Transylvania, Romania: Lonely Planet's top region to visit in the world in 2016

As my train, destined for magical Transylvania, weaves its way through grassy valleys dotted with haystacks, I try to sit quietly and ogle the passing countryside. As we coast further in I can't help but fidget as the swarm of butterflies in my tummy begins to flutter. Remember when you were a kid and your mum or dad sat down with you to read a new book? It's that sort of feeling – brand new, unknown, and made all the more exciting as you don't really know where you're headed.

Transylvania is Romania's most famous province – and according to Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2016 yearbook, it's the top region to visit in the world. Renowned for magnificent castles with timeworn pylons that erupt into the moody sky (Transylvania is home to more than 100 castles), for cobblestone laneways that coil like spaghetti through enchanting settlements, for impressive Saxon constructions that dominate cityscapes, and for ancient citadel remnants peppered throughout the picturesque region, it's easy to see why it's best to come here now before the masses do.

The natural backdrop is something too. Serrated mountain peaks surge into the sky and gushing water cataracts down cliff faces, gouging rivers through some of the lushest grassed valleys I've ever seen.

Transylvania is home to seven former Saxon walled citadels – Bistrita, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca, Medias, Sebes, Sibiu and Sighisoara. I visit two of the towns and use them as bases to explore the surrounds.

My first stop is Brasov, one of the larger townships and a fascinating place to explore. The historic centre is a tapestry of Saxon architecture and it's perpetually busy and pulsating with energy tantamount to a modern metropolis – probably because of both its size and proximity to the Romania's capital Bucharest.

In Brasov flocks of teenagers are out to impress, hitting the streets donning their best threads with ice-creams in hands as soon as the temperature hits double digits. Families meander through market stalls surveying farm-fresh cheeses and just-picked fruits. And clusters of sightseers mill around Brasov Council Square (Piata Sfatului) perusing maps and guidebooks.

Most of them realise there's no need for maps pretty quickly. Most of Brasov's main attractions are located within the old city walls and half the fun is getting a little lost along the way.

Barely anyone gets lost on the way to The Black Church (Biserica Neagra). The largest gothic church in Eastern Europe is hard to miss – colossal in size and named for its appearance (the church was marked black after a fire in 1689 and has remained that way since). Built between 1383 and 1480 on the site of a former church, the church has undergone several restorations through the centuries. Unfortunately not much of the gothic inner remains, but I take in the baroque design and spend some time studying the organ – widely considered to be one of the grandest organs in Europe.

From large to small I head to Rope Street (Strada Sforii). Said to be the narrowest street in Europe, it's comical passing other pedestrians (most taking selfies in the tight space) given the streets width, which varies between 1.09 and 1.35 metres.

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I see a couple I bumped into on Rope Street (literally) on top of Mount Tampa lining up for ice-cream a few hours later. Rising almost a kilometre above the medieval city, visitors can scale the forested mountain by foot or be whizzed up in cable car. I opt for the easy option, and along with 10 others ascend to the summit within a few minutes. The view during the cable car ride is almost as good as the view at the peak (if not better) as dense foliage obstructs some of the city panoramas.

I indulge in people watching between taking in the vistas. A cluster of salivating hikers line up in front of a BBQ manned by a stocky man who looks like an escaped member of the Romanian weightlifting team. He begins to brown thick chunks of meat on the grill, slapping four pieces between two slivers of white bread for each customer (perhaps in a low-carb phase?). The ice-creams are popular too, but I wander over to a mother and son selling strawberries and purchase the plumpest, reddest berries I've ever seen.

They prove a wise choice as the next day I use the strawberries to make friends with my fellow passengers onboard a train from Brasov to Sighisoara. I'm travelling with three bags and one is so large it doesn't fit anywhere except right in the middle of the six-seater cabin, forcing myself and two others to squash our legs. I apologise profusely and share my strawberries around to try and break the ice. Using a mix of Romanian and sign language my companions assure me it's no problem and the only other woman in the carriage (a typical-looking Romanian grandmother if you've ever tried to picture one) even uses my suitcase as a table to dice up a huge cold chicken schnitzel for the six of us to share, which she douses in a homemade mustard dressing before rationing it out.

