Transylvania: How to get there, where to stay, what to see and more
The book is unusual not only for its combination of history and folklore, poetry and sociology, but also for the cuisine of this melting pot in Central Europe, where Hungarians, Armenians, Saxon Germans, Romanians and Rroma make their home. Kovi had combed through 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century treatises and called on 10 of Transylvania’s best writers to help him evoke the bountiful table of this corner of Eastern Europe, which has always been shrouded in mystery and superstition.
As of late last summer, I’d been living in Bulgaria for three months, and although I’d traveled to many nooks and crannies of the Balkans, from the Black Sea to Macedonia, I hadn’t yet crossed the Danube into the land of Dracula.
But now I had a week to do just that, while my husband attended a conference. A part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire for more than 1,000 years, Transylvania is now a largely isolated portion of north-central Romania. The surrounding regions — Moldavia, Maramures, Wallachia and the Banat — were even more unknown and mystifying to me, but I planned to explore as much of this fabled land of mountains and castles as I could in my rental car.
I started in the historic city of Sibiu, which, like many places in Transylvania, is also called by its German name, Hermannstadt, and its Hungarian one, Nagyszeben. Bordered by the Carpathian Mountains to the south, Sibiu, with its multicultural history, was selected as a European Capital of Culture in 2007. Funds from the European Union poured in, and today the city, with its modern accommodations and restaurants and abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites, is made for visitors.
Sibiu’s architecturally fascinating old town, situated on two levels, seems self-possessed, as though it were still the capital of Transylvania, as it was for 100 years in the 18th century. For most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Habsburg emperors ruled in Transylvania, constructing, as they did in Vienna, grand public spaces and elaborate buildings meant to show the dynasty’s wealth and power. I’ve seen nothing as impressive as the city’s Piata Mare — the “large plaza” — in Bulgaria.
At the same time, the Saxons, a German-speaking group of northern Europeans who had settled in Transylvania beginning in the 12th century and built hilltop villages with fortified churches, also maintained their presence in Transylvania. Among the baroque Habsburg architecture in Sibiu, medieval Saxon homes sport eye-shaped dormer windows that seemed to follow me everywhere.