The name “Transylvania” immediately conjures up misty forests, creepy characters, the stuff of legend. I really knew nothing at all about this area , and became captivated with the idea of a visit when I read on travel groups that there are cheap flights to Cluj, the capital of the region, which turns out to be a lively university town, only a short flight for us from home. This seemed attractive, as we are not really feeling up to doing long haul flights at the moment. The more I read about it, the more it seemed like a good autumn destination. How lucky we were! We went only for a week and the weather was indeed perfect- around 23C during the day, dropping to 3C at night (when we were safely tucked in under the covers). The mornings were crisp and mysteriously misty, and we had not one drop of rain. Of course had we gone for longer (as my brother suggested) we could have seen many more destinations- we quickly discovered the vastness of Romania, the immense distances between towns, but since we did not want to spend the whole day on the road and drive hundreds of kilometres, we contented ourselves with Cluj, Bistrita, Sighisoara and the village of Tilisca. This worked out just fine, and we ended up driving almost 1,000 km in the week. I had no desire to see Bucharest which was really too far, and what we saw was just lovely. So on to the trip.
After a 2.5 hour flight to Cluj which went amazingly smoothly we arrived with only hand luggage (trolley) at Cluj airport at 2pm. We were met by the smiling representative of Klasswagen car hire who swiftly transported us by shuttle bus to the car rental office. In 5 minutes we were on the way to our cute air bnb in the centre of Cluj, right by the Central Park. The lovely host Corina had sent me clear instructions where to park and how to get in, and all went smoothly and we quickly went out to explore Cluj, which we found to be charming and easily walkable. We found lovely squares and parks, lively students and lots of restaurants. The centre of town is medieval and we found the tourist office which was about to close at 5pm but the lady pointed us in the direction of a free walking tour which would begin at 6pm. We joined the tour and it was really good.
We left the tour early as we were starving and headed off to find a nice restaurant, which was not hard to do. Our pick was Epoca Bella ( after the first place we entered turned out to be fully booked) and very tasty it was too. From there we tottered home to gather our strength for the next day.
Sunday morning we got up and set off across the Central park headed for the Cetățuia (Fortress) Park from the top of which we were told we would see a lovely view of the city. Walking through the autumn leaves of the park was positively uplifting, and the climb up the park steps to the top was not too challenging. When we got to the top it was very misty but the view of city spires was really lovely.
We climbed slowly down and headed across the river to the historic centre to continue exploring. We found some of the places the tour guide had mentioned the day before, including the Jewish Museum and Mattias Corvin’s house, ( the oldest building in the city) where we enjoyed the exhibition of a Jewish artist who stood in the entrance, identified us as Israelis and said shalom. His work was very interesting. Unfortunately I omitted to write down his name.
We then walked around a bit in the centre of Cluj, and continued on to see the Cluj Synagogue, unfortunately only from the outside.
We finished off our second day in Cluj with the Botanical Gardens, which were very pleasant if not overwhelming. Since it was a sunny day everything looked very cheery. The Japanese garden we found to be rather sad, but then we had visited Japan in November 2019 so it seemed like a poor shadow of the real thing. If you have not been to Japan maybe you will find it pleasant enough. Be warned that the walk up to the gardens involves a rather steep hill, but not too terrible. We had just walked rather a lot that day, as we started with the climb up to the Citadel, but it was all lovely, and we felt that we had earned our lovely dinner.
After two lovely days in Cluj we headed off towards Bistrita, our next stop, by way of Colibița Lake. We had originally planned to head up north to the Ukrainian border to visit the Merry Cemetery and various painted churches. That was the reason for choosing Bistrita as a stopping point. However there are no highways in that area and the distances are huge, and we did not want to spend the whole holiday in the car. The lake proved to be an excellent place to stop and we very much enjoyed our coffee looking out over the lake at the lovely Casa Dani, which I suspect would also be a great place to stay; it is run by a lovely young couple, (the husband of course being called Dani). We then continued on through the most glorious forests all golden with autumn colours, until we reached Bistrita. The drive was just spectacular and very hard to capture, as there were very few stopping places to take photos. The roads are a bit winding, but it is just breathtaking at this time of year. On the way we passed through many villages with traditional buildings, and many farmers with workhorses and carts. It was all very charming.
We continued on towards our hotel, the Pensiunea Terra in Bistrita, a couple of kilometres from the centre of the very small town, and although the restaurant had lots of customers I think we were the only people staying there. After walking around the town a little, and finding the synagogue (closed) and the small public gardens, we returned to the hotel for a fantastic meal.
Next day we were headed for two nights in Sighișoara, the highly instagrammable town located about 150 km away but as mentioned the roads in Transylvania are not highways and you are frequently stuck behind a truck or a horse and cart, so the journey takes longer than one would think. On the way we stopped at Castelul Lázár in Lazarea, which turned out well in the photos, due to the morning mists, but was not really that interesting inside. We stopped again for a quick rest at Hanul Borzont Hungarian restaurant where we first enjoyed the decor (lots of wood and traditional artifacts ) , and then one of the best soups I have ever had. It was just perfect. Apparently this area of the country is disputed between Romania and Hungary, so the fact that D was wearing his Budapest sweat shirt was quite amusing..
