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Transylvania - When and where to visit
Oh, where to begin? Transylvania is so stuffed with attractions of all types of adventurous, cultural, historical and natural interest that there really is something for everybody.
Transylvania is a great skiing destination with resorts such as Poiana Braşov © Brandus Dan Lucian, Shutterstock
Romania has a temperate-continental climate, with four distinct seasons. The spring is pleasant with cool mornings and nights and warm days. Summer is usually pretty hot and steamy with long, sun-drenched days. The hottest areas in summer are the lowlands in southern and eastern Romania where 40ºC is often reached in July and August. In recent years the summers have been significantly more sweltering. When I was in Braşov in June, the temperature reached a breathless 45ºC and Bucharest was said to have been even hotter.
During the summer, the landscape is occasionally blasted by incredibly violent thunderstorms with dramatic displays of lightning and sudden bursts of torrential rain. Then the sun reappears and it’s boiling hot all over again. When it gets unbearable, Transylvanians head for the mountains where the air is fresher and temperatures are cooler. Autumns are dry and cool, with meadows and trees producing beautifully coloured foliage, making the landscape look like a pastoral painting.
Winters can be bitterly cold and snow covered especially in the mountains where temperatures can drop to below –4ºF (–20ºC). A bitter, icy wind called the crivaţ sears through from Siberia, while spooky fog often envelops the countryside, especially at night, making driving difficult and visibility a problem. Many horse and carts are hard to spot and they travel at a snail’s pace on major highways, so be very careful if venturing out in a hired car. Heavy snow may fall throughout the country between December and mid March, although this does not occur every year.
The ski resorts around Braşov can usually guarantee good skiing conditions from November throughout the winter. Another problem comes when sudden storms cause flash flooding – the lands around Sibiu and southern parts of Transylvania were covered with floodwater in June 2007, and there was severe flooding in several areas of Romania in 2010 and 2012.
Romanian winters are cold, especially in the mountains and high plateaux of Transylvania. If you want to ski, the resorts south of Braşov, such as Poiana Braşov, Predeal and Buneşti, can virtually guarantee snow-covered slopes from November to mid March.
April and May are generally considered good months to visit Transylvania to see the spring flowers and avoid the searing heat of summer, especially towards the south of the region, which can last from June to August. If you don’t like the heat, head for the hills, as the mountainous regions of Harghita, Bistriţa-Năsăud and around the Făgăraş peaks are wonderfully refreshing and blessed with clean, fresh air. Cities such as Braşov, Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca can be stifling in summer, although Cluj-Napoca is a major student city and empties of youth in the summer break.
Autumn is a lovely season in Transylvania. The colours of the leaves turn the landscape into a beautiful painting. There are many festivals connected with the harvest and much pastoral merrymaking before the long, hard winter sets in. Spring and autumn are best for tackling strenuous hiking routes and give good opportunities for wildlife-watching, bird spotting and nature trails.
One of the largest and most impressive fortified churches stands at Biertan © New York Romanian Tourist Office
Oh, where to begin? Transylvania is so stuffed with attractions of all types of adventurous, cultural, historical and natural interest that there really is something for everybody. Those wanting to ski will find slopes that suit all from the beginner or families with young children to those wanting to ski off-piste or try cross-country skis on rugged mountain plateaux.
Those who would like to hike, cycle or just ramble through stunning countryside, track bear, lynx or fox, watch birds or admire wild flowers in the unspoiled landscape can find many places where they can wander undisturbed on a journey back in time. Culture vultures will enjoy discovering the Saxon villages, each guarded by a magnificent fortress church, and beautifully restored historic town centres crammed with museums, galleries, bars and restaurants. Horror fans can pursue the legend of Dracula and his inspiration Vlad III Ţepeş. Spa holidays are becoming increasingly popular and Transylvania is home to a number of fun resorts.
As getting around Transylvania is still quite tricky and time consuming, it might be a good idea to pinpoint your interests, but here is a general overview of things to think about including on an itinerary. It wouldn’t be possible to visit all 20 places in two weeks or do them justice, but be sure to catch at least half a dozen of these.
A personal top 20
• Sighişoara The most eye-catching Saxon fortress town, Sighişoara is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and birthplace of Vlad III Ţepeş.
• Biertan One of the most easily accessible Saxon fortress church villages, Biertan has great places to stay, eat, walk and ride horses.
• Sibiu European Capital of Culture 2007, Sibiu is full of fascinating museums, buildings, cafés and restaurants.
• Sovata Băi A relaxing spa resort with top-notch hotels, facilities and therapeutic wallowing in the salty Lacul Ursu.
• Zărneşti Wolf Tours Visit the Marin family at their lovely guesthouse in Zărneşti and spend the days walking and wildlife-watching in the Piatra Craiului National Park with Wanderlust’s Guide of the Year 2007.
