#22 Romania with the baby globetrotter: Transylvanian tales

“The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.” Bram Stoker, Dracula

Gorgeous UNESCO-listed medieval towns and villages. Steep staircases coiling up stone clock towers. Picturesque cobbled streets, pitted with potholes. Vast Communist buildings with monolithic of stairs. Uplifting walks in mountains and dense pine forests with glimpses of staunchly turreted castles. Combine that with a dearth of café and restaurant high chairs, an absence of public baby changing facilities and a frequent lack of hotel cots and at first glance Romania may not exactly be first choice for a baby-friendly destination. It was challenging on occasion, but the baby globetrotter and I had a whale of a time!

I really wanted to see the Palace of Parliament, so our Transylvanian tales actually started in Bucharest. After a couple of days in the capital, we took a fast train to Brasov. This flew in the face of the poor reputation of Romanian railways by arriving punctually. Initially I was underwhelmed by Brasov. Unfriendly taxi drivers at the station, a lacklustre dinner on the main square, chocolate box pretty streets thronged with tourists and a chewed-up gravel pathway impassable to buggies around the town’s main cathedral, the Biserica Neagra (Black Church) shaped a distinctly cool first impression. A couple of days mooching the streets and a cable car trip up Mount Tampa later, I was beginning to see the appeal.

From the viewpoint just off to the side of Brasov’s somewhat unexpected Hollywood style white block letters, I happily soaked up the panorama. The town’s terracotta roofs, its spiky church towers and the deep green tranquility of the surrounding hillsides, studded with citadels and towers, were a restful feast for the eyes. It’s a short stroll to the viewpoint from the cable car station at the top of Mount Tampa: we took the first car up and the gentle morning sun and the stilled hush under the fir trees were a perfect prelude to the main event. The habitat here is ideal for bears: we didn’t see any, of course, but apparently one once visited the town’s main square!

Soon, it was time to get the road trip started in earnest. By this point, I wished we had a few extra days based in Brasov, to branch out on visits to Bran Castle (famously but erroneously claimed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and to Peles Castle on the edges of Sinaia. It would also have been nice to have more time to soak up the town’s slowly compelling atmosphere, especially in the early mornings. Already planning a return visit to Brasov, I collected my rental car and set off for Sighisoara. We made a stop off in Viscri, where the ancient fortified church (construction began in 1000) truly bowled me over.

Reached via a winding, unpaved road, the traditional village of Viscri offers easy opportunities to see the archetypal guidebook Romanian images. Horse-drawn carts, old ladies knitting in the shade of drooping trees, pastel-painted houses (bringing a touch of Notting Hill to rural Romania) and geese meandering the main street offer postcard snapshots at every turn. Somewhat bizarrely, Prince Charles owns a guest house retreat here. Presiding over the village is the stunning Saxon church. With its whitewashed walls gleaming against the powder blue backdrop of the sky, the church sits in a garden studded with colourful blooms and fresh in the summer heat. A steep climb up its tower is justified by the breathtaking views of the village and the lush rural countryside wrapped around it. At this point I felt we’d truly arrived in Transylvania!

Later that day, we arrived in Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, known as Vlad the Impaler due to his cruel and fierce attacks against his enemies. He was also known as Vlad (Count) Dracula … If you want to immerse yourself in the Dracula mythology, this is the place to do it. You can visit Dracula’s birthplace, which even boasts a ‘real live’ vampire! We wandered the camera-snappingly cute alleys of the medieval town and climbed the sweet clock tower with its colourfully scaly tiled roof and ceramic figurines marching out the hours. As we emerged onto the terrace at the top of the tower, a dramatic thunderstorm washed the sky, leaving behind a sea of clean, sparkling tiled roofs. One of my abiding memories of Romania will be of those beautiful tiers of delicate rust-coloured rooftops which were emblematic of most of the towns we visited.

