Romantic Setting, Reasonably Priced

Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Travel Writer

It is already snowing in Romania’s Transylvania, and winter there is a fairy tale. It is situated deep in the cold heart of Europe, where freezing temperatures arrive in September, and a chill descends over the Carpathian mountains until May.

With its high altitudes and deeply interior location, Central Europe — of which historic Transylvania is a part — can feel like the coldest place on earth. But it’s surprisingly pleasant: the air is still and crisp in the forest villages and quiet valleys around Brasov region. You don’t realize how cold it is until your digits slowly lose feeling.

The locals have time-tested ways of warming up. In the months leading up to Christmas, Transylvanians busy themselves making plums into a fiery herbal spirit known as tzuika. Drive around the region, and you’ll see roadside stands offering homemade tzuika or its Magyar cousin, palinka, for sale in one-liter Coke bottles.

And why would you drive through the Carpathians in winter? Well, besides the snow-covered loveliness of the evergreen forests and medieval villages, this region is also home to Romanian ski country. Poiana Brasov, just outside the city, has the country's most popular (and family-friendly) slopes; nearby Predeal is another favorite.

For a country whose rural infrastructure is often shaky, Romanian ski resorts are solidly equipped, and boast a full array of amenities. People from the region know this, filling the resorts with wintertime activity, but you won’t find many Americans here.

Yet Transylvania offers a romantic European setting without the sky-high prices of Switzerland or France, as well as the kind of unexpected cultural discoveries you won’t find further west — and a friendly, English-speaking tourist trade.

An ideal weeklong trip might combine skiing with excursions to Brasov, the medieval city of Sibiu and the mystical hilltop town of Sighisoara (all within a short, scenic drive of each other; the whole region is a three-hour trip north of Bucharest). Many travelers seek out rustic lodging in village chalets near the slopes or in converted rural estates, such as the guesthouses of County Kalnoky (www.transylvaniancastle.com). These can be a surprisingly economical option — as well as a cultural experience.

This a region where every town has a German name as well as a Romanian one; even today, many locals speak German, a legacy of the Saxon metalworkers who came in the Middle Ages and left an architectural heritage of gorgeous churches. You’ll also hear plenty of Hungarian spoken, as Transylvania was long under Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian rule.

Then there is the Jewish heritage, now sparse in a land where Ashkenazic settlements were once ubiquitous. Brasov, which had a large Jewish population in the 19th and early 20th centuries, still has a functioning synagogue for its estimated 150 remaining Jews. Built at the turn of the last century and recently restored into one of the town’s proudest sights, the synagogue is quite a beautiful one: a grand, pink-and-white neoclassical exterior gives way to soaring white arches inside, like a lacy wedding cake.

For American Jews of Ashkenazic descent, there is an odd familiarity about the heavy, flavor-rich cuisine, so reminiscent of grandmothers’ kitchens — from the stewed pots of vegetables with paprika-covered chicken, to the schnitzels served in every tavern.

While there are few synagogues there today, houses of worship count among the most compelling of the region’s historical treasures. Brasov’s towering, somber Black Church is an impressive Gothic edifice, and throughout the surrounding countryside, pointy spires rise from Saxon churches.

Brasov itself has an Old World urbanity, with its Hapsburg legacy evident in grand plazas, baroque facades and its promenade, which fills with strolling couples toward dinnertime.

The city’s fortress walls, narrow streets and twin stone towers — climb them for spectacular views over the rooftops — speak to a long and complex history. Rising steeply above the quaint red roofs loom the dark-green slopes of Mt. Tampa, more than 3,000 feet high and easily reachable by a scenic cable-car ride.

Nearby Sibiu, surrounded by snow-topped mountains, is a quintessentially charming Central European city. As you explore its medieval fortress walls and picturesque bridges, you’ll wonder why you’ve never heard of it — though plenty of Europeans have, ever since the European Union named it a European Capital of Culture a few years back.

In this most German of Romanian cities, it was, predictably, a Saxon baron, Samuel Brukenthal, whose cultural legacy forms the core of the city’s treasures. The Brukenthal Palace and Museum is a complex of six museums with main art collections housed in the baron's Baroque palace.

First-rate paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters, Renaissance art, a Gothic wing and Transylvanian medieval art and sculpture are particular highlights and give a feel for the area’s complex cultural soul. But the complex also boasts a worthwhile contemporary art gallery, as well as separate museums for Transylvanian history.

Nearby Sighisoara, a windswept hilltop citadel, makes an excellent day trip. You can cover its sights in an afternoon: climb the imposing clock tower for a stunning view, explore the steep cobblestoned alleys where German merchants once traded, and wander into 15th-century churches.

Even with all the tourists drawn by Sighisoara’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the town can feel spooky and mysterious, like a setting for a Gothic horror tale. Amid the bare-limbed trees and frigid air, you’ll understand why Count Dracula, who was born here, wore that heavy cape.

But should the Carpathian cold get to you, rest easy: today’s Transylvanians are quite friendly, with a glass of mulled wine or fiery tzuika always at the ready.

Sighisoara, a windswept hilltop citadel, in the snow, top. Above, the Brasov town center. Photos by Hilary Larson

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