Transylvania: An impromptu road trip through Dracula country
I'd love to say our holiday was thought through down to every last detail. It certainly wasn't. It was an exercise in pure spontaneity. My partner and I only decided on the destination - Romania - three weeks before we set off last August and ahead of leaving, snatched moments to throw together a very loose plan for a road trip through Transylvania.
"There's wolves and Gothic castles and we might even wear Van Helsing hats," we exclaimed to anyone who questioned our choice, while showing them pictures of gorgeous countryside that a Google search quickly rendered. "Plus, Prince Charles has a house there - so it must be pretty good."
The idea was to fly into Cluj Napoca (known as Cluj) in the north and explore the region, driving south towards Bucharest, from where we would fly home. We booked a room for our first night, and figured we'd find our other accommodation along the way, relying on Airbnb and the internet - with the backup that we could always sleep in the car.
Day one: Cluj
Cluj is one of Romania's biggest cities and used to be Transylvania's capital, but it didn't look like much as we drove in from the airport - more 1960 concrete blocks than 1260 medieval stonework. Our apartment, inside one of the compounds of communist-era blocks, was massive inside, with a balcony that looked over the city and decor that hadn't changed since the Eighties (or maybe earlier), but at around $45 a night we weren't complaining.
We spent the evening in the Old Town, a mix of medieval and fussy Baroque facades. The real scene stealer here is St Michael's Church. Dark, Gothic and imposing, it is the obvious centre of Cluj, and the cafes in the surrounding Unirii Square are a good place to get a beer.
We soon found ourselves telling each other macabre made-up stories, as we stared into the darkened windows of the church and thought about our next stop: Transylvania.
Day Two: Cund
After a bit of late-night internet research, we decided that to get to the heart of the matter in Transylvania we needed to stay somewhere really remote. So we booked the next two nights at an Airbnb farmhouse in Cund, a small village three hours south of Cluj. After confirming, our host in Cund, Istvan, said we should stop off en route at Salina Turda, a former salt mine, now a tourist attraction. What on earth did Istvan mean? Was I that interested in salt?
Actually, it turned out I was. A subterranean cave of epic proportions, and complete with illuminated jetty and boating lake, the Turda salt mine has more in common with a Star Wars set than a museum. We happily lost a couple of hours in the chilly microclimate, before we were back up to the real world, where it was 30C and sunny and we were munching on langos - a delicious fried bread.
When we finally reached the tiny town of Cund the locals in the street stopped and stared. We later found out this was because our Bucharest number plate marked us out as metropolitan interlopers. But Istvan welcomed us with homemade apple juice, butter, jams, cheese, and another tip: the Valea Verde - a nearby restaurant on the culinary map for Romanians as far away as Bucharest. That night, we tramped up there on a dark, mud track aiming for a small light in the distance.
On the menu was potato soup, cheese curds honey and homemade bread, a main of duck, and a rich cake to finish. Everything on the table was grown, raised, or baked within a mile of where we were sat, and prepared by an unflappable team of local women, who finished their shift with cigarettes in the garden while we drank the house negronis late into the night. The five-course set menu paired with Romanian wines cost us $78 - expensive for Romania, excellent value almost anywhere else in Europe.
Day Three: Sighisoara
We'd seen the remote side of Transylvania, so what next? We took another punt on Google, which told us that a 40-minute day trip from Cund was Sighisoara, a Unesco-listed citadel originally built into a rock face built by the Transylvanian Saxons in around 1280. We wandered through its cobbled streets, and briefly considered kitting ourselves out in various leather and linen outfits that were on offer from the shops.
At one edge of the citadel we reached the Biserica din Deal, an understated church with a hillside Lutheran graveyard which, perched metres up from sea level, enjoys a pretty good view over the Greater Tarnava Valley. It was a place to pause before investigating the painted houses and trinket shops below - like a seaside town, without the sea.
Day Four: Brasov
We had two days left and, over our last breakfast at Cund, deliberated how to spend it. We needed to finish in Bucharest, but the internet had higher praise for Brasov in the Carpathian Mountains - so we managed to book a flat there for one night, and set off on the two-hour drive.
It was a beautiful road with views over wild flower meadows to castles and churches, then, high up on the slopes that overlook Brasov, I spotted the name of the city proudly displayed in white capital letters among the trees a bit like Hollywood.
Brasov has good reason to be confident. It has both beauty and history: massive stone walls and bastions built by the Saxons surround the city and the pretty central square. We wandered from our hillside apartment in an area of the town that had a feel of Montmartre, along cobbles and past cafes and curiosity shops toward the Black Church: the biggest, oldest, Gothic church in the land.
It turned out that not far away was Bran Castle, one of the homes of Transylvania's famous literary export, Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), and somewhere that, I learned too late, is rentable through Airbnb. It was one moment where a lack of advance planning caught us out.
Day Five: Bucharest
After breakfast in Brasov outside a side street cafe, we were ready to see the Carpathians up close. This was the most scenic drive of the trip. Ascending the mountains in a series of hairpin bends through fir forests, we gawped at the views over Brasov and the route we'd left behind.
As we came to flatter, comparatively boring land, we knew we were nearing the capital, and our apartment in one of Ceausescu's featureless apartment blocks. Grotty, gritty Bucharest was a far cry from the prettiness of Brasov, or the peace of rural Cund, but we found some respite in Titan park, our local for one night only.
That evening in the neon light of a late-night bar we found ourselves pining for the green hills and flower meadows we'd left behind. Should we abandon our return flight and head back to Transylvania?
That would have been taking spontaneity a step too far.
- The Telegraph