I don’t know about you, but when I’m on a getaway with my husband, I like my schedule to take on a slightly slower pace. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to enjoy new experiences and adventures, but ticking off a bucket list is merely background noise compared to the star event: spending quality time with Ben.
While surfing the net for babymoon inspo (we were expecting our first child at the time), I stumbled across Alba Iulia, a little-known destination which offered the best of both worlds. Nestled in the heart of Romania amongst the Transylvanian Alps, this city looked like an enchanted gateway to a world of romance, relaxation and fun.
In reality, it turned out to be so much more. Here are some of the maddest and most blissful experiences from our recent trip to Alba Iulia and surrounds…
Traversing the Transalpina
There’s nothing quite like the Transalpina – a.k.a. Romania’s highest road. There’s no question; this spectacular stretch of asphalt delivers one of the world’s great road trips, especially if you marry it with the Transfagarasan (a beloved road of the Top Gear crew).
Winding its way through a lush pine forest and up along a series of hairpin bends on the cloud-kissed crown of the Carpathian Mountains, the Transalpina takes you as close to heaven as humanly possible.
My husband and I chose to tackle this journey on the back of a motorbike, venturing off road as we pleased and soaking up the spectacular panoramic views free from barriers to nature.
Standing 2145m above sea level, the Urdele Pass was a real highlight, as was our quick walking tour of the Ranca alpine ski resort. Being a ravenous pregnant woman, I also relished our lunch at Hanul Haiducilor restaurant, where we feasted on sarmale (cabbage rolls stuffed with pork and beef) and papanasi (cheese doughnuts smothered in cream and berries).
Bikes, big mountains and exotic bites – now that’s a date!
Cave-Hopping in Apuseni National Park
Romania is home to over 12,000 caves – more than any other European country! Apuseni boasts many of Romania’s most spectacular sites, with the Natural Park being dubbed “a caver’s paradise”. Located a few hours’ drive from Alba Iulia, Apuseni presents the perfect way to spend a day ensconced in nature – and natural history.
At first glance, visitors are awestruck by the park’s stunning limestone landforms and sculptured mountain ranges, which rest under a blanket of blindingly green foliage in the springtime. Once inside the caves, they are transported to a bygone era. Romania’s underground ‘time capsules’ contain traces of prehistoric man as well as animal fossils from the Ice Age, ancient glaciers and mineral formations created over millions of years.
We were particularly taken by three of the region’s caves: Scărișoara (which guards the world’s largest underground glacier); Poatra Iui Ionele (with its impressive 15m entrance portal, winter lake and lively bats); and Vartop Glacier (a conservation site for Neanderthal footprints and beautiful limestone formations).
Apuseni Natural Park is as much a cultural preservation site as a natural one. Home to some of Romania’s highest hamlets, it’s a place where age-old traditions, crafts and lifestyles can be experienced in their authentic form. Oozing tranquillity and timeless wisdom, these alpine villages are an encounter you’ll never forget.
Venturing Underground at Salina Turda
Salina Turda is like no place on earth – or, at least, the earth’s surface! This underground adventureland is completely surreal, transporting visitors to a world of science fiction and troglodyte fun.
A former salt mine, Salina Turda has a long and active history, which only enhances its eerie allure. The first documents alluding to the mine date back to 1271, while its salt deposits are thought to be over 13 million years old. As such, it’s hardly surprising Salina Turda has proudly established itself as a salt mining museum. Don’t hit the snooze button just yet! It isn’t your ordinary museum. In fact, it’s more like a buried treasure chest with ‘gems’ to thrill adults and children alike.
The first mysterious encounter is the Iosif Mine, which is viewed through balconies carved out of salt. Its conical chamber and inertia-inducing depth (112m) make for powerful echoes, which are entertaining when put to the test. But, the real fun starts in the Rudolf Mine, which has been converted into a state-of-the-art recreation centre. If you’re not keen on the 172-step journey down to mine floor, a glass elevator offers a quick journey and panoramic views of this extraordinary space, where visitors run wild between mini putt-putt, bowling, amusement rides, pocket billiards, amphitheatre activities and beyond.
Once it’s time to recover some energy, many head to the underground lake, where they can enjoy a leisurely boat trip around a UFO-shaped island and gaze up at a cascade of stalactites. Others venture to the spa and wellness centre to experience the local tradition of halotherapy (alternative medicine which makes use of salt) and unwind in this natural setting.
Since opening to tourists in 1992, Salina Turda has been visited by over 2 million people. A few media channels have sung the converted mine’s praises, calling it “one of the coolest underground places in the world” and “one of the best hidden gems found off-the-beaten-track”. It’s such an incredible experience, I’m surprised news hasn’t travelled further and gathered more interest. Salina Turda is a must for everyone’s bucket list.
The Transalpina road, Apuseni National Park and Salina Turda are just the beginning when it comes to epic adventures in Alba County, Romania. This little-known region is home to some of the most incredible travel experiences in Europe, if not the world.
'Happiness Hunter' Sophee Southall is the writer, photographer and social media addict behind the travel blog Sophee Smiles - 'Explore. Experiment. Find your Happy Place.'
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