Transylvania: A destination to count on

Beautiful landscapes, outdoor activities, medieval architecture — Transylvania has it all. But with Halloween around the corner, Eimear Ryan visited with one thing in mind — vampires.

Bran Castle

“What drew you to this trip?” we ask each other on the tour bus. “Why Transylvania?”

“Sure it’s something different,” is a common response. One of the newest additions to TDactive Holidays’ range of small group adventure holidays, Transylvania promises beautiful landscapes, outdoor pursuits, and medieval architecture.

I should probably just say it upfront: I’m here for the vampires. Raised on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Anne Rice novels, I didn’t think twice about sinking my teeth into this five-night trip.

The first night is spent in Sighisoara, a picturesque chocolate box of a town: Think archways, open squares, and brightly-painted shopfronts. 

Sighisoara

It also happens to be the birthplace of the historical Vlad Tepes (1431-76) aka Vlad the Impaler, the bloodthirsty Romanian prince and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, aside from the street named after him and the Nosferatu-inspired keyrings at every souvenir stall, Vlad’s presence in Sighisoara is quite minimal. The medieval town is more interested in marketing its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site than in promoting its most infamous son.

With our excellent local guide Kriztina, we visit the 13th-century clock tower that dominates the town centre. A small museum is spread out over its four floors, but the real draw is the rooftop observation gallery, which offers Instagram-worthy panoramas, all red-slated roofs and rolling forested hills. We get an eyeful of our next destination, the Church on the Hill, an imposing white structure overlooking the town. The climb to the church up a canopied walkway is hard on the legs, but worth it for the views.

Our next stop is the tiny Saxon village of Viscri, where much of the surrounding land is owned by Prince Charles. Our guesthouse has royal insignia above the gates. Initially, I’m unsure about the setup; we’ve been promised a traditional Romanian homestay, not royal treatment. However the guest rooms, arranged around a courtyard and each with their own entrance, are lovingly restored and charmingly rustic. The village itself is one long gravel road lined with quaint houses. Hens and several friendly dogs roam free, and it’s as common to see a horse and trap go down the street as a car. There are no bars, but two small shops sell beer which you can enjoy outside at picnic tables.

We visit Viscri’s fortified church, a thick-walled, turreted building that looks more like a small castle than a place of worship. Inside, rickety staircases offer a climb up into the battlements and stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

Back at the guesthouse, we’re served a three-course dinner in a beautifully restored 19th-century barn: Celeriac soup to start (Irish palates be warned: Romanians like their soup at room temperature); beautifully tender pork, ratatouille and local wine; and goat’s milk panna cotta to finish. My travelling companions agree it’s the best meal we’ve had in some time.

The following day brings a change of pace: We arrive in Brasov, a cosmopolitan city surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. 

The Brasov cityscape

Our hotel is in the city’s main square, Piaa Sfatului, a marvel of Baroque architecture. There’s a touch of dark glamour to Brasov, from the Hollywood-inspired BRASOV sign in the hills that overlook the city, to the cable-car rides up nearby Mount Tampa, to emo-sounding attractions like the Lutheran Black Church. After visiting the church, I browse in Libraria Ralu, a bookshop with a decent English language selection, and grab a strong Romanian Americano at Ted’s Coffee. For dinner I visit Simone, a bright and open hipster diner with impressive vegetarian and vegan options. I round the night off with a drink in Tipografia; a pint of the most common beer, Ciuc, will set you back 7 lei (about €1.50).

On day four, we visit the Libearty Bear Sanctuary, a 160-acre forest park that’s home to nearly 100 rescued bears. Native to Romania, these brown bears were put to work as entertainment, not just in circuses and zoos but as novelties in restaurants and petrol stations, often in tiny cages and horrific conditions. (Be warned: The video presentation at the outset of the tour is a tearjerker.) The bears are shy but we catch glimpses of them climbing the trees and swimming in the rivers. We also get to watch a feeding, in which wheelbarrows of fruit, vegetables, bread and meat are shovelled unceremoniously over the fence.

