The northern Romanian county of Maramures is a magical region of beech covered hills, timeless villages and peerless wooden churches. Best of all though is the wonderfully named Merry Cemetery in Sapanta, where you can admire a riot of beautifully carved and exuberantly coloured wooden grave markers, many of which depict the lives and loves of the deceased, often in rib-tickling fashion – such as the one of a stern-looking mother with an accompanying final message to her son, proclaiming ‘Griga, may you pardoned be, even though you did stab me’...
Get up to Maramures, on the border with Ukraine: we stayed in Sighet, a border town with an oddly stately and historical feel to it, in a decent hotel, the Coroana, redolent of other days: a fascinating market selling local agricultural produce and splendid, head-scarved old matriarchs sitting behind stinking vats of good cheese. Visit the Museum of Arrested Thought, housed in the old Ceaucescu era prison for moments of genuine sadness and quiet despair, but then hire a driver and go on to the Merry Cemetery that makes mortality amusing and vibrant and then on further to the wooden churches, redolent with genuine piety and a sense of community that previous regimes have clearly failed to touch – and all in a bucolic world of green, wild-flowered neatly scythed meadows and horses and carts that Hardy would have recognised and was mourning for well over a century ago.
Str. P-ta Libertatii nr. 8, Sighetu Marmatiei 435500, Romania
+40 362 103 244
Google map: bit.ly/117c5qx
If you’re in central Transylvania to visit the cultural hubs of Sighisoara and Sibiu, take the opportunity to head off the beaten track and explore some of the Saxon villages of Târnava Mare. With most towns preserving their colourful history with names in Romanian, German and Hungarian, settlements such as Biertan (Birthälm; Berethalom) and Richis (Reichersdorf; Riomfalva) boast extraordinary fortified churches, sleepy monasteries and a tangible sense of the past. You could book a tour, but best of all is to explore the area under your own steam by means of the local bus network, which is reliable if slightly unpredictable. Medias is a good starting point.
Google map: bit.ly/XJo4Cd
Close to the Retezat mountains and in the part of Romania which was Dacia are the ruins of Ulpia Triana Sarmizegetusa. Find your way there on the local bus from Santamaria-Orlea, hop off when the locals tell you because there are no big signposts and wander around the ruins of the outpost of the IVth legion.You will be enthralled by its size and you will find there every building that a Roman settlement should have. If that is not enough just a short walk down country lanes brings you to beautiful Densus church, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cobbled together from stones probably taken from a Roman mausoleum the church contains frescoes, paintings from the 15th century oh, and those Roman carvings set into the outside walls!
Santamaria- Orlea, Hunedoara
Google map: bit.ly/YDqEAH
An erect willy is a part of the chef's special in Sighişoara's smartest dinery. Made from pork meatloaf, it salutes Vlad the Impaler, the Translyvanian hero whose birthplace is just around the corner. The town is the best preserved medieval citadel in Europe, old MittelEurope alive and well in Transylvania. The impressive Tolkienesque clock-tower houses a good museum. Climb to the top to gaze down on the pan-tiled roofs, cobbled streets and ancient covered walkways that link nine defensive guild towers. And the willy was delicious, thank you for asking.
The place to stay in Sighisoara is the Casa cu Cerb - the name translates as the Stag House and the hotel is easy to find: on the front of the building there's a painted rearing stag, complete with real antlers that project into the small main square.
A face behind reception may look familiar; this is where Princes Charles has stayed on trips to the area. HRH is apparently related to Vlad the Impaler but you wouldn't guess, a friendly autographed 'Charles' portrait welcomes you to Translyvania. Ask for a room overlooking the square: you can watch the Transylvanian world go by, see and hear the clock-tower, listen to the echoing chacks of jackdaws, and almost don't need to leave your room. The top floor rooms are the best value.
The hotel is not quite what it seems, dig a little deeper to discover that in 2001 it was restored to an extremely high standard (a traditional wooden staircase is particularly superb) by the Messerschmitt Foundation www.schloss-anras.com/messerschmitt_eng.html. Established by Willy Messerschmitt it is dedicated to preserving the best of German architecture. The link between Germany and Transylvania, if you're wondering, is that the region was formerly peopled by the Saxons, their churches and villages remain today. (You should also know for politeness at least, that until the first world war Translyvania was very much Hungarian and for many, still is.)
