TRANSYLVANIA (Romania) by car
Cluj Napoca - Targu Mures - Sighisoara - Biertan - Viscri - Harman - Prejmer - Brasov - Rasnov - Bran - Poienari Castle - Transfogarian Road - Sibiu - Cristian - Marginimea Sibiului - Hunedoara - Alba Iulia - Turda - Cluj Napoca
Transylvania has always been on our "must see bucket list", but due to its proximity to the place we live, we kept postponing the visit, saying we would always have time to do so.
The time had come when a certain low-cost airline opened a new connection between our city and Cluj Napoca. And the tickets went on sale for a very good price.
Knowing we have to make a quick decision, we called our friend couple. It took us about 10 seconds to convince them to join, and soon four of us started making travel plans.
Transylvania was a perfect destination for a longer weekend: beautiful, easy to travel, full of romantic castles and friendly people.
We hope the following itinerary will help you plan your own trip. And maybe speed up your decision to visit Transylvania, even if you hate the Twilight Saga and change channels on Blade.
So... we wish you a good journey. Or, as Romanians say, drum bun!
Driving distance: 160 km/3 h (Cluj – Targu Mures: 107 km/2 h, Targu Mures – Sighisoara 53 km/1 h).
We landed in Cluj Napoca at 4 pm. At the airport, we got picked up by the Klass Wagen agent and quickly transferred to their office, where we rented a car. All smooth and very fast. Having more time till the sunset than we expected, we decided to visit Targu Mures on the way to Sighisoara.
It took us 2 hours to get to Targu Mures. The road was all right, and we really liked what we saw. Especially the gypsy caravans settled down near one of the villages we passed. Colorful horse wagons, bonfires, all the scenes you know from the fairy tales about gypsies - they were all here, in front of our eyes.
In Targu Mures, we parked near Piata Trandafirilor (one of the two central squares, another is adjacent Piata Victoriei) and took a short walk around.
We wanted to visit the Palace of Culture with its famous stained-glass windows, but it was already closed.
We left Targu Mures when it was getting dark, and we reached Sighisoara (1-hour drive) by night.
Our hotel was located in the middle of the old town, so we decided to leave the car in the parking lot at the foot of the citadel and climb up the walls on foot.
It was 9 pm, and we were hungry, but all restaurants were either closed or full. It surprised us a lot, as it was the peak summer season and the town was full of tourists who were hanging around in search of places to eat and drink, just like we did. Having no choice, we came back to our hotel, where we ordered lots of alcohol and some cakes (the kitchen was already closed). It worked well.
Happy and full, we went to sleep at 1 am (but not before a photo session appropriate for the place we stayed).
Driving distance: 212 km/3 h 40 min (Sighisoara – Biertan: 30 km/30 min, Biertan – Viscri: 72 km/1 h 20 min, Viscri – Harman: 90 km/1 h 30 min, Harman - Prejmer: 10 km/10 min, Prejmer – Brasov: 10 km/10 min).
After breakfast, we went to explore the medieval Sighisoara. We started with Church on the Hill and the surrounding Saxon cemetery. Too lazy to climb the old wooden stairs, we used the nearby road to get to the hill (the stairs we used on the way back).
Then we decided we'd like to have some exercise after all, and we climbed the fourteenth century Clock Tower, for the best view of the town.
Near the Clock Tower, there's house where famous Vlad The Impaler, known better as count Dracula, was born (you'll see a plate on the wall). Nowadays the house contains a restaurant. At its counter, you can pay 5 lei for seeing the room where Dracula was presumably born. The centerpiece of the room was... surprise, surprise... a coffin. With a vampire inside. The vampire didn't speak English but had no problem explaining that nowadays he's hungry for tips instead of blood.
It took us only 10 minutes to get from Prejmer to Brasov. A bit longer if you count looking for a spot to park a car (Brasov is not Sighisoara, it's much bigger and far more crowded).
After finding our hotel, we spent more than an hour to find a place to eat. There were dozens of restaurants, all open till late (unlike the ones in Sighisoara), but we came during a long weekend (public holiday on Tuesday), and literally ALL tables were taken.
Driving distance: 260 km/5 h 15 min (Brasov – Sinaia: 50 km/1 h, Sinaia – Rasnov: 40 km/50 min, Rasnov – Bran: 30 km/35 min, Bran – Curtea de Arges: 110 km/2 h 20 min, Curtea de Arges – Posada Vidraru: 30 km/30 min).
