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Transylvania - Eating and sleeping
(micul dejun) This is often quite a simple affair enhanced with natural, local produce. Crusty bread (pâine) is accompanied by homemade jam (gem). If you stay with the Marins in Zărneşti, be sure to try Luminiţa’s superb jams made from wild cherry, rose hip and divine elderberry, for which a recipe is given below. Many small guesthouses offer their own yoghurt and the honey is more than often organic, from nearby orchard beehives. Lorries with many-coloured hives installed in the side of the truck tour the countryside pursuing the best blossoms.
Many people like the acacia but the best is said to be poliflora, made from a variety of flowers. There may also be cheese (brânză), which could be a Cheddar-like caşcaval or caş, an unsalted feta-esque ewe’s milk cheese, sometimes mixed with fresh dill and stuffed into fresh peppers. Peppers and the juiciest tomatoes you will ever taste are often served with a selection of salami and cold cuts at a traditional Hungarian breakfast, which is usually more savoury than sweet. If you’re going on a long walk in the countryside, you might start the day with an omelette, which can sometimes be quite oily due to the addition of cubes of fatty bacon (slănină). This is washed down with orange juice, tea with lemon or milk, or thick black coffee.
I stayed in a business hotel in Harghita County and noticed that the breakfast of choice for Moldavian businessmen was Red Bull and a ciggie. In Dracula, Jonathan Harker was served mămăligă (polenta) for breakfast and it’s the Transylvanian equivalent of Scottish porridge, an excellent heart-warming start to the day, popular with shepherds who need something to keep them going up in the chilly hills.
(dejunul or masa de prânz) This is usually the main meal of the day for most Romanians. Romanian cuisine, when served in restaurants, is pretty heavy and filling, a legacy of peasants living off the land and doing hard physical labour all day. Restaurant meals can still be a hit-and-miss affair, although they are improving by the hour. There is still an emphasis on meat which can be fatty and disheartening especially if you’ve just spotted a mountainous pile of aubergines in the market and fancy trying the divine salată de vinete (baked aubergine pulp mixed with garlic and oil).
For vegetarians, it can be hard work persuading your host that you actually prefer vegetables. As Dan Marin pointed out: ‘In homestays, the families provide pork-rich meals because they want to give guests the very best from their larders. We have to explain to them that people from different cultures (western Europe) may prefer vegetables.’ The author Alexandru O Teodoreanu, who wrote under the pen name Păstorel, enthused about Romanian cuisine and how it could be adapted for Western palates. Vegetarians can ask for something fără carne meaning ‘without meat’ or for mâncare de post, traditionally the dishes served during periods of fasting, still strictly observed by many in the religious population, when meat is avoided.
A typical lunch might begin with hors d’oeuvres (gustări) with a range of salamis and cold cuts, gorgeous home-pickled gogoşari (peppers) and castraveţi (baby cucumbers), excellent sources of vitamins for the winter. A personal favourite is zacuscă, a blend of tomatoes, peppers and carrots stewed in sunflower oil and served cold on thick chunks of bread or toast. Like most people in the region, Romanians and Hungarians really love their soups and have three different kinds: supa, ciorbă and borş.
Here, borş is not beetroot broth but a soup made sour by the addition of borş, a fermented wheat bran, sauerkraut and lemon juice mixture added to the liquid. Borş cu perişoare is a sour meatball soup. Ciorbă soups are also sour but pleasantly so and ciorbă ţărănescă is a wonderful vegetable soup which comes with or without meat but always with lashings of sour cream (smântană). Ciorbă de burtă (tripe soup) is very popular and not as scary as it sounds.
Mămăligă, made from stone-ground cornmeal (polenta) is the unofficial national dish and is as essential to Romanian cuisine as pasta is to Italian. For breakfast, it is eaten fried with a slice of bacon; at lunch, it is sprinkled with caş cheese and baked or served as an excellent accompaniment to sarmale (cabbage or sometimes vine leaves stuffed with minced pork) or ghiveci (a ratatouille-like stew of vegetables). At dinner, mămăligă can be served on its own or with sour cream, hard-boiled eggs, cheese or mushrooms sautéed in herbs and wine. For special celebrations, the super-rich balmoş is made by adding sour cream, milk, caş and urdă cheeses to the polenta mix while cooking.
A tocană (HU tokány) is a meaty stew seasoned with onions and spices, while those seeking the original version of Székely káposzta (Székely cabbage), a very popular dish in Budapest consisting of pork, sauerkraut and sour cream, could taste Varză de la Cluj (cabbage à la Cluj). There are also many versions of the Hungarian ‘national dish’ gulyás/gulaş (goulash) found all over the country.
