We all have books and figures from our childhood that impact us more than others. In my case, and sharing the pantheon with other miscellaneous characters such as Long John Silver and Tutankhamun, there is Dracula. I have been fascinated by vampires for as long as I can remember, so it was only natural that I dreamed of going to Transylvania, the home of Count Dracula.
The perfect opportunity came along in the figure of my poor flatmate, Vicky, as adventure hungry as me but not particularly into vampires. After not having to try too hard to convince her to go together to Iran, I thought I might as well try to get her to come with me to Romania during for one of the long weekends the UK has in the month of May. It was easy to get her interested in the road trip, and the flights were direct and cheap, so it was only when everything was booked that she realised that the whole trip was Dracula-centric and she would have to read the book.
The weeks before the trip (and whenever I got a break from the full time job that planning Iran had become), I was excited as a little kid. I re-read Dracula for the umpteenth time and revised all the names I had become familiar with a long time ago. Bran Castle, Brasov, Sighisoara, Sibiu. The only Dracula-relevant place that we would have to leave out of the itinerary due to lack of time would be the Borgo Pass, the gateway into the realm of the Count.
Finally, the day comes. Our flight from London to Bucharest is one of the funniest flights we have ever been on. Everyone is standing up in the aisles, chatting to each other (and not necessarily people they already knew) and drinking. We just know this is going to be a memorable trip, and the coming days end up being even better than we had anticipated.
We land in Bucharest very late at night, and have our first Romanian experience at one of the most ‘remarkable’ hotels we have been to, and not necessarily for the right reasons. To start with, we are promptly informed that the breakfast starts at 3am. Vicky and I laugh thinking it’s a joke, but the stern look we get from the receptionist shows that it’s clearly not. Our room is what we would expect a communist prison to look like, and the decoration doesn’t seem to have changed for the past 50 years. Unfortunately the doors and walls facing the corridor are not appropriate for a prison, as we hear people going down for breakfast for the whole night – because people genuinely start having breakfast at 3am. After a sleepless night, the much awaited breakfast is.. scarce, to say the least. Also everything comes from a plastic wrap.
Eager to leave this lovely hotel behind and start our adventure, we pack the car and depart in the direction of the Carpathian Mountains, the gateway to Transylvania. We soon discover that half of Romania seems to have had the same idea as us, because it’s a national holiday. Stuck in traffic jams, we get the opportunity to learn about local customs. People seem largely unfaced by the situation, and choose one of two approaches, largely a) leave the car and start walking on the road, between the cars, to the beginning of the queue, to see what is actually going on and b) start a picnic on the side of the highway. Despite my best attempts, as I should stay awake in my important role as co-pilot (Vicky is a great driver and I am not), I fall asleep. When I wake up Vicky has finished 3 entire packs of chewing gum, her jaws hurt from chewing so much, and we are still stuck in traffic.
Soon the jams subside and we make our way into Transylvania. The moment we enter the land of Dracula, the weather worsens and it starts raining. We are surrounded by beautiful green forests, rugged mountains and the sky is grey. I announce that this is excellent and there is no better way to arrive to Transylvania.
We leave our belongings in our hotel in Brasov, La Maisonnette, which has a fantastic location right next to the main square, and head to a bear sightseeing adventure we booked in advance, with Transylvanian Wolf. To get there, we cross town after town of concrete buildings, soviet style. It feels like time stopped here years ago. We park our car in Zarnesti and we are picked up by the tour organisers. Their jeep drives us deep into the forest, and then we walk to a cabin hidden in the woods, a bear observatory. It feels a bit scary as they lock the cabin door multiple times, and we have a forest warden with a shotgun to keep us safe, but the bears won’t be attacking us today.
The cabin is on top of a hill, and from a window we can see a clear in the forest where the forest wardens have left some chocolate, partially hidden, to attract the bears. The bears take a while to come, and we use this as a chance to admire the mountains and the dense forest in front of us, that looks exactly out of a fairy tale. Soon we are sleeping (a common thread in this trip), until a couple sitting next to us wake us up – they are here!! We are given binoculars and we are able to observe the bears right in front of us. One after the other come to eat the chocolate and afterwards we see them up in the mountain. We spend the next couple hours quietly watching them.
