Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Salt Lake Tribune: Transylvania demystified

Transylvania demystified
Fabled region of Romania greets visitors with the cultural and architectural charm of a bygone era
By Julia Lyon The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:10/30/2006 11:46:34 AM MST

TRANSYLVANIA, Romania - Blood-sucking men with fangs could be what you expect to pop out of a castle window in Transylvania, but if that's your impression, you haven't been there. A region that most Americans associate with Dracula, Romania's Translyvania is so much more than the big bad guy. Fabulously cosmopolitan cities, ancient ruins and an ethnic mosaic await the intrepid traveler in Transylvania, Romania's most infamous and misunderstood region. "I kind of wanted some fake coffins, but I was disappointed," said a Canadian student after visiting what's reputed to be Dracula's castle. She's not alone. Even I was hoping for some oversized fangs. But Romania hasn't mastered the art of the kitschy souvenir - maybe we should all be grateful. What it has done exceedingly well, particularly in the Transylvania region, is escape major destruction in World War II, droves of tourists and the bulldozer of development. In contrast to western Europe, it seems somewhat preserved in time. Minutes outside a city, men and women in traditional Gypsy dress walk along the road in the late afternoon light, scythes in hand after a long day working the fields. Horses and wagons are clearly the most common form of transportation in the villages, so much so that my brother and I saw a horse pulling a wagon with a car on top of it. Apparently the mechanic wasn't local.

In many regions of Transylvania, almost every village seems to be home to a fortified Saxon church, houses of worship attended by German immigrants who have all but disappeared. Germans originally came to Romania as settlers, stayed and thrived. At their peak, the Germans of Transylvania were wealthier than anybody else in the region, as reflected by their architecture and urban planning. Many of them returned to Germany in the 20th century, and today very little of a German ethnic presence remains. Their churches and decaying hymnals are some of the many reminders of their former prevalence. Many of those buildings are under restoration, and a visit during daytime hours is often welcomed by the villagers along with a small contribution. Some of my most memorable moments from the trip involve wandering down a village road knocking on doors looking for someone to provide the key to a church that was founded as long as 800 years ago. Often my brother and I had no common language with the villager who opened the door to a building where knights may have prayed for salvation.

One day busloads of tourists will wind their way through Transylvania to visit these churches. For now, you scout them out yourself and push open a door to the country's Germanic past. I'm not one who is big on frescos and painted altars - I saw enough of them in Italy to last a lifetime - but there was something different about this kind of discovery. We were more like pioneers. You could also call us mud lovers. In one of the dirtiest, gooiest hikes I've ever done, my brother and I climbed for several hours in the Piatra Craiului mountains literally following a herd of cows (and the flies hovering behind them). Our trek led us to the Cabana Curmatura, a small shelter with food, beer and beds for the weary traveler. What a marvelous European invention. Though just finding the trail involved extensive driving around beat-up roads, the scenery (and, once again, the lack of other tourists) was spectacular. Of all the cities we visited in Transylvania, Sighisoara was by far my favorite. Its old city is exquisitely preserved with nine towers along the city walls, and a climb to visit a 1648 clock provides views that look more Disney than real. Travelers who fell in love with Prague will be awestruck by this place, its Transylvanian cousin. Our stay at the elegant Hotel Sighisoara with views of the clock tower was perhaps our favorite rest stop. And - for all you Dracula lovers - his historical inspiration was born here. While I can't comment on the train system - my brother and I traveled exclusively by car - I have one question for the Romanian government: When's the last time you took a good look at the roads? Pocked with cracks and craters that can slow a driver to a crawl, the highways, particularly those between the less major cities, almost seem like tourist deterrents. That and the fact that pedestrians like to launch themselves out into the middle of the roads makes me shudder even now. Had my brother not spent the past few years perfecting his Eastern European driving skills, I seriously think someone might have gotten hurt.

Infrastructure will inevitably be an issue as Romania prepares to join the European Union in 2007. But the one road that is worth a visit, as long as you have a fearless driver, is a testimony to the hell-bent determination of Nicolae Ceausescu. Called the highest paved road in the country, it's what a dictator builds if he wants to blast a two-lane road with barely any shoulder straight up a mountain past a glacial lake. Drive the Transfagarasan road and you'll see skiers in June. Romania is a country on the verge of American tourism. A guidebook I had for Croatia once told travelers to come and "beat the crowds." The same is true for Romania. Prague is old news. Transylvania should be your next stop.
--- * JULIA LYON can be contacted at jlyon@sltrib.com or 801-257-8748. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib.com.
Romania: Rich in contrasts
* WHY GO? The country is refreshingly undiscovered by Americans. Expect little English and lots of shock by locals that you've come so far. A thriving rural, Gypsy culture contrasted by cosmopolitan twentysomethings in J-Lo sunglasses shows it is a country rich in contrasts and on the verge of change. You can explore medieval citadels, meet sheepherders and buy cheese by the road all in one day.
* HOW TO GET THERE: A flight this summer cost nearly $1,500 from Salt Lake City but winter tickets are less expensive. A search online found most tickets in late January ranging from $800 to $1,000.
* WHAT IT WILL COST: Many three-star hotels were in the $80 range for two people. In contrast, food was on the cheaper side. We rented a car for about eight days at an online rate of nearly $500, not including the price of gas.
* NOT TO MISS: Sighisoara (Prague's Transylvanian cousin), crumbling German churches in Transylvanian villages and a Ciuc beer at a cabana in the Piatra Craiului mountains.
* WHERE TO EAT: Food rarely stood out during my week of traveling in Transylvania. One exception was fare at the more traditional restaurants. My favorite was sarmale, cabbage leaves surrounding a mix of meat, rice and spices. Delicious.
* WEATHER: June in Transylvania was typically in the 70s and fairly humid.
* MORE INFORMATION: Check out http://www.romaniatourism.com/

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