Monday, October 23, 2006 Count me in, Transylvania

Count me in, Transylvania
By Greg Roberts

THE Romanians of Transylvania were a bloodthirsty lot.
Museums and historic sites throughout this rugged, mountainous region of central Romania are replete with gory details of executions and torture. They are a reminder that whatever the woes of the world, at least huge numbers of people are no longer impaled on stakes or sawn in half after being strung up by their feet.
Transylvania was an exceptionally violent part of the world and among the most violent of its inhabitants was one Count Vlad Tepes, better known as Dracula.
Dracula is the centrepiece of a tourism industry that has opened its doors after decades of repression under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Numerous towns and villages in Transylvania are flogging the Dracula name by claiming ties with the infamous count, however tenuous. Dracula paraphernalia is on sale everywhere and characters dressed in tacky themed outfits strut their stuff. Inns and restaurants with names that include Dracula abound.
Count Dracula ruled what was then the kingdom of Wallachia in the 1400s. The Romanian name Draculea, which means dragon, was bestowed on him by his father as a mark of honour. The count was, by all accounts, a barbarian. He liked to have his evening meal while watching Turkish prisoners of war being tortured to death and to relax later in a bathtub of their blood.
Folklore has it the count was the inspiration for the gothic horror novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker in 1897. Not true, but everybody believes it anyway. The bloodsucking vampire who needs a wooden stake driven through his heart to die has inspired a cult-like following. Transylvania, the setting for the novel, is the scene of the action and it helps that many locals believe in vampires.
Count Dracula spent his childhood in the village of Sighisoara, nestled in the splendid Carpathian Mountains, and its scenery alone makes Transylvania worth a visit. Visitors can dine in a restaurant in the mudbrick abode where the count was born; the original stone floor is still in place.
Opposite the restaurant is the Piata Cetacii, a public square where executions were conducted daily when Count Dracula was a youngster; that he grew up with a bloodlust is scarcely surprising. The square is at the centre of a medieval citadel perched atop a steep hill reached with difficulty by a narrow, cobblestone road. The clock on the face of a 65m tower was built 400 years ago and still works; beneath is located the Torture Room Museum.
The citadel was constantly under siege. Exhibits in a restored goldsmiths' tower show how eight wells were dug to depths of 40m within its walls to keep water flowing during sieges that lasted for months. Indeed, it seems this part of the world was constantly at war. Throughout Transylvania there are fortified castles on hilltops with commanding views over verdant valleys. The castles have a more authentic ambience than those of western Europe because they attract far fewer visitors and much less is spent on restoring them in cash-strapped Romania.
The 13th-century fortress at Rasnov, built by the Teutonic Knights to fend off Turkish invaders, is a gem, with quaint cobblestone walkways connecting the turrets and a 150m well that two prisoners took 20 years to dig, winning their freedom as a reward on its completion. As elsewhere, the violence of the past is meticulously chronicled. Even the skeletal remains of hapless execution victims are on display.
Nearby, the castle in the neat tourist town of Bran has been dubbed Dracula's Castle because the count sought refuge here while being pursued by his Turkish enemies. The castle was the summer residence of Romania's royal family until the communists dethroned them in the late 1940s. Exquisite furniture used by the extravagant Queen Marie early last century remains on display and a labyrinth of secret subterranean passages runs below thecastle.

