Mountain thrills and edgy art in Vlad’s former home

Drive a stake into the heart of those Transylvanian stereotypes. Yes, this region of Romania has all the moody castles and fog-draped mountains you can wave a crucifix at. But visit Transylvania today and you’re just as likely to sashay through a wickedly inventive art gallery, spy on bears, or ski the Carpathian Mountains.

Transylvania is experiencing a renaissance. Cluj-Napoca was dubbed an art city of the future by Phaidon, and Braşov is attracting as many nightlife lovers as vampire hunters. Horses and carts still rattle through the countryside, but they’ll soon share the roads with Uber cabs, as the app-based transport network sets up a new office in Bucharest. Meanwhile Transylvanian Airbnb listings are slowly amassing, excellent news for fans of social accommodation.

Beyond the towns, all eyes are on Transylvania’s real fang-toothed predators: wolves, lynx and the majority of Romania’s 6000-strong bear population. With the recent reintroduction of bison to the Carpathian Mountains, opportunities for wildlife watching are sure to become even richer. Controversially the government still issues hunting permits for animals perceived as a threat, and there’s been criticism of building sites encroaching on natural spaces. But attitudes are changing in a country once infamous for bear-baiting. Wildlife sanctuaries such as Libearty are thriving, while eco-conscious operators such as Ibis and Carpathian Mountain Tours ply the mountains. At long last Transylvania’s natural riches are taking centre stage.


Life-changing experience

There’s reinvention in the air in Cluj-Napoca, which is feted as one of Europe’s emerging art hubs. The acclaim is largely thanks to the Fabrica de Pensule (Paintbrush Factory), an art collective with six mini-galleries. But the buzz is helped in no small part by Cluj’s quirky museums and nightlife, which deftly marries cellar boozeries with a handful of achingly trendy indie bars.

Excellent snow for a small price tag is every skier’s dream. Best of all, in Transylvania there’s no need to hole up in a remote ski resort. Poiana Braşov is only half an hour from Braşov city, and Păltiniş, one of Romania’s highest resorts at 1440m, is less than an hour from Sibiu. Cutting-edge art and a taste for the piste haven’t eclipsed the rural Romania of your imagination. Fortified churches sprout across Transylvania, with some of the best in Biertan and Viscri. When a breeze rattles the pastel-coloured wooden shutters and scarlet-clad Roma villagers march through the fields, this region casts a powerful spell.

Still hoping for a glimpse of Dracula? Look hard amid the ‘Count Drankula’ souvenir T-shirts and forget what you have learned from Bram Stoker (whose 19th-century novel only takes loose inspiration from Transylvania). For some, the historical Vlad Dracul – son of ‘Dragon’ to his friends, ‘Impaler’ to his impalees – is a national hero for seeing off Ottoman invaders through a range of grisly tactics. Hardcore Vlad fans will want to venture to his strategic Poenari Citadel in neighbouring Wallachia, but the Transylvanian Vlad trail focuses on delightfully colourful Sighişoara, his birthplace.

Random facts

  • Don’t be surprised if your nose lengthens on Sibiu’s iron bridge. The 1859 span is known as ‘Liars’ Bridge’, thanks to haggling market sellers and (local legends claim) sweethearts declaring their virginity to one another.
  • The path from Buckingham Palace to Braşov might not seem immediately apparent, but Prince Charles supports a number of conservation projects in Transylvania. The UK royal has even planted a wildflower meadow at England’s Highgrove Gardens to remind him of the Transylvanian countryside.

Most bizarre sight

With gold-embossed murals and a multi-coloured tiled roof, Tàrgu Mureş’ Culture Palace is one of the region’s most bewilderingly beautiful sights. Wonders increase inside, especially in the flashy Hall of Mirrors (Sala Oglinzi). Here local folklore is lovingly embossed in stained glass, from fairy tales to Satanic ravishment. Shield the kids’ eyes for this one.

Regional flavours

Romanian sarmale, a cabbage leaf roll of seasoned meat, and mămăligă, cornmeal porridge, often studded with sheep’s cheese and bacon, are perpetually lavish plates. But in Svékely Land, where ethnic Hungarians outnumber Romanians, there’s an extra sprinkling of paprika. With Hungarian goulash, Romanian papanaşi (curd-stuffed donuts) and banquets of grilled meat, there are plenty of reasons to raise a glass of țuică, the local firewater, to the chef.

By Anita Isalska