It’s been 125 years since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, branding Transylvania as a dark, forbidding land populated by bloodsucking counts with an aversion to holy water. And while perhaps no other book has clouded its readers’ impression of a place in quite the same way, Stoker was right when he wrote of the region’s wild side. North of Bucharest, in the heart of Romania, Transylvania is home to one of Europe’s last great wildernesses: a sprawl of alpine meadows, ragged limestone ridges, and old-growth forests that billow across the landscape in a thick quilt of juniper, spruce, beech, and fir.
These wild mountains harbor some of the highest numbers of large carnivores—brown bears, wolves, and lynx—on the continent. The nonprofit Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is in the process of creating a vast reserve to safeguard all this for future generations—a “European Yellowstone” as Christoph Promberger, FCC’s executive director, envisions it—that will stretch for nearly 618,000 untamed acres across Romania’s Southern Carpathian Mountains.
The foundation has already started rewilding huge sections of the Carpathians, buying up parcels of land to stop them from being illegally logged or used for trophy hunting, and replanting 3.65 million trees. The plan is to eventually stitch together this patchwork of protected areas and within the next decade return it to the Romanian people in the form of an emblematic national park.
Travelers can put themselves on the front lines of this ambitious project with a trip into the wooded Dâmboviţa Valley, deep within the Făgăraș Mountains, in the far south of the region. Guided hiking trips with Travel Carpathia, the FCC’s ecotourism arm, lead trekkers to remote wooden hides clinging to the upper slopes. Here, bears lollop across clearings in the half-light of dusk and dawn, and you might see bison, a keystone species the FCC recently reintroduced to the Făgăraș after an absence of 200 years.
On the other side of the mountains, the villages of southeast Transylvania’s Târnava Mare area are starting to embrace ecotourism and agrotourism to help keep their ancient traditions alive. Settled by Saxons from Germany and the Lowlands in the 12th century, the hamlets are full of historic houses—thick walled and wooden shuttered, with facades painted in soft creamy pastels—and many of their fortified churches are UNESCO listed as well, but what is drawing visitors today is the chance to engage with local life. In Viscri, where elderly women in headscarves corral flocks of geese along the mainstreet, Saxon homes are opening up as guesthouses, complete with original furnishings and the opportunity to try traditional foods. (Reserve through tour company Experience Transylvania.) In Criţ, travelers can sample the local beekeeper’s honey, made from the seasonal blossoms of hawthorn and acacia. In nearby Saschiz, pottery workshops with conservation NGO Fundaţia ADEPT use techniques revived from the 1700s to craft plates and pots, while the jams sold at Pivniţa Bunicii are made with fruit harvested from courtyard gardens. Rhubarb, rose hips, sour cherry, and green walnut are all regional specialties.
The hills surrounding these villages are carpeted in some of the most pristine grasslands in Europe: a riot of pinks, creams, yellows, and blues in summer, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the dense drone of insect activity is so charged it feels like the air itself is thrumming. Visit the meadows on a horsedrawn cart, or cycle through them on part of the Transylvania Bike Trails, a 62-mile network that links Viscri, Saschiz, and several other Saxon villages.
This is the real Transylvania: wild, traditional, open, untarnished. And not a vampire in sight.
Tips for planning your trip
- How to get there: Most international flights arrive in Bucharest, although there are also airports in the Transylvanian cities of Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca. From Bucharest, the drive is around two and a half hours.
- Best time of year to visit: Spring or summer. Bears are active from May to November; visiting early in the season offers the chance to see young cubs. Wild boar and bison can also be spotted across the region.
- The reservation to make: The menu at Viscri 32, a restaurant (and guesthouse) in the village of Viscri, varies depending on what the chefs have sourced from local farms. Expect dishes such as lucicoș, a thick cabbage and smoked pork soup, and Saxon chicken with prunes and cinnamon.
- Stay longer: Brașov, Sighișoara, Sibiu, and Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s main cities, are all worth visiting in their own right. Brașov and Sighișoara have old towns with cobbled streets; Sibiu and Cluj are known for their lively cultural scenes.