In Summer 2014 we spent seven weeks volunteering at Happy Faces summer camp in Transylvania, Romania. Aside from Dracula we had no idea what to expect, but we soon discovered that Romania has lots of cool and interesting places to visit. Transylvania has fairy-tale castles, medieval monasteries, mountains, waterfalls and all without the crowds of tourists seen in other East European destinations.
So if you want to know more about what to expect while volunteering at Happy Faces, or you’re planing an off-the-beaten-track trip around the area, here are a few of our favourite places that we visited both in and out of camp:
Turda Salt Mine (Salina Turda)
We have absolutely no interest in salt mines, really who does? But Turda Salt Mine is ranked 22 among the most spectacular tourist destinations in the world and after a visit ourselves, we can now see why.
The main cavern is huge, with a Ferris wheel, tennis courts, bowling alley and even a boating lake all comfortably packed inside and with room to spare. Getting down to the bottom is a leisurely 172 steps down the old and creaky wooden staircase and getting back up isn’t too bad on the panoramic elevator that gives you a great view of the whole cave and the ant-people below. From the bottom you can look straight up to the top and see the all the saltsicles (what’s the word for them?) hanging down from the roof some 112 metres above.
Aside from the main cavern there is an underground complex of tunnels and smaller chambers, which you can walk along and get lost in. You’ll find out along the way that the walls of these tunnels really do taste like salt! Not that we licked them… Or encouraged the kids to do so… This area now serves as a museum with drilling and mining machinery all on show with signs explaining how they were used and there are also a few cool caverns which function as echo chambers – go nuts!
This place is impressive enough to be worth a visit even if you have no interest in salt mines, just to see the scale of the thing for yourself. Besides, how many of your friends can say that they’ve ridden a Ferris wheel underground? #Brag
This Gothic-Renaissance castle looks like something right out of a fairytale with its tall round towers, moat, drawbridge and romantic pebbled lane leading up to the entrance. Corvin Castle, in Honedoara (and sometimes referred to as Honedoara Castle) is one of the biggest in Europe and is a must visit if you’re in Transylvania.
While the outside of the castle really is stunning, a tour of the inside is a bit of a disappointment. Most of the original features of the castle have long been destroyed by a series of fires over the centuries and multiple renovations and remodelling projects have left very little of the original castle in tact. Most of the rooms are now empty or decorated with the bare minimum, as the castle now functions primarily as a filming set and the courtyard is filled with construction materials. You can take a guided tour around the castle, which we do recommend to save you from trying to find meaning in blank walls and wooden chairs yourself. The tour ends in the dungeons which are the highlight, filled with replicas of medieval torture equipment such as stretching racks, spikey chairs, shackles and distressed looking mannequins to demonstrate how they used to hang prisoners over boiling vats with hands tied behind their backs, nice!
In all, the castle isn’t a particularly exciting museum, but the view from outside has such amazing instagram potential that it’s still worth a visit. If you’re looking for more history then maybe you should check out Dracula’s Castle, Bran, but you wont find a fairytale princess there.
Monasteries aren’t usually our bag, but when we arrived at this centuries old monastery, we were pleasantly surprised. The complex dates back to the 13th Century and is the oldest Orthodox Monastery in Romania. It is set in a beautiful valley away from the towns and inside the walled area there are beautiful gardens, the chapel, a small museum and the accommodation buildings where the nuns live.
Its nice to walk around for an hour on a sunny day, but there isn’t much too exciting here unless you have a particular interest in the Orthodox Church. Our favourite part was the chapel door, where there are paintings depicting gruesome scenes from the Old Testament. Blood, terror and ‘sinful’ civilians were splattered all over the wall in paintings depicting the stories of their punishments along with the devil and other fantastic monsters and demons. It is pretty fucked up and could probably traumatise the kids, but we thought it was brilliant.
The inside of the chapel is ornately docorated as you might expect and suitably impressive. The small museum holds a few mildly interesting religious artefacts and examples of historical Romanian clothing and tools, just make sure to find yourself a Romanian translator as all the text is written in Romanian.
We haven’t visited many monastery’s before, because we’re both atheist, but a majority of the campers were religious and there are hundreds of Orthodox chapels in Romania so we kept our heretical thoughts to ourselves and just enjoyed the trip.
Adventure Park, Alba Iulia
High ropes and zip lines through the trees with lots of obstacles and different difficulty levels, this was probably the most fun trip of them all! Just like the ‘Go Ape’ parks that have become increasingly popular, this place is an outdoor obstacle course built in the woods.
We went here twice but unfortunately were hungover as fuck the second time round after a Birthday celebration on camp. It did cure our hangovers though and we honestly thought that after weeks on camp surrounded by sport savvy and genius kids this could be our chance to shine by showing the kids up at one thing we can do better. But in reality, we spent most of our time fighting for dignity with legs spread wide apart and parallel to the floor 30ft up on the swinging steps (I honestly didn’t think legs could physically get into those positions), and arms tangled together through our own complete lack of coordination in the web of ropes. But obviously, we played it cool in front of the kids.
Alba Iulia Fortress
The city of Alba Iulia used to be the Transylvanian Capital. While it isn’t anymore it still boasts an impressive and unique star-shaped fortress dating back to the 18th Century.
It’s difficult to appreciate the amazing shape of the fortress from ground level, but a walk around the walls, gates and buildings on the ground is equally impressive. There are all the usual tourist information facilities here, along with guards in traditional dress and plenty of stone statues and museums for you to tour.
Hiking, waterfalls and roasting marshmallows over a camp fire, just picture those typical American teen camp movies and you’ve got the idea. This place was all about outdoor adventures and the kids loved it. We would take a half hour hike to the top of a hill to offer some stunning views, walk to a nearby waterfall and build a camp fire over which we could roast marshmallows, sausages and sing camp songs.
As we weren’t allowed to take our hip flasks or wander off, we spent most of the time keeping the kids entertained through a mix of badminton, Frisbee and just generally hanging out and getting to know them better.
On our first trip to the waterfall, which isn’t very impressive, we lingered around after the kids had left and stripped off, climbed up to a rock slide on the other side and raced in our imaginary toboggans into the freezing plunge pool, it felt like being at a water park in the middle of a forest! There were two other higher waterfalls hidden behind the first, so be sure to check them out if you visit.
Transylvania and Beyond
We also had the chance to explore Transylvania further in our free time and found some equally incredible places that are worth a visit. We hired a car and drove to the beautiful city of Brasov, the nearby world famous Dracula’s Castle, went for a hike at Cheili Turzii National Park and finished by going for a spin down the Transfagasan mountain road, as seen on TopGear! Check out our blog Road Trip Transylvania to read all about these places.
Once again thanks for reading! If you would like to know more about life on camp than you can find everything in our blog Teaching English at a Romanian Summer Camp: Everything You Need to Know.
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