Transylvania - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

Throughout history, the territory of present-day Transylvania has been home to many different races and cultures.  Over the centuries, various migrating people invaded Romania. Transylvania was successively under Roman, Magyar, Habsburg, Ottoman and Wallachian rule, while remaining an autonomous province. As a political entity, Transylvania is mentioned from the 11th century as part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It then became an autonomous principality under Ottoman sovereignty in 1571, in 1711 part of the Habsburg monarchy (Austro-Hungary after 1867) and part of the Kingdom of Romania after World War I. Cluj-Napoca is considered by many to be the region’s historic capital, although Transylvania was also ruled from Alba Iulia during its vassalage to the Ottoman Empire, and the seat of the Transylvanian Diet was moved to Sibiu for some time in the 19th century.

The puffer-fish shape that we today call ‘Romania’ has been around only since 1918, when the historical provinces of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania were finally united to form a single state. As everything that went on in the central European region was so convoluted and interconnected, when talking about Transylvanian history, it is important to mention briefly some of the significant historical events in the other territories as well.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

Transylvania – the wilderness at our door

grassland, Transylvania, Romania by Claudiu Paizan, Shutterstock
The Transylvanian countryside is ideal for exploring by foot or by car © Claudiu Paizan, Shutterstock

A combination of very good forest management, traditional and wildlife-friendly farming activities makes Transylvania one of the best places in the whole of Europe for wildlife. Large numbers of wolf, bear and lynx still inhabit the forests that surround this place. Natural selection has ensured that there is a very good and healthy population of red and roe deer and wild boar. The variety of habitats – flood plains, river margins, hay-meadows, forested hills and high mountains – are good homes for an impressive number of species of butterflies, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Wild plants and animals have always been very important in the traditional life of Transylvania. The folklore (traditions, stories, beliefs, superstitions) related to them is fascinating, with national festivities dedicated for instance to one flower, Our Lady’s bedstraw. There are also folk tales that give the wolf a positive significance, which is something quite unique throughout Europe.

Transylvanian flora

Transylvania’s botanical richness echoes its historical, cultural and ethnic diversity. The plateau (Câmpia Transilvaniei), locally hilly and dissected by rivers, is bordered to the south by the Transylvanian Alps, with the high Făgăraş Mountains reaching 2,544m on Mt Moldoveanu, to the west by the low Apuseni Mountains, and to the east by the Eastern Carpathians. Because of its location within the Carpathians and rich traditional farming culture, Transylvania retains high biodiversity and intact ecological systems. The cool dark forests and the colourful and often plentiful wild flowers are among the many pleasures for the visitor to this unspoiled region.

The forests of Transylvania are a mixture of beech, spruce, fir and sometimes oak. They are particularly lovely in autumn. Romanian forests have the highest regeneration rate in Europe. Historically much of the region was wooded, with a mosaic of woodland, scrub and grassland on steeper, unstable or dry slopes.

However, human clearance for farming has greatly reduced the woodland cover over large areas of central and northern Transylvania, and semi-natural grasslands too have retreated. Much of the landscape retains woods of hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and oaks, mostly sessile oak (Quercus petraea) and pedunculate oak (Quercus robor). Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is often intermixed with hornbeam, especially on limestone and along ridges and on slopes, sometimes with small-leaved lime (Tilia cordata).

The margins of these beech–oak–hornbeam forests, still widely present in southern Transylvania, often have a fringe of the striking yellow- and violet-flowered endemic cow-wheat (Melampyrum bihariense), more or less restricted to Romania. The woodland flora is sparse but includes spring-flowering plants such as wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), coralroot (Dentaria bulbifera), Helleborus purpurascens and spring pea (Lathyrus vernus), and orchids in early summer. A few woods of downy oak (Quercus pubescens) occur on dry slopes.

Woodland along streams and rivers is dominated by alders, willows and black poplar (Populus nigra), sometimes festooned with wild hops. Wood margins often have scrub dominated by blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), with hawthorn, wild pear, privet, dogwood, spindle and elder. As farmers abandon some agricultural land, scrub spreads and develops into woodland.

Wood-pasture too is widespread, for example in the Saxon villages and the adjacent Székely Lands to the east and north, with great oaks or other trees growing as spaced individuals in grassland. A fine historic example lies just outside Sighişoara, on the plateau known as the Breite, where hundreds of veteran oaks grow in a clearing surrounded by dense woodland. The grassland is not wild flower-rich but has heath plants such as dwarf brooms, and scarcer species of damper grassland such as great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis).

Unfortunately the Breite, despite being a nature reserve, has been inadequately grazed and hornbeam scrub is invading formerly open grassland between the trees. Some other wood-pastures have been felled or over-grazed, but large stands survive on the fringes of the Carpathians.

The spectacular wooded mountain scenery has many good plant habitats. In the foothills and lower slopes of the Eastern and Transylvanian Carpathians up to 1,400m, the dominant trees are oak and beech. In lower woods grow endemic Transylvanian hepatica (Hepatica transilvanica), the candelabra-like martagon lily (Lilium martagon) and ancient relict species such as Ligularia sibirica, alongside the commoner oxslip (Primula elatior) and, in wet places, marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) and brook thistle (Cirsium rivulare).

From 1,000m, beech grows in ‘mountain forest’ with sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), silver fir (Abies alba), and Norway spruce (Picea abies), which forms dense stands. Spruce in its native habitat is no spiky ‘Christmas tree’, but a tall, elegant spire of drooping branches.

People and culture

Abridged from the Culture section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

The multi-cultural land of Transylvania has given birth to many colourful, often eccentric, characters. The stunning landscape has provided lyrical inspiration for poets and painters, while the turbulent history and unusual mix of nationalities and religions has given authors plenty to chew on. Craftsmen and women find motifs for woodcarving, embroidery and ceramics in the natural world while Transylvanian architectural influences have reached far beyond the Carpathian Mountains.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály set out on a journey around Transylvania, noting down over a period of seven years the folk melodies preserved previously only by the oral tradition. The skills of Roma musicians from Transylvania are famous the world over. Romanian cinema is also enjoying a renaissance and the annual Transylvanian Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca is a huge draw with famous stars of the silver screen in attendance.

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