Two must-see-dos (as well as the pork willy) in Sighişoara are a) a walk up the covered walkway (protection against winter snow) to the defensive church and graveyard at the top of the hill. An old horse-drawn hearse parked round the back adds atmosphere, as if it were needed. Then b) is a little pizzaria, San Gennaro, near the main square. Baked in front of your eyes, the pizzas are thin and fresh and delicious and costed us two euros each. There's a garden at the back to enjoy them with a beer if the weather's good.
To aid in creating a sustainable new Translyvanian rural economy Prince Charles bought a couple of farmhouses and converted them into self-catering accommodation. These are managed for HRH by Count Kalnoky www.transylvaniancastle.com/kalnoky/kalnoky.htmlwho who also welcomes guests to his own estate in Miklósvár - a typically Translyvanian agrarian village. We stayed there in a 'gingerbread' cottage with maize cobs hanging under the eaves. Meals including breakfast are usually served al fresco under a wonderful grapevine-covered loggia, or in the evening in a very atmospheric ancient dining room (think dark night, Dracula, flickering candles, intriguing fellow guests, Dracula ...)
The last stronghold of the European Wolf is Translyvania; there are an estimated 3000 still roaming the forests, more than the rest of Europe combined. There are also brown bears and lynx. Count Kalnoky organises guided nature trips into the woods and forests. We first met sheep, with their shepherd, and our guide issued a sheepdog cautionary - speak softly and carry a big stick (you may look like a shepherd). The dogs are large and can need watching, their role is, after all, fighting wolves and bears.
We found ammonites in a forest stream, saw really beautiful insects, and picked and ate delicous wild raspberries with our picnic which included the ubiquitous strong plum spirit. This was enjoyed in a meadow alive with grasshoppers and birdsong. The raspberries you also see being sold at the roadside by gypsy women and girls along with baskets of some luminously yellow fungi. In the middle of nowhere on a wooded hill we came across an American archaelogy professor plus students excavating a Hunnish 4th century settlement. But the very best came last, as we crossed a stream on the way back, there glistening in the mud were the very recently formed spoor of a large brown bear.
Casa Cu Cerb
Str. Scolii, 1, Sighisoara, Mures, 545400
+40 265 774625
Google map: bit.ly/WOXqd8
The Hotel Sighisoara is a good hotel next to the square with a separate outdoor restaurant with good quality food where the aforementioned chef's special is good value, five or six meats served on large wooden board. A meal to remember. www.sighisoarahotels.ro/
Pizzeria San Gennaro - just opposite the Casa Cu Cerb. Baked to order delicious thin pizza, garden in the rear. Was 2 euro for an eat-in pizza.
I prompted my parents to take me here aged fourteen due to an interest in Eastern Europe. Unsure we arrived to gorgeous rolling country side, with great wildlife including gold oriole and eagles. This Saxon/Romanian village was friendly and tranquil, and Vala Verde was run on an easy going, helpful basis that helped to support the community. The food was excellent especially the veranda breakfast. The Carpathian Mountains have ancient thatched farm houses and incredible vistas. The traditional ways, the solid churches and castles were a fascinating contrasts to the relics of communism. A very memorable adventure.
Viscri is a pretty Saxon village with a fortified church that's a world heritage site. It's worth climbing the tower for countryside views. Many Saxon buildings have been restored and a traditional way of life endures - the cows are driven to the fields in the early morning, returning in the evening and people use horses and carts.
+40 742 202586
Sibiu is well worth a visit. Admire Transylvanian icons and Romanian Impressionist paintings in the Brukenthal Museum on the Piata Mare. Stroll to the nearby Liars’ Bridge, Romania’s oldest cast-iron bridge, said to collapse if you tell a lie when standing on it (somehow it survived intact when Ceaucescu made a speech from it.) Visit the 14th Century Evangelic church where the son of Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Dracula) was stabbed. Saunter back to the Piata Mare, with its sherbet-coloured buildings, to people-watch or enjoy an open-air concert. Relax in the elegant Hotel Imparatul Romanilor round the corner – just £45 for a twin room with a fantastic buffet breakfast.
