The history of Transylvania is best known for being the inspiration of vampires and the Count Dracula story. In the real world, it is a fascinating region filled with frozen-in-time feudal castles, fortified medieval churches, gorgeous parks, and cultural experiences.
Mention Transylvania, and eyes widen as people immediately delve into its relationship to blood-thirsty vampires. While there is a connection between Transylvania and Count Dracula, it is not what most people think. There is a real Transylvania filled with wonderful medieval sites and beautiful landscapes, and there is a make-believe Count Dracula.
Transylvania is not one city with a mysterious castle that once harbored vampires. It is a large central region making up one-third of Romania. Transylvania has a medieval history showcased in enormous castles that housed real royalty, magical villages where life remains simple and eco-friendly, and numerous parks offering breathtaking scenery and outdoor activities.
The region offers visitors plenty of opportunity to enjoy the natural environment, take part in cultural experiences, and relax, with the option of taking a bite out of history by learning from where the Count Dracula story emanated.
Separating Fiction from Fact
Transylvania is big. It covers approximately 39,704 square miles and has a population of almost 7 million people. Given its size and population, it is remarkable at how quaint much of the region remains and how well-preserved its villages and ancient buildings still are to this day. It is a part of the region's charm.
The story of Count Dracula as told by Bram Stoker is one of blood and lust. He is a mythical fiction figure modeled after Vlad Dracula who was called Vlad Tepes. Tepes means "the impaler." Vlad Tepes was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, Romania; ruled Walachia at different times from 1456-1462; and earned his nickname due to his method of punishing enemies.
Stoker first published his book in 1897, and it has never been out of print since. Everything in his story is founded on Transylvanian history, legends, and setting, but remarkably, Stoker never visited Romania. Many of the places mentioned in Stoker's book are real though, so a visit to historical Transylvania is also an immersion in the Dracula legend.
A good place to start appreciating Transylvania is by visiting medieval castles. It is remarkable that so many of these ancient fortresses still stand, and they are sturdy as ever. One of them is Bran Castle, which was not the home of Vlad Tepes but is called Dracula's castle because it fits the description in the book to a tee. The 14th-century fortress sits on a 200-foot cliff with turrets and steeples reaching for the skies. Walk through the rooms and imagine how difficult life was so long ago (think torture room), but it is also easy to imagine vampires lurk around every corner.
There are numerous medieval castles and structures in various states of disrepair.
Fagaras Fortress is a well–preserved feudal castle build in 1310 and enlarged in the 15th and 17th centuries.
This site has a real moat and was home to various princes.
Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Transylvania, is one of the most spectacular Gothic-style castles in Romania. Built on the site of a former Roman camp, it has everything you imagine a castle should have – Knights' Hall, inner courtyards, 50 rooms filled with medieval art, and so much more.
Transylvania's People Embrace the Past
Enough about castles. What about the villages and churches?
Transylvania's history and culture is best found in the villages where medieval cobbled streets and buildings are still in use and cities where gorgeous Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic buildings inspire awe. Wander the streets in Sibiu or visit the Black Church in Bra?ov. The massive Black Church is more than 600 years old; holds up to 5,000 people; and boasts sculptures, Oriental carpets and artwork. Be prepared to absorb a lot of information about Romanian history during times of war and peace.
A visit to some of the Saxon villages is certainly in order. Charming Viscri is a great spot for enjoying a traditional way of living. It is idyllic and an immersive cultural experience. Rural life in the many villages is a step back in time. You can mingle with locals who have preserved centuries old occupations like painting on glass, making cheese, sheepherding, and making bricks. There are UNESCO World Heritage sites, too, like the Biertan fortified church.
Fortified churches are just what they sound like. They were built with extra security measures so they could play a defensive role when necessary. Throughout Transylvania are numerous fortified churches that were built by the Transylvanian Saxons in the 13-16th centuries. These are well-preserved examples of unique medieval architecture and are difficult to describe because they are so unlike modern-day churches. They have thick walls, small windows, and various other features meant to discourage invasions. Their preservation is a source of pride for the region's residents.
Cultural experiences abound in Transylvania. For example, 3 km south of Sibiu is the ASTRA Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization. Found in one of the region's many mysterious forests, it includes a collection of windmills, peasant houses and public buildings from various time periods.
The villages of Transylvania are spread across the region, which is why some people choose to join tour groups or visit places like the museum to get an overall perspective. Each village offers something special, including arts and crafts, museums, preserved architecture, and narrow medieval passageways between brightly colored buildings.
Everyplace is a 'Sight to See'
You have to leave the larger cities like Cluj-Napoca, Bra?ov, Sibiu and Bistri?a, of course, to reach the villages. If you choose to stay in the city, there are art and music festivals, fairs, theaters, museums, restaurants, pubs, and nearby castle or two.
Traditional foods are delicious, often comforting, and reflect a mixture of neighboring cultures. Sarmale (cabbage rolls), ciroba de burta (tripe soup), balmos (shepherd dish) and mititei (caseless sausages) are just a few of the delights to enjoy.
Transylvania is also a haven for people who enjoy the outdoors. Covering more than 600 miles, the Carpathian Mountains offer skiing, snowboarding and hiking.
Numerous national parks are found in Transylvania, and each holds natural beauty. For example, there are glacial lakes in The Retezat National Park, located in the western range of the South Carpathians. It is also where you can see unspoiled primeval forest, a rarity in today's world. The Bucegi National Park has 14 nature reserve areas and shelters more than 3,500 animal species and 4,500 species. Rivers like the Somesul Cald River offer excellent fly fishing.
Journey Back in Time
The previous description is just enough to inspire an eco-traveler to start packing to enjoy the culture and natural environment of Transylvania.
The one thing that travelers should know is that Transylvania is not all about Count Dracula and vampires. The Dracula legend may be a good tourist draw, but it is only the beginning of a fascinating journey back in time.