Is Transylvania Real? Seeing Is Believing, A Land Of Myth & Legend
Watching cartoons as a child you must have heard about Transylvania, the land of count Dracula, a place where medieval peasants scour in fear at the mere mention of the count’s name.
But if you imagine that this place does not exist or that it is a pilgrimage hot spot for Twilight fans, you need to think again. Ok, the Twilight fans thing is real, but there is so much more to this place than the myth of the bloody vampire and foggy forests, that you are in for a real treat and experience.
The Transylvania Dracula Myth
Let’s start with what you may probably already know about the place.
- The fact that it is the place where a blood-thirsty Medieval ruler, known under the name of Vlad the Impaler, became the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula book.
- The book inspired various movies and characters and has built a very grim image of Transylvania as a region – or as a country, as some have come to think it is.
But let us put some things straight about the real Transylvania….
There Really Was A Vlad The Impaler
Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Țepeș, went down in international history for his preferred method of punishing his enemies: that of impaling people on a very long and pointy stick. This made for a slow and excruciatingly painful death.
And this is about the only intersection between history and reality. In fact, Vlad the Impaler is known among Romanians to have impaled the Ottoman invaders – Romania has always been in the way of the Ottoman Empire expansion toward the West of Europe – and the nobles who did not pay their dues – but who exploited the peasants for their own gain.
The Character In Bram St0ker’s Book
As compelling as Bram Stoker’s description of Transylvania and of the bloody prince was, it is pretty far from the truth.
For starters, Stoker never even travelled to the area. All of his descriptions were based on the travel notes of one person, notes he found in the library. Imagine basing your whole understanding of a place on the opinions of just one person. Would you go to a restaurant that has only one review on Tripadvisor? We think not!
As far as the thirst for blood and blood drinking from the necks of victims, here Stoker combined the stories about Vlad the Impaler with stories about a Hungarian noblewoman, said to have liked to bathe in virgin’s blood to maintain her youth.
Transylvania & Dracula Tourism
Many people travel from all over the world only to discover that things were not as they believed they were. They come to Transylvania expecting a gloomy place, wanting to see the birthplace of Vlad and Dracula’s castle.
In reality, Transylvania is a very green and lively place, the location of Vlad’s birthplace is not known, so don’t buy into those tours, and Bran castle is, in fact, a military location which has, in time, changed owners several times. It actually became one of Queen Mary’s favorite castles.
Its medieval décor gets people thinking about the time Vlad lived, but there is no evidence he was ever there. The castle was featured in several movies and music videos, insisting on spreading the idea of Dracula’s castle.
Still, if you go on Halloween, the locals will play along and let you have your fun. However, come with an open mind and willing to shake off common misconceptions about vampires.
The Real Transylvania
The name stands for “the land among the forests” and this is the fairest description of the place.
Outdoor lovers will have their fair share of trails, hikes, mountain resorts, picturesque villages, and chic little medieval cities you simply need to visit. Additionally, this is one of the absolute best places to visit in the Balkans in spring. Here are just some of the main attractions in Transylvania. Provided that you get this whole Dracula thing out of your system beforehand and you are ready for the real thing.
One Region, Eight Counties
Romania is a very big country, so you will get to say you’ve visited a Transylvanian city if you go to any of the following counties:
- Bistrita Nasaud
- Miercurea Ciuc
You can opt for accommodations in any of these cities, get to visit ethnographic museums, go to fairs, try out all the best restaurants and enjoy the local architecture.
Cluj-Napoca is the biggest city in the region and a Western Romanian urban pearl. Tourism has soared in the area and for a good reason. Sibiu and Brasov are other main attractions, probably more popular for some because they are closer to the capital Bucharest and there are many one-day tours organized for the area.
We kept bragging about lush forests you can easily get lost in. Although there are a lot of hiking trails laid out for experienced and non-experienced mountain goers, it is best to ask before setting out.
Transylvania is home to a large population of brown bears and they are known to make regular visits to populated areas. This means that, if you find accommodation at the outskirts of Brasov city, for example, you might easily spot a little Yogi and his Boo-Boo on the streets. Locals will usually call the proper authorities to chase the animals back into the woods. But do expect these sightings and try to avoid wandering into deep trails without checking with someone first.
The place is packed with virgin forests, glacier lakes, caves, gorges, and natural reserves. Some of the most impressive sites you must not miss are the Saint Anna Glacier lake and Balea Lake. If you travel to Romania in winter and you plan on seeing Balea Lake, situated at a very high altitude, you can even spend a night at the ice hotel, if you are into that sort of thing.
