Transylvania instantly conjures images of vampires, bats and Dracula. But there’s far more to this region of Romania, which Nicola and I set out to discover on a surprise trip for my thirtieth birthday.
The day before my birthday, Nicola handed me a little box that contained a little hand-drawn map declaring that we were going on a Transylvanian road trip that very afternoon. So I promptly set about packing, and before long we were on the way to the airport.
Romania is surprisingly far from London. We landed at about 2am, picked up our rental Skoda and headed to a little Airbnb in the small town of Sibiu. When I woke the next morning, Nicola was preparing a little Romanian birthday breakfast with ingredients she had somehow procured overnight, before we leapt in the car and headed towards our first stop on the road trip, Brașov.
A delightful little Romanian town, Brașov’s main claim to fame, according to the Lonely Planet, is that a bear once wandered into the town square. As we were wandering around Brașov, we chanced upon ‘Rope Street’, which claims to be the narrowest street in Europe. We decided that this is probably completely untrue, but this hasn’t stopped hem putting up a little plaque. For 2018, the street has been adorned with street art by local artists, making it a delightful 50-second stroll. If you’re in the area, it’s certainly worth a brief diversion.
We spent my thirtieth birthday lunch sat in the town square, eating sandwiches made from breakfast leftovers and keeping an eye out for bears. From the central square you can see the white letters of a huge ‘BRASOV’ sign which the council installed on the hill above the town, in some bizarre attempt at recreating the Hollywood sign. It’s not a bad attempt, actually. Good for them.
For the evening of my birthday Nicola had booked for us to stay in a mysterious place called the Zabola Estate. After a drive through some beautiful landscapes alongside the Carpathian Mountains, we arrived at a pair of rusty, anonymous iron gates with nothing but a long, shadowy tree-lined track beyond. By this time it was starting to get nearer dusk, and we were parked at the gates of some haunted estate in a remote part of Transylvania. It was, quite frankly, pretty creepy.
But after a slightly concerned Nicola made a phone call, a distant cloud of dust appeared at the end of the track, and a friendly guy drove towards us to open the gates, beckoning us to follow him into the grounds of the Zabola Estate. And it was absolutely magnificent. At the end of the driveway, a grand country manor looks over a boating lake, with carefully manicured gardens and fountains, all surrounded by lush dark green pine forests. We entered the manor house, where a vast log fire was burning in the front room, and hundreds of candles had just been lit, giving the whole place a smoky, autumnal air.
We were shown up to our room, which was suitably palatial, with a roll top bath and a massive shower and a bed roughly the size of our flat in London. Nicola had arranged a bottle of Champagne (you’re only 30 once!), so we sat in two grand armchairs and marvelled at how nice the room was.
With about an hour left of light, and with a glass or two of champagne inside us, we untied a rowing boat for a quick explore of the lake. The staff had advised us not to venture away from the manor house after dark, due to the bears that roam free in the forested estate. We didn’t need telling twice.
Dinner that night was in the grand dining room, where there was no menu. You simply eat whatever the chef has been cooking on that particular day. Luckily, my birthday coincided with ‘beef log night’, which is exactly what we fancied. ‘Beef log’ turned out to be a delicious fillet steak, with roasted vegetables and a rich sauce. For dessert, the chef brought out a birthday cake which Nicola had arranged with a local bakery, and she had somehow surreptitiously slipped the waiter a ‘30’ candle. Wonderful girl, that one.
One of the reasons Nicola had planned a Transylvanian road trip was so we could drive on the Transfăgărășan. This 56-mile winding road passes over the southern part of the Carpathian Mountains, and was built at the request of dictator and all-round nasty chap Nicolae Ceaușescu, in order to get troops over the mountains in a hurry. Although it was never used by soldiers, it’s a road which has hundreds of twists, turns and hairpin bends as it climbs towards the peak.
The Transfăgărășan is an incredible, scenic road, and is we had it almost entirely to ourselves. As we climbed higher in our trusty rental Skoda, a dense fog descended, and fresh snow began to appear on the roads. This would be bad enough on a normal road; it was slightly more hair-raising when you realise you’re on a mountain pass with frequent vertical drops. After some very careful driving, we eventually reached the top, where we parked in a snowy car park to walk to Bâlea Lake, a crystal clear glacial lake at the top of the mountain pass.
