Transylvania Road Trip
There was an interesting mix of reactions when we told friends and colleagues that we were planning a trip to Transylvania. Some didn’t think that it was a real place and others only associated it with the Dracula story. Most had never been. This was part of what made it an exciting trip for us: Transylvania inspires a real sense of adventure and a promise of stepping back in time, yet still within a few hours flight from London.
We had other reasons to go too. Transylvania is now part of Romania but used to be part of a much larger pre-WW1 Hungary. Timi, my wife, is Hungarian and had told me a few stories, so I wanted to learn more about its complicated history. It also turned out that we’ve got friends who are from there, something we hadn’t really appreciated until we started planning the trip.
The first thing to know is that it's a big place. Transylvania is 10% larger than Hungary itself and around 20% smaller than England. We were only going for a week, so we picked the central region that covered most of the “must-see” places recommended to us.
Cluj (Kolozsvar in Hungarian) was a good place to start understanding the Hungarian connection. In the centre of the Old Town, in front of St Michael’s church, stands the statue of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary in the 15th Century
On our day trip to the Huedin Microregion (Caikszereda in Hungarian) on day 2 we saw some of the Hungarian villages near Cluj. We stopped at a church in Mănăstireni just as the service was ending and were treated by the pastor to a private tour of the church and its small museum. This was one of the few trips when speaking Hungarian was a real advantage.
Although the region was mostly Hungarian, there were some Romanian towns. It was a policy in the Ceausescu era to move ethnic Romanians into Hungarian villages to dilute the population. Some places have kept their Hungarian names, whilst others like Kolozsvár (Cluj) have Romanian names. Despite being nearly 100 years on from the Trianon Treaty, many Hungarians are still bitter about it. It's unlikely that anything is going to change though as the issue isn’t high on politician’s lists of things to fix.
It's not just the Transylanian issue that concerns people, as we discovered. We noticed “bassarabia e romania” (“Bessarabia is Romanian”) graffiti by the sides of the mountain roads to the Bucegi plateau. This is a historic region that was once part of Romania but now largely part of modern-day Moldova. The more that I read about the region, the more I discovered other territories like Transnistria and Dobruja with complicated histories and territorial claims.
The Dracula myth is loosely based on the real Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia in the 1400s. One theory we heard was that Bram Stoker had a relationship with a Hungarian professor from the University of Budapest and had heard stories of Vlad’s brutality. Vlad was famous for impaling the heads of his victims and displaying them along the routes that his enemies would travel along. This was intended to create fear and a sense of Vlad’s army being larger and more brutal than it was. As one historian told us, Vlad was probably no worse than many rulers at the time, it's just that he’s become famous for it, earning the name Vlad The Impaler.
The Dracula myth is actually a combination of influences from Vlad the Impaler, a European legend about a blood-sucking South American and Transylvania’s reputation as a wild and mysterious place. The name Dracula actually comes from Vlad Tepes’ father, Vlad Dracul, who got his name after becoming a member of the Order Of The Dragon ... Dracul meaning Dragon.
Thankfully Romania hasn’t gone overboard on exploiting the Dracula connection. In Sighisoara (Segesvar in Hungarian) we had dinner in a slightly tacky restaurant in the building Vlad was (supposedly) born in. In 2002 plans to build a Dracula theme park just outside the town were abandoned following criticism from UNESCO, Greenpeace and the Prince of Wales, amongst others. Instead, Bran Castle near Brasov is the centre of Dracula tourism. The castle’s connection to Vlad is highly tenuous as he may have stayed there for a few nights. The most interesting Vlad The Impaler fact for us was that he was imprisoned in by King Matthias at Visegrad Castle, right next to where we got married.
Our 8-day trip started in Cluj-Napoca, ending in Sibiu via Sighisoara and Brasov. Driving in Transylvania there can be an adventure in itself. Roads are badly maintained and mostly single carriageway. Lorries share the road with horse &carts and often overtake without warning. This means that driving times between towns are longer than similar distances in other countries.
Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage town. We took a fascinating guided walking tour with Peter from the Cultural Heritage InfoPoint near the Clock Tower.
Viscri Fortified Saxon Church, also a UNESCO site. It’s 10km along a very bumpy dirt track. Well worth the effort though for a few hours of peace in a beautiful old village.
Cycling from Sibiu to the ASTRA open-air museum at Dunbrava National Park.
Things we wish we had known:
Don’t go to Turda Salt Mine on a national / bank holiday. It was rammed in there.
Heroes Cross and the Transfaragasan Road are only doable in the summer. We tried to get to Heroes Cross but only made it as far as the cable car station.
Sinca Veche is really weird. We’d heard reviews of people who had experienced strong energies there. We just didn’t get it.