Those staying at Count Tibor Kálnoky’s estate in Covasna County will have the opportunity to taste superb Hungarian home cooking, with excellent soups, meats, vegetables, fruit and puddings Magyar-style. At a Romanian guesthouse, we tried mititei (mici, or ‘wee ones’), which are a cross between spicy rissoles and skinless sausages. Mutton and goat’s meat is usually eaten in autumn when it is washed down with muşt (new wine).
Throughout Romania, there are more than two dozen words for ‘potato’ according to region (cartof, burgonya, krumpli, pityóka, picioici, barabule, krumpen, grumpen and pere de tere were some I heard). A delicious speciality from the Sarmizegetusa region is pup de crump, a kind of plate-sized fried, grated potato and brânză patty served with a mug of thick drinking yoghurt.
(cina) This is usually eaten between 19.00 and 22.00 and can be anything from a snack to a plate of mămăligă and fried meat. Locals drink wine, beer, mineral water and fruit juices with the meal and often finish with a soothing herbal tea. Să vă fie de bine! (I hope you enjoyed it!)
Transylvanians have embraced the global cola culture wholeheartedly, but fortunately there are many local drinks waiting to be sampled, from fresh sparkling mineral waters to healthy herbal teas to Turkish coffee, beefy red wines, clean crisp lagers and the lethal fruit brandies that will simultaneously blow the top of your head off and put hairs on your chest. At the Marins’ in Zărneşti, I drank the most delicious homemade elderflower cordial (socata) mixed with spring water. Many different and highly drinkable brands of mineral water are available (0.80RON a litre) all over the country in large plastic bottles and some of the best names are Dorna, Borsec, Harghita, Izvorul Minunilor and Perla.
Fruit juices are also well worth trying and one of the best places for this is the Fresh Healthy Drink Bar in Cluj-Napoca’s Sora Shopping Centre where 300ml of orange, apple and carrot squeezed on the spot will immediately revitalise. Romania is not known for its beers, but there are in fact some excellent brews from Miercurea-Ciuc, Cluj-Napoca and Timişoara. Beer is usually served in a halbă (HU korsó) or half-litre mug.
Although Romanian reds have had a good reputation in western European supermarkets since the early 1990s, excellent white wines also come from the Prahova Valley, just south of Braşov. Many restaurants only serve wine by the bottle, although this is changing. When serving the wine the waiter will occasionally ask if you would like a splash of sparkling mineral water to be added to your wine to make a spriţ (spritzer) which is very popular during the summer. Mulled wine (vin fiert) with sugar and cinnamon is great on cold winter days.
For something stronger, try ţuică fiarta (hot plum brandy with sugar and peppercorns). Drinks are not usually served with ice unless specifically requested. Coffee (cafea) is drunk enthusiastically throughout the country and it is often the thick Turkish variety. In the past, tea (ceai) was not usually drunk in cafés, but now it’s coming into fashion; check out the wonderful Demmer’s Tea House in Braşov and Flowers Tea House in Cluj-Napoca. Tea is offered in every guesthouse, bed and breakfast or private home. In Romania and Hungary, herbal teas are used widely.
These are made from dried herbs and grasses and in Micloşoara I had a local herbal tea blend of linden blossom, St John’s Wort (a natural anti-depressant) and peppermint, which simultaneously aids digestion and cheers you up. In Zărneşti, Luminiţa Marin has a huge basket of dried plants and flowers ready to boil up a hot infusion also comprising linden blossom, St John’s Wort, blueberry, yarrow (good for stomach complaints), mint or comfrey (soothing sore throats and stomachs, and known as ‘knitbone’ for its healing properties).
Transylvania has a blossoming tourist industry and an impressive range of accommodation to suit all budgets and interests. All towns offer endless varieties of old- and new-style hotels, pensions, apartments and hostels. Visitors can choose from an elegant family-run guesthouse to a rustic cabana in the mountains. Communist retro-chic hunters can stay in one of Ceauşescu’s personal villas or take a trip back in time to the beige 1970s décor of a Soviet-style hotel complex.
Hikers in the mountains can find refuge at a cabana mountain lodge while skiers and spa lovers will find a range of prices and standards at large hotel complexes. Prices have risen in recent years but Transylvania is still cheaper than almost anywhere in Western Europe. Many hotels now post their prices exclusively in euros and prices range from €16 (70RON) for a basic ‘sport hotel’ to €120+ (525RON+) for a night in a luxurious business hotel.
Many of the former state-run city-centre or resort hotels have either been refurbished or are undergoing major refurbishment programmes as international hotel groups take over and develop the facilities. However, there are still many examples of old-style hotels with creaking smoke-filled lifts, dodgy plumbing and erratic hot water, but these are mainly in areas off the tourist-beaten track.
Cities such as Târgu Mureş, Cluj-Napoca, Sibiu and Braşov now have swanky business hotels with boutique interior décor, Wi-Fi in the rooms and lobbies, and superb-quality restaurants. Service varies from indifferent and dour in the former state hotels and restaurants to a degree of genuine hospitality that is rarely found anywhere else.
