Trek Talk - ElderTreks Blog


Sighisoara, Romania

When you hear the word “Transylvania”, and the only structure that comes to mind is a turreted castle inhabited by a blood-sucking night creature, it might be time to get to know a completely different Transylvania. Castles, indeed, are part of the Romanian and Hungarian landscapes that make up this region, (even if Dracula isn’t), but there are also other architectural gems to be discovered here, including Saxon villages, Gothic churches, painted monasteries, and palaces that not only hold priceless works of art, but are works of art themselves.

Setting the Record Straight

Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, never even laid eyes on Bran Castle, the Romanian landmark that has become associated for decades with his dark protagonist. Nor did Vlad the Impaler, a brutal 15th century ruler of Walachia who is often credited as the real-life inspiration for the vampire, ever call it home – at least not for very long. (He did spend a couple of months there in prison.) 

Bran Castle by Todor Bozhinov

But despite the fact that the vampire legend has little to do with its actual history, a visit to Transylvania wouldn’t be complete without a visit Bran Castle, not only because of its imposing location on the top of a cliff, but also because it is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture with its turreted towers, charming courtyard and unique construction that combines both wood and stone.

Bran Castle’s charming courtyard Photo by Mark Ahsmann

Brag-worthy Buildings in Brasov

One of seven main Saxon cities in Romania, Brasov boasts a beautiful downtown square surrounded by buildings that date back to the 15th century, including the Black Church, one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture in Transylvania, and the second most visited site in the country after Bran Castle. 

Brasov’s Black Church Photo by Daniel Pandelea

Initially named Saint Mary’s Church, the church became known as the Black Church (Biserica Neagra) after a fire in 1689 that blackened its walls. Considered the greatest place of worship in Romania, the church can house 5,000 people under a ceiling that soars over 200 feet, with a 4000-pipe organ that is one of the most impressive in Europe.

Gothic Details of the Black Church Photo by Sailko

Bucovina’s Painted Monasteries

Travel deeper into the heart of Transylvania, and you discover the painted monasteries – one-of-a-kind examples of Byzantine art and architecture, seven of which have been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. 

Covered with colourful frescoes inside and out, these beautifully decorated 15th and 16th century buildings visually bring to life the story of the Bible, from Genesis to stories of the saints, and even a few sinners. Creating the frescoes involved a complex blend of art and science, since the pigments themselves were made by crushing natural minerals and even semi-precious stones, and then applying the colour to still-wet plaster. The drying process of the plaster reacting with these minerals fixed the colours, making them more durable than other Renaissance church examples which used organic materials such as egg as a binder and whose colours tend to degrade with time. 

Interior Frescos at Voronet monastery  Photo by Cristian Bortes

Hungary’s Architectural Jewel

Composers and poets have often romanticized the Danube River, but the city of Budapest, which lies on the shores of the famous river’s Danube Bend, is music to the eyes for architecture lovers. Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Classic, Art Nouveau – you name the architectural style and you’ll find it here. 

Budapest’s Royal Palace details
Budapest’s Royal Palace details

Particularly beautiful are the Opera House, the Parliament Buildings, Buda Castle and the Royal Palace in the Castle Hill district. 

The Opera House Interior Photo by Andrea Puggioni

These last two palaces are home to world-class art collections that are as beautiful as the buildings in which they are housed. And as a city known for its spa culture, Budapest is one of the few places where you will find Turkish spas and baths from the 1500’s that are still functioning, making them some of the most historic and atmospheric structures in the city.

Interior of Kiraly Baths, Budapest

Beyond the Legend

Transylvania has much more to offer the traveller than dark fantasies, and architecture is only the beginning when it comes to its cultural and historical treasures – not to mention the region’s gorgeous geography. Learn more about our trip to this fascinating region here.

