A trip to Romania will be remembered as an adventure in a land of tales and legends where one gets lost in remote landscapes populated by enigmatic characters (writes Julia Ossena). This is the wild east of Europe, and although Transylvania is by far the crown jewel of this less travelled country, you’ll still be on your own once you get away from the main dusty roads.
Little is sure once you’ve reached this far frontier of our delimited union. Despite Romania’s recent entry in the EU, and its constant effort to match western standards (the town of Sibiu was Capital of Culture in 2007), its gloomy forests and dark emblematic castles remain the only images dancing in our mind as we cross the border.
As I arrived in Transylvania, I chose Brasov - its “capital” - as my base camp. Wandering around the closed tourism office, you’re more likely to bump into random strangers proposing a cheaper alternative to expensive hotels and you could well end up in a traditional house with a charming indoor courtyard for the equivalent of just a few pounds. Nestled in a beautiful lush valley, Brasov boasts a young-at-heart character and an atmospheric main square, supposedly the finest of the country, lined with baroque façades, fantastic churches and Bohemian outdoor cafés. From there it takes thirty minutes to reach the mighty Bran castle.
Bram Stocker is said to have been inspired by this eerie 14th century palace for the setting of his Dracula, and the inspiration is justified: riveted to a sharp cliff out of which it seems to grow, the impressive fortress stretches its naked towers towards the clouds, playing with your imagination.
Nearby lies the citadel of Rasnov, where you can climb up to sip in breathtaking views of the surrounding hills. At the end of a rainy day, a thick fog seems to rise from nearby forests, wrapping the fortress in an ear-buzzing silence and making the mind go mad about this lost part of Europe, its cruel leaders and fearless knights. If there is a place where legends were all born, it has to be Transylvania, no doubt!
Europe’s lost ways
However, even if the region occasionally brings up nightmares of werewolves and vampires, its charms are far more diverse and can be experienced throughout its hilly landscapes: snowy mountains scenery in the background, exceptional hiking in deep forests, and rural villages that haven’t changed much since the 18th century. Although little restored, Transylvania is rich with a vast cultural heritage: Sighisoara, birth town of bloodthirsty Vlad Tepes (the real life Dracula), has a historical centre listed at the Unesco.
The same applies to many wooden churches, fortresses and unique walled churches, like in Biertan and Mosna, that could protect the population during a siege, the only of their kind in Europe. The region is far from touristy, and I often felt like the only traveller ever to have stepped on this alien and unpredictable turf. Time travel is possible here, and it’s more than buildings and landscapes that should be listed, but a kind of living museum to Europe’s lost ways.
It feels like stepping back two centuries in time in this Hansel & Gretel-like countryside, witnessing a hard and rough way of life where working in the fields all day with no more than hand tools is everybody’s business. With a very low level of development, infrastructure is next to nothing outside the main towns, cutting villages and regions from any exploration and contact with the outside world. Traffic consists here of horses and carriages slowly passing by Roma settlements on the border of forests and main axis.
Wooden villages at the end of a dirt track welcome you with laughing children with dark hair and wide open eyes on top of powerful horses, women with colourful dresses, old men smoking pipes on the roadside waiting for drivers to stop for their mushrooms, cheese or flowers picked in the nearby meadows, traditional music and kids playing football barefoot. Only through contact with these remote hills do you get the feeling of a region, a country stuck in between its traditions and development.
However, despite economic and financial difficulties, and especially since it entered the EU in early 2007, Romania seems to put many efforts and as much money as possible towards what can lead it quickly to a drastic change for its courageous citizens. Nearby Rupea, Medias and Sighisoara are striking examples of it, three different stages of the same principle of economic development. Rupea is the first step towards an improved situation: its old citadel built by the French centuries ago doesn’t attract a big crowd but has started to be restored and advertised in guidebooks. Being on the main Transylvanian trail, there is no doubt it will soon reach the level of Medias, which doesn’t need that much more work around its medieval centre, just a little boost on the publicity side.
And then there is Sighisoara, the star of Transylvania, blessed with striking features, historical and legendary aura, and impressive tourist appeal. Its high district is a maze of cobblestoned streets lined up with tiny colourful houses with low roofs and smoking chimneys, housing typical bars and restaurants used to welcoming international crowds. The walk along the fairy tales backstreets from one tower to another is a must, as is the climb to the hilltop church and cemetery through a wooden covered staircase. The town has recently received new funds to restore what makes it so special, keeping it the sure value of this amazingly on-the-rise region.
Transylvania gives to travellers the real measure of what Europe is all about: diversity as well as progress. Preserving its specificities while helping people to get a deserved improvement to their way-of-life, and a historical inheritance that hasn’t alwaysbeen easy to manage by themselves. It is all about giving a hand while respecting the differences.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".