Many people know Transylvania only as the home of Dracula. Personally I find the association about as cringe-worthy as “hungry Hungarian” jokes, but that’s just because I’m a snob. Transylvania is one of my favorite places in the world. As far as I can figure, this is the eighth time I’ve been there; the last three of them together with Tomi.
A crash course in Transylvanian basics: Transylvania is a region of northwest Romania, about 40% of the country total. For many years up until WWI the region belonged to Hungary, so there is still a Hungarian minority there. In some towns and counties (like the ones we visited on our trip) Hungarians make up the majority of the population. In this post I’ve included place names in both Hungarian / Romanian.
So about the trip! We had a sunny start from Szolnok but it was looking gloomier and gloomier as we drove east.
Crossing the Királyhágó (the first mountain pass after the border) we hit torrential rain, which made the steep hairpin-turn roads super fun! Nevertheless we arrived safely at our first overnight stop, Kalotaszentkirály / Sâncraiu (link to map). We stayed in the same place we always do, which is the Kondor Panzió (highly recommended!). The sun came out as we arrived so we had a chance to wander around the village and find an easy geocache before dinner.
On the first day we had driven about 250 km (155 miles) from Szolnok to Kalotaszentkirály, and on the second we drove another 260 km from Kalotaszentkirály to out next stop, Zetelaka / Zetea. We stayed (again, as usual) at the Eszter Vendégház, which I cannot recommend highly enough. For 4000 forints a night (≈$20) we got a room with private bathroom and fridge, plus they stuffed us full at breakfast and dinner – pálinka and beer included – and we spent the evenings playing cards in a pavilion overlooking the hills.
Typical breakfast (this is actually the Kondor Panzió)
Tomi with our host’s daughter, who was running off to a dance in the village
On our first full day in Zetelaka we drove a loop up through the Hargita Mountains. First a stop in Farkaslaka / Lupeni for some shopping and to see the monument to Áron Tamási, a Hungarian-American-Romanian-Székely writer. Then to Parajd / Praid, where once again we took a look at the line and declined to visit the salt mine. Then over the mountains towards Gyergyószentmiklós / Gheorgheni, south down to Csíkszereda / Miercurea Ciuc and the church at Csíksomlyó / Şumuleu Ciuc, where we climbed up to the small chapel overlooking the church, and finally back east towards Zetelaka, over the mountains again.
On our second Zetelaka day the weather was not looking promising but Eszter assured us that if the morning mist was moving up the mountain – it was (first picture below) – the weather would be fair. She was mostly right. We drove back to Segesvár / Sighișoara and wandered around in the fortified old city center there and only got rained on a tiny little bit. Part of our wandering was geocache-related, but we struck out three for three. We had an excellent time poking around anyway and had lunch on the main square.
On the main square, a Wisconsin landmark:
And look what I found nearby: a strange little half-abandoned balcony that was FULL OF SEWING MACHINES. Tomi had to pry me away.
On our third and final day in Zetelaka we tackled the biggest challenge, hiking to the top of the Hargita Mountains. The peak, called Madarasi-Hargita / Harghita-Mădăraș, is 1801m (5908′) high, but luckily for us there is a road passing over it at 1650m so the actual hiking part is only about a half-hour (uh, or a bit more) walk. The road is currently being paved (to be finished August 1st, so we just missed it) but we were able to drive up the back way. A few bumps and bee stings aside, we arrived safely at the top, parked, had lunch, started walking, got a bit off track but looped back around, made it to the top and had our second lunch, found another geocache (the hint was “look under a pile of rocks” – ha ha, very helpful), and scurried back down because it was too chilly to stay long.
After leaving Zetelaka we had another day of driving ahead of us, this time back westwards towards Torockó / Rimetea. We stayed at this place again; since the last time we were there they’ve added a dining room so now they can offer half-board as well. Our room right over the dining room was a bit loud some nights, but I would still recommend the place: there is a great little pavilion next to the waterfall of the brook which runs through the yard, kitties to play with, and a perfect view of the Székelykő, which is a giant rocky mountain looming over the village.
There were so many things we wanted to do in and around Torockó but because the accommodation was fully booked we could only have two full days. So on the first day we tackled the biggest goal: the Székelykő. Two years ago we had tried and failed to hike up to the cave in the side of the rock, and Tomi made a MacArthuresque vow to return. I vaguely remember agreeing. Here’s a picture showing how close we got last time (probably I’m pointing back down to the village like, “Can’t we go back there now?”). That black spot is the cave; Tomi estimated that we were only 200 meters away.
This time, armed with better shoes, Tomi’s willpower*, and a lot of time, we made it to the cave (*as I was writing, Tomi reminded me that long after I had reached the point where up or down, forward or back was all the same, the only reason he kept going was because it would have been harder to try to get down from where we were). Now that I am sipping a cold drink as I rest in my cool flat in nice, perfectly flat Szolnok, I say: it was totally worth it!
The day after that hike, we decided to have a nice calm walk in the nearby Torda Gorge / Tordai-hasadék / Cheile Turzii. Despite the name, it is actually a flat, well-maintained series of tourist paths through a nature preserve – nothing strenuous at all.
On the morning of the last day we visited the Torockó town museum.
The red painted window frame was to show that the house was in mourning.
Someday I will have a room like this.
And finally we drove home. Eight nights and nine days was the perfect amount of time to re-fall in love with Transylvania and then start to miss home. In hindsight it could have been better to stay, because we came home to a massive heat wave and the news that our neighbor’s flat had been broken into. Fun!
In addition to 500+ photos, new Korond pottery, and new textiles, I also came home with two new goals. First, getting my Hungarian citizenship. The cumulative time I’ve spent waiting at the borders is slowing getting to be more than the time it will actually take to just do the paperwork, so I’ve decided to go for it (obviously Romanian border crossings are not my sole reason, but it sounds nice that way, right?). Second, learning Romanian. It’s embarrassing that I’ve been there so many times and still can’t even ask for a beer or a toilet. Since being back I’ve already begun, and after two lessons I can now say “Eu nu vorbesc limba română” which seems like a great place to start.