We planned to wake up early and take a cable car to Tampa - the mountain which overlooks Brasov (it's the one with Hollywood style Brasov sign on top). However, our previous night with Romanian wine was longer than we expected and as a result - we overslept... We had a quick breakfast and a quick tour around the city, and we hit the road again.
in 6 days
As for the itinerary - although we had missed Sinaia, we left it on the map and in the driving distance description. We still think it is totally possible to see Sinaia along with other places we mentioned in the text, on the same day. Only not during holidays or weekends, when the traffic is dense, and the sightseeing of crowded castles takes much longer.
Driving distance: 255 km/ 6 h 50 min (Posada Vidraru hotel – Sibiu: 125 km/5 h 30 min, Sibiu – Hunedoara: 130 km/ 1 h 20 min).
Our comment: the driving distance through the Transfogarian Highway is individual. The maximum speed is 30 km/h, but add some time for stopovers (countless viewpoints for pictures and at least one food break).
From the salt mine, we drove to our hotel located in the old town of Turda.
After late breakfast (our flight was early evening, and previous night we decided to cancel our plans of trekking in Turda Gorge, so we had time) we drove back to Cluj Napoca (about 30 minutes).
We visited a botanical garden, strolled around the old town and had a late lunch in vegan Samsara Foodhouse.
Near Cristian, there is a string of 18 villages, named Marginimea Sibiului, considered one of Transylvania's best-preserved ethnographic areas. Age-old traditions, customs, and celebrations, as well as the traditional occupation of sheepherding, have been carefully passed down from generation to generation in these villages (on our map we marked them yellow). We chose to visit five on the way from Cristian: Orlat, Fantanele, Sibiel, Vale, Saliste, and then go back to the highway (A1). Unfortunately, it was already 6 pm, and all museum (like the Museum of Painted Glass Icons in Sibiel) were closed. We just passed through the villages to get a glimpse of a life there.
The last part of our driving to Hunedoara (we had a hotel booked near Hunedoara) was fast and smooth, as we took the highway.
Driving distance: 150 km/2 h 25 min (Hunedoara – Alba Iulia: 80 km/1 h 10 min, Alba Iulia – Turda: 70 km/1 h 15 min)
After breakfast, we started with visiting Gothic-Renaissance Corvin's Castle. It is one of the largest castles in Europe and figures in a top of seven wonders of Romania.
Our comment for photographers: if you visit the castle in the morning, you will have to deal with taking photos against the sun.
W H A T T O S E E N E X T
Appreciating the concept, we hung around a bit more. Unfortunately, the time was not on our side, and as much as we loved Sigishoara, we had to move further.
The next place on our list was Biertan, one of the most important Saxon villages with fortified churches in Transylvania, having been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1993.
The fortified churches, mainly Romanesque and early Gothic, were strengthened by high walls and towers to provide refuge and protection from the Tatars and Turks. You will find many of them on your journey through Transylvania. Each is different, interesting and individual, but because of their big number and our short holiday, we decided to visit only those from the UNESCO list.
During our visit, Biertan hosted the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival, but again - time was tight, and we had the long road ahead, so we had no chance of getting even a glimpse of it.
On the way to Viscri, we passed through Sighisoara again. The road was very good at the beginning, but soon our GPS told us to detour. We traveled through some fields and smaller hamlets, passing by the original mobile beehives (yes, you read it well, see the pic below) and countless herds of cows. We loved it.
When we reached Viscri, it appeared to be a beautiful, picturesque village. We came here for another fortified church, this one built around 1100 and now also placed on the UNESCO list. It was fascinating and, in my opinion, the most interesting of all fortified churches we visited during our trip. Don't even think about skipping it.
The village was a bit crowded, and we wondered where all these tourists came from, as we hadn't passed a single car on the side road. The puzzle has been solved soon - there's another road, much better one (concerning technical condition, not the view) if you come from the direction of Brasov. We used it on the way back, and after a short drive, it connected with the main tarmac to Brasov.
Just before the turn, we saw a view that made us all articulate the long "wooooooow": Rupea Fortress. No guide book had told us about its existence, and it just emerged on us from literally nowhere. Unfortunately, we had no time to visit the fortress, so we just parked on the side of the road and stared on its size and power for a few minutes.
The next on our list was Harman - another fortified church from the UNESCO list. We reached the entrance at 6:01 pm, the exact time the church was being closed. Fortunately, the caretaker was a good man let us in. The church was very impressive and the museum very well organized and interesting. You could not only peek into the life of people stuck inside the walls during a siege but also feel like a defender - the museum provides access to the ramparts.
