Did you know Transylvania means The Land Beyond The Forest? (Trans across - Sylvania Forest land). I can hardly imagine a more atmospheric or intriguing name, and it perfectly suits this rural wilderness full of myth and legend. Rustic villages, horse-drawn carts, stunning scenery; here are 5 reasons to get Transylvania on your travel bucket list.
1. THE HAUNTED FOREST OF HOIA BACIU
Cluj Napoca is an arty student city and the main city in Transylvania. It has the hipster-friendly feeling of a gritty but gentrifying eastern European city, and on the outskirts, you find the forest of Hoia Baciu.
This place repeatedly makes it onto lists of the World’s Most Haunted Forests, thanks to a combination of local folklore stories, UFO sightings and some strange (apparently unexplained) growth patterns in the trees.
Alex, of the Hoia Baciu project, runs walking tours - day or night - through the forest and is an expert on all the local myths and legends. In fact he's something of a celebrity in Japan after he featured in a ghost hunting documentary.
Have you ever wondered how the legend of vampires began? Because it's not Hollywood. In fact there's a really strong basis in Romanian folklore. But they are not called Vampires, they're called Strigoi.
Head on over to my main Romania Travel blog to hear all about the legends of the Strigoi, and more strange stories about the forest. Or - if you dare, go and see for yourself with a tour with Alex via the Hoia Baciu Project.
2. THE VINEYARDS OF THE TRANSYLVANIAN PLATEAU
The Transylvanian Plateau shares a similar latitude to famous wine regions like Bordeaux and Tuscany, but at 1,500ft above sea level, the climate favours fresh, crisp aromatic whites. Here they grow international varieties like Sauvignon Blanc as well as local gems like Feteasca Alba (White Maiden) and Feteasca Regala (Royal Maiden). The scenery of this region is absolutely breathtaking. It’s genuinely some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
Romania is actually Europe’s 6th biggest wine producer but if suffers from a bad reputation in the UK which is why we see so little of it, despite the incredible quality-price-ratio (QPR) it can offer. I recommend visiting a couple of the great quality-focused producers in the region such as Villa Vinea and Lilliac and making up your own mind. Closer to Bucharest you have the warmer region of Dealu Mare (literally Big Hill) sharing an almost identical latitude of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone where you're spoilt for choice for boutique producers pouring their heart and soul into quality wine, especially from the powerful, spicy red grapes Feteasca Neagra.
To learn more about Romanian wine - and why it's had such a bad reputation - plus the grapes, regions and quality-focused producers you should look out for - head over to my main Romania blog: In search of Romanian Wine
3. FAIRYTALE CASTLES IN THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS
Transylvania is littered with castles. One of the most atmospheric, and famous, is Bran Castle, near Brasov.
Bram Stoker knew of this castle and it's believed he based his Dracula novel on it. However, Vlad the Impaler, the truely gruesome historical figure that inspires some of the Dracula tale, never actually visited.
You can obviously take a tour of the castle, but even just to drive by, and see the castle emerging in the mountainous landscape is an amazing sight not to be missed.
4. TRUFFLE HUNTING..... WITH A CHIHUAHUA
Truffles are not part of the Romanian traditional cuisine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t grow in abundance here in the forests of Transylvania. Mixed forests of Hazel, Beech and Hornbeam trees provide the perfect environment. Truffles aren’t regulated in Romania, which means it's quite cheap to go and hunt them.
Valea Verde, a lovely Resort in the middle of the Transylvanian wilderness organised for us to go hunting with Sandru and his truffle-snuffling dogs, Dick and Mucki, the Chihuahua. Dick, the larger of the dogs seemed to have a penchant for truffles himself; Sandru was frequently tussling with him to prize a truffle from his jaws, while Mucki, the Chihuahua, seemed to get away with it while Dick was creating a distraction.
5. TRACKING BEARS IN THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS
Talking of the Carpathians, did you know these mountains are home to Europe’s largest bear population? Interestingly, Romania has its communist legacy to thank for that since the forests were protected under the regime, maintaining precious connected habitats. The bear population lives in incredibly close proximity to humans, especially the rural shepherds that graze sheep in the foothills.
It's possible to take a hike through the Carpathian Mountains, and if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse. You will definitely see bear tracks, poo, hairs stuck to trees - evidence if their famously comical back-scratching - and other evidence of bear behaviour, such as clawed tree trunks and bark.
Because they live in such close proximity to humans, the Forestry Commission has developed the approach of designating a handful of feeding sites around the mountains. Food is dropped at these locations, which acts as a safeguard for the bears; rather than travelling down to the villages to scavenge for food, they will come here. It's important to keep them away from the villages in order to avoid them becoming too habituated, but also because they might end up shot if things get out of hand.
This initiative means you can go to one of these bear hides and have around an 80% chance of seeing them at feeding time, which is magical.
We did our walk through Danut Marin of Transylvanian Wolf, a highly respected nature guide, alongside his wife Luminita who is a fountain of knowledge about local folklore and traditions - and who cooks up a storm for breakfast - and lunch. You will not go hungry!
You can learn more about all of these experiences on my main Romanian travel blog: The Land Beyond The Forest: In Search of Romanian Wine