The tour of the park concludes with a visit to the nursery. The rescue bears are neutered, but one precocious adolescent bear (affectionately named Casanova by the park rangers) managed to impregnate two female bears before his sterilisation. We get to see the two cubs frolicking up close as their mothers prowl protectively along the fence.

Bran Castle, an imposing 13th-century castle and an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, promises some vampires at last. There’s a pleasingly rugged look to the structure: Thick stone battlements, huge fireplaces, and bearskin rugs (we winced). There’s much to see throughout, in particular the art and furniture of Queen Marie, collected during the castle’s time as a royal residence in the early 20th century. An entertaining exhibit on the upper floors explores the castle’s vampiric connections. Disappointingly, the museum can’t seem to make up its mind about Stoker’s nationality, describing him variously as British and Irish.

On our last night in Brasov, I explore Nicolae Titulescu Central Park, walk down one of the narrowest streets in Europe (Strada Sforii or ‘Rope Street’), and enjoy a nightcap at Pharmacy Cafe, where the cocktails come in test tubes, beakers, and conical flasks.

In the morning we’re bussed to the Bucegi Mountains, part of the southern Carpathians and famous for their unusual rock formations. Our ascent begins with an eye-popping cable-car ride; one minute we’re hurtling through a pine forest, the next we’re way above the treetops. The car eventually deposits us at Bucegi Plateau, where the air is noticeably thinner and colder: we’re 2000m above sea level here.

We have been advised to bring hiking boots, which I neglected to pack. The guide looks in alarm at my runners, which I assure him are sturdier than they look. We embark on a three-hour hike across mostly flat terrain with breathtaking views. Apart from a long, steep incline at the very end, it’s a pleasant hike; my runners hold up nicely.

The final night of the trip is spent in the capital, Bucharest. It’s late by the time we arrive but our guide still manages to fit in a whistle-stop bus tour taking in the imposing Palace of the Parliament and Revolution Square. Unlike the medieval towns we’ve visited, in Bucharest the country’s Communist past reveals itself in its Brutalist architecture and huge open squares.

Old Town Bucharest

After checking into Hotel Capitol, located in the university quarter, I head for the delightfully named Shift Pub, a trendy pub grub spot with a leafy beer garden. The menu offers a bit of everything, from burgers to pasta to seafood. I opt for a chicken quesadilla with a side of garlic-tossed greens; with a beer; the whole thing comes to about 45 lei (under €10).

Afterwards, I make for Pura Vida Sky Bar, a rooftop bar beloved of bloggers in the Old Town. Getting to the bar involves walking up five floors, but the view across the rooftops is worth it. By the late hour I arrive, the bar is packed with revellers from the hostel downstairs and space is at a premium; by all accounts, it’s a great place to watch the sunset.

The next morning, I get up early for a final wander around Bucharest. Though I’ve struggled with traditional Romanian food throughout the trip — cabbage and stew feel unseasonal in the warm weather — I’ve fallen hard for mitetei, little garlicky sausages which accompany most hotel breakfast buffets. I spend most of the morning in Carturesti Carusel, one of the most beautiful bookshops I’ve ever visited: Bright, open, and with spiral staircases reaching their multiple floors. There’s also a cafe and a great selection of literary gifts; I buy more than a few souvenirs here.

Transylvania really is something different; a surprise package that, while light on vampires, is full of history, charming towns, quality cheap eats, and stunning scenery.

The TD Active holiday gives an impressive overview of the region while also whetting the appetite for further exploration: Bucharest, in particular, would be well worth a second visit.

- Explore Transylvania with TD Active Holidays, specialists in small group adventure holidays, from €779pp.

- This five-night trip includes return flights, and transfers, B&B hotel accommodation, a traditional homestay, and excursions with an expert local guide. Departing May and October 2019, tdactiveholidays.ie


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