The castles of Transylvania and the Jewish connection

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Leaving the bustling city of Bucharest for a visit to Transylvania, I was transported to a different time.

From the car, I watched soviet-era apartment blocks turn into rolling hills and fairy-tale-like castles. 

Transylvania is a mountainous region steeped in story and folklore, but did you know it also has a Jewish past and was once home to a vibrant Jewish community?

The Jews of Transylvania are even present in the folklore of the region. 

The Solomonar were red-headed wizards that rode dragons and controlled the weather in Romanian folklore. It’s been theorized that the folklore story was about mythological Jewish people, and author Rena Rossner has novelized the mythology in her book The Light of the Midnight Stars

Trips to Transylvania are a great opportunity to discover a beautiful region and learn about a long Jewish history. 

There has actually been a Jewish presence in the area from as early as Roman rule, in 106-254 CE. 

Jews were mostly based in Transylvanian cities like Cluj, Sibiu, and Brasov, working as creditors, tradesmen, and in commercial and financial work.  

Romania is a crossroads between different empires, and in the Middle Ages, it was a good base for Jewish merchants working with the neighboring countries of Wallachia, Moldovia, Poland, Hungary, and eventually parts of the Ottoman Empire. 

At the beginning of World War II, Transylvania had a population of 151,125 Jews. 131,633 were sent to ghettos and then deported to Auschwitz. 

After the war, 90,444 Jews remained in the area, but many soon emigrated due to rising antisemitism under communism, and by the 1950s there were only 43,814. In 2002, there were only 7,000 Jews remaining in the country.

Today, the remaining 5,000 registered Jews in Romania live in Bucharest, Cluj, Oradea, Iasi, and Timișoara, but it is possible to see remnants of Jewish life in many places around Transylvania.

When I’m traveling, I love visiting castles,  check out the best Eastern-European castles worth visiting on Gil Travel’s Blog, there’s nothing like the castles in Romania! They’re considered among the most beautiful in the world.

Corvin Castle

When I was on my own tour, I visited Corvin Castle, a Gothic-style building in Transylvania built in 1446 by the kings of Hungary. There is a legend that the infamous Vlad the Impaler, the source of the Dracula myth, was kept prisoner in the castle. The place is huge and beautiful and looks like it came right out of a fairy tale. 

Inside, medieval bedrooms and halls have been recreated, and occasionally a musician dressed in Medieval clothing plays their instrument to add an ethereal ambiance to the tour. 

It’s the largest Medieval building in Romania and Lonely Planet called it “one of the spookiest buildings” around the world. They also included it in a list of “Top 10 Most Fairytale-Like European Castles”, and I have to agree. 

One of my favorite features of Corvin is slightly hidden. 

The castle well was originally dug by Turkish prisoners. They were told to build with the promise of freedom. When they were finished with the well, they were not granted their promised freedom and instead, they were sentenced to die. 

There’s an Arabic inscription in the well that reads, “You may have water, but you have no soul.”

It’s a small reminder of the dark history of this castle, and I love that there’s a story behind it.

The castle is located in Hunedoara, a great region to explore Jewish culture in Transylvania.

At one time, there was a Jewish community in the region, and you can visit the cemetery on a hillside. Access is open to everyone. There are gravestones with Hebrew and Hungarian inscriptions, and the local Jewish community still owns the property. 

Only an hour and a half car ride from Corvin is the German town of Sibiu, founded in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons. The old town maintains its beautiful and colorful appearance, and the Germanic architecture is a striking contrast with many other parts of Transylvania. 

One of my favorite places to visit in Sibiu is Caier, a clothing store where you can walk into the past and try on centuries-old clothing that the owner has collected from nearby villagers. 

The Great Synagogue in Sibiu is a well-preserved building that was built in 1899. It hasn’t been used for services in over 40 years, but the shul is worth going in for the hall decorated with murals and beautiful hand-painted patterns on the columns and ceiling. 

This was one of the most beautiful synagogues I had ever been to, and I had trouble deciding if I enjoyed visiting Corvin Castle or the synagogue more. 

Bran Castle

Another castle you’ll likely visit on a Transylvanian road trip is the famous Bran Castle, which focuses on the myth of this place–also known as Dracula’s Castle. 

The castle was once a royal residence for Queen Marie of Romania, but today it is a museum with art and furniture collected by the queen.

Bran Castle has a medieval appearance with pointy towers and steep stairs, and it served as the setting for Count Dracula’s lair in Bram Stoker’s book. 

I find some of the real stories about Bran Castle even more interesting than its connection to Dracula.

There's an old water well visible in the courtyard, but it actually has no water. It’s a 60-foot-deep hole with a secret room carved into the rock, used to hide the castle’s treasure in case of invasion. 

Not only that, Queen Marie’s heart was placed at Bran Castle after she died, and you can see the resting place of her heart from the southwest side of the castle. It was left in a case and placed inside a chapel built into a cliff in the area. 

Brasov, Romania is only a half hour by car from Bran castle. The synagogue, Bet Shalom, was sacked during World War II by pro-Nazi locals but rebuilt in 1944. Today, Bet Shalom supports the small Jewish community of Brasov with services, education, and events. 

The synagogue is open for visitors Monday to Friday between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm, but like many places in Romania, it is best to call ahead to make sure someone is there to let you in. 

There is a Kosher restaurant in the building that you can sign up in advance for. They have Kabbalat Shabbat services once a month on Friday evenings, including a Shabbat dinner. 

Peles Castle

Peles Castle might be my favorite castle in Romania. It’s beautiful, designed in German Neo-Renaissance architecture, and is one of the most beautiful castles in Europe. 

From 1993 to 1947, it served as the summer residence for the Romania Royal family. It was the first castle in Europe to be lit entirely by electricity, and you can take a tour to see fine art, furniture, and thousands of interesting items decorating the interior of the building. 

Each room has a different theme, and there’s a concert hall, Turkish Salon, Music Room, and Great Salon. 

There’s even a 60-seat theater that showed the first movie projection in Romania in 1906. 

Peles castle is located in Wallachia, a region between the Danube and Olt River and the Carpathian mountains. It also has its own distinct Jewish history. 

It was once a part of the Hungarian empire, but in 1330 became part of the Ottoman empire. Jews expelled from Hungary in the 15th century settled in the Wallachian region, on the slopes of the Carpathians, and were joined soon after by Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. 

Transylvania is transportative. The combination of Jewish history, folklore, and beautiful castles makes it even more special. 

I loved waking up to the sunrise, the sound of birds, and the view of rolling hills outside my window as I traveled through the mountainous region.

There’s nothing like Romania on a Jewish heritage tour. Book your trip, explore your favorite castles, and see for yourself with Gil Travel. 

This article was written in cooperation with Iris Hami, President of Gil Travel Group