On the hunt for a hol­i­day

Beau­ti­ful land­scapes, out­door ac­tiv­i­ties, me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture — Tran­syl­va­nia has it all. But with Hal­loween around the cor­ner, Eimear Ryan vis­ited with one thing in mind — vam­pires

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside -

Eimear Ryan vis­its Tran­syl­va­nia

“What drew you to this trip?” we ask each other on the tour bus. “Why Tran­syl­va­nia?”

“Sure it’s some­thing dif­fer­ent,” is a com­mon re­sponse. One of the new­est ad­di­tions to Travel De­part­ment’s suite of ac­tive hol­i­days, Tran­syl­va­nia prom­ises beau­ti­ful land­scapes, out­door pur­suits, and me­dieval ar­chi­tec­ture.

I should prob­a­bly just say it up­front: I’m here for the vam­pires. Raised on Buffy

the Vam­pire Slayer and Anne Rice nov­els, I didn’t think twice about sink­ing my teeth into this five-night trip.

The first night is spent in Sighisoara, a pic­turesque choco­late box of a town: Think arch­ways, open squares, and bright­ly­painted shopfronts. It also hap­pens to be the birth­place of the his­tor­i­cal Vlad Tepes (1431-76) aka Vlad the Im­paler, the blood­thirsty Ro­ma­nian prince and in­spi­ra­tion for Bram Stoker’s

Drac­ula. How­ever, aside from the street named after him and the Nos­fer­atu-in­spired keyrings at ev­ery sou­venir stall, Vlad’s pres­ence in Sighisoara is quite min­i­mal. The me­dieval town is more in­ter­ested in mar­ket­ing its sta­tus as a Un­esco World Her­itage Site than in pro­mot­ing its most in­fa­mous son.

With our ex­cel­lent lo­cal guide Kriztina, we visit the 13th-cen­tury clock tower that dom­i­nates the town cen­tre. A small mu­seum is spread out over its four floors, but the real draw is the rooftop ob­ser­va­tion gallery, which of­fers In­sta­gram-wor­thy panora­mas, all red-slated roofs and roll- ing forested hills. We get an eye­ful of our next des­ti­na­tion, the Church on the Hill, an im­pos­ing white struc­ture over­look­ing the town. The climb to the church up a canopied walk­way is hard on the legs, but worth it for the views.

Our next stop is the tiny Saxon vil­lage of Vis­cri, where much of the sur­round­ing land is owned by Prince Charles. Our guest­house has royal in­signia above the gates. Ini­tially, I’m un­sure about the setup; we’ve been promised a tra­di­tional Ro­ma­nian home­s­tay, not royal treat­ment. How­ever the guest rooms, ar­ranged around a court­yard and each with their own en­trance, are lov­ingly re­stored and charm­ingly rus­tic. The vil­lage it­self is one long gravel road lined with quaint houses. Hens and sev­eral friendly dogs roam free, and it’s as com­mon to see a horse and trap go down the street as a car. There are no bars, but two small shops sell beer which you can en­joy out­side at pic­nic ta­bles.

We visit Vis­cri’s for­ti­fied church, a thick-walled, tur­reted build­ing that looks more like a small cas­tle than a place of wor­ship. In­side, rick­ety stair­cases of­fer a climb up into the bat­tle­ments and stun­ning views of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side.

Back at the guest­house, we’re served a three-course din­ner in a beau­ti­fully re­stored 19th-cen­tury barn: Cele­riac soup to start (Ir­ish palates be warned: Ro­ma­ni­ans like their soup at room tem­per­a­ture); beau­ti­fully ten­der pork, rata­touille and lo­cal wine; and goat’s milk panna cotta to fin­ish. My trav­el­ling com­pan­ions agree it’s the best meal we’ve had in some time.

The fol­low­ing day brings a change of pace: We ar­rive in Brasov, a cos­mopoli­tan city sur­rounded by the Carpathian Moun­tains. Our ho­tel is in the city’s main square, Piaa Sfat­u­lui, a mar­vel of Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture. There’s a touch of dark glam­our to Brasov, from the Hol­ly­wood-in­spired BRASOV sign in the hills that over­look the city, to the cable-car rides up nearby Mount Tampa, to emosound­ing at­trac­tions like the Lutheran Black Church. After vis­it­ing the church, I browse in Li­braria ˘ Ralu, a book­shop with a de­cent English lan­guage se­lec­tion, and grab a strong Ro­ma­nian Amer­i­cano at Ted’s Cof­fee. For din­ner I visit Si­mone, a bright and open hip­ster diner with im­pres­sive vege­tar­ian and ve­gan op­tions. I round the night off with a drink in Ti­pografia; a pint of the most com­mon beer, Ciuc, will set you back 7 lei (about €1.50).

On day four, we visit the Libearty Bear Sanc­tu­ary, a 160-acre for­est park that’s home to nearly 100 res­cued bears. Na­tive to Ro­ma­nia, these brown bears were put to work as en­ter­tain­ment, not just in cir­cuses and zoos but as nov­el­ties in res­tau­rants and petrol sta­tions, of­ten in tiny cages and hor­rific con­di­tions. (Be warned: The video pre­sen­ta­tion at the out­set of the tour is a tear­jerker.) The bears are shy but we catch glimpses of them climb­ing the trees and swim­ming in the rivers. We also get to watch a feed­ing, in which wheel­bar­rows of fruit, vegeta­bles, bread and meat are shov­elled un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously over the fence.