I arrive in Sighisoara late afternoon and spend the last few daylight hours exploring by foot. No cars are permitted in the old town and I roam past colourful houses – pops of pastel greens, pinks and blues – taking care to step cautiously on the uneven cobblestone surface while two giggling boys sporting plastic Dracula masks follow me around.

As dusk drapes over the medieval city I decide to climb the 175 stairs to the top of the Church on the Hill for sunset, hoping to catch the last light doing its end-of-day dance. At the top I come face-to-face with two middle-aged brothers strumming guitars and crooning Romanian ballads. By the time the sun sinks into the horizon there are so many spectators, the stairs to the church grounds are blocked.

The main square is the hive of activity in town and the next day I start my exploration there. The square is small, but you could spend hours sitting in the sun watching village life drift by. I do… until lunchtime when my rumbling stomach calls me to action.

Vlad Dracul Restaurant holds claim to being the former birth home of Vlad Tepes (better known as Vlad the Impaler and the inspiration for Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula), and visitors can head upstairs to where it's claimed he lived as a child. The five Lei ($1.67) entry price gets you both a laugh and a scare… depending on your fear levels.

Just a few steps from the restaurant, the 14th century Clock Tower is perhaps the most famous site in Sighisoara. Throughout the day, every hour on the hour, a crowd congregates to watch the antique figurines (a 17th century addition) dance to the beat of time. Although technically the Clock Tower hasn't been an official gathering place since 1556, it certainly is still a place where people gather. And while we're not council members discussing significant issues or deliberating city matters, we're all here today significantly impacted by what once was and soaking up the present-day moment.

FIVE OF THE BEST CASTLES IN TRANSYLVANIA

BRAN CASTLE

Bran Castle is alleged to be the former fortress of Vlad Tepes and the premises the inspiration for Bram Stoker's model for Count Dracula's castle in his novel (although the Irish author never actually visited Transylvania). One of Romania's most-visited attractions, it was originally built as a fortress and used as trading hub. In 1920 Bran Castle became a royal residence and nowadays it's a museum housing a collection of the royal family heirlooms.

FAGARAS FORTRESS

Constructed on the site of a former wooden fortress, Fagaras Fortress is a dramatic construction that's seen days as a military defense base, royal residence, army barracks and a communist political prison. Today it's a museum showcasing Romanian weapons, crafts and artifacts.

CORVIN CASTLE

This striking gothic stone castle has played host to both royals and criminals and stands out for its imposing angular pillars and balustrade-lined balconies. Beautifully restored, the 50+ rooms are equipped with medieval artworks, the knights' hall is lavishly decorated, and the spiral staircases throughout are an exquisite feature.

RASNOV FORTRESS

Positioned on a rock-strewn mountaintop overlooking the town of Rasnov, Rasnov Fortress formerly housed residences, a chapel and even a school (it was once a place of refuge). The former fortress has undergone restoration works and today tourists come to visit the remnants and onsite museum.

PELES CASTLE

Visiting Peles Castle is like dropping smack-bang into the middle a fairytale. The enchanting castle features close to 160 rooms spanning a plethora of interior design themes, with influences from gothic to oriental to baroque. It's one of the most beautiful – and unusual – castles in Romania.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

romaniatourism.com

GETTING THERE

Fly with Qantas from Sydney or Melbourne to Bucharest via London. See qantas.com.au. From Bucharest both Brasov and Sighisoara are easily reachable via train. Buy tickets at the station (a day or two in advance is ideal) to reserve a seat.

SEE + DO

Both Brasov and Sighisoara are easy enough to navigate with a guidebook and a sense of adventure. In Brasov free walking tours can help with bearings. See brasov.walkaboutfreetours.com. Sighisoara is much smaller and you won't get lost exploring independently.

SLEEPING THERE

In Brasov, the five-star Aro Palace Hotel is a comfortable option. Many of the rooms have city or mountain views and the top-floor restaurant is a lavish affair. See aro-palace.ro. The delightful Hotel Fronius (named after the Fronius, a Transylvanian Saxon family) is the best choice in Sighisoara. The house was built in the 1400s and is one of the very few buildings in town that survived the great fire of 1676. Purchased in 2004 from the Fronius family, it now functions as boutique hotel with nine beautiful rooms. See fronius-residence.ro.

The writer was a guest of Romania Tourism.

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