Have you ever been in a salt mine? Possibly. Have you ever been on a fairground big wheel? Highly likely. Have you ever been on a big wheel deep inside a salt mine? I’d hazard a guess that the answer is ‘no’, unless you’ve visited Salina Turda! A mine has existed on this site since the Middle Ages. It was an active salt mine until the middle of the twentieth century and was opened as a tourist attraction in the 1990s. Visitors can descend to depths of 112m, either in glass-walled lifts or by steps (lots of them!). This is definitely not a buggy-friendly sight, as you have to walk down a lot of stairs just to get to the level of the lifts, but by this time I’d been up and down so many clock towers with the baby globetrotter in her carrier that I wasn’t fazed. The old mining chambers, their walls patterned with smudged narrow bands of grey like salty tree rings, are beautiful to see. Throw in the underground fairground attractions – rowing boats on a black lake, crazy golf and ten pin bowling as well as the big wheel – and it becomes an incredible, somewhat surreal place to visit.

Cluj Napoca was next. I had a bit of a mixed experience there. Trouble with parking and not being allowed into the trendy Caffe Olivo with a baby and buggy made me feel unwelcome. But on the whole, I couldn’t help liking the place. (And across the road from Olivo, the lovely Roots Urban Tastery soon soothed my ruffled feathers). Drifting around the old town, I came across a small exhibition about the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the Matthias Corvinus House, a charming building with a peaceful courtyard hiding just off a busy street. Brancusi is one of my favourite sculptors, so this was a real bonus. Eating a tasty dinner on the pavement terrace one of the laidback restaurants on the main square of Unirii, my parking stresses melted away and I relaxed into the city’s vibrant café culture. (Having finally found a car park near my apartment I was blissfully unaware at this point of how difficult it would be the next day to buy my way out of said car park, which was intended for short stay use). Of course there was the obligatory hike up to a viewpoint for more cityscape vistas, this time not from a clock tower but from Cetăţuia (Fortress Hill). And I can’t move on from Cluj without mentioning the amazing ice cream! The central part of town is full of gelato shops. I loved Cofetaria Carpati with its freezers piled high with tempting ice cream flavours.

Last but not least, was Sibiu, my favourite town of those we visited. It’s filled with sophisticated squares that wouldn’t be out of place in Venice. Packed with those signature terracotta roofs, here, many of them have eye-shaped windows that make them even more beguiling. I couldn’t get enough of the views of the church tower from every angle and, you guessed it, we climbed it! The place had a buzzy vibe – a festival occupied one of the squares while I was there – yet it was also relaxed and easygoing. I kicked back here for a few days and traded being a road tripper for being a leisurely tourist soaking in the sun and the ambience. It was marvellous! I had a delicious dinner under the arcades at Kulinarium, a refreshing Aperol spritz on the sunset-warmed terrace of Café Wien, a light al fresco lunch at la Pasaj and an energising brunch at Café Atrium alongside the Bridge of Lies. Plus ice cream everywhere! Like Brasov, there are lots of excursions you can do from Sibiu if you have the time. Communist tours, adrenaline-fuelled drive on the Transfăgărășan Highway (featured on Top Gear), Corvin Castle in Hunedoara … Which brings me on to say something I seem to be saying about a lot of the places I’ve visited recently: I felt our little road trip had merely scratched the surface and I would love to go back to Romania, to see more of Transylvania and beyond.

Highlights

Food & drink – I must admit I didn’t really sample much of the traditional local cuisine, which was a bit too hearty and meaty for my taste. But I did eat in some lovely places. And I did manage to try a few Romanian wines, all of which were very palatable! Coffee was pretty good everywhere, although decaf didn’t seem to be widely available, so I was a bit more wired than usual! In my post I mentioned a few places I liked in Sibiu: Kulinarium; la Pasaj; Café Atrium; Café Wien. Noteworthy places elsewhere in Transylvania include: the restaurant at the Gasthaus Altepost in Sighisoara; Roots Urban Tastery and Bistro Viena in Cluj for coffee; Tipografia in Brasov for tea and coffee.

Sleep – I loved Hotel Sighisoara (unsurprisingly, in Sighisoara). Anna’s Resthouse was a cosy, bijou pad with an amazingly central location and a great host in Cluj Napoca. And while it’s not in Transylvania, the Hotel Cismigiu in Bucharest was excellent. In Brasov I stayed at Casa Sforii and in Sibiu at Beauty & the Beast. Both were fine, in a shabby chic kind of way, though neither was ideal for babies – I wouldn’t go back to either of them. Beauty & the Beast had wonderfully kind and helpful hosts though.

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