Monday 20 January 2020

Katie Grant: the lure of Transylvania

Ever since reading Bram Stoker's horror classic the lure of Transylvania has plagued Katie Grant

'You like the movie Taxi Driver?" asked my cab driver, grinning maniacally. I smiled nervously and reached for my seatbelt. "I drive like that!"

Somehow, after two weeks of successfully mastering the train timetables of Eastern Europe without a glitch, when confronted with the one plane journey on my itinerary, the one that would take me home, I had managed to screw up spectacularly by turning up at the wrong airport.

So, there I was with the Romanian Travis Bickle, speeding through Bucharest at 90mph, trying to make it to the plane on time, snapshots of the city flashing past my window.

Ever since I first read Dracula, I have felt an unshakable urge to visit Romania, most specifically the region of Transylvania, which remains shrouded in mystery and awash with superstition thanks to the enduring legacy of 15th Century duke, Vlad III Dracule.

More commonly known by the name posthumously afforded to him, Vlad the Impaler, thanks to his penchant for skewering thousands of his enemies in mass executions, he is also dubbed "the real-life Dracula", having served as the inspiration for the eponymous character in Bram Stoker's novel.

I decided to embark upon my own Transylvanian adventure and followed in the characters' footsteps, making the entire journey from London by rail.

I spent a few days travelling overland through Europe, stopping off at Brussels, Cologne, Vienna and Budapest, before boarding the sleeper train to Sighisoara, Transylvania.

Departing shortly before midnight -- the timing couldn't have been more apt -- I suddenly felt overcome by nerves. Had I bitten off more than I could chew, I wondered?

I was seized by the unexpected desire to turn back. Would Van Helsing et al ever entertain such an idea though? Of course not: there was to be no turning back -- I was just at the beginning of my adventure. Pulling away into the darkness I dozed off, wondering what Romania had in store for me.

The next morning, I awoke to a tentative knocking at my door. It was Vicky, a 20-year-old Australian I'd met at the station in Budapest. It had been a relief to meet another lone female and, even better, one that spoke English. Hailing from Adelaide, Vicky was halfway through a three-month tour around Europe.

"I never wear shoes," she'd informed me as we'd staggered on to the train with our luggage.

One look at her filthy feet and I believed her. Stumbling past a toilet which smelt less than aromatic, she let out a yelp. "Eugh! I've stepped in a wet patch." Surely an occupational hazard, I'd have thought.

Vicky flopped down on my bed, resting her blackened feet on my pillow, but I was so mesmerised by my first glimpses of Romania, I hardly noticed. Vast expanses of green land and fields of corn stretched out in every direction, horses and carts ambled up dirt roads and farmers wielding pickaxes tended to the land by hand.

Framed by the rolling mountains that surround Transylvania, the land seemed untouched by modernity, and made me wonder if the train hadn't transported us back in time a hundred years or so overnight.

Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, was my first port of call in Transylvania. The medieval citadel town is still inhabited and characterised by its quaint cobbled streets and brightly coloured buildings. It is beautifully preserved and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

I met Jeanne and Matthias, a French couple in their 20s. They had wanted to holiday somewhere none of their friends had been to, and had a fairly modest budget with which to do so. Romania was the perfect destination, explained PhD student Jeanne (25).

"Friends asked us, 'Why? What's to see in Romania?' But the answer is everything! Countryside, mountains, culture, history, cities, beaches. You can go rock climbing, cycling, skiing, visit castles and museums, or just relax with a beer, and it's so untouristy!"

The one place I visited in Transylvania that clearly was a tourist haunt was Bran Castle. Contrary to popular belief, this famed castle never belonged to Vlad the Impaler -- documents suggest he only spent the occasional night here. Situated atop a cliff, with its dramatic structure and storybook turrets and encircled by the Carpathian Mountains, it was easy to see why Stoker selected this as the ideal setting for his bloody phantasms in Dracula though.

Bran Castle is indeed magnificent but, though the most famous, it is by no means the only significant attraction in Transylvania. Sibiu, designated EU Capital of Culture in 2007, is situated right at the footfalls of the magnificent Carpathians, and boasts an impressive array of fortified churches.

The region was tyrannised during Romania's 1989 revolution, which saw the overthrowing of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after 24 years of his brutal regime.

My guide Adela (27) recalled being terrified when her father went into the town's central square to protest outside the communist military headquarters.

"There were snipers, army helicopters; it wasn't safe for him to come home for days. This was before mobile phones and we didn't know if he was dead or alive," she told me.

Connecting Sibiu to the city of Piteti is Transylvania's Transfagarasan Road. Deemed "the best driving road in the world" by Jeremy Clarkson, it snakes up and down the Fagara Mountains, the highest range of the Southern Carpathians.

It took six million tonnes of dynamite to demolish 3.8 million cubic metres of rock and build this monumental road, and the drive up was an adventure in itself as we negotiated its sudden twists and turns.

The scenery was breathtaking, and the first snowfall of the season had left a thick blanket so astonishingly white, it hurt my eyes to look at the Bâlea Lake, shimmering and glistening at 2,043 metres.

Despite this astounding sight, what charmed me most about Transylvania was its modesty and simplicity. The people clearly take pride in their culture and history, and it was their warmth and friendliness which ultimately won me over -- not to mention the endless varieties of delicious (and extremely potent) homemade brandy offered to me by the locals in every town I visited.

In the end, I made it to the airport in time to catch my flight but, in all honesty, I would have been secretly delighted to have missed it, and to have continued exploring the captivating and mesmerising hidden treasures of Romania instead.

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