By the time we finally left Castle Bran, we realised that it was probably just too late to make it to Sigisoara before dark – which feels like it’s creeping in earlier and earlier every day now. Rather than try and explore a city in the dark, which is rarely as enjoyable for us, we called it early and stopped mid way there at what sounded like an interesting camp site in a town called Viscri.
I thought that I’d made a terrible mistake once we left the highway to Sigisoara. We were now travelling on an unsealed, muddy and rather potholed access road. This continued for quite some time, and on the way we passed by more than a few horse-drawn carriages.
This time warp feeling continued as we approached town. It truly felt like we’d stepped back in time, and found a small town that time had forgotten – you know, except for the power lines and the occasional car. Even though there was a camp site in park4night, it seems that the sight of a motorhome bouncing our way through down was something quite unusual and had most of the town staring with curiosity.
We found as flat a place to park as was possible, then went for a quick wander around town before dark. I’m grateful to have found the random campsite listed on park4night, because not only had we ended up in this wonderful hidden town, we also found comments about the fortified church on top of the hill here.
It was incredible to walk around, with near uniform houses painted in different shades and hues. It was getting dark, and starting to feel like a ghost town. It wasn’t helped by us encountering more cats/dogs/horses/ducks than people as we walked through the rocky streets.
The fortified church was closed for the day, but incredibly, was open tomorrow morning – the final day of the year. I couldn’t help but think that it was the perfect place to be so close to Halloween. The combination of the bare trees, the dark skies, the overgrown graveyard, and the menacing fortifications – and it being in Transylvania – were all too perfect.
Not only did comments from fellow campers help us find this fortress, but it also made suggestions for dinner – there weren’t many options in town for dinner anyway. It was nearly dark by the time we’d gotten back to our car, and made our way to the Viscri Barn Restaurant (Viscri 32). I wasn’t quite sure if it was open, as it, like most of the town, was dark. But, we found the pathway that led up to the barn at the rear of the yard. It felt so hip/cool walking into the newly renovated space. We were warmly greeted by the owners, a young couple that escaped the busy life of Bucharest for some peace in the countryside.
We were pretty excited, but I’m sad to say that our meals didn’t live up to our expectations. They were both nice enough, but we were paying a premium here, and it wasn’t a premium meal. It’s hard to fully put it into words (which is not uncommon for me), but there was something a little half-arsed about the meal we received. My sausage and cheesy potatoes were nice enough, but her stew was rather tough/dry. The same went for the dessert.
The day I’ve been dreading for quite some time finally. Daylight Savings has officially ended, and now our days are ending even earlier than before. I mean, we could wake earlier to compensate for this change – but lets be honest, anything that requires will power probably won’t happen.
After breakfast, we went to go explore the fortified church, but they still hadn’t opened for the day. However, by the time we’d nearly made it back to our car, we noticed another car drive past, and someone walked inside the grounds. We assumed that she was working there, and would shortly open it for guests.
The locals on the street leading up to the hill had all of their wares out on display, with an almost endless variety of woollen ware for sale. It was beautiful to look at, but I had zero need for anything that they were selling. Risa bartered a little and picked up some woollen socks, and later some intricate lace, however.
I had been right with that assumption, as the lady we saw leaving the car was now standing by the open doors to the church. We paid the tiny amount of money for entrance and went to go explore. It, like the town surrounding, felt like it had been stuck in a time warp, long forgotten about from the outside world.
Stepping inside the actual church felt like we’d wandered into an abandoned building. It had an air of dereliction about it, yet it was still clearly in use. The timber looked like it had warped and twisted from centuries of struggle with gravity, and the paint was more a reminder of what was than decoration at this point.
It was possible to climb the central tower, as long as you’re smart enough to find the way (I wasn’t, I took a wrong turn, though I blame my height for not seeing it). The views from the top of the tower were fantastic. Not only were we able to get a fantastic perspective of the solid fortifications here, but also a great view out over the land around town. There was something colourless about the area, with the grass and buildings lacking in saturation, fading into winter.
There were a few exhibitions about peasant life inside. I truly hadn’t realised thought about Romania being part of the Austria-Hungary empire, even though we’d just come from Peles Castle (which was built by German conqueror, King Carol). There were many traditions explained, as well as the clothing and tools in use – with most of the original text in German.
The views from the inner ramparts were also amazing, and I found that each new vantage was a fresh perspective. Even though we’d been walking around this small area for more than an hour, I continued to find fresh and interesting things to look at.
Eventually though, we agreed that we’d seen it all, and returned back down the hill to where Gunter was patiently waiting. We had further driving along unsealed roads, thankfully avoiding getting stuck in muddy holes.
It was a little after lunch time when we finally arrived in Sigisoara. We arrived to heavy rain, so we were forced to wait it out for some time for it to ease off.
