By Anthony Lo Gelfo
Romania’s biggest region, Transylvania, could be famous for several things: the fantastic hidden mountain villages set amongst the dramatic Carpathians, the beautifully picturesque German towns, or the myriad of ancient ruins left behind by the Romans and Dacians. However, the first thing that pops into anyone’s head when you mention Transylvania is Bram Stoker’s fictional beast of a count, Dracula. That’s all well and good, but what if you want to visit the area without so much as a sniff of the devilish nobleman?
It can be done.
I was based in the university town of Alba Iulia a few hundred kilometers south of Cluj, Transylvania’s capital. The old town is situated completely within an 18th century fortress in the shape of a star, and the walk around the walls offers some fantastic scenery and gardens to admire — or, alternatively, many nice little places to stop off for a rest and a cup of coffee or a glass of the sublime local fresh lemonade. One such highly recommended place is a medieval restaurant called Pub 13, which serves plenty of excellent traditional Transylvanian fare and is set within the walls of the citadel, giving the diner an authentic medieval eating experience. The Medieval Salad here comes highly recommended, and don’t be too shy to try the Mamaliga (local polenta) or the other local specialties on the menu.
It was in Alba Iulia that the unification of Romania and Transylvania was signed on December 1, 1918, and the hall where the decree was signed is now The Museum of Unification, and well worth a visit, housing somewhere in the region of 150,000 pieces. History buffs will also enjoy the Bathyaneum Library, near the university, which holds some of the world’s oldest texts; however, visits here are very rare and special permissions are needed to see the oldest of the works.
Not far from Alba Iulia is the now famous (in Romania, at least) gold mining community of Rosia Montana. The mining activity here came to a halt in 2006. However, now a Canadian mining company wishes to start it up again using cyanide-based methods. This has caused great outrage amongst the Transylvanians and indeed the rest of Romania. Graffiti’d protests of “Salvati Rosia Montana” (“Save Rosia Montana”) can be seen far and wide in Transylvania and I even spotted some in the country’s capital, Bucharest. If you can make the trip, the area is worth a visit, with a guided tour of the gold mine (only possible for the non-claustrophobic of you, as you can see from the photo of the tunnel) and a small museum to check out. Being a mountain there are also some glorious views of Transylvania all around you.
Somewhere to the east, just 15 kilometers or so from Brasov, lies Rasnov Citadel. The fortress there today was built early in the 13th century; however, remains of earlier fortifications and earthworks have been excavated at the site. In its long history the citadel has resisted several invasions including those of the Ottoman Empire. Today the fortress is more accepting to foreign invaders and has opened its gates as a museum, a site of re-enactments, and a marketplace for several of the many local crafts and arts, such as jam making and wood carving.
The final stop on my tour of Transylvania took me to Sibiu, known as Hermannstadt (German town) in German. It was named the 2007 European capital of culture, and when you go there you’ll instantly understand why. It is one of the prettiest cities that I have ever visited, with row after row of symmetrical and wonderfully colored buildings outlining the town center’s many squares and cobblestoned lanes. In fact, Forbes ranked Sibiu Europe’s eighth most idyllic place to live. The large central “Grand Square” in the Upper Town is a great meeting place, and a playground for children who run laughing through the randomly timed fountains. Sibiu is also the site of many summer festivals, including Romania’s oldest jazz festival, the Rockin’ Transylvania festival, Transylvania Calling, and the Artmania festival, to name just a few of the largest.
During the day you can waltz to the top of the clock tower near the Grand Square and the Liars Bridge for some stunning views of the city and surrounding areas, or check out one of the many museums, like the ASTRA open air living museum of ethnography just to the south or the steam railway museum by the central train station. In the evening a drop of wine and some local food in one of the restaurants looking out onto the city’s squares is highly recommended. (Unfortunately I didn’t manage to pluck up the courage to try the pork brain escalope. Maybe next time.)
So if you’re thinking of visiting Transylvania but don’t want to spend the whole time under Dracula’s cape, remember there’s plenty more to do and see that doesn’t feel solely like a great big tourist trap. While I would still recommend visiting the famous Dracula spots (Peles and Bran castles), don’t feel like there’s little much else to Transylvania — because you’ll be missing out on a lot.
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