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
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.