• Count Tibor Kálnoky’s estate at Micloşoara Stay in beautifully restored guesthouses and go on fascinating day trips around the region in Micloşoara.
• The Mikes Estate at Zăbala Go bear-watching and explore remote parts of the Carpathian Mountains while staying at a luxurious boutique hotel.
• Turda Salt Mine A fascinating journey underground in the historic town of Turda.
• Turda Gorge A great place for a hike in beautiful countryside, Turda Gorge has a variety of morphological features.
• Bicaz Gorges and Lacu Roşu Incredible crags and a sinister lake.
• Braşov An exciting modern city with a medieval heart, Braşov is surrounded by mountains and hiking regions.
• Deva funicular Take a space-age ride up the ‘Hill of the Djinn’ in this lively town.
• Retezat National Park Hike in this national park to the scenic dam and see wildlife and wild flowers.
• Lacul Fântânele A tranquil and scenic spot in glorious surroundings of the ethnic Hungarian Kalotaszeg region.
• Prejmer The most impressive of all Saxon fortress churches with a fascinating history enclosed within mighty walls.
• The Apuseni Mountains With the Padiş Plateau, the Scarişoara Ice Cave and the contentious Roşia Montana gold mines.
• Mămăligă, Ciuc beer and ţuică Don’t miss out on Transylvania’s culinary delights: polenta, a huge range of fresh fruit and vegetables, great beer and the fiery spirits.
• Folk music Visit the village of Sic (Szék) for Magyar folk music or hunt down Roma musicians in clubs and restaurants all over Transylvania.
• Negreni annual fair (and girl fairs all over) The many open-air festivals with music, folk crafts, eating, drinking and general merrymaking.
• Transylvania film festival, Cluj-Napoca, a great place to spot the latest cinematic talents.
A long weekend
Fly to Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu on one of the low-cost airlines. In Cluj, spend a leisurely morning exploring the town, admiring the view of the rooftops from the citadel hill, gazing in awe at the stunning Gothic interior of St Michael’s Church and the controversial statue of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus – his birthplace is also nearby. Enjoy a sustaining lunch in one of the many student pubs in this young vibrant city and walk off the calories on a promenade around Cluj’s lovely botanical garden. In the evening, tuck in to a meal in a traditional restaurant before taking in a performance at the brightly coloured Romanian National Theatre and Opera House.
The following day, take a trip to the historic town of Turda where you will be stunned by the incredible museum down the salt mine. A refreshing walk through the scenic Turda Gorge is a great way to get some exercise and a taste of the Transylvanian countryside.
Alternatively, fly to Sibiu and spend the day wandering the streets of the beautifully restored historic centre. Don’t forget to visit the superb Brukenthal Museum to see displays of wooden religious sculptures before enjoying a pizza and salad on one of the many pavement café terraces. The following day, don’t miss the opportunity to whizz along the E68 highway to Braşov, one of Transylvania’s most impressive Saxon cities. Explore the medieval pedestrianised centre before taking a cable car up Tâmpa hill for a delightful meal with a view in the restaurant.
Explore the fortified church villages of the former Saxon population. Fly to Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu and stay locally in one of the traditional guesthouses in Biertan, Viscri, Saschiz or Mălâncrav, exploring the villages on foot, by bicycle or even on horseback. Alternatively, book a week’s all-in holiday at Tibor Kálnoky’s estate in Micloşoara and let the locals do all the planning, guiding, cooking and driving.
Fly to Bucharest and hire a car. Drive up to Transylvania through the wine-growing Prahova Valley. Visit one of Vlad the Impaler’s supposed old haunts at Bran Castle before calling in on Dan and Luminiţa Marin for a few nights at their Zărneşti guesthouse, some real home cooking and some invigorating and inspiring walks in the unspoiled mountains of the Piatra Craiului National Park. Make Braşov your next base and catch up on culture in this beautiful Saxon city. Follow the E60 highway to Târgu Mureş, taking in the gorgeous town of Sighişoara on the way.
You may want to stay longer in Sighişoara, so remember that this popular tourist destination can be overrun with crowds during the summer months and forward planning is advised. Check out a few Saxon fortified church villages (Saschiz, Viscri, Biertan) before heading for Târgu Mureş. You might want a breather by now, so visit Sovata and wallow in the warm, salty Lacul Ursu before catching your breath down Praid’s gigantic salt mine and picking up some folk pottery in nearby Corund. Târgu Mureş has some incredible buildings and you shouldn’t miss the stained-glass windows in the Art Nouveau creation, Palace of Culture.
The E60 continues to Cluj-Napoca but you might fancy a spot of hiking in the Apuseni Mountains or a lakeside rest at Lacul Făntănele in the Kalotaszeg region of gentle rolling hills and traditional Hungarian villages. Culture vultures will find two more easily accessible highlights in southwest Transylvania: at the star-shaped citadel of Alba Iulia and the mighty Corvin Castle at Hunedoara, an iconic image of Transylvania.