Transylvania Rail Tour
A breathtaking railroad journey to the Romanian principality of Transylvania
By Jana Soeldner Danger
A travel adventure by train can be a magical experience. Although many Americans think of railways as transportation for those who can’t afford to fly, the train actually has a number of advantages. And many Europeans consider trains to be the best way to travel.
Why? You don’t need a reservation, so you can arrive at the station just before the train leaves and buy your ticket then. Before you board, there are no lengthy check-in procedures or security screenings. No worries about the weight or number of suitcases, either. And on most European trains, you can bring your own wine or beer. Then, instead of landing at an airport far outside the city you are visiting and needing to catch a cab or rent a car, the train will often take you straight into the middle of town.
Convinced? Then all aboard! Settle back into your comfortable seat while the engine begins to chug, wheels start to turn on the track and the whistle wails. Let’s take a journey to the Romanian principality of Transylvania, an area that many Americans may not think about when deciding to visit Europe. Yet it offers breathtaking scenery, fascinating historical sites, theaters and museums. And, of course, it is home to the Dracula legend.
The train is slowing at the station in Sibiu, one of the most important cultural centers and most visited areas in Romania. Start in Upper Town, an area organized around three city squares. It is the site of many points of interest, including the Brukenthal Palace, one of the most important baroque monuments in the country; the Council Tower, a fortification from the 13th century; the Jesuit Church; and Liar’s Bridge, the first Romanian bridge to be cast in iron. Two- and three-story houses sport tall attics with tiny windows known as the eyes of the city.
Leading to Lower Town is the Passage of Stairs, one of the most picturesque of several routes linking Sibiu’s two areas. Streets here are long and wide by medieval standards, but architecture is rustic. Lower Town was developed around the city’s earliest fortifications, but most were lost during the 19th century so today, only four towers still exist. Lower Town also has the city’s oldest church, dating back to 1292.
Before leaving Sibiu, catch a play at one of its live theaters. Kids will love the Gong, which specializes in puppetry and mime. For adults, there’s the Radu Stanca National Theatre, which dates back to 1787 and attracts some of the best known directors in the country. Sibiu also has its own philharmonic orchestra, which presents weekly classical music concerts.
Next stop, Brasov, where every spring thousands of Romanians march through town and gather at Solomon’s Rocks for a community picnic and sing-along. The festival celebrates the one day a year when, during medieval times, Romanians could enter the Saxon city without paying a toll.
Brasov is home to several historic churches, including the Weavers Bastion, which exhibits documents from the Middle Ages, Turkish weapons decorated with Arabic inscriptions, artisan tools, and an elaborate scale model of the city circa 1600.
If time permits, consider taking a 30-minute bus ride to Poiana Brasov. With an elevation of 3,300 feet, it boasts a ski resort and a panoramic view of Brasov and the Bucegi Mountains.
Now the train is pulling into Bran, where you can shiver over the idea of vampires as you explore Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle. The edifice is just one of several locations linked to the blood-sucking legend, and the first documented mention of the castle dates back to the 1300s.
In 1920, it became a royal residence and a favorite retreat of the queen. At the foot of the hill on which the castle stands, you can visit a museum park with cottages and barns like those in which medieval peasants lived.
Now the train arrives in Sighisoara, a picturesque city of fortified walls, narrow cobblestone streets, and authentic medieval architecture in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, the historical figure on whom author Bram Stoker probably based his fictional character Dracula.
Once the home of Transylvanian rulers, the city consists of two sections: the Citadel and Lower Town. The Citadel, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a stronghold constructed by Saxons at the top of a hill. It guarded Lower Town, which is located in the Tanaya Mare River Valley.
In the Citadel, houses that were once lived in by medieval craftsmen are still inhabited. One of the city’s notable landmarks is the clock tower, built in the second half of the 14th century as the main gateway into the Citadel, as well as a meeting place for the town council.
Climb the Covered Staircase, which is topped by a wooden roof and leads to the Church on the Hill, where you can view ancient frescoes. At the Weapons Museum, you’ll see medieval instruments of war like swords and arrows.
Your final stop: Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city, which carries the nickname “Little Paris.” Stroll Calea Vicortiei, the city’s oldest and perhaps most charming street, built in 1692 and originally lined with oak beams.
Along the way, you’ll see the Cantacuzino Palace, constructed between 1898 and 1900 in French style as the home of Grigore Cantacuzino, one of Romania’s prime ministers and richest citizens. Also in the area is Revolution Square, where Communist politician Nicolae Ceausescu spent his final moments in power before an angry crowd turned on him.
Take time also to visit the Arch of Triumph, an 85-foot-tall structure built originally of wood in 1922 to honor WWI Romanian soldiers and finished in granite in 1936.
For a panoramic view of the city, climb the interior staircase.
Your journey has ended, but there are many other places to explore through the magic and romance of trains.
Note: For information on this and other European train tours, visit Railbookers America at www.railbookers.com or call 888-829-3040.
Royal Tokaji – A Transylvanian Classic Lost & Found
By Ben Howkins
Hungary’s Tokaji wines have always had a powerful yet mysterious reputation. One reason was the exotic location of the tiny picturesque vineyards, sheltered from cold easterly winds by Russia’s Carpathian Mountains. As Michael Broadbent said in his “Great Vintage Wine Book”: “Perhaps the most remote and strange of all the great classic wines, Tokaji …was surely conceived by the romantic imagination of some Transylvanian god.”
The greatest reverence has always been reserved for Tokaji’s unique Aszú wines. These refreshing, yet sweet vintages, produced in limited quantities, were
always scarce, produced against the odds during the region’s frequent invasions.
Sweetness and richness are signs of wealth. Tokaji Aszú was simply the world’s first great sweet wine. Tokaji bottles were always expensive and brought up from the cellars for grand occasions. But for the last half century, Tokaji Aszú has lain out of reach behind the Iron Curtain. It was not until 1994, when the first vintages of private production, a Tokaji renaissance, reached the West. Today, Tokaji Aszús still come in the familiar slope-shouldered, 500ml bottles, as they have for the last 400 years. The colour is a clear, golden amber; the bouquet is full of honey, fat apricots and orange peel.
Essencia is the richest and rarest of all Hungarian Tokaji wines. Typically, this free run juice takes six to eight years to complete its fermentation to less than 3 percent alcohol. Essencia 2000 is presented in numbered bottles in a brass hinged wooden box complete with a traditional crystal spoon. $799. For details, visit www.royal-tokaji.com.