A weekend in Transylvania doesn’t need to be full of horror
Mention Romania and what springs to mind? Dracula, horror movies and gypsies are probably my best guess. Stories of Vlad the Impaler and his gruesome techniques, designed to terrify and punish enemies and traitors have inspired many a dark film based in the country.
This quiet, unassuming nation, sandwiched between Ukraine to the North and Bulgaria to the South, is shy with a dark, brooding personality if you believe the Transylvanian hype. A cross between a psychopathic maniac and a toddler in the full throes of a mammoth tantrum.
Yet a weekend escape to Cluj-Napoca leaves me reconsidering my preconceived notions. It seems there is another side to this nation – one of fairy tales, princes and princesses, castles and passion-fueled, love stories.
Will the real Romania please stand up
So let me take you on a fairytale weekend in Romania and reveal the lesser known, bewitching side of what Transylvania has to offer. With its elegant palaces, soaring turrets fit for Rapunzel, and endless parades of wedding parties, this is an enchanting destination for a short break.
Who knows, you may even find your own Prince Charming hidden away in one of these magical, colourful villages overflowing with geraniums. It is so charming that you may find yourself spellbound forever.
You can follow our route on the map below.
Like all fair maidens, rise early for your departure from Doncaster airport on WizzAir (flights to Transylvania also operate from other regional airports). Hire a car from Holiday Extras and take to the road in your VW chariot.
Friday afternoon – Salina Turda Salt Mine
A salt mine may not seem like your idea of a great day out, nor one suitable for princesses or brave Knights, but this incredible attraction once served as an aircraft hangar in the Second World War. If it is good enough to protect the airforce, it is deserving of intrepid fairytale seekers in search of mythical wonders.
Salina Turda is forty minutes and 36km south of Cluj on the outskirts of Turda, a bustling place to stop for a coffee or goblet of wine. A winding route through undulating countryside deposits you at the futuristic entrance of the mine built into the hillside.
Mining came to an end here in 1932 and after serving its illustrious purpose during the war, the facility opened as a tourist attraction in 1992. From the shiny, glimmering entrance you descend a gentle slope to a long access tunnel reminiscent of Alcatraz. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking you have been captured by an evil Vlad imposter and are about to be thrown into a pit for eternity. Fear not, this tunnel leads to a spellbinding site more illusion than reality.
Caked in salt deposits, the tunnel stretches 750 metres into the distance but the main area of interest is down a pathway branching off to the left after 130 metres. Follow signs for the Rudolf Mine, Terezia Mine and Echoing Gallery if you are unsure. Had I not already seen pictures of what to expect we could so easily have missed out on the main attraction with the crappy signage.
The salt patterns in the corridor are fascinating enough, but prepare to be wowed as you descend the narrow staircase to the largest mine. Rounding a corner, I gasp in astonishment at the cavernous gaping hole in the mine shaft. It’s HUGE, a few metres short of being able to house a football field or any one of the splendid castles dotting the Romanian countryside in its lair.
I half expect goblins and wizards to greet me with fine dining and barrells of beer. At 42 meters deep, 50 metres wide and 80 metres long, the world’s largest salt mine is a playground for adults and children alike. Deep within the belly of the Romanian countryside, it is home to a giant Ferris wheel, ten pin bowling alley, mini golf course and other attractions. It is the strangest and coolest amusement park I’ve ever seen.
A gallery circles the entire shaft from above and I highly recommend circumnavigating before descending. From here you will get a bird’s eye view of space-station style constructions housing kiosks selling souvenirs and tickets for the activities (don’t worry, a ride in the wheel will only set you back £1 or 5 lei each.)
From the main floor, a further huge shaft drops 120 metres to a murky pool, whose emerald luminescent waters surround a craggy salt island. Picnic style seating in assorted shapes and sizes greets you and you can hire a rowing boat for 20 lei for twenty minutes. Floating around the island, with my very own Prince Charming rowing, is a surreal experience as we admire the swirling patterns in the rock and try to avoid grounding on the island.
