Transylvania, Romania (Day 1)

Romania has long been on my list of “would love to visit” – but again, it’s one of those places that seems too far out of the way for a two week jaunt in Europe. So, as part of my month+ plan, I made visiting a priority. One of the things I was most excited to do was visit Transylvania. Anyone who knows me well knows that Halloween and all of the lore, legends, and ~spooky~ things that go along with it are my favorite part of the holiday, and, of course, the classic “Transylvania” setting and distinctive font go right along with it. And, I’ll admit it, I was a preteen girl when Twilight came out, and vampires factored heavily in my adolescent media consumption. That being said, I didn’t want to have a hokey Romania experience, nor did I want to participate in any of the “visit the sites of Dracula!” tours – I really wanted to see what Transylvania was about (and, if there happened to be vampire lore, so be it).

As a woman traveling alone, I frankly had no idea what to expect when I booked a two-day / one-night tour of the region. I had absolutely no idea that Romania was as developed as it is (truly, everything I’ve seen, even in rural areas, suggests its as developed as anywhere in western Europe) and was reasonably wary about traveling in a car, alone, for two days with a complete stranger on a private tour. That being said, the tour agency (Rolandia) put my mind at ease and connected me a couple days before I left with my guide, Carina, who truly developed a customized itinerary of the region so ensure we could skip some of the uber-touristy sites (Bran castle, aka Dracula’s castle).

Long story short, it was an absolutely incredible trip – to the point where I actually decided to extend my time in Bucharest by 4 days just so I could enjoy more time in this beautiful country. Now, on to the good stuff – the Transylvania trip itself!

My guide, Carina, picked me up bright and early at my hotel in her blue Subaru and we were off. Honestly, it felt more like a girlfriends’ road trip rather than a guided tour in a lot of ways – she’d picked up a variety of Romanian snacks for us to try, we immediately bonded over a desire to stop for coffee multiple times on each leg of the trip, and, as she was only a couple years older than I am, our conversation naturally varied between and overview of the sites and their context, and more personal things, like a discussion of our respective travels, families and relationships.

First stop, we headed for the Peles Castle, which is on the drive up to Transylvania from Bucharest. I had actually requested to skip both “major” castles, but she insisted on keeping this one in the itinerary, and I definitely understand why now. Romania was granted a “kingship” rather than a “principality” much later than most European countries, so this castle was built for the new royal family in the mid-to-late 1800s and was only used for about 70 years, making it one of the best preserved royal castles in Europe. Of course, it has the ornate decor you’d expect, and includes a fascinating mix of architectural influences from the region.

While the exterior was gorgeous, the interiors were truly fascinating. Of course, there was incredible stained glass and specialty woodworking from across Romania and the neighboring regions. However, the family had also prepared rooms in a variety of “themes” – for example, a room designed to be in the style of the Alhambra, Spain’s famous Moorish palace in Granada; a room in the Ottoman style, purchased at auction at the World’s Fair to demonstrate the family’s wealth; an ornately designed dining room; a baroque Italian room with signature Murano glass chandeliers, mirrors and marble fireplaces.

After Peles, we went to our first Transylvanian site: the Prejmer Fortified Church. As a quick primer, Transylvania is the only place in the world with these medieval fortified churches, of which about ~150 remain, with 7 having UNESCO World Heritage site status. These churches are found in Transylvania’s “Saxon Villages” (which in and of themselves are protected as part of UNESCO World Heritage as well). Back in the ~1200s, the Hungarian empire invited now-German Saxons to essentially “homestead” Transylvania, bringing the culture to the region. The fortified churches were a characteristic part of their villages. As the church would have been the center of social life, it also made sense to be the place to go in times of attack – and thus, the churches functioned as a fortress, with large walls, moats, and room inside for each family in the village to have a room. Typically, the churches include a passageway through which villagers could enter the church without being seen (and, the wooden passageway in Prejmer was actually walkable today, although it was slightly rickety and definitely felt medieval!).

The Prejmer Fortified Church is on the UNESCO list, although the interior of the church is relatively sparse.

I personally preferred the Fortified Church at Harman, which is approximately ~10 minutes away from Prejmer. I have absolutely no idea why it isn’t on the UNESCO list, but frankly, it was much more impressive and truly cannot be missed if you find yourself in this part of the world.

Harman’s fortified church had a similar exterior to Prejmer, but had much more to offer. Inside the church itself, there are pews dating back to the mid-1700s, and you can see the wear on the wood. It also showcases a variety of Oriental Rugs, which were given to the church in the late medieval period when Ottoman villages nearby needed to fulfill their tithing requirements by giving 10% of their wealth to “god” – since there were no mosques in the region, the local church would do! Now, the rugs are on display, and it’s a gorgeous collection. The church also includes a beautiful tower by which you can view the surrounding town, climbing up similarly antique stairs (really, ladders) – and hear the bell up close, as I learned when it charmed on the fifteen minute mark and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Overall, truly one of the most incredible churches I’ve visited in all of Europe and by far the most compelling one I saw in Transylvania.

Most incredible about Harman is that the chapel has original paintings from the 1500s in a small chapel off to the side. The paintings are so well preserved that my guide was able to interpret the content based on her own Romanian Orthodox christianity, pointing out certain features and characters distinctly. Of special interest was the portrayal of Jesus as a “teacher”, the inclusion of John the Baptist next to the Virgin Mary, and the portrayal of damned souls as naked (incredibly humiliating), and going from “people” with distinct facial features to “creatures” with amorphous faces / skulls as they languished in purgatory and later, hell.