From Harman, we went to Prejmer with - surprise, surprise - yet another fortified church from the UNESCO list. Unfortunately, it was closed, and we could see it only from outside.
Our plan was to start with Sinaia and its two beautiful castles: Pelisor and Peles. However, it was Sunday, and it was a long weekend in Romania, so pretty soon we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Our Google helper predicted it would last more than an hour. Very disappointed, we had to change our plans and turn back to Rasnov.
In Rasnov we visited the impressive fortress, built in 14th century by Teutonic Knights as protection against invading Tartars.
From there we went to the most famous of the Transylvanian castles - Bran. Bran Castle owes its fame to the myth created around Bram Stocker's Dracula. And although the terrifying count never really lived here, all visitors feel deeply obliged to put the castle in the first place of their "must see in Transylvania" list. So did we.
We knew it would take more time than planned when we saw a huge line to the ticket counter. Then we had to wait in another huge line to the entrance. Then we visited the castle in the turtle speed, as the chambers were packed with visitors.
The castle is indeed beautiful, but try to avoid it on weekends and during holidays.
No far from Bran the road goes through the very picturesque mountainous landscape. We stopped at the viewpoint for some photos.
Next, we passed through Curtea de Arges, where we planned to visit the monastery, where Romania's first two kings and queens are buried. Unfortunately, it started to rain, and we lost our enthusiasm for sightseeing so without stopping we went straight to our hotel.
We had booked rooms in hotel Posada Vidraru, 30 km north of Curtea de Arges. Normally we don't write about hotels on our blog, but this one was so special, we make an exception.
Built recently, near the Vidraru Dam, Posada Vidraru makes an excellent break from a long drive. The rooms are new and nice, the restaurant good and affordable, and the surrounding areas (lake and forest) are perfect for strolling (only not at night - if the warning signs were right, the place was adored by bears as well). In addition, the hotel organizes the boat trips on the lake. The single regret we had was that we stayed there for only one night.
After breakfast with a view over the lake (the hotel restaurant is glazed), we strolled to the dam to contemplate its magnitude. It's one of the largest hydroelectric plants in Europe and offers amazing views of the Vidraru lake.
Then we drove back about 7 kilometers, to Capatenii Pamantului, where the real Dracula Castle, Poienari, is located.
Unlike Bran, Poienari was a true home to Vlad the Impaler. What is rather straightforwardly reminded to visitors by two poor wretch's corpses impaled at the entrance. The castle is actually not a proper word, as all that remained is basically a stock of bricks, but the ruins are very picturesque and provide a spectacular view of the mountains. Just remember that to reach the castle you need to climb more than 1500 steps.
From Poienari we drove back through the dam and up the mountains.
We won't write too much about the rest of the Transfogarian Highway here, as we plan to do it in another article. We'll just leave a couple of pictures, so you know what you lose not taking this road:
The next pin on our map was Sibiu, the city where houses have eyes. We hang around for some time, soaking in the historic ambient of the old town and having rather modest lunch in Weinkeller restaurant (nice place for wine tasting, with so-so food and rather unpleasant staff).
From Sibiu, we drove to Cristian - a nearby medieval village with a fortified church built the 13th century. The church was impressive, but we spent more time admiring the numerous stork nests (with storks) sitting literally on every electric pole along the main street.
Next on our list was Alba Iulia, one of the oldest settlements in Romania. Nowadays the main attraction of the town is the citadel built between 1716 and 1735. We visited the citadel and had an excellent lunch in Studio Restaurant (located exactly between the double walls).
From Alba Iulia, we drove directly to Turda Salt Mine (Salina Turda), where we stayed till the closing time (7 pm).
Salt was extracted from Turda salt mine since well before the Roman times. In 1932 salt extraction of salt stopped and until late 1980's some mine galleries were used for other purposes, like cheese aging and storage.
In 1992 the salt mine re-opened, this time for tourists. And although it may not be as beautiful as the most famous European salt mine, in Wieliczka (near Krakow, Poland), Turda can definitely take your breath away. Well, not literally, as the air down there is a blessing for asthma sufferers (google "halotherapy" for more details). To increase the inhaling, you might even engage yourself in underground sports activities, like table tennis or boat rowing (what we gladly did).
On the way to the Klass Wagen office, we went to a car wash. Returning the car was again a smooth and fast process, after which we got dropped at the airport ( a 5-minute drive from the office).
At 6 pm we boarded the plane and said farewell to beautiful Transylvania, strongly convicted to return soon.