Gallery: Welcome to Dracula's castle »
The regional capital of Transylvania is Brasov, Romania's second city. It is regarded by many as up there with Prague and Budapest as must-see old city destinations. The huge town square, Piata Sfatului, is surrounded by the very best of Saxon architecture. The imposing Black Church is a 14th-century gothic cathedral, one of the biggest in Europe, and Lutherans still gather there for services.
The Brasov Historical Museum has a fine collection of Count Dracula memorabilia, including his original letters, which offer a sense of the demented count's perspectives. While he was busy slaughtering thousands, he wrote a long letter to a Brasov merchant quibbling about the price of a piece of jewellery. The celebration of the macabre hits full throttle in the museum, which includes a big display of original torture implements that leave nothing to the imagination.
South of Brasov is the bustling tourist centre of Sinaia where the main attraction is Peles Castle, the magnificent German renaissance-style former residence of King Carol I. The castle was used by Ceausescu as his private retreat. When Romania was a player of some consequence during the Cold War – communist but no friend of Moscow – the castle played host to a long line of overseas leaders, including two US presidents, who no doubt marvelled at the lashings of mother-of-pearl and alabaster.
Romania remains a poor country by European standards, notwithstanding the fall of the communists two decades ago. More than 100 roadside stalls are set up outside Peles Castle, all vying to sell much the same sorts of knick-knacks and souvenirs. In Sinaia's winding streets, traditionally dressed Gypsies with huge brown bears on chains wander about trying to attract the attention of visitors looking for a photo opportunity. Bears have become a tourist attraction in their own right in Transylvania. On the outskirts of Sinaia and Brasov, wild bears come out of the forest to raid public garbage bins.
The bears are unafraid of people, allowing close approach. Nowhere in Europe are there similar opportunities to see wild bears.
Nuisance bears are culled and bear meat often features on the menus of local restaurants, but the animals get their own back: they kill an average of four Romanians a year.
Gypsies, too, are a colourful part of the tourist scene. Ten per cent of Romania's population of 22 million is Gypsy, or Roma, and they live much as they did centuries ago. Their homes are often ramshackle caravans or mud-and-straw huts. The Gypsies get around in horse-drawn buggies and wagons, an incongruous sight and something of a hazard on busy motorways.
Transylvania has world-class ski resorts at Sinaia and Poiana Brasov, and they are worth a visit, even during the off-season, with reasonable rates available at chalets or decent lodges with superb alpine views. Mountain trekking is popular, with two or three-week cross-country expeditions possible through vast tracts of pristine wilderness.
Visitors to Romania should not ignore attractions outside Transylvania. Mamaia and other resort towns on the Black Sea coast, a six-hour drive from Brasov, have been discovered by western Europeans who are forever on the lookout for new beach destinations. The Black Sea beaches may not be secluded any more but they are more attractive than most on the Mediterranean and are far cheaper than those in Spain or France.
On the coast north of Mamaia are the ancient ruins of Histria, among the best-preserved ruins of the Greco-Roman era anywhere. Built 2500 years ago, the ruins are a little off the beaten track, but if you wander through these extensive remains of a city that was home to thousands, chances are you won't see another tourist. Further north is the city of Tulcea and the mouth of the Danube River. The 4000sqkm Danube delta is the Western world's biggest wetland and Tulcea is the hub of a thriving houseboat industry. Rent a boat and spend days exploring the delta's many waterways or hire a captain-navigator at little extra cost.
Because Romania is so poor, visitors need to watch out for scams. Theft, including from hotel rooms, is a problem, but muggings and other serious crimes are rare.
In restaurants, the final bill could be well in excess of what you saw on the menu; when you ask to check, the English-language menus may have strangely disappeared. But the cuisine can be very good; especially memorable are the ciorbas, or soups, whipped up in often ancient village kitchens. Romania is not for the diet-conscious, however, and vegetarians are not well catered for. Notwithstanding restaurant scams, food, alcohol (including fine wine) and accommodation is much cheaper than in western Europe.
As in other former Eastern bloc countries, car hire is expensive and there are all manner of tricks to try to mask the true cost when signing up customers. Visiting Romania requires legwork. Even in the capital, Bucharest, there is no designated tourist information office. Old bureaucratic habits die hard. At road border posts, 200 or more trucks line up, waiting to complete the copious quantities of paperwork to enter neighbouring countries. English is not widely spoken, and army personnel and police in some areas can be pushy. But people are generally friendly and helpful, if on the dour side. Best of all, visit some of Europe's finest castles and museums without endless queuing.
A common observation is that Romania is different. But expect to be enchanted with the place, bloodsucking vampires and all.,,20607707-27978,00.html?from=public_rss


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October 30, 2006  

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