We arrived at the viewpoint and found that, in place of where the lake should be, there was just even more fog. We couldn’t see a thing. After a few minutes and with the snow threatening to get a lot deeper, we returned to the car to head back down from the mountains. We paid our 20p fee as we left the car park, but the chap on the barrier refused to let us pass, looking at our ticket and frowning. It turned out we hadn’t quite stayed quite enough to qualify for minimum tariff, so he returned our fee. We would never have been any the wiser if he’d simply pocketed the 20p. But he didn’t. What a nice, honest chap.
The next stop on our road trip was Bran Castle, perched high on a rocky outcrop above the small town of Bran. We wandered around inside, commenting on the furniture and what we’d do if we owned it. The highlight for me was the handy network of secret staircases between floors, although I fear the layout may flummox the chap making the floor plans for Rightmove if they ever come to sell the castle. It was like something out of an M.C. Escher painting.
Despite Bran Castle apparently having no discernible links to Bram Stoker or Dracula, word hadn’t yet reached the surrounding souvenir stands, which sold all manner of tat, from vampire bat cuddy toys to spectacularly bad Dracular figurines. I lost Nicola in the maze of market stalls for a few minutes and found her proudly purchasing a small painted wooden egg, which will apparently be adorning our already cluttered Christmas tree this year.
That afternoon we headed towards the little town of Cincșor, where Nicola had booked a night in a converted schoolhouse alongside a fortified Saxon church. Of course. The schoolhouse was beautifully restored, with a giant library filled with thousands of books, most of which were written in German instead of the Romanian language, as we had expected. We learnt from the owner, Michael, that a significant part of Transylvania was inhabited by Saxons until very recently, yet few remained after Communist rule. Michael and his wife moved to Cincșor from Germany a few years back, determined to restore the church to its former glory, and preserve some of the Saxon heritage in the region.
Part of the schoolhouse had been converted into a restaurant, and once again, we found out that dinner would be whatever the chef was cooking. In a surprising twist, it was also beef log, which we washed down with slightly too much good Romanian wine, before retiring to our room and playing a silly game on Nicola’s phone which involved impressions of celebrities and probably kept most of the school awake. Oops.
We had just checked out of the schoolhouse and were plotting our route to the final town on the road trip, when Michael offered us a short tour of the church which sat alongside the schoolhouse. It was an interesting tour, and we spent a couple of hours touring the building and its fortified courtyard, learning plenty of information which is likely to come in useful when we next find ourselves in a pub quiz with a Romanian Fortified Saxon Church round.
The last leg of the road trip was back towards Sibiu, where we hadn’t had time to explore when we had arrived a few days before. It’s a lovely, little town, rich in culture and history. According to our guidebook, Sibiu was the location of Romania’s first school hospital and library; today Sibiu has an air of culture and . It reminded me slightly of Vienna. We wandered around the old town, dipping in and out of coffee shops and cafés, which was a thoroughly delightful way to spend an afternoon. One of my highlights were the architecture of houses in Sibiu; many of them have little narrow windows set into the roofs, giving the whole town a rather sneaky vibe.
Fearing a third night of beef log, and fancying a bit of variety, Nicola and I shared an almighty pizza at a cosy little restaurant on the edge of the old town, before heading to a little wine bar a few doors away from our Airbnb. Here, our Romanian let us down once again and we accidentally ordered a whole bottle of red instead of two glasses, and not wanting to be rude, proceeded to sat at the counter and work our way through it. It was a lovely place to while away our final evening in Romania.
We both decided that Transylvania is a hugely underrated place. Turning our visit into a mini road trip made it perfectly easy to explore side roads and scenic routes, and to generally discover with the area. Romanian food is great, the wine is delicious, the scenery is majestic and unspoilt, and the people are warm and friendly. A road trip through Transylvania feels like you are discovering a completely new region, rather than stomping along a well-trodden tourist trail.
And, throughout our time in Transylvania, we didn’t see a single vampire.