Mention Transylvania and most people will instantly think of Dracula movies. But this picturesque and unspoilt region of Romania is fast becoming a popular tourist destination.
I spoke to Lucy Abel Smith, the author of Travels in Transylvania, published by Blue Guides, about her experiences of the region and why people should visit. Lucy knows the area well – she’s spent ten years renovating an old property there and also offers touring holidays through her company, Reality & Beyond.
Lucy started by telling me about the rich and unique culture that visitors can expect to find in Transylvania. “It has got so much history, because it really is at the heart of Europe,” said Lucy. “There are German-speaking communities, Hungarian-speaking communities, the Roma, the Jews, the Armenians and the Romanians. It is extraordinarily varied.”
Lucy says the reason she loves living in the country is because of the amazing scenery. “I feel totally comfortable there. It’s the quality of the landscapes and the stillness. And the people too.” The area highlighted in the book – the Greater Tarnava Valley – has remained fairly undeveloped, which means it’s retained a lot of its old-fashioned charm. Lucy told me the valley floor is still farmed largely by horse-drawn methods, but the upper grasslands are common grazing. “It means they have never been touched with chemicals so the wildflowers are extraordinary,” said Lucy. “There are also amazing forests of beech, hornbeam and oak.”
There are three key towns to visit in order to get a true taste of the region. “The most important towns are Cluj, which still has a large Hungarian minority, marvellous contemporary art and very good museums. There’s also Sibiu – the old heart of the Saxon community, with good restaurants and remarkable architecture. Then there’s Sighisoara, which is a UNESCO site and unique in being a still-vibrant and lived-in medieval fortified city.”
The food available in Transylvania is as varied as the people who live there, said Lucy. “You’ve got Hungarian cuisine, with its paprika, and Szeckler, a people over on the eastern side, who use less paprika. Their food is more meat and vegetable-based. Then you’ve got the Saxon food, which is rather German. There’s a wide range and choice.” And surprisingly, Romania has some excellent wines to sample. “They’re exporting like mad,” said Lucy. “The valley to the north of my house is famous for the quality of its wine.”
Lucy told me that Transylvania is also still good value for money for British visitors. “Eating out is cheap. Petrol is surprisingly expensive, but overall it’s at the cheaper end of travel. Hotels are not expensive and B&Bs are readily available.”
Just one word of caution from Lucy – don’t mention the famous fictional vampire to the locals. “They’re fed up with it,” she told me, but added, “There’s no doubt that the Dracula myth has made a lot of money. If you go to Sighisoara, where Vlad the Impaler was born, all you can buy now in the citadel are T-shirts with Dracula faces on them. I think this is a great pity.”
If you’re planning a trip to Transylvania, then you should check out Lucy’s guide, Travels in Transylvania, which is available on Amazon.