Tag Archives: Transylvania

Places You Should Visit

Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?

IMG_0421

I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries. 

img_1783

We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:

  • The Transylvania region of Romania
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Bratislava, Slovakia

We also recommend a visit to Moldova!

IMG_3796.jpg

Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the  fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?

IMG_8823.jpg

Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.

IMG_2399.jpg

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.

IMG_5665

We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.

img_2197

If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.

IMG_1646

Advertisements

Back to the Salt Mine

IMG_4327

I used to think “back to the salt mine!” implied drudgery or even slavery. Indeed, when Champa and I visited the Trotus salt mine in Romania recently, we expected to learn about the challenges of working deep underground, as we did at a Pennsylvania coal mine years ago.

Instead, as we descended by bus into the mine shaft, we saw children with scooters and famiies with picnic baskets.

IMG_4339

Things got stranger when we arrived and heard what sounded like a priest chanting. Sure enough, an Orthodox service was under way in what turned out to be a church honoring St. Varvara, the protector of miners. In the video below, you can see the priest giving communion beneath a dome carved into rock salt, with icons set into the white walls.

Just past the church, we came upon kids racing small carts around salt formations. Next we saw playgrounds, a basketball court, a badminton court, a mini-soccer field, a restaurant, a library, even a lake and waterfall. All of this was 240 meters below ground, covering 13,000 square meters.

Located near the small city of Onești, where Olympic gymnast Nadia Comăneci grew up, Târgu Ocna Salina dates its origins back to 1380. Its tourist complex is at the ninth layer of an operation that continues to produce salt for dinner tables and other purposes. Romania has an active salt industry, albeit smaller than in China, the United States and some other countries.

IMG_4333

Many Romanians visit Târgu Ocna Salina for health reasons, especially to breath the salty air to relieve respiratory problems. As we waited for the bus to drive back to the surface, we chatted with a guy who pointed out another potential benefit. “If there’s a nuclear war, we can all survive down here,” he said

Well, maybe. But there’s no denying they’ve carved out a great thing for now, an amazing sight if you’re ever in this part of Eastern Europe.

The next time you hear somebody say “Back to the salt mine!”, tell them you know just the place.

Making Kürtös

Here’s an amazing street food: Kürtös Kalács, a traditional Hungarian sweet cake produced by street vendors in Transylvania. The only thing more fun than watching them make it is eating the kürtös fresh off the fire. This video is also posted on YouTube at https://youtu.be/2ZLCkIPvtHg.

Exploring Transylvania

If I said “Transylvania,” would you think “Dracula”?

Dracula

Transylvania was indeed the home of Vlad Țepeș, or “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloody reign and hilltop castle inspired the famous vampire novel by Bram Stoker. That’s Vlad in the top-right picture, which we saw when we visited Bran Castle this past week.

Other TransylHowever, as we discovered during our 5-day trip to Transylvania, there’s so much more to see than tacky Dracula T shirts and coffee mugs.

Churches

Transylvania is located in central Romania, west of the Republic of Moldova, which was once part of Romania and retains close cultural ties to it. Romania mapTransylvania has lovely rolling hills, picturesque villages and snowy mountain peaks. Its monasteries are stunning, and more than 150 fortified churches with moats and dense stone walls dot the countryside. Brașov, Sibiu, Sighișoara and other cities combine charm with great dining at low prices.

They are also brimming with history, as you can see from these trip photos. If much of the architecture appears German or Hungarian, that’s because many of Transylvania’s people came from those countries.

Church interiors

Romania’s Western ties have grown steadily since Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown and 42 years of Communist rule ended in 1989. Especially since it joined the European Union in 2007, Romania has been prospering, with one of Europe’s fastest growth rates.

Organs & altars collage

Champa and I drove there  with a Moldovan physician we met through an online ride-sharing service called BlaBlaCar. Once in Transylvania, we toured with Florin Ilea, a wonderful local guide who I recommend highly. We stayed in hotels in Brașov and at a great Airbnb apartment in Sibiu located just a block from the historic Bridge of Lies.

Squares

If Transylvania seems exotic to you, let me gently suggest you’re living in the past. I am old enough myself to remember when Prague was considered exotic, too. Now it has become a popular tourist destination for many Americans, as have Budapest, Warsaw and Dubrovnik. Based on what we saw during our visit, I expect Transylvania to join that list soon.

Roof collage

My advice is to visit it now, before everyone else discovers it. As Elizabeth Berkley famously said in Showgirls, a movie even tackier than the coffee mugs: It doesn’t suck (regardless of the vampire legends).

3 Plazas
From top: Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara