It’s best known as the home of Dracula, but Transylvania has much more to offer than stories of a fictional blood-sucking count. Tourist bosses will tell you there is a whole plethora of reasons why you should visit this beautiful, mountainous region of central Romania.
And it has nothing to do with a vampire invented by an Irishman, Bram Stoker, who never set foot in Transylvania once in his life.
They want to promote its beautiful Carpathian Mountains, its stunning UNESCO heritage-listed medieval cities, its hiking and skiing possibilities, along with its lively nightlife and exciting cuisine.
Transylvania is not a one-trick pony so you don’t have to wait for Halloween to visit this land with the famously eerie name. There was history, beauty, culture here long before Hollywood came to town. And indeed, Transylvania was an eye-opener for this first time visitor.
Once known as “Little Paris” for its stunning architecture, much of the city was destroyed during World War II and the following Soviet bloc years of Nicolae Ceausescu, but the old town still exists and is lined with beautiful buildings, lively bars and restaurants.
We had our inaugural dinner in the atmospheric Hanul lui Manuc Restaurant in the old quarter, complete with dancers in traditional costumes, where we enjoyed a meatball soup starter with sour cream and hot peppers. And boy were they hot!
Our main course was caramelized lamb knuckle prepared in the oven with herbs and red wine and served with baked potatoes and sautéed green beans. The waiters lit brandy over the pulled lamb moments before serving.
After a delicious chocolate cake dessert, we tried out a local bar – one pub is named after Trinity College – where to our delight, we discovered a local beer costs little more than €1.
But we were there to see Transylvania so the next day saw us travelling north to Sinaia, two and a half hours drive away up into the mountains, to visit Peles Castle, the former summer residence of the Romanian royal family.
Built by King Carol I in 1873, it has 185 rooms but was closed to the public from 1975 until 1990 because it was used by dictator Ceausescu, only reopening after his execution in the Romanian Revolution of 1989, which brought democracy to the country.
The castle is a stunning building with magnificent wood panelling, beautiful furniture and artwork along with a huge collection of armaments dating back to medieval times.
From there we drove to Azuga and visited the 125-year-old Rhein Azuga Wine Cellars, which produce 200,000 bottles of “Champagne de Roumanie” every year in the traditional Champenoise way, with every bottle being turned manually twice a day. Naturally, we had to sample the goods.
Unlike many cellars, this one is over-ground with the temperature kept consistent by the 1.5m thick walls. A natural mould on the roof absorbs all the humidity.
Our lunch was a delicious cauliflower and chicken soufflé to start, followed by roast beef with rustic potatoes and cabbage – a staple vegetable in these parts – and a dessert of sweet pancakes with sour cream and blueberries.
Next on the tour list was the imposing 14th Century Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle because of a tenuous link to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Dracula.
Its spooky appearance certainly looks the part, which is why the fortress has been used for the setting of various horror films.
The medieval castle is Transylvania’s biggest tourist attraction, pulling in half a million visitors a year. The surrounding village lives almost entirely off the constant flow of tourists. The best shot of the foreboding building is from the outside, which is more impressive than the plain interior.
We stayed in the lovely four-star Ambient Resort in the village of Christian, 14km from Brasov. A modern complex with large rooms decorated in a traditional style, the hotel only opened in late 2017.
Dinner was a feast of bruschetta with tomatoes, anchovies, cream cheese and basil to start, followed by chicken roulade and rustic potatoes.
The next day, we visited the beautiful, medieval city of Brasov, my favourite place in the whole trip.
Its old town was simply gorgeous, with its enormous square, cobbled streets and colourful buildings, not to mention the famous Black Church, the largest Gothic building in the country, all sitting at the foot of the imposing Tampa Mountain.
I could have spent a week here, strolling its streets and promenades leading up into the surrounding woods.
But there were other major sights we couldn’t miss so it was on to Prejmer to see its truly remarkable 13th Century fortified church, where a circular village was built around the chapel during times of invasion.
Now a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was the first time I had seen anything like it. But we were to see several more because of Romania’s bloody history of invasions dating back centuries.
We had lunch in the beautiful, untouched village of Viscri, which has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Even the 7km road leading to it is not tarmacked.
Britain’s Prince Charles was so impressed with its old world charm that he bought a holiday home in the village and visits every year.
Just down the road is a beautiful pension where we were treated to a delicious moussaka-style dish, topped with potatoes and tomatoes and washed down with local beers and schnapps.
This village also had a stunning 13th Century fortified church with an ancient gatehouse, tower and a red-tiled enclave where locals would flee at the first sign of attack.
Next stop was the village of Miclosoara where we were booked into “Transylvania’s first authentic heritage accommodation”, old cottages lovingly restored to retain their original charm and character by a friend of Prince Charles, Count Tibor Kalnoky.
The antique furniture is in the traditional style and we were treated to a sumptuous feast of local meats, cheeses and wines in its cosy restaurant with a log fire burning.
The magnificent fortified city of Sighisoara, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was our port of call on our last full day.
It’s an unforgettable place with its ancient city walls, clock tower, medieval stairways and cobbled hillside streets.
We had lunch in Haller Castle, Ogra, where I tried out a local stout and ale as I settled down to a lovely meal of pea soup with bacon to start.
This was followed by spiced duck leg with a whole grilled camembert, cranberry sauce and stewed vegetables.
Then, fully sated, it was on to the modern university city of Cluj-Napoca for our last night, where we stayed in the stylish four-star Beyfin Hotel, ideally placed in the city’s main square.
This is a thriving, bustling university city and we had a wonderful dinner in the trendy Zama restaurant.
A huge selection of cheeses, meats, pickles and peppers was followed by a local speciality, Rakotkaposzta, a traditional dish of minced meat with fresh and pickled cabbage, rice, onion, peppers, herbs and tomatoes.
The next day saw us fly out of Cluj-Napoca on Blue Air back to Dublin after a wonderful trip organised by Eximtur Incoming.
Jim is a veteran traveller who has toured extensively in six of the world’s seven continents.
A former Fleet Street reporter, he was a New York correspondent for five years and managed to visit all but three of the fifty US states. He returns every year on hiking trips to the American West.
Based in Dublin for over 20 years, he is a huge fan of the great Irish outdoors. A regular visitor to the Wicklow Mountains, he recently walked Northern Ireland’s beautiful Causeway Coast Trail.