Entry is 20 Lei per person (around £4)
Friday evening – Târgu-Mureş
From the mine, drive to Târgu-Mureş (86 km/1.5 hours) a small town en route to Sighisoara, and the location of the fabulous Plaza Hotel.
Greeted by the sleek, white lines of the super cool reception, the Plaza Hotel is a fusion of vivid colour and stark white corridors and bathrooms. The sterile white, hospital style blends seamlessly into the warmth of orange, yellow and green accessories combining to create a beautiful, boutique hotel in the heart of the town. It’s just a few minutes’ walk to the fortress or the Orthodox cathedrals (of which there are two at opposite ends of the central Piaţa Trandafirilor.)
The basement spa reeks of blissful relaxation with glittering steam rooms and black sparkling tiles. This hotel oozes cool!
Our room costs £59 including breakfast, wifi and parking, plus a welcome chocolate and complimentary in room water. I recommend the rooms on the fifth floor with great town views from the wall of windows.
Eat and drink
Once you have checked in, head to one of the bars or bistros lining Piaţa Trandafirilor. You will find bustling courtyard bars hidden down little cobbled alleyways, a murmur of voices or pumping music enticing you to enter.
We eat at Zanza (Piaţa Trandafirilor nr. 52, Târgu-Mureş) where our entire bill comes to £10 including drinks. The restaurant serves a range of dishes including tapas where you select three options for 21 Lei (£5). You can add extra items for a small extra charge. We feast on spicy vegetables and wedges, prawns in curry sauce, garlic mushrooms and bruschetta all of which are delicious.
If you still feel the urge to party after stuffing yourself silly, you may want to enjoy a drink in the hotel bar. Although more expensive, it is infinitely cheaper than a five-star hotel in the UK. Our four drinks only cost around £10 and it’s a very chic, glitzy joint, brimming with an eclectic mix of guests.
Saturday morning – Târgu-Mureş
Rise early to see the main sites of Târgu-Mureş. You can start from Piaţa Trandafirilor, the main thoroughfare outside the hotel, which serves as a playground for roller bladers and families out for a stroll.
Târgu-Mureş Medieval Fortress
Head to the north end of the Piaţa where you will find the citadel. This Medieval fortress, perches on the hillside overlooking the town and is a lovely place to wander. With its remarkably well-preserved turrets, inner walkways, and renaissance style buildings, it is fit for any princess. Huge imposing walls encircle a large green, church and outdoor theatre. It’s not hard to imagine princesses being wooed by handsome princes, especially considering the swarms of brides posing for group photos!
Accordion and trumpet players serenade bridal parties as the bride and groom lead their guests into town like Pied Piper on his travels.
If you enjoy looking at bones, you may feel drawn to the museum (£1 entrance fee – 5 Lei each) but you won’t be missing much if you decide to give it a skip.
Another site worthy of a quick visit is the Administration Palace at the south side of the Piaţa Trandafirilor, with its distinctive gold and green ornate tiles and fairytale turret (sadly closed on weekends).
Note: you can fly direct to Târgu-Mureş from London Luton with Wizz Air if you fancy a shorter drive.
Saturday afternoon – Sighisoara
Drive through undulating landscapes, passing row after row of cornfields and sunflowers bathing in the sun. Park at the base of the citadel for just 3 Lei for two hours or five Lei for the day. I recommend the latter as you can easily descend from the citadel into town and meander back around to the car park.
Prepare to be mesmerised because if there was a prize for fairytale villages, Sighisoara would undoubtedly steal the crown. With its medieval walled citadel, soaring turrets, crumbling, dilapidated ruins and row after row of colourful, pastel homes clinging to the hillside, it is breathtaking.
You will steal glimpses of green and gold chequered tiled rooftops through the trees, and towers peaking above the tree line as you ascend to emerge breathless into ancient cobbled narrow lanes, lined by cottages of orange and yellow. It’s picture perfect with geraniums tumbling from window boxes. This town would look at home in a Disney film.
