I am sitting in the midst of a 1,000- year-old wildflower meadow in Transylvania. Wild sweet pea, orchids, marguerite daisies, wild sage and thyme, sweet williams, feverfew, buttercups, clovers, campanulas, trefoil, lamb’s ear . . . The biodiversity is the stuff of dreams. You can’t imagine how beautiful the intensely flavoured alpine strawberries are all around me, tucked in between the herbs and grasses.
Transylvania has intrigued me for years. Wasn't that a mythical land of vampire legends and fairytales, Dracula, the Pied Piper of Hamelin? Many will know it is the largest province in Romania, tucked in between the Carpathian and Apuseni mountains.
It's a fascinating place to visit because it is the last remaining medieval landscape in Europe. It is like being in a time warp.
In the 12th century, Saxon farmers, merchants and artisans from northern Germany were encouraged by King Geza II of Hungary to settle along the foothills of the Carpathians. This remote southeastern part of Transylvania, known as "the land beyond the forest", created a formidable natural barrier to protect the cities.
The Saxons built a network of fortified villages, typically on a hilltops. Each beautiful church was surrounded by three stout walls and thick gables for protection. The belfry doubled as a curing room and a lookout tower to warn of impending invasions, of which there were many. The villagers survived by moving lock, stock and barrel with all of their animals, food and forage inside the thick walls of the church.
Many of these fortified churches have been, or are, in the process of being restored. Climbing the towers and battlements provides a superb view over the terracotta tiled roofs of the Saxon villages and surrounding countryside.
Centuries later, the resilient Romanians have endured two World Wars, the Communist era and the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, which virtually destroyed the peasant way of life.
Despite this turbulent history, the landscape has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. Its forests are home to more than 50 per cent of Europe’s wild animals – brown bears, lynx, wolves, boar, deer, foxes and an abundant variety of furred and feathered game. The countryside is alive with birdsong; there are storks, buzzards, eagles, corncrakes and cuckoos galore.
The lakes are well stocked with carp and perch. The rich meadows and grassland support more than 3,500 species of flora and fauna, many unique to the area. Romania is a haven for botanists and those who are interested in sustainable farming and historic buildings.
Virtually every household still has its own garden and animals. As we drove through the countryside, farmers with pitchforks were tossing hay in the fields and building hay cocks like we remembered from the 1950s.
Shepherds tend large flocks of sheep and goats in exchange for meat and cheese, which are handmade in simple huts in the midst of the lush pastures. Horse-drawn carts still trundle through the villages and the main roads, alongside BMWs.
One rarely sees a shop because most locals are still virtually self-sufficient. Still, as one man told me, they have gone from every crop being hand-scythed to round bales in just five years. What tiny shop there are will sell Fanta, Coke and crisps alongside sliced Saxon bread, local sausages, cured meat and cheese, all of which would have been made at home until very recently.
It’s a basic necessity to conserve the summer bounty for the long winter months when temperatures plummet to as low as -30 at night. There’s absolutely no waste and there’s still a rich preserving tradition.
Before my visit, I had been warned not to expect too much from the food but in reality we had many good things to eat. The food reflects the rich and complex history of this extraordinary country with influences from Hungary, Romania, Turkey and Germany, the original home of the Saxons.
Lots of hearty meat dishes, a variety of sausages, cured meats and cheese. I also loved the soups, chorba or sour soup, often eaten with a pickled chilli or a blob of Smetana and sometimes with meatballs or dumplings added. Mamaliga, which is similar to polenta, is also a Transylvanian favourite. It’s sometimes served on its own, but layered with cheese and topped with smetana or sour cream it becomes pretty irresistible.
Transylvania is on the cusp of change, tethering between the medieval and the 21st century. So go soon to catch the end of an era.