The light rain continued, and the cobbled stone streets were slick and slippery. We climbed up to the outer walls of the inner city, stepping inside to a beautifully coloured old town. It was clearly a place popular with tourists, but it seems that things have been kept in check, with out too much advertising ruining the enjoyment of the buildings. It was really, really enjoyable to walk through, especially as the streets were mostly empty, too.
Sitting proud on a hill above the town was a large church, creatively named Church of the Hill. Getting there was by a fantastically atmospheric covered staircase. I couldn’t really describe why it felt so creepy, but I guess it was the dark timber with the organic lines. The actual church itself was a little less exciting. It was closed to entry, but we could freely walk the perimeter. I personally found the walk back down into town more interesting than the church itself, especially with lovely coverage of dead leaves and barren trees.
The church might have been dominated the view of the town, but it was the clock tower that was the most inspiring sight. There was something out of proportion that made it strangely appealing to me, with the enormous central spire, and the coloured tiles.
But first, lunch. We decided to skip any of the restaurants within the walls of the old town, and instead ended up at a small kebab shop just outside the walls. Kebabs have really been our ‘go to’ meal choice when we can’t decide on anything else. And, today, like all the others proved why it’s such a safe choice. It was cheap, fast, moderately healthy, but most importantly, delicious!
We grabbed a quick coffee from a nearby pub/café to help fight the post-lunch fatigue. I started looking at information about visiting the clock tower, and realised that it shut at 15:30! We finished our coffee and raced back up the hill with about 30-minutes left before closing. But, they only took cash, and I’d run out, and had to continue to rush around the old town looking for an ATM (that worked). For some reason I could only get out 10lei from the ATMs, which was only enough for one person to enter. I left Risa below, and rushed up to the top of the tower as quickly as I could.
It was a great view from the top, however, you still couldn’t see the whole town. But, it was possible to see inside the giant clock, complete with star signs and other animations.
I had a tiny amount of time remaining before closing time, which gave me a chance to run around the museum inside. There was history about the different trades/guilds in town, such as blacksmiths, or carpenters. It showed information about how these groups operated, and trained, and was actually a lot more interesting than it sounds.
Another sight that was quite heavily promoted was the birthplace of Dracula, aka, Vlad Tepes, aka, Vlad the Impaler, aka, Vlad Dracul. As tempting as it would be to visit Dracula’s old home, we somehow fought the temptation.
By the time we did some quick shopping, it was dark. And, because it’s what I always do, I drove a further two hours to spend the night in a more suitable location. It was mostly major roads, but it was still single lane for each direction, with a near endless stream of towns. It was exhausting to keep the concentration up for so long, but we made it to tomorrow’s destination and could relax tomorrow morning.
We parked in a flat open piece of ground not far from the salt mine. It was a truly freezing morning, and I had to wake during the night to put some socks on.
Thankfully the salt mine is a constant temperature, and it’s going to be much warmer than outside – a year round 13˚C. It was 30lei entrance, and we were free to wander at will. There was an application to install a free audio guide – though it was a little useless and light on facts. The same went for the information panels that were installed throughout the mine.
We traversed down the long, glimmering corridors. The walls were crusted in sparkling salt crystals, and were beautifully organic. I still find it odd seeing salt look such a dark colour, but it was the same as the salt mine near Krakow – and the taste test confirmed it was indeed salt.
It was interested the way this mine is marketed as a place of health and wellness. Along the first corridor were large fitness areas with kids playing games. I don’t know if it was coincidental, but my sinuses did feel a little clearer than usual.
After a considerable walk down this perfectly straight, and gently sloping corridor, we caught our first glimpse of the Teresa Mine. It felt like something from a science fiction movie, with the dark waters reflecting the geometric shapes of the structures on the island below. Even the shape of the cave felt out of this world, with a surprisingly even conical appearance. It was some 70m high, with boats paddling around on the densely saline waters.
Nearby was the Rudolph Mine, which was a very different cut/shape to the Teresa Mine. It was a near perfect trapezoid, slowly tapering away towards the base. There was a view platform that ran the perimeter of the upper gallery, but walking along it was best described as terrifying. It was wooden, old, and had sections that gently sloped. But, it did look thick and solid/rigid.
There were 14 flights of stairs to access the huge area at the base of the mine. It was incredible walking along the stairs and seeing the markers of the progress of the miners, as they carved the year that they reached each level. Sometimes it was a quick progress with a new year for each level, but further on, no doubt harmed by the much wider cavity, there were many years between new levels.
It felt really quite bizarre standing at the bottom of this enormous salt mine, and watching kids running around playing sports. It felt so futuristic and unexpected, especially with the hanging bars of light looking more like an art installation than functional illumination.
