Romania: Count on Transylvania
'Take a piece of Romania with you, maybe not as some people see it," Radu, our guide, exhorted us as he bade us farewell at the airport. Romanians fear that the world's perception of them is one of Dracula and Ceausescu.
The myths bely the reality. It's a country of medieval castles, stunning fortresses and outstanding beauty. It was originally conquered by the Roman Empire and called Dacia, and subsequent centuries saw it divided into three main regions - Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia. Transylvania was lost to Hungary in the 10th century and was only finally regained at the end of World War II.
Romania suffered a great deal under the Communist regime of Ceausescu from 1967 to 1989. Our guide shared his memories of his family queueing all night for food.
The grandparents, who had retired, would queue through the night for provisions, like sugar, and the kids or parents would take over at five in the morning.
Ceausescu was overthrown and executed along with his wife Elena in 1989 and a democracy now governs.
We flew with Blue Air to Bucharest and based ourselves at the very central Concorde Hotel. Out the back door and you're right in the middle of the buzzing old part of the city. Bucharest boasts the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. The Palace of Parliament is vast with 15 floors, five of which are underground.
Ceausescu ordered its construction in 1983 and unfortunately he cleared a huge part of the old city to enable this. Even so, the old city is beautiful - arcaded streets featuring art galleries and antique shops; archways revealing outdoor restaurants and just around another corner the Russian Orthodox monastery with its wonderful courtyard. We ate at Hanul lui Manuc where traditional fare and traditional entertainers abound. A hearty soup, caramelised lamb and the gooiest chocolate cake ever were a wonderful introduction to Romanian cuisine.
Our trip was taking us from Bucharest, through Transylvania and on to Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital city of the region. A fabulous trip to do. I thought you would have to hire a car but in fact we met an Irish couple on our travels who were travelling from town to town by train and were delighted with their decision.
Our first port of call was the ski resort Sinaia. The journey from Bucharest took us up through the Carpathian mountains past Tyrolean-style houses with wooden shutters and balconies and through the most stunning countryside. A very Alpine vista. Peles Castle is amazing; Gothic in style, it was built in 1873 (redesigned in 1914) as the summer residence of King Carol I and his wife Elizabeth. It comprises 170 rooms with multitudinous paintings, woodcarvings and lavish furnishings. It was also the first castle in Europe to boast electricity, central heating and a vacuum cleaning system - all of which are still working today. The 52ft-high sliding glass roof over the ornate reception hall allows light to flood in. The Armoury Hall contains thousands of weapons.
Elizabeth was big into music and her music room is still intact. The dining room table had space for 36 people. She also liked to write, and produced some 40 novels under the nom de plume Carmen Sylva. These books are among the vast collection in the library.
And then it was on to Bran Castle. Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracul actually never lived here, but it is thought he was held hostage for a period of time here by the Hungarians. The castle is high up on a rocky ledge which adds to the atmosphere. Queen Marie, who was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, used it as her summer residence and it is now a museum.
Romania is full of charming little villages where horses and carts are still a method of transport for farmers. Cristian is one such village, and we stayed overnight there at the Ambient Resort. An oasis behind a wooden arched doorway, it has quirky rooms with hand-painted furniture and a cosy feel. And then it was on to Brasov - another beautiful city. It was colonised by the Germans in the 13th century and is home to Transylvania's largest Gothic building, the Black Church, so called because of a fire in 1689 which blackened its walls. Romania's heaviest bell, weighing 603 tonnes is housed here.
Back in the 1980s there were two large factories in the city that employed 70,000 people between them, and it was from these factories that the workers organised a major protest in Brasov against Ceausescu's rule in 1987. Some were shot, and a sculpture has been erected to commemorate the 30 years that have passed. A cable car goes up to the top of Tampa mountain and provides wonderful views of the city.
Viscri village was further along our journey and it's where Prince Charles hangs out when he comes to Transylvania. And he is a regular visitor. He has a lovely little blue house right in the middle of the village where cows and chickens roam freely. It's as if time has stood still. Seemingly he was bewitched by Transylvania, its architecture and wild meadows when he visited and now has a number of guesthouses which he lets out in the area. Gerhild, one of the 15 Saxons left in the village, is very involved in the Lutheran fortified church in Viscri where they still have a monthly service.
She filled us in on the pecking order of the congregation. Men in the balconies and young married women at the back of the main church and the older you get the further up in the church you go. I have to say I would demand that I stay at the back. For ever. Lunch, in what felt like someone's home, but was actually a little restaurant called Viscri 125, was sublime. A tomato soup with tasty semolina dumplings floating in it and a divine moussaka followed by pancakes washed down with Romanian wine was what we needed to continue on our journey.
There are some wonderful fortresses in the area. The fortified church in Prejmer is fascinating. Each village family had a small room with a wooden door within the church grounds to shelter in case of siege. Wooden staircases link the 272 rooms. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And Rupea Citadel, opened to the public in 2013, is another such fortress which has been restored. It's an imposing basalt construction situated on the top of a hill and is said to have housed 400 people.
We stayed in Count Kanoky's guest houses in Miclosoara village. A vet and ornithologist, he has reclaimed his family lands after the 1989 revolution, and dedicated himself to sustainable tourism and improving the lives of the locals. He organises riding holidays where you trek across the countryside and stay in various local houses, and he is also distantly related to Prince Charles.
The bedrooms are furnished with Transylvanian antiques and beautiful old rugs, and it really is like stepping back in time with elderly women filling buckets of water at the village well. An older gent passed us by on his Vespa wearing a Hells Angels leather jacket.
Sighisoara is a gorgeous town and said to be where Vlad Dracul was born. The clock tower, with its performing wooden figures, stands over the town. We climbed the 176 steps of the 14th century wooden staircase to the Gothic Church on the Hill.
And it was on to our final destination and Cluj-Napoca, a bustling university city and Romania's third largest with 70,000 students. St Michael's Church towers over the city with its 249ft-high spire.
The stunning National Theatre and Opera building is lit up at night and can host 1,200 people. Emile Zola street is where it's at, with outdoor cafes and pubs and buskers all adding to the ambience. We ate at Restaurant Zama and partook of the most divine hearty bowl of minced meat, fresh and pickled cabbage, rice, onion, peppers and tomatoes.
While waiting for my Blue Air flight from Cluj back to Dublin I realised I still had some Lei - the local currency - and the girl in the shop told me to keep them for my next trip. I assured her I would and I meant it.
Blue Air (Blueairweb.com) is a pan-European airline offering flights to more than 100 routes in Europe and the Middle East. The company currently has nine operational bases - in Cyprus, Italy, Romania and the UK.
The airline is IOSA Certified (IATA Operational Safety Audit) and a full IATA member. Blue Air connects Ireland with Romania from Dublin to Bucharest, Cluj and Bacau.
The company operates a fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft and this year announced the order of 12 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft and six Next-Generation 737-800 aircraft that will start to enter the fleet in 2019. www.eximtur.ro/
TAKE TWO: Top attractions
Food and wine
The food is hearty and wholesome. Mici is a dish of ground meat rolls, a mixture of pork, beef and lamb, and spices. Visit the wonderful Rhein Azuga wine cellars, former suppliers of the Romanian Royal Court.
Many houses are painted different colours and you will see chickens clucking around the gardens. Roadside stalls sell onions and garlic, as farmers travel to market by horse and cart. In short, it’s utterly idyllic.