12 experiences to enjoy in Transylvania
1. Meet the artisans Learn how to make the traditional Saxon bread baked in a wood-burning oven until the crust is charred. Fascinating. Contact: Hanul Cetatii in Saschiz tel: 44 752 602 722, hanulcetatii.ro
2. Meet the bees Discover the fascinating world of the pastoral beekeepers. We met the Pandrea family in Crit, who have been beekeepers for generations. We were welcomed with a blackcurrant cordial and elderflower lemonade and freshly baked walnut biscuits. You'll discover how honey is produced. Tel: 00 40727355822
3. Meet the shepherds Another extraordinary experience. Transhumant shepherds look after their flocks of sheep and goats while they graze in the lush wildflower meadows. We watched as they queued up to be milked in a simple shelter in the field. The shepherd, Costica, makes a variety of fresh cheeses in his hut. We tasted several with crusty Saxon bread and Romanian tomatoes at his oilcloth covered kitchen table while listening to stories of a way of life, where bears and wolves are a daily reality in this area. Catalin Lungu, Saschiz Mures 547510. Tel: 0040 749 639 590
4. Visit a Transylvanian winery Even if you have no interest in wine, visit Villa Vinea Mica, near Saschiz. The view of the landscape from the winery is breathtaking and the wines are remarkably good. villavinea.ro
5. Visit the Transylvanian Herb Farm This is in Szentabrahami, where Emese and her sons Attila and Stefan grow a wide range of organic plants. szentabrahami.ro
6. Visit the Transylvania Food Company This is a fascinating operation in Saschiz, where Jim Turnbull has organised local women to capitalise on their preserving traditions to produce a wide range of jams, chutney and elderflower cordial. pivnitabunicii.ro
7. Courtyard dining Up to recently, restaurants simply didn't exist in villages but now several private houses have opened their kitchens or become part of the brilliant 'courtyard dining' concept where local people set up a communal table in their courtyard to serve simple family food. We enjoyed both these experiences enormously. Email: info@PivnitaBunicii.ro
8. Seek out Mrs Schasser at Casa de pe Deal Visit a traditional Saxon house, garden, farm, orchard, cellar in Saschiz to learn about self-sufficiency and real sustainability. An inspirational experience. casadepedeal.com
9. Meet the weaver The wool is spun into yarn and then woven into rugs and blankets and knitted into a variety of garments. Maria Nistor in Sibiu, firstname.lastname@example.org
10. Meet the blacksmith It is fascinating to learn how the village blacksmith is diversifying from just making horseshoes to a range of door and window latches, keeping traditional skills alive. Gabor Istvau Brasonv tel: 00407 53 698 021
11. Visit Zabola Stay in a hunting lodge on the beautiful Zabola Estate. Go on a bear walk, (we actually watched brown bears for over 35 minutes – a spine-tingling experience), visit the fortified church and local museum and the 80-year-old who still makes timber wheels for the trough-like timber Saxon carts and bemoans the fact that most people have gone over to rubber tyres nowadays.
12. Visit a Buffalo Farm near Mesendorf Learn how buffalo yoghurt and mozzarella is made. Seeing where the buffalo ramble through undulating countryside and graze in the wild flower meadowshelps you imagine the potential for these cheeses. bizoo.ro/firma/buffaloproducts. There are also charcoal makers, potters, barrel makers, embroiders, and in winter one can see palinca being distilled in the villages.
HOW TO . . . TRANSYLVANIA
An excellent gateway to visit the Saxon villages. The Old Town is one of the best preserved walled cities in Romania.
Stay: The Council Hotel on the edge of Piatta Mica in the old Town. A great location, a simple hotel. www.thecouncil.ro
Eat: The Grand Plaza – a simple restaurant with a grandiose name owned by the Bacila family.
A sleepy Saxon village with a 14th-century fortified church.
Stay: Casa de Oaspeti, a simple guest house owned by a charming young couple. Monica Popovici, another enchanting place beside the church with just three bedrooms and garden. Monica also owns a lovely craft shop.
email@example.com Tel 00 40 746676615
The Saxon village made famous by Prince Charles who has done so much to highlight the importance of Transylvania. A glimpse of a way of life unseen elsewhere for many generations.
Stay: Violeta, a modern guest house just outside Saschiz run by the mayor's wife with a Jacuzzi and a pond in the garden and a bathrobe in the wardrobe.
Hanul Cetatii – a friendly hotel and restaurant with a Saxon courtyard
Zabola – a beautiful hunting lodge on 10,000-hectare estate with guest rooms. We stayed in the Gamekeepers cottage and went on a bear watch, totally memorable – I long to return.
A small medieval fortified city listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Birth place of Vlad the Impaler. Discover the true historical story of Dracula, amid the myths and chimes of the magnificent gothic clock tower.
Stay: Central Park Hotel - www.hotelcentralpark.ro
Fronius Residence – www.fronius-residence.ro
Villa Vinea Mica – www. villavinea.com
HOW TO GET THERE
We took a Whizz Air flight directly to Sibiu from Luton, but if I'd had more time I'd be tempted to take the 'slow' train that winds its way from Bucharest to Sibiu.
Air France and Ryanair fly direct to Bucharest from Dublin.