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Treasures of Transylvania: Fairy-tale towns and the road Top Gear says is the best in the world

Let’s make it clear from the start.

I did not squeal like a baby.

Though, for the sake of balance, I will admit that the garbled noise that jumped out of my throat was a few octaves higher than the growl of the brown bear whose afternoon nap I had just interrupted.

The Transfagarasan Road runs for 56-miles in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains 

And rightly so. It was only the third day of my Transylvanian road trip and it didn’t look like I was going to have a fourth.

Still, at least being mauled to death by a bear is a more exhilarating way to depart this life than crashing a budget hire car on a road voted by Top Gear as ‘the best in the world’.

We had just pulled over on Romania’s Transfagarasan – a 56-mile cornucopia of hairpin bends that climbs through the dense forest of the Carpathian Mountains.

'The most fun you'll ever have in a car,' was the verdict of a Romanian car rental employee

‘The most fun you’ll ever have in a car,’ was the verdict of a Romanian car rental employee

‘It’s the most fun you’ll ever have in a car,’ the stout Romanian car rental chap assured me at Cluj International Airport. ‘You’ll definitely want a bigger, more powerful vehicle.’ But my girlfriend, whose estimation of my driving skills sinks lower by the mile, stepped in. ‘He’ll take the Toyota Aygo.’ 

Fast forward a few white-knuckle gear changes and, after successfully negotiating an endless number of sharp bends, we pulled over to hold a moment’s silence to mourn the Transfagarasan’s defilement at the hands of so poor a driver.

Naturally, we decided to commemorate our survival with a photo, and trudged into the forest to take the perfect snap.

What happened next needs little description: resting ten metres away behind a bush was a brooding behemoth of a bear who, either irritated at being disturbed or appalled at my lacklustre parking, stood up on his hind legs and made it clear that we weren’t welcome.

Romania is home to one of the largest populations of brown bears in Europe

Romania is home to one of the largest populations of brown bears in Europe

What with all the adrenaline, I can’t quite recall how we sprinted, red-faced and trembling, back to the car. But what I do know is that I definitely, most certainly did not squeal.

And so, with my masculinity entirely and resolutely intact, we rattled along a gravelled road to the hilltop village of Magura. This was proper Transylvania; a place where the sound of crowing cocks is only interrupted by the swoosh of scythe-wielding farmers.

Situated on the edge of the Piatra Craiului National Park, hiking trails weave through woodlands to remote cabins serving cabbage soup and local sausage.

Even the nearby fairy-tale fortress towns which pepper Transylvania retain this rural charm. In Sighisoara, where pastel-hued gingerbread houses line every narrow street, locals throng beneath the walls of the old town, transporting entire families in horses and carts.

The pastel-coloured buildings, narrow streets and medieval church of Sighisoara

The pastel-coloured buildings, narrow streets and medieval church of Sighisoara

Meanwhile, in the charming Saxon city of Sibiu, stony-faced waitresses guard their doors, daring tourists to ask for a table. It’s this uncompromising attitude to authenticity that makes Transylvania’s rare attempts to entice tourists fall flat.

In Sighisoara, for example, you can pay to visit the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century brute who served as Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula – even though his house was knocked down centuries ago.

Not every tourist is so cynical about attempts to rehabilitate Romania’s most colourful leader. (Even its 20th century genocidal dictator Nicolae Ceausescu didn’t boil people alive.) In 2012, Prince Charles was thrilled to learn he was Vlad’s great-grandson 16 times removed.

The Saxon city of Sibiu, where 'waitresses guard their doors with stony faces'

The Saxon city of Sibiu, where ‘waitresses guard their doors with stony faces’

The discovery that he was related to a sadistic monster – who once created his own ‘flesh forest’ by impaling over 20,000 Turkish soldiers – has not deterred Charles’ affection for the country where he bought a holiday home in 2008 in the Saxon village of Viscri.

With its whitewashed fortified church and colourful stream of houses, Viscri certainly feels fit for a future king.

Unless, that is, you pop into the White Barn across the road from Prince Charles’s retreat, for homemade lamb sausages that taste as if they still have a heartbeat. A modicum of grandeur is still attainable in Transylvania, in the form of the Valea Verde Resort in the remote village of Cund.

While the tastefully decorated farmhouse is the perfect base for exploring the mountains, it’s the seven-course tasting menu that justifies the detour.

Populated with marinated pork knuckle and enough truffle shavings to fuel a plane, it’s the kind of meal that makes you think you could take on a bear.

Heck, it almost made me squeal like a baby.