Str.Nicolae Balcescu, Sibiu 550159, Romania
+40 269 216 500
Google map: bit.ly/WwXVaB
Piața Mare 5, Sibiu 550163, Romania
+40 269 217 991
Google map: bit.ly/XMjSm5
Sofia is beyond amazing, where else can you get a vast cathedral, a huge mosque and an enormous synagogue within walking distance of each other?
For skiers Bansko must be the best. A magnificent mountain, with runs of all colours, and a village which is like a doughnut. At its core is the old town, wiggly streets with mehanas (bars/restaurants) dating back hundreds of years, surrounded by modern hotels, restaurants and apartments.
If anyone comes to Bulgaria and does not visit The Rila Monastery they have missed a world heritage site.
Bulgaria (in my humble opinion) is even better when the snow is gone, walking, birds, butterflies etc.
Bulgaria, for a British person, is still cheap. The locals are ridiculously friendly. The skiing/snowboarding is good. The culture is amazing.
Timisoara is the birthplace of Romania’s bloody revolution. It bursts with culture, history and beauty, with a ring of parks, a lovely river, pretty squares, colourful trams, an opera house, a theatre-in-the-park, museums and a sensational art gallery. It was the first town to publish a newspaper (1771); to light its streets (using suet and oil in 1760); to have horse-drawn trams (1867). Architecturally, it is dubbed “Little Vienna”. Wander through the Easter craft stalls amid a million intricately decorated eggs – Romania’s traditional symbol of new life. But go now, before this enchanting city is ravaged: the next revolution might be mass tourism.
Timisoara is easy to reach from the UK via Munich; or via fabulous 8-hour train journey from Bucharest along Danube and through Transylvanian Alps. Try Hotel Central, bang in the heart of the city: no-frills, clean and cheap (rooms from 37 euro) with good reviews.
Google map: bit.ly/XMlU5z
Lanzarote is one of the canary islands and seems to be less well known here than the others e.g. it has had no readers tips on been there. But it deserves a better recommendation. Thanks to a far sighted policy from planner and local hero Cesar Manrique it has not been spoilt by overdevelopment. Large scale tourist resorts (which are also good in what they do) are confined to the one part of the south east of the Island. The rest is a mix of post volcanic landscape (a weird other worldly feel when you walk in it), relaxing villages and small towns, with interesting history (e.g. check out the museum of piracy in the fort at Tesguise), street markets, good food and great sunsets over clean beaches. For relaxation and winter sun only four hours from UK I would highly recommend it. Also I would recommend the eco resort at Arrieta see other tip
Between Tenerife and Gran Canaria off the coast of Morrocco
The fortified lakeside village, 2700 years old, is a wonderful place to visit - it has been rebuilt authentically with ramparts, stockade, watchtower and a hundred homes. Found just before the Second World War broke out, there's now an annual Archaeology Festival in September and in May and June, too, lots of ancient crafts etc on display. But we enjoyed exploring it on our own at dawn - very atmospheric. One of Europe's very best sites.
Poland's third biggest city is a sprawling open-air art gallery where huge murals fill the sides of buildings. Artur Rubinstein plays a grand piano, card players inspect their hands on a street corner and a dark figure fixes a street light; some of the many sculptures that are scattered around the city.
A more formal art gallery can be found at Manufaktura, a factory converted into a plush leisure complex; one of Europe's most impressive urban regeneration projects.
I can’t recommend the city of Krakow highly enough. One of the most enjoyable and informative ways to get acquainted with this beautiful city is take a four hour cycle tour with “the cool tour company”. Our group of four were lucky enough to have a guide to ourselves for the afternoon and he personalised the tour to suit our interests. Matheus was incredibly knowledgeable about his city, taking us round the old town, along the river Vistula, and into Kazimierz - the Jewish district. You don’t have to be fit to do the tour as you make frequent stops, and over lunch Matheus was able to answer any question we put him about the history of Krakow. We enjoyed cycling so much that on another day we hired bikes ourselves and cycled out of the city, along the river and through leafy suburbs to the Koscuiszki mound, a man-made memorial to an 18th century Polish patriot, which commands great views of the city. The company does other trips on foot and further afield which also come highly recommended.
