Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

My Kind of Place: Sink your teeth into a trip to Transylvania

From a staggering salt mine to the ‘world’s best road’, this historical region is not only for die hard Dracula fans

Bran Castle, famous for the Dracula legend, is now a museum open for tourists Getty
Bran Castle, famous for the Dracula legend, is now a museum open for tourists Getty

Why Transylvania?

It is famously known as the home of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but there’s so much more to this vast central region of Romania than bloodsucking counts and Gothic castles. Bordered to the east by the Carpathian mountain range, Transylvania is a lush expanse of farmland, vineyards, dense forest, lakes and picturesque castles. It’s a place of immense beauty, with charming cobbled cities steeped in tradition. For a spot of fresh air, a slower pace of life and spectacular landscapes, a visit to Transylvania is a must.

A comfortable bed

For a great introduction to and an overview of the region, Sinaia, Brasov, Sibiu and Turda can be successfully squeezed into a week-long trip, if you plan meticulously. Stay overnight in the quaint town of Brasov, and use it as a base from which to explore the regal Peles Castle in Sinaia, the summer home of Romania’s former king, Carol I, and the perfectly spooky Bran Castle, home of the formidable Vlad the Impaler, upon whom Stoker’s famous count is based. Hotel Ambient in Brasov offers a comfortable spot with double rooms, costing from about Dh320 a night.

Exclusive Hotel & More in Sibiu offers a great spot for relaxation and chilled Romanian nightlife, especially after a day exploring the stunning Balea Lake in Sibiu’s Fagaras Mountains, and the long, winding Transfagarasan Highway, famously named the “best road in the world” by Top Gear. Exclusive Hotel offers large studio and one-bedroom-style rooms, some with balconies. The decor is contemporary and high-end, with crisp whites, emerald greens and browns making up the colour scheme. Double rooms cost from Dh318 a night.

Visits to Turda for the salt mines, Salina Equines equestrian centre and Crama La Salina vineyard are also worth spots on your Transylvania itinerary. Sarea-n Bucate, part of the Crama La Salina group, offers rooms that are bright and airy, with grapevine vistas that stretch out as far as the eye can see. Many come with a small balcony. The hotel offers double and triple rooms, plus family and junior suites. Double rooms cost from Dh215 a night.

Find your feet

Your first port of call should be the Disney-esque Peles Castle in Sinaia. The scenery on the drive up to the mountainous resort is awe-inspiring. It’s dense with emerald-green forest that is studded with mountain chalets in bold primary colours. On arrival at the neo-Renaissance Peles Castle, built from 1873 to 1883 and serving as the Romanian royal family’s summer residence until 1947, you’ll first notice how fresh the air is, and then how bold and beautiful the building remains. Inside, its rooms feature finery befitting a king or queen. Wander through the stunning chambers, from the music hall to the majlis, then head outside to take pictures of the highly photogenic architecture.

The music room in Peles Castle. Courtesy Melanie Smith
The music room in Peles Castle. Photo by Melanie Smith

Next, head to Brasov, about 64 kilometres north of Peles Castle, and its nearest city. It feels like the Hollywood of the Carpathians, thanks to the sign in the hills that peeks out between the mustard, terracotta, lime green and blue buildings. Walk the cobbled streets, which boast vibrant Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. Marvel at the imposing Black Church, for which Brasov is known. It’s the largest Gothic church in Romania, and its intricate detailing will have you drawing comparisons with Paris’s Notre-Dame.

After you’ve had a ramble through Brasov’s streets, embark on a three-hour road trip to Balea Lake and waterfall to spy the epic Transfagarasan Highway. This winding mountainous road is like a souped-up Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road. It’s long and twists its way through the mountain, with postcard-worthy views along the way. Take the cable car for immense bird’s-eye vistas above the treetops. Once at the lake, you’ll be struck by the colours – the striking red guest house against verdant green foliage, the white ice sheets in the glacier lake, set at an altitude of 2,034 metres above sea level, and the changing shades of the water at sunset. The unsteady clamber over surrounding rocks will reward you with enviable Instagram shots.