Jane Canapini - April 28, 2015
If this is the year you resolved to visit a part of the world that is still relatively new to tourism, a place that bridges the divide between western and eastern cultures, and a place where the history, people, and landscapes are sure to impress, why not consider the Caucasus? 
Made up of three countries, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus is just waiting to be discovered, a part of the world as complex and beautiful as the 60 or more languages spoken here, some of which trace back to a version of spoken Aramaic from the time of Jesus. 
With such a long and storied history, the reasons to visit are many, but here are 3 why the Caucasus should make your 'Discover List': 
Culture: East meets West
Although it is the Caucasus mountains that 'officially' divide Europe from Asia, Georgia, Armenia and Ajerbaijan manage to blur the lines between these two cultures. Stroll through Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and you may be surprised to find tree-lined boulevards that look more like the streets of Paris than the bazaars of Iran. Talk to Georgians, some of the most welcoming people you will ever meet, and many of them will identify themselves as European. 
Armenia, to the south of Georgia, also shares a border with Iran and you'll see strong influences from that culture in crafts such as carpet-making in which Armenian artisans rival their Arab counterparts in their skill and quality. But their own unique motifs and iconography set Armenian rugs apart from middle eastern designs found in places like Tabriz, for example.
Armenian cuisine, too is a blend of both middle eastern and Mediterranean foods, with dishes flavoured with eastern spice, but also influenced by Greece and Cyprus to the west. 
Azerbaijan, on the other hand, looks and feels much more middle eastern. Centuries of conquest and rule by Persian and Turkic empires led to the country becoming predominantly Muslim, and the mosques, palaces and historic monuments that characterize their cities reflect this. The walled city of Baku with its Shirvanshah's Palace is a beautiful example of this (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.) Here, there's no mistaking the eastern legacy left behind by past cultures, which is in start contrast to Azerbaijan's Christian neighbours.
The Cradle of Christianity
Armenia was the first country to declare itself a Christian nation in 301 AD, with Georgia following suit shortly after, and to this day, more than 90% of their population is Christian. As a result, both countries are considered the cradle of Christianity and boast some of the most impressive ancient monasteries in the world - like Armenia's UNESCO-designated Geghard Monastery

Geghard Monastery Photo via Wikipedia

Surrounded by cliffs, the building was partially carved out of the mountain itself, and claims to house some of Christianity's most famous relics, the most celebrated of which was the spear used to wound Christ on the Cross.
Fra Angelico fresco depicting Longinus wounding Jesus on the Cross 
Then there is Khor Virap, near the border of Turkey, perched high on a hill overlooking the Ararat plain. With its long history dating from 642 AD and its spectacular views of Mt. Ararat in the distance (the legendary resting place of Noah's ark), this monastery is probably the most visited pilgrimage site in Armenia.

Khor Virap with Mt. Ararat in the distance.

Tsminda Sameba, or Gergeti Trinity Churh, is another 14th century monastery in Georgia that rises to heights of its own -7200 feet in the mountains, to be precise. Standing outside the monastery, with evocative views of the mountains surrounding you, you can't help but feel that you are literally closer to heaven. 
"Khevi, Georgia — View of Gergeti Trinity Church" by Levan Gokadze - [1].
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
Heavenly Landscapes
The Caucasus has legitimate reason to lay claim to the heavens, boasting some of the highest mountains in Europe. And it is these mountains, their valleys and neighbouring plains that make for some of the most beautiful vistas and stunning landscapes to be found anywhere. 
Rising and falling in altitude dramatically, the Caucasus includes everything from glaciers to subtropical marshes. Travelling through Georgia, Armenia and Ajerbaijan means you are just as likely to snap photos of pine forests as you are grassy steppes, or perhaps capture wildflowers on an alpine meadow, or a waterfall splashing down the dark gorges. This land is a photographer's, and hikers, paradise. 
If these aren't reasons enough to inspire you to discover this part of the world, here's one more: the Caucasus is still relatively unknown to travellers and mainstream tourism has yet to take hold. But this is going to happen - because with a history as colourful and diverse as its spectacular geography, the Caucasus is sure to emerge as a new favourite for travellers seeking something truly off the beaten track. 
Go now, before this changes. 
Learn more about our Caucasus itinerary.
Jane Canapini - March 05, 2015

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