Bear photos by Victoria Aróstegui
We head back to Brasov for dinner at Sergiana, which offers local food inside an old cellar. Food is very good and abundant, and we have large servings of polenta, which I wasn’t familiar with but is a staple food in this part of the world. We walk back to our hotel, running towards the end, as some men start following us and offering us help(?). By the time we are inside the building, we have a problem. Our room has disappeared. The hotel has two separate accommodations, located in adjacent buildings, and we must have gone to the wrong one. Or the wrong floor. The matter is, our room has disappeared. We search for it in all the floors, check every door. Nothing looks like ours. To me, it is clear: in Dracula’s land everything is possible, and our room has disappeared. Vicky seems more sceptical but at some point she starts believing me. After some frantic minutes that seem like an eternity, we manage to find someone from hotel management awake (or we wake them up) and they take us to our room. To this day I still don’t know how it was possible we couldn’t find it.
The following day we are visiting Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle, despite the fact that there seems to be no connection whatsoever between the castle and the literary Dracula or the real life Dracula, Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), and one of the most fascinating figures in the history of Europe.
Vlad Dracula or Draculea got his name from his father, Vlad Dracul (Dracul meaning dragon or devil, the suffix meaning ‘son of’). Descendant of the ruling family of Wallachia (currently part of Romania), Vlad Dracula lived in the 1400s and made protecting Wallachia and Christendom his life mission. At the time, the region was under attack from the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and Vlad’s strong defence of the territory make him a Romanian national hero. He also gained a reputation for impaling his enemies, both inside and outside Wallachia. Gruesome tales abound, like organising a banquet for the poor, only to lock the doors of the room and burn them alive, or nailing the Turkish messengers’ turbans to their heads, because they had refused to take them off in his presence. The only possible connection between Vlad Dracula and Bran Castle is that he might have been imprisoned there, but even this fact is doubtful as there are also reports of him being imprisoned in Budapest. In any case, we want to see the castle.
I enthusiastically remind Vicky of all these facts as we head to Bran, only to discover that once again, half of Romania seems to have had the same idea. The queue to enter the castle is very very long, and soon it starts raining and it gets cold. My Dracula geekiness keeps me warm, but I worry that poor Vicky will not be protected by it. After 2 hours wait, we finally make it in. Inside, the castle is actually quite bright and welcoming. There are lots of mementos of the Romanian royal family, now based in the US. We quickly go through all the floors so we can spend more time in the garden, just before it gets crowded. The view of the castle from outside is stunning. It’s beautiful in a creepy, sinister way, and we can completely understand why anyone would think this is a castle suitable for a vampire or an impaler. It’s the perfect scenario for a horror movie. Vicky takes pictures of me wearing vampire fangs especially bought for the occasion, because that’s how far I am willing to go. Also, she is a very good friend who doesn’t get surprised anymore by any of these things. After a few minutes of peace and contemplating its magnificent darkness in silence, (only interrupted by Vicky laughing at my fangs), the castle grounds are invaded by dozens of visitors taking pictures and we head out. It was all worth it.
Photo by Victoria Aróstegui
We are now heading towards the countryside, to visit the village of Viscri, home of one of the oldest fortified churches in Europe, dating to the 12th century, and named by the UNESCO as World Heritage. It is not just the village, that takes us back in time, but also its surroundings. To arrive there we get into a muddy road that we share with horse-drawn carts maned by Roma or Romanian Gypsies, dressed in traditional clothes. We pass by houses with old men and women sitting outside, also in traditional garb, the women with their heads covered with coloured, flowery scarves and the men with peasant hats. We cannot believe we are still in modern day Europe.
The church itself is quite impressive – white walls and red roof, thick walls and tiny windows. Built by the ethnic German population, also known as Saxons, it seems ready for a war – and it needed to be, to defend itself from attacks from the Ottomans. The church and the fortress are very well preserved, and from the top we admire the peacefulness of rural Transylvania. Very low, green hills, farms and fields, and villages where the only noise comes from the cows returning to its cowsheds.
The following morning we take time to wander around Brasov. The city is surrounded by mountains (including the word ‘Brasov’ in Hollywood-style letters), and its streets are charming and full of cafes. We really like its famous ‘Black church’ – built in gothic style, it became black when its walls darkened following a fire in the 1600s.