Among the most impressive caves, you can explore are the Bears’ Cave – a place where the bones of 140 cave bears have been found, a species which has been extinct for about 27000 years. Scarisoara Cave is another great place for explorers to visit. It hosts Romania’s biggest glacier and it was formed over 3500 years ago. Talk about a land before time!
Fortresses And Castles In Transylvania
Although many tourists flock with the expressed intention of seeing Dracula’s castle, there are many other castles and fortresses to visit in Transylvania. We have already mentioned Bran castle and we are not going to go over that again.
Rasnov fortress is only 20 minutes away and it is a very interesting construction. It dates back to the 13th century, it served a military purpose, and it is now a medieval art museum. You can even try shooting with an old bow and arrow or axe throwing.
The city of Brasov was built around the medieval fortress. You can visit the tallest lookout point, then take a walk through many of the old streets packed with history. Here is a great place where you can find rustic or 5 stars accommodations. There are towers dedicated to each city guild to visit, the famous Black Church, museums, and many more interesting places to visit. Poiana Brasov is the nearest mountain resort and famous ski destination.
Sibiu city is built around the medieval fortress, just like in the case of Brasov. There are just as many things to see, but we will add the incredible Astra museum, an outdoor museum of traditional houses from the Transylvania region.
In Mures county, you will find Sighisoara, the oldest inhabited medieval citadel. In Alba Iulia, the capital of Alba county, you will find the Alba Carolina Roman fortification, a very well-preserved architectural gem you will love to discover.
Poenari Fortress, located on the phenomenal Transfagarasan mountain road, is perched at a high altitude and in order to reach it, you need to climb up 1480 stairs. Warning: As you get closer to the fortress, you can see two impaled dummies. This image is not for the faint of heart and you cannot really avoid seeing them. Take care if you travel with children or people who are more sensitive. Do not set out for the fortress if you do not have time to get back before sunset because the trip through the forest and down the stairs will be tricky.
Hunedoara is home to what some think is the most haunted castles in the world. And they are referring to the Corvin castle. The place is remarkable in architecture and so filled with history and gruesome stories that it is no wonder that people expect something to be lurking in the shadows. We suggest you make up your own mind about it. Just don’t visit it after sunset and steer clear of the torture room and the dungeon if you are not into visual representations of pain and terror.
The nice thing about visiting castles in Transylvania is that there is no “one size fits all” type of construction. There are all different and exciting to explore. Some are of Roman origin, others have Saxon or Hungarian architecture, while some were monasteries and defense fortifications. There is a lot to see.
Animals And Wild Animals In Transylvania
Apart from bears, Transylvania is a place where a lot of other wild animals still roam free, like wolves and lynx cats. You can spot them on wild trails, although this is ill-advised, or you can visit some of the many reservations and special observatory parks. Look for such places in any of the above-mentioned counties.
A special treat is reserved for horseback riding. There are several locations where you can practice your favourite sport. Sambata de Sus in Brasov county is one of these most famous locations. However, be warned. The Lipitani Romanian horse breed is among the tallest. You might expect something taller than a pony and end up having to mount a huge animal. If riding is not your thing, but you still love horses, you can take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
Transylvania And Most Exciting Road Trips
If you are a fan of driving through some of the most beautiful scenery, then you will enjoy visiting Transylvania. You have not one, but two highway experiences: Transfagarasan and Transalpina.
Transfagarasan was also featured in a Top Gear episode and it is considered one of the most spectacular in the world. As the name suggests, it winds through the Fagaras mountains at an altitude of 2134 meters. It starts in Brasov and it takes you all the way up to Balea Lake. As you descend, you reach Sibiu and a beautiful area of Saxon villages.
Transalpina starts in Transylvania and ends in the Oltenia region. It is an even more dangerous road, one among the most dangerous in the world. It is known as the King’s Road, it is closed down most of the year because there are no protective walls and driving is dangerous. The peak of summer is the best time to have this experience.
An alternative to finding boarding at hotels in larger cities is to find a cosy B&B in one of the lovely villages in Transylvania. For instance, around Sibiu and Brasov there are many Saxon villages, build by merchants who had settled here in Medieval times and who contributed in fighting off the Turks. A stay in a these areas really open your eyes up to the local history and culture.
Picnics and brunches are organized in Sibiu with local food. They are held every Sunday, outdoors if the weather permits it, combining local cuisine with the discovery of a beautiful location.
Dracula aside, Transylvania is a wonderful place to visit packed with unique history and culture and a real gem for nature lovers.