Known to many as a fictional land packed with bloodthirsty vampires, Transylvania in central Romania is one of the most enchanting regions of Eastern Europe, a charming and genuinely unspoilt place to visit with bucolic views over endless wildflower meadows, vast hardwood forests and lush pastures. It’s also a place that’s being cleverly preserved and sustained at a very local level, by small charities, businesses and activists.
You will feel as if you have stepped back in time on any visit here, for traditional ways of life are the norm rather than the exception. Grass is often scythed by hand, horse and carts are still used for transporting hay from the meadows, and shepherds still practice transhumance, taking their flock to the high meadows throughout the summer months (April to October) and keeping huge sheepdogs to protect their sheep from bears attacks.
Indeed, the region is home to Europe’s largest population (around 5000) of brown bears, which are protected by the Forestry Commission and can be observed from hides in the wild in the Carpathian Mountains which border the region to the east. Here you’ll also find lynx and Transylvania’s famous (and not always howling) wolves. The Carpathian Mountains are Europe’s second largest mountain range, but illegal logging and deforestation threaten the rich ecosystem. Supported by The European Nature Trust aka TENT, the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) are trying to create Europe’s largest forested protected area, over 200,000 hectares, and create the ‘Yellowstone of Europe’.
It was such a wild and varied landscape and tranquil pace of life that inspired Oli Broom to set up in 2015 The Slow Cyclist, which offers small group cycling and walking trips in the region. ‘My first guides in Romania both described them selves as ‘men of the forest,’ he told NOW, ‘and it’s not unusual for local people to spend all day outside working their land’. Most people he works with, he says, host visitors as part of their working life, not as a central element of it. ‘This is what gives travellers a very authentic and real experience’.
As well as cycling you can come here to hike, explore castles, visit towns famed for their therapeutic waters (from the mineral mud of Bear Lake in Sovata to the salty waters of Ocna Sibiului near Sibiu) and drink palincă, the fiery brandy traditionally made from plums. The Prince of Wales is a champion – according to genealogists, he’s the great grandson 16 times removed of Vlad Dracula, OKA Vlad the Impaler, the 15th-century nobleman who was said to have skewered up to 80,000 enemies on long spikes and was the inspiration for the count in Bram Stoker’s 1897 vampire novel.
Prince Charles is involved in the conservation of rural villages and has bought and restored various guest farmhouses (transylvaniancastle.com). You won’t find mass tourism here – outside the large towns, many guest houses have only a handful of bedrooms, and Broom doesn’t see that changing any time soon.
Other than the Prince, it’s the impressive work of small businesses such as The Slow Cyclist and dozens of enterprising locals passionate about their home and their way of life that make this region a wonderfully replenishing place to visit that’s also being preserved for future generations.
In the Saxon villages, where The Slow Cyclist devotes most of their time, unemployment is high, so from the very start, the company has involved as many local people as possible in their trips. They employ gypsies to take their guests from village to village by horse and cart, they pay musicians to entertain their guests and village elders to tell stories about their communities, and they use different locals to make their clients wonderful picnic lunches high in the meadows, some of whom have gone on to grow their own small catering businesses.
Anca Dalmasso, for example, runs a nationwide preserves business from her home in the UNESCO world heritage village of Saschiz, while her French husband Charlie is a carpenter working on historic buildings and making crafts. ‘We have witnessed the community here coming back to life through collaboration rather than competition,’ Anca told NOW. ‘We’re striving for sustainable development that strikes the right balance between the traditions of the past and our needs for the future.’
In the same village, rural development specialist Jim Turnbull, who introduced the Slow Food movement to Romania, runs a social enterprise called Pivnita Bunicii (Grandma’s Cellar) that produces a range of syrups, jams and chutney using wonderful local ingredients. In May and June over 1500 local people arrive on their horse drawn carts to deliver their harvests of flowers, fruit, berries and vegetables, and Jim and his wife Sally pays them fairly according to how much they’ve picked. Annually, they commission an environmental impact assessment to make sure they are not over-harvesting from the wild.
Then there’s Christoph Promberger, originally a wolf expert, who runs Carpathia, a charity that is buying and protecting vast swathes of Transylvanian forests. He has a biodiversity farm and has also begun to offer eco-tourism in the forest – you can stay in his bear hide overnight, on the edge of the Piatra Craiului National Park. And Eugen Vaida, who set up the charity Asociata Monumentum to protect beautiful and historic old buildings and to promote all the craftsmen and traditional and sustainable materials needed to keep them standing. In the past two years, The Slow Cyclist has also donated £2,000 to support the charity, which is also supported by the UK-based ARTTA (Anglo Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture).
The region is not without its sustainability challenges. Tourist numbers will only increase, yet the infrastructure remains quite basic and waste and plastic are not yet being dealt with particularly efficiently. Most importantly, the Romanian government has no formal sustainability measures in place and can be unhelpful, changing laws at random with no consultation or trials to assess their impact. If you plan to visit the area as a sustainable traveller, it’s more important than ever to tred lightly, to limit your use of plastic and to support these enterprising locals and organisations who are trying their best to do the right thing for both people and planet.