Blood-thirsty vampires, ferocious packs of wolves and castles clinging to craggy, forested cliffs. Ask your average person what they think of when they hear the word ‘Transylvania’ and they are likely to come up with plenty of wild inaccuracies. So don't listen to them. Go see for yourself; there really is no better time. Transylvania, a historical region in central Romania and made famous as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is a land of extraordinary cultural and natural beauty. Our Founder Oli Broom spent 6 months there in 2016 and, in between hosting cycling guests, has been exploring the best of one of the loveliest, light-filled and magical places in Europe.
Here is the lowdown on why Transylvania should be on your hit list!
1. THE NATURE IS AWE-INSPIRING
Romania's Carpathian Mountains are home to Europe’s largest populations of bear, wolf and lynx, as well as huge numbers of other wild animals, from wild boar to eagles, red deer to kestrels and buzzards. These animals live mostly in vast, ancient and little-visited beech, oak and pine forests that are simply extraordinary to pedal or walk through.
2. CHARMING SAXON TOWNS & VILLAGES
In the 12th Century, when Transylvania was ruled by Hungary, King Geza II invited Germans from Flanders, Luxembourg and the Mosel Valley – so-called Saxons – to settle, farm and defend the region from invading Ottomans and Tatars. They stayed for 800 years until they began returning after the second world war, and later after the fall of communism. In that time they built over 200 villages and several larger towns and cities that today are home to magnificent houses, fortified churches and some of Europe’s best-preserved medieval citadels. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites; visit the right one and you’re likely to have it all to yourself.
3. IT'S A STEP BACK IN TIME
If you have ever wondered how your ancestors lived two hundred years ago, book yourself an airline seat bound for Transylvania. Horse drawn carts rumble along dirt roads, women bake bread in huge ovens, shepherds watch their flocks by night and cows trundle into villages and find their owner’s home when their day of grazing is over. It is magical to see that simple lives still have a home in a modern European Union.
4. WILDFLOWERS, WILDFLOWERS, WILDFLOWERS
Quite simply, if you visit Transylvania at the right time of year (May or June) you will be amazed by the flowers: ragged robin, cowslips, hellebore, wild orchids. They're everywhere and they're incredibly beautiful.
5. HILLTOP CHURCHES & CASTLES
If you've ever imagined Transylvania, you've probably imagined castles clinging to a cliff face. Well, there are a few of those, but the best and most interesting look more like this. They're everywhere, except this one isn't a castle. It's a church, albeit a fortified one, built in the 11th Century in a village called Viscri, a picture-perfect collection of pastel coloured houses surrounded by magnificent meadows and forests.
Did we mention bears? Transylvania is home to thousands of brown bears and Romania as a whole is said to have the largest population in Europe. And the government are on the right track, having recently banned the trophy hunting of many of the country's most iconic animals including wolves, wild cats, lynx and . . . brown bears.
7. TRUFFLE HUNTING
From September to January you can sample the wonderful, secretive world of truffle hunting in one of the most prized truffle regions in the world. Although the French and Italian truffles are better known, expert ‘trufflers’ agree that those found in Romania are of equal or superior quality. These truffles are so exquisite because the soil is rich and the temperate climate perfect in their ancient, pristine forests. And the experience - led by trained dogs - is wonderful, especially once the leaves have turned in late September.
8. IT'S GOOD ENOUGH FOR A PRINCE
HRH The Prince of Wales first discovered Transylvania back in 1998. A passionate supporter of the countryside and a keen amateur botanist, he fell in love with the place. He even bought himself a cottage in the tiny Saxon village of Viscri and has recently set up a charitable organisation, The Prince of Wales’s Foundation Romania, which aims to support heritage preservation, traditional agriculture and sustainable development. He has donated the house in Viscri to the charity and now has another guest house (below), in which visitors to the region can stay.
9. IT'S INCREDIBLE CYCLING COUNTRY
Over the past couple of years some imaginative locals have built over 80 kilometres of cycling trails from Sighisoara to Viscri. They enable riders to get well off the beaten track and see the best bits of some incredible countryside, including the celebrated forests. And if you choose your route carefully the cycling doesn’t have to be tough.
10. NO MEAL STARTS WITHOUT THE LOCAL TIPPLE, 'PALINKA'
Rural Transylvanians like to start a meal with a slug of double-distilled brandy, called ‘palinka’. This fiery aperitif sometimes reaches 60% alcohol content and is the perfect accompaniment to a traditional ‘ciorba’ or soup, some perfectly grilled pork and a plate of homegrown salad. Did we mention that if you spend a week staying in local homes and guest houses in Transylvania, you won’t eat a thing that hasn’t been homemade? The food is to die for . . . just like the place!