Image credit: Chris Burton / Hotel of Ice
Romania has always mesmerised travellers with its fantastic scenery, fairytale froze-in-time villages and collection of enigmatic castles. One such visitor was Prince Charles, who after a visit in 1998 became so bewitched by the beauty and rich heritage of this Eastern European country — especially by the unspoiled region of Transylvania — that he bought two homes in the small Saxon village of Viscri and the remote Zalanpatak and transformed them into guesthouses.
But not only royalties seek out a slice of heaven in this part of the world; as the country is blessed with wide open natural spaces, any traveller with a dauntless side will crave some time in this playground speckled with adventure, archaic traditions and infinite scenic vistas. To truly appreciate Romania beyond the blood-soaked myths and gory stories of vampires, Quotient recommends five definitive experiences to go garlic — we mean, gaga — over.
Step back in time in the small village of Viscri
You don’t often stumble upon a UNESCO World Heritage village dating back to the 13th century. Deep in the heart of Transylvania, this medieval eye-candy takes you back in time with its main point of interest — the Lutheran fortified church — that includes a museum dedicated to the history of the German settlers. Prepare yourself mentally to soak in the slow pace of Viscri as life there hasn’t changed much for centuries. Evidently, this didn’t stop Prince Charles from buying and restoring some 18th-century Saxon houses to help protect the unique way of life as well as promote sustainable tourism. But while you may feel the serenity of the village slightly overwhelming, you will be surprised at the wide range of activities you can experience here, including horse-drawn cart trips, sampling of local cheeses, truffle hunting in the surrounding lush forests, mountain biking over hills as well as joining local families to the pastures for traditional hay stacking during summer.
Immerse yourself in the bowels of earth at Turda Salt Mine
Descending deeply underground may cause distress to many travellers, but when you literally find yourself in the heart of a former salt mine revamped as an underground theme park, you will easily want this to be an experience worthy of your bucket list. Deep in the grounds of Turda, a small town located about 45 minutes from Cluj, the unofficial capital of Transylvania, is a spacious salt mine that used to be a historical monument for a time when salt mining was an important business in the region. Presently, the 17th-century mine is home to a variety of highlights such as an 180-seat amphitheatre, where you can catch shows, a Ferris wheel, ping-pong tables, an underground lake, a spa, basketball hoops and mini-golf and bowling areas.
Stay at an ice hotel in the heart of the Carpathian mountains
While Sweden’s Icehotel has been in the limelight for years, Romania’s little-known Hotel of Ice pledges an equally rewarding experience. As you will ascend the Făgăraș Mountains by cable car through snow-capped rugged peaks and frosty pine forests, you will have some time to let the fairytale-like scenery sink in before arriving at the unique hotel. Located near the glacial Bâlea Lake in the Romanian Carpathians, the ice hotel transports you in the pages of a picture book. While the accommodation itself is breathtaking as it is painstakingly carved out of blocks of ice removed directly from the lake each year, the nearby attractions are also a bonus. Think imposing mountains surrounding you wherever you look, a lovely ice church as well as a slew of activities including skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, tubbing, sleighing and ice skating.
Soak in the ancient traditions of Maramureș
Maramureș looks and feels like a world apart from any other places in Europe for many reasons; not only is it one of the most authentic regions in Europe as it still continues to preserve ancient customs and traditions, but it is also known as the land of wooden churches and impressive landscapes of verdant rolling hills. Take some time to explore eight exquisite UNESCO World Heritage wooden churches, which have been recognised for the woodcarving mastery reflecting the region’s centuries-old traditions, as well as visit The Merry Cemetery, one of the world’s most unusual burial grounds located at Săpânța, where you will literally be amused by each eulogy and artwork depicted on the 800 crosses speckled here.
Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Danube Delta
From above it appears like a maze intertwined by watery paths brimming with rare birds and fish and that view alone is enough to make you fall for the UNESCO World Heritage Danube Delta. And if you find yourself on a boat, slowly chugging through an intricate network of lakes, marshes and islets home to over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species, you will discover for yourself why this remote corner of Europe is considered one of the last genuine wildernesses on the continent. The delta is surely a haven for bird watchers and wildlife lovers and also provides an insightful glimpse into the authentic local culture, which has a mix of Greek and Roman settlements as well as some Turkish influences. The delta can be explored as part of a Danube River Cruise, or on day trips and boat excursions from Tulcea, which is known for a series of restaurants that specialise in fish dishes.