View on parts of the Transfagarasan mountain highway in Romania, with cable car.
View on parts of the Transfagarasan mountain highway in Romania, with cable car. Photo by Melanie Smith

About a 200km drive from Balea Lake is Turda, where you can visit a stable, tour a vineyard and have lunch, before venturing into a disused salt mine 120m underground. This experience is recommended if you have asthma or any other respiratory problems, because it’s said the air in the mine is among the purest on the planet. It is also incredibly beautiful. On the upper level is an entertainment zone for kids and a Ferris wheel, so you can see the dramatic space, with its swirls and flares of white saline across black rocky walls, from different angles. At the depth is a pitch-black lake, caused by flood water, where scenic boat rides take place.

Turda vineyard. Courtesy Melanie Smith
View of the Turda vineyard. Photo by Melanie Smith

Meet the locals

For a glimpse of what life was like in the past and to see how the locals once lived, visit the Astra Museum in Sibiu, Europe’s largest ethnographic museum. The complex houses old Romanian villages, set up as they would have once been. For a more modern take on Sibiu, head out for an evening stroll through the Old Town, Grand Square, Little Square and Huet Square. At night these come alive, thanks to the busy restaurants and bars that line them and the markets that seemingly never close. The city was crowned European Capital of Culture in 2007 and it’s easy to see why. Strike up a conversation with the vendors and you’ll get a taste of Romanian hospitality and humour.

Book a table

In Sibiu, the mountainous Balea Lac Chalet’s restaurant serves up a traditional menu of seasonal specialities, featuring fish and meat dishes, including wild boar and red deer, and a lunch of polenta topped with sour cream and cheese. It’s a Romanian favourite and a must-try, though this warming dish is perhaps best eaten in the chill of winter, when you’re indoors sheltering from the snow. A three-course meal here costs about 90-100 Romanian lei (Dh75-84).

Alternatively, Exclusive Hotel & More serves an extensive menu of delightful mouthfuls – think marinated salmon carpaccio, with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and capers (35 lei); turkey schnitzel gratin, with tomato sauce and mozzarella (23 lei); and candied duck gammon and red cabbage with cinnamon and pear (35 lei). The restaurant also offers soups, salads, pastas, pizzas and grilled meats, and there’s a list of traditional Romanian plates and vegetarian dishes, too. A three-course meal here will set you back about 100-120 lei.

In Turda, meanwhile, after a day spent in the salt mines or at the Crama La Salina vineyard, settle down at a table in Sarea-n Bucate restaurant. It’s chic and sophisticated, with sleek and contemporary design details, dark woods and a glass front that opens out on to an extended terrace. The restaurant has access to the produce from local farmers. That includes milk, meat and bread, and the eatery’s dishes are wholesome, homely and nutritious. The menu offers a variety of soups, salads and traditional Romanian plates, as well as a range desserts that include a delightfully light crepe with white chocolate sauce. A three-course meal here will cost you about 100-150 lei.

What to avoid

While the Transfagarasan Highway is spectacular, the traffic at weekends can come to a standstill. The same can be said of the mountain roads to Sibiu in general, so if you’re going to drive, avoid the weekend rush.

Don’t miss

A highlight is the imposing 14th-century Gothic Bran Castle, home of both Stoker’s Count Dracula and Romania’s notorious ruler, Vlad the Impaler, who lends his backstory to the famous vampire. On our evening approach, a dark cloud hangs ominously over the castle, setting the tone for the visit.

Inside Bran Castle. Courtesy Melanie Smith
Inside Bran Castle. Photo by Melanie Smith

The guided night tour gives it a spooky, supernatural edge, not least because before you venture into its rooms and narrow stairwells, you’re given a potted history of Vlad, its most famous and fearsome resident. Our tour guide is just the right amount comical and creepy, slotting in terrifying tales of death and hauntings as we go. It all ends with a dramatic story and lift journey that I won’t spoil.

Getting there

Flydubai and Emirates fly direct to Bucharest from Dubai International from Dh1,395 and Dh1,735 respectively. Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi from Dh2,753.

Updated: September 14, 2019 01:24 PM

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