Bound by the Carpathian Mountains to the east and south, Transylvania has experienced a long and turbulent history at the hands of marauding invaders. In the 12th century, its vulnerability finally prompted local princes to employ seasoned Saxon architects, who constructed a network of defensive strongholds. The seven fortress towns of Transylvania are Bistrita, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Media, Sebes, Sibiu and Sighisoara and they defined the region in the middle ages.
Built along gothic and Romanesque lines, their churches and castles were so well-designed that they have survived centuries of European turmoil. Today, numbering more than a hundred, they represent a trove of historic architecture, not to be missed.
Equally, Transylvania’s natural backdrop is full of drama and intrigue. Virgin forests, craggy mountains, steep gorges and sulphurous caves all punctuate the region, home to three of Romania’s five national parks, not to mention fifty species of mammals including bears, wolves, lynxes and chamois goats.
Throughout its history, Transylvania has enjoyed periods of relative autonomy when it was ruled by decadent and eccentric princes – characters, no doubt, who inspired Bram Stoker too. Culturally, the region remains a bastion of old traditions, home to the so-called Merry Cemetery of Sapanta with its vivid brightly painted graves and the wooden churches of Maramures, some of the finest examples of folk architecture anywhere.
To glimpse ways of life that have changed little over the centuries, head to the villages of Tara Motilor – a remote and mysterious setting where horse and cart are still the main form of transport and most locals forge a living from blacksmithing and sheep rearing. Don’t forget to try the local cuisine, rich in mutton, veal and game, and all washed down with delicious plum and apple brandy.