Europe | Romania | Transylvania – Transylvanian vampire hunting
After Bucharest I travelled into the heart of Transylvania to follow the Dracula trail. Like Keanu Reeves’ character in the film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I wanted to ride a train through the eerie mountains, all dark and spooky and mysterious. There were stunning mountains all right, but no spookiness. But then come to think of it, the fact that I went in broad daylight may have had something to do with it.
My first stop was the medieval town of Brasov, a mere three hours by train from Bucharest. As we approached Brasov the landscape changed from flat plains to mountains. We were carving our way through the Fagaras Mountains, which form part of the Carpathians. At this time of year the dense forest on the mountains take on different shades of green and look like camouflage army attire. Along the roads, I saw a few cars speedily overtaking gypsies who still drive horse drawn carts.
It was a great relief to see that Brasov turned out to be very different from Bucharest. It is a tiny town nestled between hills covered with forests. The houses and buildings also date back to medieval times. The main square, Piata Sfatului, is the heart of the town with a fountain in the middle and cafes and shops with baroque facades surrounding it. In a way Brasov kind of reminds me of Bruges in Belgium.
The old town hall, a curious yellow coloured building with a pointy tower, also sits right on the square. Just off the square is the gothic Black Church, so named because a fire in 1689 blackened its exterior. The church is still used by German Lutherans, but curiously the inside is decorated with Turkish rugs.
The day after I arrived in town happened to be Brasov Day and festivities were planned for the next few days. That night the square was filled with people listening to music on stage while the outdoor cafes did a brisk trade from customers who preferred to sit at a table to listen to the music. Myself and several people from the hostel did exactly that. We had an interesting night sitting around a tiny table with a few beers, enjoying the festivities and watching the locals dancing to the music. At one stage someone pulled out a deck of cards and we had a few games, but because the table was so tiny there were quite a few broken glasses and spillages.
The next morning I took a cable car ride up Mount Tampa, which overlooks the town. I thought at first it would just be me and three other people in the cable car, but just as it was about to depart a group of young school kids piled in until it was full capacity, giggling all the time. At the top I was afforded a great view of the town spreading out below and the fields and mountains beyond. I opted to hike down the hill back to town. The hill was actually quite steep, so the path winds back and forth across the hill for some distance. I think it took about forty-five minutes to descend, but it was a pleasant walk nonetheless.
One morning a group of us hired a taxi to take us to visit some old castles just outside of Brasov. The first stop was the small town of Rasnov which has a 13th century castle on a hill. After a short hike up we explored the interior of some of the rooms. Outside we climbed up to the highest point on the hill where we had a panoramic view of the country side. On one side of the castle are hills with dense forest leading up to the castle walls. I imagined the olden times when perhaps enemy soldiers might have sneaked up to the wall under the cover of the forest.
Bran castle on the other hand is the more touristy of the two. It is popularly known as Dracula’s castle but in reality has nothing much to do with him. We were told that at the most, the dark prince probably spent only one night there. Bran castle dates back to the 14th century and was at one point a toll station for German merchants between Transylvania and Wallachia. The white washed castle walls also don’t particularly give it a foreboding appearance. Still, the interior was rather interesting, containing fifty seven rooms of old furniture such as a massive oak bed used by King Ferdinand, large banquet tables and a hunting trophy room housing deer heads and bear skins.
After Brasov I moved on to Sighisoara with two other travellers. Sighisoara is a much smaller town, but it has a medieval charm that belies it size. The old part of town still has original castle walls and medieval 15th century cobbled alleyways passing under arches which are great for exploring.
Sighisoara doesn’t have a lot of tourist attractions as such, but is more of a place to hang out for a while and relax. One afternoon we managed to check out the 15th century Clock Tower, which is now an interesting history museum of the town. The tower itself is rather unique with its copper coloured turrets and spires. From up here we could see the quaint rooftops of the town below, looking exactly like they did centuries ago. Nearby the citadel rises to the top of a hill standing guard and overlooking the township below.
You’d think that a small Romanian town like Sighisoara doesn’t have much of a night life, but that night a bunch of us had a fantastic time in a nightclub until the wee hours of the morning. I haven’t been nightclubbing for a while, so I thought it was funny that I went to one in Romania of all places.
The next afternoon, after having a well deserved sleep in, we had a pleasant trek up to the hill bordering the town and hiked through some Transylvanian forest. At one point we got to the edge of a secluded cliff that overlooks a deep valley and the town below. It was a lovely spot to sit around for a while, and we got the feeling that not even the locals know about this spot.
Sighisoara is the final trail of Dracula for me (or the first for some, depending on which direction they’re coming from) as it is his birthplace. Near the clock tower is the house where he spent the first four years of his life between 1431 and 1436. I’m assuming the walls of the house weren’t the pastel yellow colour it is now. The place is now a restaurant called Casa Vlad Dracul, and so of course we had to dine there for lunch just so we could say we ate in Dracula’s house. The prices weren’t particularly inflated either, as one would expect from a place taking advantage of its historical connections, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Transylvania, a great place to visit
The countryside is definitely the jewel of Romania. Forget the big cities, the country towns provide the best there is to offer in terms of history and sightseeing. There are a few more places I would have liked to stop at, some of them even more primitive than Sighisoara, but this journey through Transylvania has been well worth it. At the moment it just manages to elude becoming spoilt and over-touristy, but I dread to think what would become of it in a few years time when more and more tourists catch on to Romanian tourism.