Transylvania is probably the place most tourists associate with Romania. They think of Dracula, scary castles, and dark forests. However, there is so much more in this multi-ethnic region, including some of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. In the small villages, people still work as shepherds and blacksmiths.
It takes time to understand this complex Romanian region. So, set aside any pre-conceived notions and join us in “the land beyond the forest,” Transylvania!
Located in the middle of Romania, the region of Transylvania is surrounded on three sides by the Carpathian Mountains, with Wallachia on its southern side. With its heavily-forested landscapes, Transylvania can seem remote, yet it was settled during the Iron Age by the Dacians, a tribe from today’s Bulgaria and Greece. Then came the Romans, who stayed until their empire declined in about 270 AD. After that, there was a constant battle for control between Huns, Slavs, and Visigoths.
For over a thousand years, until World War I, Transylvania was part of the Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian empires. The Hungarians invited Germans (called Saxons) to come to the region in the 12th and 13th centuries, resulting in a blend of two influences that can still be seen.
Unless you’re coming from Bucharest, you’ll fly into Cluj (the official name is Cluj-Napoca) to start your tour. The “heart” of Transylvania has an international airport, as well as an interesting history of its own. Founded by Germans in the 12th century, it was built on top of a Roman settlement called Napoca. The Hungarians made it into an important city until the mid-20th century, calling it Kolozsvár. With six state and several private universities, it became the most literary of all the Balkan cities, and still has the highest percentage of students in Romania.
The country’s second largest city has a distinct Bohemian-hip feel. Under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from 1965 to 1989, Cluj became an industrialized city with a population of 330,000. Yet it never lost its anti-Ceausecu attitude. It was fortunate to escape the destruction of its historic quarter to build an austere Civic Center, as most other cities did.
Don’t rush away! There are plenty of attractions to keep you busy for a few days:
Unity Square (Piata Unirii) is lined with bars, restaurants, and shops. On the square, the magnificent equestrian statue celebrating Matthias Corvinus, a 15th century Hungarian Renaissance king is balanced by the solemn memorial, Shot Pillars, dedicated to the 26 citizens who were gunned down in the 1989 revolution.
Also on Unity Square:
St. Michael’s Church (Biserica Sfantul Mihail) (NOTE: Closed for renovation in 2019) Romania’s second largest Gothic church—the first is in Brasov—was built between 1349 and 1487, with several “upgrades” by Hungarian nobles, with the final addition of a bell tower in 1859. Originally constructed as a Roman Catholic place of worship, it later became Lutheran (1545), Calvinist (1558), Unitarianism (1566), then returned to Catholic in 1716.
National Museum of Art (Muzeul de Arta Cluj-Napoca) is in the Baroque Banffy Palace, once called “The Versailles of Transylvania.” It features 15th-20th century art, including works by Romania’s most famous painter, Nicolae Grigorescu.
Other interesting places to visit in Cluj:
Ethnography Museum of Transylvania (Muzeul Etnografic al Transylvaniei) shows how Romanian peasants have lived through the centuries. You’ll see outstanding collections of tools, crafts, and costumes from all over Romania. Combine the museum with Romulus Vuia Ethnographic Park (Parcul Etnografic Romulus Vuia) an open-air museum with 200 carefully reconstructed historic buildings. Located 5km northwest of the city center, on a lovely hill, it features homes, wooden churches, and a variety of workshops: blacksmith, pottery, and mills.
Central Park (Parcul Central) is a well-maintained, restful area in Cluj. Walk the boulevard through the middle of the park, rent a swan boat on the lake, visit the pavilion, stop at the tea house, and enjoy lunch at the lakeside restaurant. The park is nearly 200 years old, with shade trees and benches to relax. Open all year, with activities for every season.
Botanical Gardens (Gradina Botanica), with more than 10,000 species, sit just south of Romania’s largest university, Babes-Bolyai University, founded in 1581. One instructive section has plant species arranged according to family, order, and class. There are also rockeries, statuary, greenhouses with plants from all climates, and a traditional Japanese garden.
Hungarian Cemetery (Hazsongardi Temeto) goes back to the 1585, during the plague. Enlarged several times, it now covers almost 35 acres. Stroll the peaceful grounds and see elaborate grave markers and tombs, including those of Transylvanian artists and poets. The picturesque cemetery name comes from a word that means “garden of rabbits.”
Brasov is one of Romania’s greatest medieval cities, if not one of the greatest in Europe. Archeologists have found evidence of humans going back to the Neolithic Era, about 9500 BC. When the Hungarian kings recruited Germans (Saxons) to settle in Transylvania, starting in the early 12th century, the Saxons wisely chose the area that is now Brasov, because of its strategic position near a pass in the Carpathian Mountains. As a result, Brasov became wealthy.
The Saxons built a huge wall to protect themselves, as well as their ornate homes and shops. Churches had tall Gothic spires. Romanians were only allowed within the walls on certain days of the week, after paying a toll. According to a legend told by the Brothers Grimm, Brasov’s Council Square is where the Pied Piper led the 130 children of Hamlin, when he was cheated by the townsfolk after ridding Hamlin of rats.
Council Square (Piata Sfatului) is the heart of the Baroque Old Town and the perfect place to start your exploration of Brasov. With the 1420 Council House in the center, it’s easy to sit at one of the cafes and watch the city go by. The sturdy, German-style buildings around the square contain the Historical Museum, Hirscher Haus, and the Museum of Urban Civilization, all telling a different aspect of the city’s past.