The tour of the park con­cludes with a visit to the nurs­ery. The res­cue bears are neutered, but one pre­co­cious ado­les­cent bear (af­fec­tion­ately named Casanova by the park rangers) man­aged to im­preg­nate two fe­male bears be­fore his ster­il­i­sa­tion. We get to see the two cubs frol­ick­ing up close as their moth­ers prowl pro­tec­tively along the fence.

Bran Cas­tle, an im­pos­ing 13th-cen­tury cas­tle and an in­spi­ra­tion for Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula, prom­ises some vam­pires at last. There’s a pleas­ingly rugged look to the struc­ture: Thick stone bat­tle­ments, huge fire­places, and bearskin rugs (we winced). There’s much to see through­out, in par­tic­u­lar the art and fur­ni­ture of Queen Marie, col­lected dur­ing the cas­tle’s

Bran Cas­tle, an im­pos­ing 13th-cen­tury cas­tle and an in­spi­ra­tion for Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula, prom­ises some vam­pires at last

time as a royal res­i­dence in the early 20th cen­tury. An en­ter­tain­ing ex­hibit on the up­per floors ex­plores the cas­tle’s vam­piric con­nec­tions. Dis­ap­point­ingly, the mu­seum can’t seem to make up its mind about Stoker’s na­tion­al­ity, de­scrib­ing him var­i­ously as Bri­tish and Ir­ish.

On our last night in Brasov, I ex­plore Ni­co­lae Ti­t­ulescu Cen­tral Park, walk down one of the nar­row­est streets in Europe (Strada Sforii or ‘Rope Street’), and en­joy a night­cap at Phar­macy Cafe, where the cock­tails come in test tubes, beakers, and con­i­cal flasks.

In the morn­ing we’re bussed to the Bucegi Moun­tains, part of the south­ern Carpathi­ans and fa­mous for their un­usual rock for­ma­tions. Our as­cent be­gins with an eye-pop­ping cable-car ride; one minute we’re hurtling through a pine for­est, the next we’re way above the tree­tops. The car even­tu­ally de­posits us at Bucegi Plateau, where the air is no­tice­ably thin­ner and colder: we’re 2000m above sea level here.

We have been ad­vised to bring hik­ing boots, which I ne­glected to pack. The guide looks in alarm at my run­ners, which I as­sure him are stur­dier than they look. We em­bark on a three-hour hike across mostly flat ter­rain with breath­tak­ing views. Apart from a long, steep in­cline at the very end, it’s a pleas­ant hike; my run­ners hold up nicely.

The fi­nal night of the trip is spent in the cap­i­tal, Bucharest. It’s late by the time we ar­rive but our guide still man­ages to fit in a whistlestop bus tour tak­ing in the im­pos­ing Palace of the Par­lia­ment and Revo­lu­tion Square. Un­like the me­dieval towns we’ve vis­ited, in Bucharest the coun­try’s Com­mu­nist past re­veals it­self in its Bru­tal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture and huge open squares.

After check­ing into Ho­tel Capi­tol, lo­cated in the univer­sity quar­ter, I head for the de­light­fully named Shift Pub, a trendy pub grub spot with a leafy beer gar­den. The menu of­fers a bit of ev­ery­thing, from burg­ers to pasta to seafood. I opt for a chicken que­sadilla with a side of gar­lic-tossed greens; with a beer; the whole thing comes to about 45 lei (un­der €10).

After­wards, I make for Pura Vida Sky Bar, a rooftop bar beloved of blog­gers in the Old Town. Get­ting to the bar in­volves walk­ing up five floors, but the view across the rooftops is worth it. By the late hour I ar­rive, the bar is packed with rev­ellers from the hos­tel down­stairs and space is at a pre­mium; by all ac­counts, it’s a great place to watch the sun­set..

The next morn­ing, I get up early for a fi­nal wan­der around Bucharest. Though I’ve strug­gled with tra­di­tional Ro­ma­nian food through­out the trip — cab­bage and stew feel un­sea­sonal in the warm weather — I’ve fallen hard for mitetei, lit­tle gar­licky sausages which ac­com­pany most ho­tel break­fast buf­fets. I spend most of the morn­ing in Car­turesti Carusel, one of the most beau­ti­ful book­shops I’ve ever vis­ited: Bright, open, and with spi­ral stair­cases reach­ing their mul­ti­ple floors. There’s also a cafe and a great se­lec­tion of lit­er­ary gifts; I buy more than a few sou­venirs here.

Tran­syl­va­nia re­ally is some­thing dif­fer­ent; a sur­prise pack­age that, while light on vam­pires, is full of his­tory, charm­ing towns, qual­ity cheap eats, and stun­ning scenery.

The TD Ac­tive hol­i­day gives an im­pres­sive over­view of the re­gion while also whet­ting the ap­petite for fur­ther ex­plo­ration: Bucharest, in par­tic­u­lar, would be well worth a sec­ond visit.

Clock­wise from main: Bran Cas­tle; Sighisoara; the Brasov cityscape; and Old Town Bucharest.

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