This was one of the most important medieval fortresses in Galicia. Construction began in the 9th century but it wasn't completed until the second half of the 15th. Although only ruins remain now, the different levels of construction and the remains of the bodega, water tank, orchard and garden are clearly visible along with carved stonework and 9th century tombs carved out of the rock face. An atmospheric space, it also has great views over the rest of the town and river. In the summer it provides a wonderful seated auditorium for open air performances of plays and concerts. Entry to the castle costs only a couple of Euros.
Plaza de Mayor, 32400 Ribadavia, Ourense, Spain
Google map: bit.ly/Vhoqpq
Ribadavia’s main square is a beautiful and atmospheric reminder of its medieval past. Its mixture of architectural styles and periods is nothing if not eclectic. It’s also a great place for people –watching, especially in the early evening or a Sunday morning. But don’t expect peace and quiet: the Spaniards love to congregate in large extended families, including toddlers and children of all ages, and everybody talks at once. This is a great place also to sample the local wines – most of the bars sell a wide selection of these. At the bottom end of the Plaza you enter a maze of cobbled streets and arcaded squares. Medieval churches and other interesting buildings are everywhere and there are great views of the river and its valley from several vantage points. Next to the Plaza Mayor is the Jewish quarter which was established in Ribadavia in the 12th and 13th centuries and inhabited by a small number of families who played a key role in the development of Ribadavia and in servicing the nobility. Also look out for the gateways of the original city walls– construction started in the 12th century and continued into the 15th.
Off Ribadavia’s main street, Rua de Progreso, just below the castle. Ribadavia is signposted from the A52 on the Vigo to Ourense road.
Google map: bit.ly/10CrFsQ
I went to Krakow with my friend to hear her daughter sing in her Leeds choir in a number of wonderful churches in Krakow. We felt - reluctantly - that we should visit Auschwitz and Birkenau camps while we were there. I'm so glad we went. I came away feeling there isn't anyone on the planet who wouldn't benefit from having a closer look at the stark reality of such an event in living history. Sobering, moving and unforgettable.
These were a series of bunkers, tunnels and banks built in the early 1930s on what was then the German border, to resist a Russian invasion. The tunnels were up to 40 metres deep and wide enough to hold a double-track train line. In the event the Russians invaded so quickly that there was no time to fully man the defences, so they were soon overrun. Much of it was subsequently blown up, but enough remains to see the surface ruins free of charge, or to go on tours (in Polish and German only) with caving guides. The area is also a nature reserve, as the bunkers have attracted Europe’s largest bat colony: over 30,000 bats of 12 species.
Auschwitz - if you happen to be in Poland, this should be on your itinerary. You'll need a whole day and there are excellent tours operating from out of Krakow. My tip: take a tour but get there early before the crowds arrive to allow you some time for private reflection before thousands of tourists descend to pose (while smiling!) in front of the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign. The tour will take all day (there are two sites to visit - Auschwitz and Birkenau). To gain some minute impression of the unimaginable hardships endured go at the height of summer or deepest winter. End the day reflecting on the infinite courage humans are capable of (there are examples of this which shine out like beacons among the cruelty and horror) in one of the many excellent local restaurants in the old Jewish quarter in Krakow. You may never enjoy the taste of food, the warmth of an open fire or the feeling of how lucky we are to be alive more than now.
Head for the heart of the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. At Plac Nowy you’ll find the original Rotunda market selling local produce but at the weekends the market expands with antiques and junk on Saturdays and second hand clothes on Sundays but you need to get there early – it starts at 5.30am.
Then follow the old city wall encircling the Old Town, now a 4km park segmented with tree lined avenues and Art Nouveau and Romantic architecture. Explore the cobbled streets and relax with the locals on the grass by the river at the base of Wawel Castle.
Look out for the dragon sculpture at the entrance to the cave beside the western slope and wait patiently for a few minutes to witness it breathing fire.
Google map: bit.ly/T8ggyZ
Send your feedback or queries to firstname.lastname@example.org