Frights and sights in Transylvania: exploring haunted Hoia Baciu

There is no one around, the only sound is the whisper of leaves falling. Surrounding us are maple groves and copses of beech, ash and elm, blocking out the midday sun. Southwards is Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s unofficial capital, but we are heading north, picking our way along a shepherd’s trail in Hoia Baciu, the famed belt of old-growth forest often referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of Romania, says The Guardian.

With local guide Alex Surducan leading the way, we set off from the Someșul Mic river for a morning ramble to see where our journey might lead. His company, the Hoia Bacui Project, has pioneered photography, riding and camping tours in this fold of the Carpathian foothills, and few know the 55,000-year-old forest better than him.

Deer crack twigs underfoot in the shadows and I spy a steppe eagle arcing overhead through a gap in the canopy. If our luck holds, Alex tells me, a shy brown bear might walk across our path. It is the perfect moment of stillness, and yet something feels amiss. With such stark, primordial beauty in every nook of this 700-acre, semi-protected wilderness, why is no one else here?

“This is bat country, remember,” Alex says, as we edge deeper into the ancient woods. “The creepiness puts people off, and sometimes even I half expect a bogeyman to jump out from behind a tree.”

For all the talk of vampire tourism in Romania, Cluj-Napoca is where more down-to-earth, tangible experiences are easy to come by. There is plenty of Dracula shtick on offer elsewhere in the region, from the over-touristic towns of Sighişoara and Braşov to Bran Castle. But far fewer people have even heard of Cluj-Napoca.

We move haltingly, stopping to study the woodland: verges of gypsy mushrooms waiting to be picked, trees bent crooked into zigzags and skeletal branches twisted like braids of rope. The unexpected element in this scene is that Hoia Baciu has an eerie touch, too. Farmers in the valley swear the forest is haunted, Alex says, citing a tale of a shepherd who disappeared with more than 200 of his flock. Another story tells of a five-year-old girl who got lost, only to reappear five years later with no recollection of where she had been. Others, among them professors at the city’s Babeș-Bolyai University, claim the woodland is a home to inexplicable paranormal activity.

After years of trying to make sense of it all, Alex’s sceptical take is that we have become so disconnected with nature, so uncomfortable spending time in the woods, that we give in to coincidence and let our imaginations trick us. Maybe it’s the silence that makes me feel uneasy. Forests tend to be chorused in birdsong, but by the time we retrace our steps to the trailhead, I haven’t heard a chirp all day. The light has begun to fade when we arrive back in Cluj-Napoca, only half an hour away by car, and after all that eeriness, I feel in need of a taste of modern, urban Transylvania.

The Old Town’s compact, easily navigable streets are numerous Gothic towers and enduring rocket-shaped spires. Piaţa Unirii square introduces the city’s most famous architectural footprint, St Michael’s Church, where Transylvania first sowed the seeds of secession from Hungary in 1556. Across the street is Bánffy Palace, a royal edifice turned art gallery decorated with plenty of baroque pomp. They look spectacular, but the Old Town’s greatest trick is how it transforms at night to feel as modern and edgy as Berlin or Budapest.

Around this time, the designer restaurants, fairy-lit bars and stripped-back bistros fill with younger people, students and IT workers. This, I learn, is the result of the city’s Silicon Valley-like potential. Cluj-Napocans love to tell visitors about where their city is going, not where it’s been, and startups and blue chips have flooded in, turning the medieval workhorse into a bona fide “Techsylvania”.

At Alex’s recommendation, I drop into Zama Bistro, a newish restaurant evoking the region’s cultural traditions, yet one with more than a dash of gentrification. The clue is in the exposed piping, bric-a-brac furniture and decor that screams Kreuzberg, not Ceaușescu. I enjoy a dish of layered polenta with goat’s cheese followed by trout salad, eavesdropping into one conversation next to me about the city’s most hedonistic festival, Romania’s Electric Castle (this year headlined by Deadmau5, Alt-J and Franz Ferdinand). The only question now is where to find a decent drink.

The answer is nearby Joben Bistro, a steampunk bar with just a touch of Rocky Horror Picture Show. A miniature zeppelin hangs from the ceiling and the man behind the bar wears a Day of the Dead top hat and eyeliner. While he mixes me a Negroni, bar manager Robert Nagy explains how Cluj has been reborn as a progressive, artsy eastern European youth capital. “It’s so cheap to study here,” he reasons. “Students come from France, Germany, the Middle East, you name it.” Silviu Fetean, the man in the hat, agrees. “If there was a sign above the door, it would say: ‘Open for business!’” Which it is – Cluj has recently bid for European Capital of Culture 2021.


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