Black Church (Biserica Neagra) soars over Old Town. Romania’s largest Gothic church was built between 1385 and 1477, as St. Mary’s Evangelical Church. After the city’s Great Fire of 1689, with its fire and soot stains, it became known simply as the Black Church. Restoration took more than 100 years. The walls are covered with 16th to 19th century Turkish prayer mats, brought by traders and merchants from the east. The 4,000 pipe organ is the largest in southeast Europe, with a magnificent sound.
Rope Street (Strada Sforli) is the narrowest street in Romania, and one of the four narrowest streets in Europe. Originally built to allow fireman to use, it’s now mainly a tourist attraction. Although stories claim that Vlad Tepes—Count Dracula—may have kissed his future wife here. But it’s highly unlikely, since the street wasn’t there during his lifetime. Still, it’s fun to walk the 260 feet (80m) street, with a width between 44 and 53 inches (111-135cm).
Schei District is where Romanians were required to live during Saxon times. Located outside the city walls, the neighborhood is where the first Romanian school was started in 1495. Today, the First Romanian School Museum (Prima Scoala Romaneasca) shares the history of education in Romania. With classrooms, 4,000 schoolbooks, a printing press, and one of the oldest Bibles in the country, it also tells the story of Schei, going back to pre-Roman times.
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (Biserica Sf. NIcolae) is a beautiful church that resembles a fairy-tale castle. Constructed of wood in 1392, it was replaced by stone in 1495, before receiving Baroque and Byzantine elements. The interior frescoes by painter Misu Popp were done in 1856. During the Communist regime, they were covered in plaster to avoid being destroyed, and finally uncovered in 2004.
Bran Castle (Castelul Bran) sits high along the borders of the Transylvania and Wallachia regions. A national monument and landmark of Romania, it was first documented in 1377 by a Hungarian king, giving permission to the Saxons of Brasov to build a castle fortress, at their own expense and labor.
Completed in only five years, the fortress was designed to protect the border of Transylvania and collect customs fees from traders passing through the Bran Pass of the Carpathian Mountains. The castle did, indeed, serve to defend the area against the Ottoman Turks for several hundred years.
Over the centuries, modifications and restorations were made. Control of the castle changed from Hungary to Wallachia to Transylvania. In the 1880s, it finally fell into disrepair. The city of Brasov awarded Bran Castle to Queen Marie of Greater Romania in 1920, as thanks for her support during Romania’s fight for independence. She turned it into a royal summer residence, and happily lived there, even after the death of her husband, King Ferdinand I.
After Queen Marie’s death in 1936, her daughter, Princess Ileana, inherited Bran Castle and kept it until the Communists took over the country in 1948. It was converted to a museum in 1956. Following the 1989 revolution, the Romanian government restored ownership of the castle to Ileana’s son, Archduke Dominic of Habsburg, in 2009. He decided to leave it open to the public.
Although Bran Castle is one of Romania’s most popular tourist attractions, the connections between the castle and the legendary Count Dracula are feeble. However, thanks to the book, Dracula, by Irish author Bram Stoker, the castle provides an interesting setting for both vampire and history fans. And it surely looks like a place where unnatural and ghoulish events might have taken place.
In 1897, Bram Stoker was working as the business manager at Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was also the personal assistant to Sir Henry Irving, actor and owner of the theatre. In his spare time, Stoker wrote sensational novels, with Dracula being the most successful.
How did an Irishman living in London learn about Vlad Tepes who lived 400 years earlier? Biographers found that he met Armin Vambery, a writer and traveler from Hungary, who shared stories about life in Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. Stoker was intrigued and started researching European folklore and vampires. Stoker became fascinated with Transylvania, called it “a whirlpool for the imagination.” He selected Bran Castle based on travel descriptions available at the time.
Vlad Tepes—also called Vlad III Dracula–was a Wallachian prince who ruled in 1448, 1456-1462, and 1476, following the deaths of his father and older brother. The name “Dracula” came from his father, Vlad Dracul, “Vlad the Dragon,” a title the elder Vlad received when he became a member of the Order of the Dragon. “Dracula” meant “son of the dragon” in medieval Romanian.
His cruel and gruesome tactics against the Turks earned him the name of “Vlad the Impaler.” In reality, Vlad Tepes is considered a national hero for defying the Turks and refusing to pay the tribute they demanded. He showed his disdain by capturing and impaling the envoys sent by the Ottoman sultan.
Vlad never lived at Bran Castle. He was detained there for a short time, and passed through Bran Gorge during his travels. Brasov is also where brave Vlad Tepes led raids against the Saxon merchants who refused to follow his orders regarding trade with Wallachia. The Romanian national hero died in battle against the Ottomans in 1477.
Visitors to the castle may be surprised to find it cheerful and cozy. It’s still furnished as Queen Marie’s home. Yet until mid-20th century, villages near Bran believe there were living humans, “steregoi,” who appeared normal during the day, but whose souls left their bodies at night to torment and harm others.
Fictional or not, the people of Bran and Brasov have embraced the legend of Dracula. Shops, hotels, and restaurants have Dracula and vampire themes. On an interesting note, Dracula wasn’t published in Romanian until 1990.
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