A cultural tour of ‘Gothic’ Transylvania

Transylvania it seems, ignites only the thought of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in such case may not be a priority destination when planning a holiday, at least one with a pleasant ending. Transylvania indeed is a region of Romania characterised by the Gothic, but the stunning Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages rather than a modern pre-occupation with the creatures of the night. When Bram Stoker wrote his novel, he inadvertently condemned the region to be misunderstood as a dark beacon of the occult rather than a scenic beauty set in the Carpathian Mountains and laden with a rich history; vampires not included.

Tourism in Transylvania today both adheres to the folklore fandom and has many ‘Dracula’ themed activities, however interest in this should be in parallel to the true majesty of Transylvania as a whole; a diverse cultural area imbibed with the influences of many conquering Empires in its long history.

In this article, I will discuss locations that reflect the heart of Transylvanian culture and attempt to unshroud the mystery that has been adopted by the region ‘beyond the woods’.

Bran Castle, Brasov.

Bran Castle

Bran Castle is a fortress, a national monument and a site that exploits the notoriety of the Dracula legend by possessing the pseudonym, ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Bram Stoker however, never visited and arguably knew nothing of the castle. The Castle however, is featured not on this article because of the fact it is marketed to comply with the rise in the popularity of Vampire fiction in global culture, but because of its role as a medieval fortress and a royal residence; traits that imbue the structure with layers of history and intrigue.

Situated on the Bran Gorge, a trans-Carpathian passage, the area both received an influx in foreign trade yet was vulnerable to military invasion. To combat this threat, in 1377 Louis I of Hungary commissioned the Saxons living in the nearby area of Knonstadt to build the citadel which became the stone sentinel as we know it today. Bran Castle was in fact used in defence against the mighty Ottoman Empire during the 4-year long raid of 1438-1442, later relegating itself to the role of customs post on the pass between Transylvania and Wallachia; albeit with an equal degree of grandiosity of a medieval behemoth.

In 1920, years after Stoker had finished ‘Dracula’, the castle was adopted as a royal residence within the Kingdom of Romania, or specifically a retreat for the Queen Marie. Although the royal family were expelled from the Castle in 1948 with the dawn of Romania’s Communist regime, the Castle still acts as a preserve of the home of the monarchy, and traditional furnishings remain alongside exhibits of royal and medieval costume.

What truly rewards the journey through the clandestine passages throughout the Castle is the ascent to the top; wherein stunning vistas of the Carpathian Mountain Range sing the absolute beauty of Transylvania, even though the song may be slightly marred by the eager tales of the Dracula Legend by zealous guides down below.

The City of Sighisoara

Sighisoara

Opinions of the City of Sighisoara continue to perpetuate the legend of Dracula’s involvement with Transylvania. Sighisoara is the home of the infamous Vlad the Impaler, often seen as a historical template for the character of Dracula, albeit one that is more attune to the brutality of man rather than the power of the supernatural. Despite housing an unsavoury resident, Sighisoara is a magnificent ode to its medieval past, and the stronghold is still inhabited, divided into the Citadel and the lower town, lying on the valley of Târnava Mare.

The walled City was founded by Transylvanian Saxons during the 12th Century and was fortified in the 15th Century and as an UNESCO world heritage site still propagates the beauty of the time in its intact medieval architecture. The City possesses nine watch towers, romantic cobbled streets, charming East European burgher houses and opulent orthodox churches, each imbuing the City with a sense of history and enchantment. Architectural attractions include the aptly named ‘Church on the Hill’, the 13th Century Venetian House and the Church of the Dominican Monastery, a building containing a medley of artistic influences including an altarpiece carved during the Renaissance and a pulpit executed in the fittingly theatrical Baroque style.

Sighisoara Clock Tower

As a fortified City, the medieval bastion houses several watch towers, 4 of which are stations at the four main cardinal points at the City’s perimeter, the most notable is the 14th Century Clock Tower, both a stronghold armed with an effective vantage point and a treasury that historically guarded Sighisoara’s greatest riches but still possesses the ultimate of fortunes; a breath-taking panorama of Transylvania open to visitors.

The Apuseni Mountains

Apuseni Mountains

Bordered by the Carpathian Mountain Range, Romania is gifted with ubiquitous stunning vistas, Transylvania itself has exclusive claim over the ‘mountains at the sunset’, the Apuseni Mountains. The Apuseni Mountains are a triumph of Mother Nature, boasting the best of rock, flora and fauna; that is the plateau not only is comprised with undulating and varying geographical forms but adorns them with verdant Karstic landscapes and wildlife. Due to the complex geological structure of the Apuseni Mountains, fragments of the tropical, subtropical and glaciate climates that punctuated the areas development remain and compose the unique ecosystem that is characteristic of the area.

An ecosystem that includes abundant and clear lakes, alpine pastures alongside botanical reserves, Nature Parks and the immersive Transylvanian network of underground caves. The subterranean world of the Apuseni Mountain range consists of over 7000 caves, many of them still an enigma and yet to be explored, and with a bounty of stalagmite formations, aragonite crystals and underground glaciers, it is evident to see how a full expedition would be stalled by a moment to absorb the wealth of natural beauty around you.

Apuseni Caves

A natural beauty that is best perceived as a part of the many tour services of the caves, beneficial as they also direct you away from the threat of the cave bears and colonies of bats that make their caves their home; solace can be found however, in the fact that these Transylvanian bats share a trait with Vlad the Impaler, they are also not Vampires.

In conjunction to the rare wildlife are the rare indigenous people of the Apuseni region, where their unique cultures works in symbiosis to the majesty of their environment. For instance, the Moti people are paragons of carpentry, utilising the local pine, beech and oak trees when fashioning the whole gamut of everyday appliances, and even houses themselves; all with the exclusion of nails. The culture of the Moti people is one that is regarded as faithful to the traditional life of historical Romania, and so to visit the Moti reserves high up in the Apuseni Mountains is to view a reflection of Transylvanian ancestry.

With the lingering urban legends that echo with a mention of Transylvania, it is easy to see how the region has been associated with plentiful intrigue. But mystery here is not of the unwelcome kind. From the haunting sights of the caves of the Apuseni regions to the magnificence of the medieval architecture both present in Bran Castle and in the fortified City of Sighisoara, the mystique you’ll find in Transylvania is one you’d immediately want to illuminate; only boundless beauty and potent heritage lies beneath the surface.