We were also able to enter the bottom of the Teresa Mine from this level, and seeing it from the bottom was even stranger than from above. My mind couldn’t quite comprehend the boats that were rowing around at the bottom of a mine. It wasn’t expensive to hire boats, but, it was cash only (of which I had none) and the queue was far too long for my attention span.
Instead, I just lapped up the crazy space age views, and walked around the small island.
The salt levels were extreme in that water, too – 260g/L! I’d love to know what it feels like to float in something like that, but I’m guessing it’s probably quite hard on your skin – as well as being a little cold.
This was basically the entirety of the mines. Sure, they were enormous, and impressive, just for some reason I thought that there was more to be seen, so it came as a little shock when we realised that we had finished. There were, of course, other mines, but they were all closed to tourists. There were also some historic exhibits, showing how the mines used to operate, but they were pretty simple – at least compared to what we’d seen in Krakow.
I was honestly surprised at how much I had enjoyed this, especially after having really mixed feelings in Wieliczka – but I mostly blame our cranky tour guide.
It was near enough to lunch time, and I couldn’t walk past the langos stands without ordering one. Actually, it was so damn good, that I ordered a second. Thankfully my stomach was starting to bulge by the time I’d finished the second, or I’d likely be back queuing up for a third… They were only 5lei, and were made fresh in front of my eyes.
Somehow it was already 2PM, and with the sun now setting by 5PM, there wasn’t much more we could get done in the day. It’s amazing how much more difficult it is now with the shorter days. By the time we’ve finished our morning routines, it’s nearly 10AM. Throw in a few hours of driving, and there doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing.
We decided to make our way towards Oradea, driving for as long as we could before it got dark. The strong cold winds we’ve been feeling the past few days were intensifying, and we were starting to get some occasional sleet on the higher hills. I stopped for fuel, and by the time we had filled up, the sleet had turned into full blown snow…
We were rather concerned, but I knew that the road was still far too warm for it to settle, so pressed on. What I hadn’t really thought about were my windscreen wipers, which were summer blades. Thankfully they didn’t get too encrusted in ice, and were able to continue to clear the window. I stopped at one point to use the bathroom and was amazed to see the thick crust of snow and ice on the front of Gunter.
A Romanian friend had told me about these towns that have ‘Gypsie Palaces’. I’d completely forgotten about it, but we’d suddenly realised that we were driving past some. They were incredible, giant buildings – though, none seemed to be completed. They were almost comically over the top, with giant columns, multiple stories, and giant decorated roofs – at least those that had gotten as far as the roof. I wanted to stop for photos, but the weather was horrendous.
I was getting a little worried, wondering how much longer we could continue driving through this weather, keeping a keen eye on the road conditions. I had considered pulling over to wait it out, but also realised that it’s possible things could be worse tomorrow if this weather continued. But, thankfully we started to descend a little, and exited the storm. The skies were clear again, but the hills around us were now beautifully white.
Our campsite for the night was by the small Unguru Mare Cave. Ordinarily Risa likes caves, but turning up to this remote cave in the final moments of dusk was too much. I didn’t see any bats leaving, but they were said to live inside the cave. I think that would have been the final straw if we’d encountered a giant swarm of bats!
I thought that I would make the most of being in a cheaper country and get some parts to service our van. Not only was it misguided (parts were cheaper in Germany/Austria/France/Italy), but it was incredibly frustrating. I ended up driving from shop to shop because they either didn’t have all the parts that I wanted – or more annoyingly, they didn’t accept card once I’d managed to find all the parts I’d wanted. It was incredibly demotivating, and a massive waste of my time – but, Gunter needs his regular servicing, and it’s easier to just do it myself than find a mechanic, and sit around and wait.
I’d read some amazing things about this town. It was said to be filled with some incredible art nouveau/deco (I’m still not really sure the difference between the two) buildings. We’re both fans of the art style, so we thought we’d drop by for a visit, especially since it was going to be a long way until our next stop – Budapest.
The day started fantastic, with some amazing coffee. Things took a turn for the worse when I tried following the suggestions of the guide book of where the most impressive buildings in town were. We walked towards the central station, but it really felt like we were moving away from the action. I persevered, but it was in vain. There was nothing out there, other than a long walk back to where we’d started from.
Our parking was nearly expired, so by the time we’d made it back to the busy pedestrianised area, we didn’t have much more time for exploration. Following our instincts, rather than our guidebook, we crossed over to a beautiful area across the river, filled with the kinds of buildings that we came here to see.
Along the way though, the strap on my camera snapped, and my camera had a slow tumble to the ground, breaking the battery door and latch in the process… Thankfully everything else remained intact and operational.
We returned back to Gunter, who was thankfully free of any parking tickets, and got comfortable for the long drive ahead to Budapest.