The city of Sibiu has been designated the European Capital of Culture 2007 and you can see why. Cobbled streets run between pastel gingerbread houses and grand Baroque facades. The city dates back over 800 years and has the oldest museum in Romania to prove it.
But in this year’s City of Culture, not everything is in the past. The Philharmonic Orchestra performs weekly concerts, theatres stage classical and modern plays as well pupetteering and mime, and eight cultural centres host art and literary events.
After a cultural onslaught it’s time for more rustic pleasures in Sibiel. “Now for the authentic Transylvanian rural experience,” exclaims our guide as we arrive in the traditional village of earthy streets and bucolic watermills. Staying in a local guesthouse is the best way to savour traditional Transylvanian cuisine.
“Have some more Sarmale, it is good for strong hearts,” urges our host. Delicately spiced meat rolled in cabbage leaves, Sarmale is traditionally served with polenta, juicy pork knuckles and sour cream. Other must-try dishes include Kurtoskolac, sweet cylindrical bread heated over steaming coals and coated in sugar, washed down with a Romanian plum brandy called Tuica.
You can see gypsies travelling by horse and cart along the roads, laden down with produce for the market. It’s a region of traditional rustic villages untroubled by the modern age.
Along the route we visited fortified castles and palaces embellishing the Transylvanian landscape, including the impressive fortified Prejmer church, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Peles Palace, the most ostentatious palace I have seen. In contrast, the important cultural and commercial centre of the medieval town of Braşov leads to the mountain ski resorts of Poiana Braşov and Sinaia.
Transylvania is a charming, unspoilt gem of eastern Europe, rich in scenic beauty, cultural heritage and folkloric attractions with the bonus of being off the beaten track. But beware the lure of the Count Dracula for he may call for you to return. I’m already planning my next visit, in the hope of stocking up on more Dracula wine.
What’s at stake?
• Vlad Dracula’s name literally means ‘the son of the Devil’ in Romanian. Nicknamed Vlad Tepes or ‘Vlad the Impaler’, he was
the Prince of Wallachia, keen on blood, enthusiastically impaling enemies and publicly displaying them in gory detail.
• Born in 1431 in the medieval citadel of Sighisoara, he inherited the title ‘Order of the Dragon’ from his father, Dracul.
• In 1459, Dracula had 30,000 merchants and boyars of Braşov impaled and regularly feasted among the forest of stakes and writhing semi-corpses.
• ‘The Forest of the Impaled’ was a gruesome sight of 20,000 Turkish prisoners impaled on Dracula’s order in 1461, outside the city of Tirgoviste.
• Superstitions from Dracula’s days still flourish in Transylvania with death rites being performed and bodies exhumed from their graves in order to get rid of the undead or strigoi.
• According to legend, the remains of Dracula’s decapitated corpse are said to lie buried in Snagov Monastery near Bucharest, to be visited at your peril.