Romania:
We flew with Wizzair to Bucharest, to make a loop across Transylvania from the nation's capital. Flying to Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca or Targu Mures is perhaps even more convenient, although there are less flight options to chose from.
Blue Air and Ryanair are two other budget airlines offering cheap flight connections to Romania, while also TAROM as Romania's national airline should not be overlooked. When flying to regional airports like Cluj or Sibiu, check also options with Lufthansa or Austrian Airlines besides TAROM and the budget airlines.
How to get around:
Albeit slow, public transport is cheap and easy to figure out, although when doing a grand tour around the country some connections between cities might require a big detour. Buses are modern and usually on time.
For buses, autogari.ro lists almost every Romanian bus company, with the bulk of them being bookable online. For trains, check cfrcalatori.ro for train timetables. Domestic train tickets can be booked online. Trains are comfortable, but slow. Do not plan any tight connections using them, as delays are frequent.
When bringing your own car, do not forget you need to buy a road vignet at the border. When renting a car, all the major international companies have offices across the country.
Reliable local companies are Autonom in multiple Romanian cities, Rodna in Cluj, and Primarent in Bucharest.
Where to stay:
Like in every other European country, it depends wildly on your budget. Hostels are found in every city and start at 10 EUR (8.6 GBP) while for about double the price you can find plenty of cheap hotels or homestays, especially across major roads in rural places.
For something more special, try the Ice Hotel which we covered on our trip. Bucharest's most evocative hotel is perhaps the historical Athenee Palace, covered so beautifully in Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, which makes for a good read during a trip across Romania.
Where to dine:
In Bucharest, a stop at Caru' cu Bere is a must, if only for the most magnificent surroundings in town. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for groups. For something more upmarket, try The Artist, the closest thing the country perhaps has to a Michelin-star restaurant. The speciality of the house - "spoon tasting menu" - is highly recommended.
In Brasov, Sergiana is a local institute and offers great traditional Romanian food.
In Sibiu try Pardon Cafe & Bistro, located on the city's most beautiful street. Every room in the historical building is uniquely decorated, and has tons of charm.