Transylvania’s highways are littered with roadside motels. The E60 route from Braşov to Cluj-Napoca via Sighişoara and Târgu Mureş has many motels where you can enjoy anything from a restorative cup of coffee to a good night’s sleep. For example, the Dumbrava at Rupea has 20 clean rooms while the Motel Tranzit at Mihai Viteazu is a good place for a snack and a drink.
The gigantic Motel Darina near Târgu Mureş Airport is ideally placed for early or late flights but the restaurant is not very appealing for a longer stay. The National Tourist Office has a searchable accommodation guide on their website (www.romaniatourism.com) featuring 35 motels, although some venues on the list are more country club than roadside resthouse.
(pensiune) Since the fall of Ceauşescu in 1989 and the arrival of private enterprise there has been a boom in new, relatively small, private hotels and business hotels with the standards you would usually expect in the West. A good proportion of these have been built by Romanians who worked in Germany, Austria or Switzerland in the early 1990s and have now returned and invested their new-found knowledge and wealth into redeveloping the tourist industry.
Descendants of ancient aristocratic Transylvanian families, namely the Kálnokys and Mikes noble families in Covasna County, are two of the shining examples here. Both have sensitively renovated their estates, in slightly different styles. Tibor Kálnoky blended a traditional 18th-century peasant-house ambience and features with modern interiors and superior bathrooms, whilst Gregor Roy Chowdhury’s interior designer wife Zsolna Ugron created a designer boutique hotel within the walls of the Mikes Estate Machine House.
Tibor Kálnoky’s style of renovation even has royal approval and HRH Prince Charles asked Kálnoky to restore and manage his Saxon cottage in Viscri, now run as a small, private guesthouse. A tempting feature of these private guesthouses is the home cooking, with the opportunity to taste Romanian, Székely, Moţ, Kalotaszeg and Saxon specialities you wouldn’t find in a restaurant or café. Many guesthouses combine accommodation with offering a variety of day trips. Dan Marin takes visitors on walks in the gorgeous Piatra Craiului National Park while his wife Luminiţa prepares divine traditional dishes.
The Marins can also arrange traditional evenings with Roma music and dancing. This can also be tried in Sâncraiu where István Vincze-Kesckés organises great parties in a village barn.
Julian Ross’s riding stables have now been taken over by Count Kálnoky and Christoph Promberger has a stable and guesthouse near Braşov. The noble estates in Covasna County both offer an extensive range of trips, featuring birdwatching, bear trails, hiking and nature trails. Before 1989, tourist guests were forbidden in private homes and any prospective visitor had to sneak in during the night. Now, privately run guesthouses and cottages are springing up all over Transylvania and almost always have a very high standard of accommodation and family-style service.
Since the 1989 revolution, many families in the countryside have offered rooms in their houses to let by tourists. The deal works both ways as the extra money helps locals in places where there is high unemployment and poor infrastructure, while the visitor has the opportunity to meet real people, discover a totally different way of life beyond the glossy travel brochure and make lasting friendships, built on a real understanding, appreciation and love for the Transylvanian countryside, its outstanding natural, animal and human assets. Those who stay with a family will be treated like a long-lost relative and will find that nothing is too much trouble for the host.
During the spring and summer, it’s wise to book ahead, but in less busy seasons, you can just turn up in a village and look for a camere de inchiriat or cazare de particular sign. Select your village wisely though, as sometimes the homes are situated along a bumpy, pot-holed road which, if you make the guesthouse your base, will add several hours’ driving onto each day trip.
Guesthouses in the Apuseni Mountains and some villages in the Saxon fortress church region (Mălâncrav and Viscri) are very inaccessible. Even the two noble estates (Kálnoky and Mikes) take a certain amount of hunting down and tiring drives along bumpy roads. All the more reason, therefore, to book an all-in holiday and go for the pick-up service from Bucharest Airport, letting an experienced local negotiate the pot-holes.
Cabanas – mountain refuges
In the moutainous regions, there are more than 100 cabanas, otherwise known as hikers’ huts. These can vary in standard from a basic wooden chalet with hard bunk beds and cold water to an alpine-style villa with all the comforts of home. Some are in very isolated spots accessible only by a long, steep climb on foot. Cabana Peştera in the Bucegi Mountains is reached by cable car from Buşteni while Cabana Bălea Lac and Complex Hotelier Capra are near the peaks of the Făgăraş Mountains, close to the Transfăgăraşan Highway.
Specific regional hiking maps, which you can pick up at bookstores and street stalls, pinpoint the locations of many cabanas that allegedly never turn a hiker away. In popular hiking regions and seasons, such as the Făgăraş range in spring and summer, it might be a good idea to book in advance through a local agency. Bed prices in a remote cabana start from 10RON, while it could be a bit more in a more luxurious hut.