There is more to Transylvania than Dracula. For many, it evokes wild mountains, ruined castles and folk traditions wrapped up in legends you’ll find in gothic novels. It’s a region that has its own culture and traditions stemming from its range of ethnic communities. Transylvania’s history is embroidered with various cultures and influences that make the region unique.
Transylvania is a large region in today’s Romania, although its history of shifting borders has left it with a diverse community of Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons and Roma people. While visiting Transylvania, many visitors find themselves in the medieval towns like Brasov, Sibiu, and Sighosaora, but the Western region, an area denoted by a “crescent” of cities from Cluj-Napoca towards Alba Iulia and towards the Hungarian border to Arad and Oradea, also has its merits. While the towns in the plains fall outside the strict definition of Transylvania, it still covers the political definition.
Transylvania may conjure up thoughts of wild forests and rugged mountains topped with crumbling castles and things that bite in the night, but there are plenty of interesting towns and cities to visit in the Western part of the region away from the Carpathian Mountains.
Romania’s second largest city lends a cosmopolitan edge to Transylvania. History lingers round each corner of Cluj’s cobbled streets, convening at St Michael’s Church. Baroque buildings lie side by side with medieval towers and houses, that are brought to life by the city’s bohemian cafe culture. Being a university town, there’s a lot going on in Cluj day and night. Being at the heart of Transylvania, Cluj is the ideal place to use as a base to visit nearby places like Turda and its salt mines or do a spot of hiking.
Once the capital of Roman Dacia and Medieval Transylvania, Alba Iulia’s old town lies enclosed in Romania’s largest citadel. The old town can be entered through its grand baroque gates. Inside, a Medieval Catholic Church stands side-by-side with a modern Orthodox one, and further along, the Bishop’s Palace houses secrets in its subterranean wine cellar that goes deep into the walls of the fortress.
History lingers round each corner of this city that has frequently acted as a capital, and while today it’s a quiet historic town, you’ll probably find a story in each stone.
Aiud is the second largest town in Alba county after Alba Iulia. At the heart of the town centers around the 14th century citadel, although local legend has it the first tower was built in the 13th century to withstand the Mongol invasion. From the distance, the walls and the turrets inside appear like a castle, but citadel protects the Reformed Church, which serves the town’s Hungarian minority. Aiud also has other churches, such as the Orthodox church recognizable by its domes, and a Catholic church, too, as well as other smaller Christian denominations. The town is also interesting for its historical Bethlen Gabor College, but wine lovers might want to check out some of the local wine cellars. Transylvania is bringing out some good white wines that are grown in the region.
Even on a dull grey day, Arad is a city where each building carries details that make it fascinating to stop and look at. A mix of grand neoclassical official buildings and crumbling facades with elements of art nouveau, Arad is a city for architecture lovers. Its wide boulevards mix up with small streets with curious residential apartment blocks.
Arad has plenty of history to its name, being built up over time from its 11th-century origins, becoming a trading post during the Ottoman occupation before being becoming a grand city under the Habsburg monastery. It’s a city that’s just worth wandering and getting lost in.
Oradea lies just kilometers from the Hungarian border and is a heaven for those who love art nouveau cities and architecture. Each street in downtown Oradea is full of wonderful art nouveau architecture, especially the Black Eagle Palace. It’s also another highly walkable city, with pedestrianized streets, open squares dotted with cafes and a vibrant cultural life.