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Indulge in a blissful fairytale weekend in Transylvania

Cluj Napoca weekend in Romania
Sighisoara town square

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.

Our route

You can follow our route on the map below.

Friday morning

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.

Wizz Air distinctive pink livery
Wizz Air distinctive pink livery (Courtesy of Wizz Air)

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.

Corridor of Salina Turda
Corridor of Salina Turda

Rudolf Mine

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.)

The salt island in the lake at Salina Turda
The salt island in the lake at Salina Turda with picnic style areas

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.)

Typical bedroom at the Plaza hotel , Cluj Napoca
Typical bedroom at the Plaza (Source: Plaza hotel)

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.

The bar at the Plaza hotel in Cluj Napoca
The bar at the Plaza hotel

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.

Inside the fortress of Cluj-Napoca
A rather cool structure inside the fortress of Cluj-Napoca

Other sites

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.

The town square of Sighisoara
The town square of Sighisoara

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!

Bride in Sighisoara
Bride in Sighisoara

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.

Birthplace of Vlad the Impaler
Birthplace of Vlad the Impaler

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?

Beautiful buildings of Sighisoara
Beautiful buildings of Sighisoara

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.

Unirii Square, Cluj-Napoca
Unirii Square, Cluj-Napoca

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.

Gin at Toulouse bar, Cluj-Napoca
Gin at Toulouse bar, Cluj-Napoca

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.

Sunday

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.

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.

Sunday evening

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.

Top travel hacks for a weekend in Transylvania

1. Fly with Wizz Air from Doncaster or eight other regional airports.
2. Book car hire through Holiday Extras direct or through Top Cashback to earn hard cash on your booking.
3. Book hotels through hotels.com to earn a free night after every paying ten.
4. Use the Curve card or Supercard to save money on your overseas spending
5. Check out these top tips for taking a Romanian road trip

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.

Pin this as a reminder for your own fairytale:

Fairytale Cluj pinterest
Fairytale Cluj pinterest

About Anne

Anne is the founder and editor of TravelTheGlobe4Less. If she isn't travelling, she is thinking of travelling or planning her next trip. She has visited over 80 countries on six continents and sampled everything from backpacking to bank bursting travel. Her mission is to help you enjoy more luxurious travel without the luxury price tag through the use of airline and hotel rewards and other money saving travel tips

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7 comments

  1. You must go to Sibiu and Brasov also the list is not complete without that 🙂

  2. I love your writing Anne, so witty and fun to read. You’ve definitely changed my mind about Transylvania! You’ve made it look mesmerizing. Will have to go there.

  3. Hi Anne, thank you for your insightful post!
    I’m planning to visit Romania this year and just can’t wait to do it! I’ve heard lots of positive opinions about travelling in this country – all my friends who went to Romania just want to get back asap!

    • Joanna, I am so glad you are heading there. I really loved it. It was great value and picture perfect. Have a fabulous time! You may wish to check out these other posts on Romania too in advance of your visit.

      Cluj Napoca
      Halloween horrors

      • Thanks Anne, I’ll check your posts. However I’m not sure I’ll manage to visit all these places – I’m a mountain junkie and will spend most of the time hiking in amazing Romanian mountains 🙂

        • Sounds perfect. Let me know how you get on. I known Jackie, a fellow travel blogger, covered off a post on hiking in Romania so you may wish to check her blog too.

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