It’s simply sublime, so delicious you can taste it. Cobbles radiate like arteries from the main square where outdoor cafes offer respite from your calf bursting climb. Visitors linger in the sun as yet more brides take their turns to pose endlessly. Frankly I’m exhausted just watching the marathon photo shoots!
Sagging ancient, wooden rooftops mingle with terracotta tiled roofs and crumbling plaster and exposed brickwork peeps from beneath brightly coloured houses, shops and restaurants. If your calves can take more abuse, you can climb a further 176 stairs through a crooked wooden staircase, to the Church on the Hill. It’s worth it just for the chance to peer over the citadel walls and catch a glimpse of town spires and quirky alleyways below.
Sighisoara Clock Tower
Don’t miss a climb up the Clock Tower either for more mesmerising views of endless terracotta rooftops, and houses in pastel hues. At 14 lei for adults but only 3.50 for students (I knew my student card would come in handy eventually) it’s a little pricier than other attractions but worth every dime.
In the lower town, elegant mansions nestle beside half-abandoned houses, a shadow of their former glory hinting of a decadent past. How could you fail to be anything but delighted by these pretty pictures?
Saturday evening – Cluj Napoca
Begin the long drive back to Cluj Napoca, or book flights from London Luton and fly into Cluj and out of Targu, giving you more time to indulge in medieval feasting.
We pass more entrancing villages surrounded by ramparts, turrets and cobbled alleyways, rolling hills, and many a sleepy village, deserted but for the occasional wizened elderly person perched on ramshackle benches haphazardly attached to their front gates.
Check into your hotel in Cluj and head to Unirii square where you will find picturesque bars, squeezed into brightly lit courtyards, and pavement cafes overflowing with locals enjoying the warm evening.
Cluj really comes into its own at night with a pulsating scene of students and tourists mingling. There’s a superb selection of bars and restaurants to choose from all within a compact area around the two main squares.
Our top nightlife picks
We sampled a few, purely in the interests of research obviously, after all kings and queens need fine wines and dining to keep them happy. Fit for any Disney character are these five top picks:
1. Che Guevara for fairylights and candlelit enclaves in a pretty courtyard
2. Diesel for throbbing music in its dungeon like nightclub
3. O’Peters for great music and comfort food in an exposed stone underground chamber perfect for debauched prisoners or party animals.
4. Charlie’s for great wines, cocktails and the best Gin and Tonic this side of Seville. The bar pays homage to Charlie Chaplin and has a sophisticated ambience for grown up students or aging queens.
5. Toulouse for a true education in gin from Alex, the friendly barman.
In case you want to recreate our impromptu pub crawl, here’s a little map to help you find your way.
Stay: Agape hotel, a basic but incredibly central and reasonably priced with free wifi and breakfast.
There’s a good chance that you will have got sucked into the pulsating vibrant nightlife of Cluj and so may require a more leisurely morning today. There’s no need to rush, unless you plan to visit every museum. There’s only a few sights in Cluj which you can easily visit in an afternoon.
The obvious starting point is the cathedral whose tower you can also visit if your calves can take any more punishment. From here you can walk over the river for and up the citadel hillside for a panoramic view over the city. Descend further along the river towards the stadium for a stroll in Central Park.
We spend an intriguing half hour watching the conveyor belt of brides arriving to take their place in the bandstand and exchange vows (we think, although frankly it is over so quickly we are unsure). Congregation members set up makeshift tables, pouring Prosecco into plastic glasses and handing out tiny slivers of wedding cake.
If you’ve worked up a thirst with all that excitement, head over to the boating lake to enjoy a drink at Carrousel. It’s a funky island bar with swings, rocking chairs and sunbeds to allow people watching contentment galore.
Early to bed in preparation for your return flight at 6am. Note Cluj airport comprises one central seating area with a duty-free, bookshop and coffee bar. I’d advise not to arrive two hours before as seating is in short supply.
What do you think of Transylvania?
What experience have you had of Transylvania? Maybe you enjoyed your own Fairytale or perhaps it a true horror story. Either way I’d love to know. Come share your tales in the comments box.