No matter whether you're exploring the foothills and high meadows of the Carpathians or just watching traditional methods of farming, four legs are always good in rural Transylvania. A couple of excellent equestrian centres offer the opportunity to spend time in the saddle or take the reins of a carriage and if you're looking for a sprinkling of winter magic there's always a horse-drawn sleigh ride to get those bells jingling.
A self drive vacation lets you experience life as a local with a good national road network linking the likes of Sighisoara and Sibiu with classic Carpathian and agricultural landscapes in between. One never-to-be-forgotten road trip (closed Oct-June) is the Transfagarasan Highway that twists and turns across the Carpathians with tunnels, lakes and viaducts making the average speed of 25mph all the more pleasurable.
Saxon settlers arrived from Germany in the 12th century to colonise the area and protect the south-easterly Hungarian border. From the 13th to 16th centuries around 300 fortified churches were erected, mainly in the villages surrounding Bistrita, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Media? Sebe?, Sibiu and Sighisoara. Approximately half that number still stand, which all adds up to a great game of Saxon I-spy.
The fusion of Germanic, Hungarian and Turkish tastes have helped Transylvania start something of a mini-foodie revolution with ciorbas (seasonal soups), sarmale (meat stuffed cabbage leaves) and balmo? (cheese polenta) all to be tried prior to papanasi – doughnuts filled with jam and sour cream. Local hooch, especially tuica (plum brandy), varies considerably in strength and taste – you have been warned.
Transylvania is an ideal environment for much of Romania's indigenous wildlife with access to protected areas, like Piatra Craiului National Park, offering encounters amid limestone gorges and secluded caves. Bears, boars, bats and beavers are all known to inhabit the lower valleys and beech forests with guided wildlife watching tours the best way to unveil woodpeckers, flycatchers and the occasional Ural owl.
Walking between medieval towns and Saxon villages offers insight into the way things were and as you pass curious locals, call out a friendly 'buna ziua' and watch for an appreciative nod in return. Carpathian foothills offer easy to follow single tracks with little or no road coverage; more challenging ascents to limestone peaks and jagged outcrops reward with fantastic views over the forest covered valleys below.
Whether from the imagination of Bram Stoker or portrayal by Bela Lugosi, the legend of Dracula will forever be attached to Transylvania like a sharpened pair of fangs on a jugular. Halloween parties and history tours allow travelers to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker and discover the dark deeds of Vlad the Impaler as well as experiencing naturally atmospheric misty mornings and equally eerie evenings.
Head north from Transylvania, via the nature reserves and medieval monuments in Bistrita, and you’ll discover the mountain creeks and riverside villages of Maramures. This fascinating region has diverse cultural communities formed around carved wooden churches, ornate cemeteries (Merry Cemetery in Sapanta) and the forested valleys and protected pastures of Rodna National Park, near the Ukraine border.
Transylvania's countryside is a delight during the winter and if you're into Christmas markets and frosted, fairytale castles then pack your thermals and head for them there hills. Ski touring and snowshoeing can be enjoyed in this season, with the Bucegi and Piatra Craiului Mountains ideal for spotting animal prints in the snow en-route to a traditional taverna for a warming bowl of ciorba de fasole.
Although horse-drawn vehicles trundling over uneven roads or women and children manually operating water standpipes can look like photo ops, these images are part of Ceausescu's legacy and many rural communities are living in poverty. Bringing smaller denominations for tipping, staying in locally-owned pensini (B&Bs) and packing stationery for local schools are all good ways to visit responsibly.
Another of Ceausescu's ill-conceived social strategies was to forbid Romanians from birth control which led to a rise in birthrates and, subsequently, abandoned children. Although popping into an orphanage may seem like a good idea, it often does more harm than good as vulnerable children are abandoned again and again. Far better to donate to organisations who are committed to the long haul.
Sometimes it’s hard to ignore the stereotypes dreamed up by sensationalist media outlets willing to negatively tarnish an entire race by enraging their readership, purely to sell more newspapers and gain Internet clicks. Come to Transylvania with an open mind and heart and you’ll be met by genuinely hospitable hosts and fascinating characters about as far from fictional headlines as you could ever hope to imagine.