After this incredible church, I wasn’t sure how we were going to improve on our time in Transylvania, but it turned out that my host had a special surprise waiting for me: lunch in the village of Viscri, one of the best preserved Saxon villages in Transylvania. The town only has about ~400 full-time residents, but typically receives up to 35k tourists each year (at least it did at Romania’s tourism peak in 2019). Despite that, it truly has retained its rural, ages-old atmosphere and was among the most fascinating places I’ve been.

The village itself (as with most of the Transylvanian villages we drove through on our way) is styled in the Saxon model.

Essentially, homes “connect” via a front facade with a gate to allow entry (traditionally by horses, but now by car / tractor), and then each property will have its own plot of land that includes (from nearest-to-gate): an open air courtyard / living space, animal housing (i.e., chicken coops, hen houses, pig pens), a barn for larger animals and hay / feed storage, a garden, open grazing land for animals; near the front of the property, there will also be an enclosed living space, which includes the bedroom, kitchen, and perhaps a bathroom – the home we visited had a modern “outhouse” with some updated amenities (modern toilet, re-tiled shower stall), but some throwbacks too (wood-powered water heater, old school faucet).

Our hosts used to be on the main tourist circuit (their place is Greta’s Viscri 22), but have since quasi-retired and only host two or three visitors a quarter. I am incredibly thrilled I was one of the lucky ones! You’ll see on blogs about the Saxon villages that there are “no true Saxons are left” but Greta was the real deal, born and raised in the village, a native Saxon speaker (she can only speak it, not write it, as I learned when I asked for the name of the absolutely delicious cake she made us – we had to transliterate from Saxon to German to Romanian to English!). When we had a question about the opening hours of Viscri’s church, she spoke Saxon on the phone with a fellow villager. Truly an absolutely incredible piece of living history, and both she and her husband were so kind, welcoming, and friendly, not only making us an incredible lunch, but sitting and chatting with us for over an hour, showing us around their property, and picking us fresh plums for a parting gift.

Lunch itself was a treat. We tried a variety of (mostly Romanian, but a couple Saxon!) treats. The original menu included just soup, meatballs and mashed potatoes, but of course, they provided way more. Our meal included: the promised chicken soup with traditional dumplings – I never learned what the grain was, but it’s similar to polenta (it almost seemed like a type of couscous based on the texture) and apparently triples in size in the soup; Slanina, a traditional Romanian preserved pig skin / fat, salted and served with raw onion and bread (I was SUPER skeptical when this was described to me, but somehow it actually tasted like the best bruschetta topping you could imagine, creamy and tangy); Zacusca, an eggplant and red bell pepper spread; farm fresh milk from that morning, boiled to kill any bacteria; the meatballs and mashed potatoes; the most incredible cake I’ve tasted in a LONG time: “hanklich” (again, not sure how accurate this is due to the transliteration issues). The cake had no cheese (Greta insisted it was simply eggs, milk and flour), but had the creamiest, most rich texture. Truly, the meal was incredible. Of course, we had to have drinks too – all made at home as well! We had paulinka, the traditional plum liquor, a primitive wine, a sour cherry brandy, and fresh elderflower syrup.

This whole lunch / cultural experience was priced at highway robbery rates, costing around $12 (I tipped heavily). After lunch, they proudly showcased the rest of the property, showing us their mangalitsa pigs (which, FYI, become an extremely prized food item that you’ll pay a premium for at many fine dining restaurants) and their beautiful grazing space.

On our way out of the village, we visited another attraction: Prince Charles (of the United Kingdom)’s property – apparently he loved Viscri so much he purchased a home there recently, which led to the significant tourism draw.

I casually dropped by and took a peek – definitely looked like the super wealthy / updated version of the other homes we’d seen in town.

After that, we were on our way to our hotel for the evening in Sighisoara. On our way out of town, we passed a couple interesting sights. One was our first Romani / “gypsy” village (as my guide called it; I realize that “gypsy” is now widely considered a slur, although it seems to be quite pervasively used by Romanians here – my impression is that among the many, many misconceptions the western media has perpetuated about Romania, the lore about all Romanians being part of “gypsy” culture has been especially damaging and thus non-Romani Romanians want to distance themselves as far as possible).

My guide explained (again, please recognize there may be bias and/or discrimination present in these comments, although I appreciate her giving me a forthright perspective) that the Romani have a couple well-known characteristics: a) they are nomadic, although in modern times they will typically build permanent residences to return to, and many will live in villages on the outskirts of towns most if not all of the time; b) their primary goal is to accumulate wealth and they believe that wealth begets wealth and have no qualms about using stolen goods to accrue wealth, hence their poor reputation; c) wealthy Romani often showcase their wealth in especially gaudy ways, building haphazard mansions and taking names like “Mercedes” (after the car). Unfortunately, the village we passed didn’t seem to have any of the wealth described, and was one of the few places we passed where there was clearly abject poverty and a truly horrendous smell.

On a more positive note, the second was another beautiful fortified church, this one updated in 1832 (as evidenced by the ceramic tiling on the roof).

After that, we took in some of the beautiful Transylvanian countryside as we headed for our hotel! It was truly a great day filled with incredible sights, great food, and an amazing insight into a historic culture I didn’t know existed anymore.

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