The massive ‘hole’ in Romania’s doughnut, and indisputably the country’s defining destination, Transylvania is for now the only region in Romania with what Western Europe travelers would consider the bare minimum of a tourism infrastructure.
The area is huge and enjoys such a bounty of tourism attractions (not counting blood-sucking fictional characters) that nearly one half of the Lonely Planet guide to Romania and Moldova is dedicated to Transylvania alone. Saxon towns, mountain hiking/skiing, castles, the ubiquitous rolling farmland with little volcanoes of hay dotting the landscape… It really is wonderful.
The cities here are among Romania’s prettiest; Sighisoara, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca and the renowned center of it all, Brasov, ground zero for travelers. People flock (literally) to the castles at Bran, Sinaia and Râsnov. Moreover there’s hiking, skiing and caving waiting at the Apuseni Mountains, Bucegi Mountains and Fagaras Mountains.
Up until WWI, Transylvania was mainly overseen by Hungary, a relationship that went back a thousand years. Back in the 10th century, a Magyar (Hungarian) tribe, the Székelys, settled in what it called Erdély – or ‘beyond the forest’, the literal meaning of Transylvania. Saxon merchants starting descending on the area in the 12th century in an effort to shore up defenses of the Hungarian eastern frontier. They eventually established seven towns: Bistrita (Bistritz), Brasov (Kronstadt), Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg), Medias (Mediasch), Sebes (Mühlbach), Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and Sighisoara (Schässburg). They also introduced Transylvania’s German name, ‘Siebenbürgen’, roughly ‘seven boroughs’, though both the origin and significance of the name are in dispute.
Medieval Transylvania enjoyed relative autonomy, while being ruled by a prince reporting to the Hungarian crown. The indigenous Romanians at this time were serfs. Turkish forces conquered the region in 1526 and the region was again allowed to be a semi-independent territory, under Turkish rule.
Turkish supremacy was unseated in 1683 and the always opportunistic Habsburgs wasted no time in absorbing the region fours years later. Catholic Habsburg governors controlling the territory gave distinct favor to Protestant Hungarians and Saxons, effectively designating the Orthodox Romanians to third class citizen status. Nevertheless, when the Hungarians launched a revolution against the Habsburgs in 1848, Romania bafflingly sided with the Austrians. By 1867 Transylvania was once again exclusively under Hungarian rule. The relationship didn’t stay cozy for long, however. In 1918 Romanians amassed at Alba Iulia to demand Transylvania’s union with Romania. Hiccups during WWII aside, Transylvania got its way, and the region has been united with Romania ever since, a maneuver that served as a climax for the bad blood between Hungary and Romania, both before and ever since.
These days, outward resentment between the two ethnicities have subsided, though it doesn’t take much prodding for the average Romanian to launch into ugly, outdated propaganda-regurgitating trash talk about Hungarians – Romanians really know how to hold a grudge. Equally, Hungarians swipe back in their own ways, like publishing maps of Transylvania with only Hungarian place names (even the street names), as if they weren’t smack in the middle of Romania. Non-Hungarian tourists are the biggest victims in this instance. Publicly and politically, however, relations between the two countries are slowly strengthening and should ramp up as Romania integrates with the EU.
When Transylvania was pulled into the Romanian fold it brought with it a whole new gaggle of ancestry, namely the Saxon villages protected by the odd 500 year-old fortified church, and Hungarian towns in Székely Land like Târgu Mures.
My Top Five for Transylvania are as follows:
- The ‘big three’ Saxon towns: Brasov, Sighisoara (Dracula’s birthplace), and Sibiu
- Hiking and biking in the Bucegi Mountains.
- Wandering the backroads of Saxon Land by car or bike and visiting fortified churches, like in Biertan and hard-to-get-to, but stunning Viscri.
- Székely Land, where signs and random conversation are in Hungarian and towns like Târgu Mures still boast Habsburg architecture
- Staying in agroturism guesthouses in bucolic wonderlands like Sibiel or the Hungarian Huedin Microregion where you can bond with shepherds over shots of palinca.