Our next stop is Sighisoara, where Vlad Dracula was allegedly born. The walled old town is incredibly pretty and well preserved, and part of UNESCO’s heritage. Walking around its cobbled streets, you feel like you are in a children’s book. We wander around with no clear direction, just enjoying the quietness and the greenery that surrounds the city. Regarding the quietness – a constant in our visit to Transylvania is how few tourists we see, other than local visitors. It is our luck that we can enjoy all this beauty by ourselves, but a real shame that the world is not aware of the amazing treasures Romania has. To this day, I still believe Romania is one of the most underrated tourist destinations in the world.
Photo by Victoria Aróstegui
A must of our Dracula tour is to visit the house where it was born, currently a restaurant. We go inside for a few minutes and come out slightly disappointed, but Sighisoara’s medieval town more than makes up for the lack of Dracula-ness. We go back to our hotel, Casa Georgius Krauss, which has very charming rooms overlooking the surrounding fields. It also has a fantastic cellar and restaurant, and we enjoy a delicious dinner.
We wake up early as we have a long day ahead of us. We start in Biertan, another of the Saxon churches, overlooking quaint villages and green fields.
We take a few pictures and continue driving to the Transfagarasan, known for being both one of the most scenic and also dangerous roads in the world. Its bends cross the Carpathians from Sibiu to Pitesti, close to Bucharest. We are being way too bullish, as this time of the year (May), the road tends to be closed due to snow. We still decide to try our luck, and we get as high as we can, only to find the road closed. We take a (very unstable and old) cable car instead and go up the mountain. It is all covered in snow, and it feels like we are in the middle of winter. The snow is already melting and the river furiously carries lots of water down to the plains. Other than the operators of the cable car, it’s just us and a couple. We have the place to ourselves.
We descend and make our way back to the valley, stopping to buy cheese to an old lady that has a stall by the road. In the past days we have become huge fans of Romanian cheese and we want to take as much as we can back home. Changing seasons again, we visit Sibiel. The sun is shining, and this small but very pretty village seems to revel on its light. Its surrounded by green plains, crossed by a river, and the whole setting is so relaxing that even our steps are slower.
We finally arrive to Sibiu, where Vlad Dracula actually resided for a few years. Unlike the other ‘Dracula stops’ in our tour, there is nothing remotely dark or sinister about it. It probably has something to do with the weather, but Sibiu is all light and sun and everyone in town seems very cheerful and relaxed. The old town is made up of very well preserved (once again) medieval buildings and we are staying right in the middle of its main square, at the Piata Mare.
That night I decide to bravely try Romania’s national drink, palinca, a very strong spirit made of plum. It doesn’t feel that strong when you first try it, so after choosing one appropriately named Vlad, I have two of them. It will be the first time but not the last time in my life that I make this fatal mistake where palinca is concerned. I feel fine but the morning after I have a terrible, terrible hangover, made only worse by the perspective that we have a whole day of travel ahead of us – driving all the way to Bucharest and then flying to London. After a couple hours, I start feeling better and we start our drive to the airport. Crossing the Carpathians, we promise ourselves we will come back. There is still so much of Romania we still want to see!
Arranging the trip:
- Hotels: We booked everything through Booking.com
- Car: There are many car rental agencies operating from the Bucharest airport
- Bear sighting tour: We booked it in advance with Transylvanian Wolf through their website http://www.transylvanianwolf.ro
- Books to read
- Dracula, Bram Stoker
- Transylvania and beyond, Dervla Murphy
- Along the enchanted way: A story of love and life in Romania, William Blacker
- Tras los pasos de Drácula, Fernando Martínez Laínez
- Films to watch
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola
- Dracula (TV show available on Netflix)
- Dracula untold, Gary Shore
- 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Cristian Mungiu
- California Dreamin’, Cristian Nemescu
- Women travellers
- We felt very comfortable at all times
- We felt very safe at all times, we just took the usual precautions of keeping an eye on our belongings
- We were there in May and it was a bit cold, Summer might be a better time
- The Transfagarasan highway is only open from June/ July to October, depending on the level of snow