Transylvania is famously the home of Dracula, but thankfully, it’s got a lot more to offer tourists than a bloodsucking anti-hero…
The heavy door leading down to the dark cellar growled open, and the girl shuffled aside nervously, waving me towards the entrance. My footsteps echoed up from the cold stone in time with my thumping heartbeat as I descended – then froze with alarm as a huge coffin came into view in the middle of the floor. The walls of the room bore gaudy images of nightmarish supernatural beings and bare-bosomed ladies wide-eyed with fear, and I wondered what on earth I’d got myself into.
In hushed tones, the girl warned me that I should leave now if I had any kind of heart condition. I looked longingly towards the exit as a faint scratching noise reached my ears…
Romania is fast becoming a must-do destination for British tourists. Until recently, many worried that dictator Nicholae Ceausescu had sucked the blood out of his own country, destroying everything of beauty as he built factory after factory during a 25-year rule that ended with his execution in 1989. But that’s not true, and this relatively new EU member has some astonishing things to see, many of them in the region called Transylvania.
Romania has six provinces, Transylvania the one Brits will be most familiar with thanks to another famous monster, the Prince of Darkness, Lord of the Undead himself, Count Dracula (cue scary music).
This vampire debuted in Victorian novelist Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula. The name came from a real-life 15th-century warrior, Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was the son of Dracul (hence Dracul-a, geddit?), who earned his nickname, Dragon or Devil, through the relish with which he slaughtered invading foreign armies. Vlad himself liked to impale vanquished enemies, Turks in particular, then dine amongst the writhing bodies – though he didn’t drink their blood.
But there’s enough truth in the legend to make Dracula the main reason tourists come to Romania, even today, 112 years after the novel was published. So you couldn’t blame Romanians for cashing in on him a little. But the country has shown admirable restraint – so far. In fact, many find the whole Dracula thing a cultural embarrassment.
Take Castle Bran, first stop on my vampire hunter’s tour of Transylvania. The manor house has no connection to the book, Laura Vesa of local tour company Discover Romania explained, but officials decided it should be Castle Dracula because, well, it looks the part.
There are a few stalls outside flogging Dracula tee-shirts, but inside there is nothing vampire-esque except a spooky staircase. Nevertheless, it is the most famous building in Romania, with 5,000 visitors a day in summer. Interestingly, in the early 1900s, it was the home of Romania’s favourite queen, Queen Mary – a Brit. There are fascinating photos on display.
If you’ve got around 60 million euro, the castle’s up for sale. Interested parties are rumoured to have included a certain well-known theme park empire. Maybe Dracula-land is on the cards?
The real Dracula was born in the mediaeval citadel of Sighisoara - you’ll find a vampire-shaped sign outside his birthplace, restaurant and hotel Casa Vlad Dracul, and silly additions to the menu such as pike fillet a la Vlad Dracula and vampire wine.
But vampires or not, many of Transylvania’s walled towns are worth visiting. There’s Sibiu, a good-looking city of vast squares lined with bars and restaurants, and Brasov, a handsome Saxon merchant town known as the Prague of Romania. It’s also reputedly the place where the Pied Piper of Hamelin reappeared with all the kids he’d lured off.
Romania has a long-standing connection to Germany. In the Middle Ages, German Saxons were encouraged to settle here as a barrier between ‘civilised’ western Europe and the real monsters of the day, the Ottoman Empire. Should enemy hordes be spotted galloping towards them, villagers would retreat behind the high walls of their fortified church. Today, 100 of the 300 churches remain, all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Prejmer and Harman are great examples. And so is the one in the village of Viscri.
Many people of German descent left the country during the Ceausescu era. Their villages fell into disrepair, but the Mihai Eminescu Trust was created to save them. Prince Charles, the trust’s patron, has famously stayed in Viscri several times and bought property there.
Staying in a family home in such a village is a lovely way to experience Romania. I stayed in Lazarea with Maria Bartalis and her family. You couldn’t wish for more attentive hosts. Dinner in the warm, welcoming kitchen was delicious. There’s the freshest food: sour soup - a Romanian speciality, mamaliga (polenta), stuffed cabbage, pork in assorted incarnations, and tangy zacusca, pickled vegetables. In the countryside, everyone grows veg and herbs, and feasts on local meats and cheese. And they make plum brandy, strong stuff that should certainly keep vampires at bay.
I was, of course, stone-cold sober for our visit to the extraordinary painted monasteries of Bucovina in the neighbouring region of Moldavia. With heathen hordes threatening to invade continuously, religion was extremely important in medieval times. Few Christian peasants in Romania could read, so faith was underpinned by painting the outsides of monasteries (smelly peasants weren’t allowed inside) with saints and Biblical scenes.
Two of the best are Voronet, famous for its blue hues, and Humor, known for its reds. Local noblemen paid for the work, to show off and to secure the Lord’s protection – vital, as it was their responsibility to ride out and save the villagers from rape and pillage. Vlad Tepes was one such hero, a champion of Christianity - so not a baddie at all, it turns out.
Stoker’s Dracula lived in the spectacular Borgo Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, and the owners of 68-room Castel Dracula Hotel, built there in 1983, seem to have no doubts where the count’s allegiance lay.
The Pass is one of the most remote bits of Transylvania, 1,116m up, with spectacular views. A statue of Bram Stoker tells you you’re in the right place – plus the coach-loads of tourists. Reception is full of dusty, stuffed and staring wild animals. The carpet is blood-red, the waste bins carry Dracula logos, and for a few Romanian lei, around 20p, you can visit the 'vault', a cellar decorated with vampire murals and that large coffin.
I won’t reveal what happened to me in the cellar, in case you make your way there one day. But I was told that a German tourist once dropped dead from the shock. Poor old Vlad Tepes must be turning in his grave…