We arrived at Carolina House in Sighisoara to find it deserted. There was a phone number on the door so I called it and soon a guy who spoke not a word of English arrived and gave us our room key. The place was gorgeous and only 10 minutes walk from the historic centre of town. Again we were the only guests. We were shown the lovely old style breakfast room and stroked the resident cute cat. Then we went into town to find the centre almost deserted by 6pm. I then remembered that the English girl I had talked to in Cluj had told me that most people visit Sighisoara on a day trip and leave by dark. We were happy to walk around and take photos without the hordes. It really is pretty, as befits a UNESCO heritage site, but somehow I missed the lively atmosphere of Cluj. There are plenty of restaurants both in the upper and lower part of the town.
It is important to realise that there are two parts to the town – the upper and lower, so you are going to be climbing up and down a lot. It was next day that we met the most tourists in our trip and they were all Israelis. We met three separate groups and of course exchanged information about where we had been and what we had seen. Sighisoara has nine towers, according to various professional guilds, for example the Furriers’ Tower, the Tailors’ , Bootmakers, Ropemakers and so on. Most were closed but very impressive, and the whole town feels like being inside a fairy story set in a medieval town. We then picked a nice restaurant in the lower town, on the premise that after a nice glass of wine we would not feel like staggering down the steps to walk home. The restaurant and the wine were excellent, but the food more Italian than Romanian. Next day we walked around the old town some more, this time approaching it from the top, and climbed up and down the covered steps also known as the Scholars’ steps to the School on the Hill . Of course there are lots of historic buildings to visit in the town; we passed on Dracula’s house which looked like a tourist ripoff. To round off Sighisoara we returned to the same restaurant which we had enjoyed the night before.
With only two nights left and the last one to be spent in Cluj near the airport, in preparation for the early morning flight home, our last real night was spent in a tiny village called Tilisca . It was the most unusual night of the trip, but we reached it after visiting another town, Sibiu. The town has a lovely large main square, with lots of restaurants and coffee bars, and a smaller adjoining square where you can see the Bridge of Lies ,which overlooks some of the most ancient buildings of the town. It is all picturesque and delightful. On the way to the old town we passed through the market.
Of course we could have spent much longer in this lovely town exploring its rich history, and we also considered visiting the Astra History Park but with only a week there just wasn’t time.
We departed Sibiu and headed for our last proper night,in the village of Tilisca. The guest house, Pensiunea Irina appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. It had good ratings and I thought it would be fun to sleep in a quiet place. It was possibly the most interesting night of our trip. After mistakenly walking into the neighbouring house and encountering the owner ironing her laundry, we finally found the door to the guesthouse which was locked. Another neighbour telephoned the house and eventually a young boy opened the door and called his mum. We met the charming Irina, with her limited but adequate English and her partner Chris, who spoke fluent English having spent several years working in Silicon Valley. They were extremely welcoming and we were the only guests and made to feel very much at home. Chris invited us into the dining room where there was ample tea and coffee laid out and then proceeded to present us with his home made pear liquor. We sat together talking for a long time about pretty much everything, getting refills of this beverage, whereupon we realized we were somewhat drunk and were unlikely to be driving into the next village for supper. Chris produced a menu and ordered us food from the nearby restaurant which belongs to some relative of Irena. The food was not great, but the company and the ambiance at Pensiunea Irena (which by the way has a stream running right by the bedroom) made up for that. We had a great evening and exchanged phone numbers with Chris before we left.
Next day, our last day in Romania, we got up and drove to Alba Iulia where we intended to visit the synagogue and the Citadel . However, when we arrived at the Citadel we saw swarms of police and lots of Orthodox Priests filing into the gate and queueuing up to go in. There was apparently some kind of conference or meeting going on there, so despite a policeman waving us into the parking lot, we continued to the centre of town where we parked in the Lidl car park to see the synagogue next door. The door was locked but there was a watchmaker’s shop next door and he beckoned to us, said in English that he would call the “head of the community” who would give him a key. As we were waiting for the key there was some commotion on the pavement outside where a young girl had suffered an epileptic fit and was surrounded by people wanting to help, call ambulances etc. By the time the key arrived, all was well and she was recuperating on a bench. The synagogue was quite nice and had been lovingly restored.
We then continued on to Cluj where we stayed at the (unmemorable) Pensiunea right by the airport for our horribly early 7am departure the next morning.
Romania was surprising in a number of ways- it was far cleaner and modern than I was expecting, but also much bigger. I had to eliminate many destinations on my Google maps due to the sheer enormity of the driving distances. We greatly enjoyed Cluj, and we saw and learned quite a lot in a short week. Highly recommended destination and appetite opened for further exploration of Eastern Europe.
Stay tuned for the next adventure!