Transylvania – Fangs for the Memories
Finding plenty to sink your teeth into on a legendary swim adventure around Dracula country.
“You can’t go on holiday to Transylvania” a work colleague told me, “it’s not a real place.” She thought it was invented by Richard O’Brian and was the home planet of the Transsexual Transylvanians. But of course, it is a real place, slap bang in the middle of Romania and every bit as weird and wonderful as something from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. With medieval castles, ancient old towns, mountain ranges that are home to bears and wolves, and a violent history and associated folk law taking in both Count Dracula and his inspiration, Vlad the Impaler, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.
We flew into the heart of Transylvania and a town called Cluj-Napoca, the start of a circular driving route that would take in many of the highlights of Transylvania. First stop, the fragrant-sounding town of Turda, with its world-famous salt mine. Now, a salt mine would probably have been the last place you’d have wanted to visit during the communist era, but these days it is a tourist attraction and one that is both impressive and completely insane. First mined some 2000 years ago during the Roman occupation, the gargantuan conical chamber is 112 metres deep and looks like something from an epic sci-fi movie.
Tranylvania has made a business out of Bram Stoker’s novel, with the locals exploiting the vampire legend to the max
And just to add to the weirdness, it has a theme park at its base. There’s a full-sized Ferris wheel, an amphitheatre, a bowling alley, mini-golf, a sports field, table tennis and pool tables and a boating lake. And with the whole mine acting like one giant echo chamber, we had great fun singing the Banana Boat Song whilst rowing around in circles. On your way out you can also stop at a variety of spa treatment rooms or go for a swim in the nearby salt lakes. Anyone who has been to the Dead Sea will know how odd it feels to swim or float in such buoyant waters.
One of the most curious features of the architecture are the eyes in the roofs of the houses looking down on you
Next was a two-hour drive to the city of Sibiu with its Germanic looking old town (a legacy of the 12th-century Saxon settlers) surrounded by medieval walls and towers offering breath taking views of the cobbled streets below. One of the most curious features of the architecture are the eyes in the roofs of the houses looking down on you. No, we hadn’t been necking too many shots of ţuică, the national spirit made from plums. There are actually narrow slits in the terracotta shingles of the rooftops that were designed to ventilate the attics where meat, cheese and grain were stored. And they really make it look like the houses are watching you.
We used Sibiu as a base for a few day trips, including one to Bran Castle in Brasov, which is famously known at Dracula’s Castle. Tranylvania has made a business out of Bram Stoker’s novel, with the locals exploiting the vampire legend to the max. There are stalls everywhere selling vampire-related merchandise, and Dracula hotels and restaurants surrounding the castle. Indeed, the cafes even sell Dracula Pizza and Dracula Beer (a local beer coloured red with food colouring).
There are also some very quirky places to swim, even if some of them are the colour of blood.
For our next adventure we set out for the unpronounceable Transfăgărăşan Highway, which is Romania’s highest road and voted by Top Gear as the “greatest driving road in the world.” The road is genuinely spectacular, snaking up through the tree-lines hairpin bends before revealing stunning screensaver-worthy views. At the top you will be rewarded by beautiful views across Bâlea Lake, which you just have to swim in. Although be warned, even in the summer the water is at alpine temperatures. During the winter, blocks of ice are cut from the lake to build Transylvania’s Ice Hotel. After a warm hot chocolate, we vowed to return for some frozen fun one day.
Another great place to swim in the Carpathian Mountains is The Red Lake, which is also ominously known as the Killer Lake to the locals. The body of water is a reddish colour due to the iron oxides and hydroxides that have washed into it. There are several legends associated with the lake, including how the collapse of a slope killed all of the inhabitants of a local village, as well as their animals. There was so much blood from the victims, that the waters became known as the Killer Lake. It’s an atmospheric place to swim, especially with fossilised tree stumps in the water that resemble tomb stones
To finish our Transylvania tour, we opted for a few days rest and relaxation in the spa town of Sovata on the shore of Lacul Ursu (Bear Lake). Shaped like a bear’s skin, it was created by the collapse of a salt mine. It’s the largest heliothermal salt lake in Europe, with a surface layer of fresh water, about a meter-deep acting as an insulator, keeping the lower saltwater at a constant 30-40 degrees Celsius throughout the year. When not swimming, there are some great hiking trails to explore through the forests surrounding the lake. It’s also a very pretty town, with kitsch Austrian-style villas and hotels lining the streets and quaint wooden churches straight out of a Brothers Grimm story.
I’ve always wanted to visit Transylvania, mainly because of the vampire myths surrounding the region. And it certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s an affordable holiday, with stunning scenery and enough weirdness to keep you satisfied. There are also some very quirky places to swim, even if some of them are the colour of blood. And now I can now tell my friend in work that Transylvania is definitely a very real place and while at times it may feel like you are in a bit of a time warp, I didn’t see one person wandering around in fishnets, corsets and wigs…