Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Capital Times: Transylvanian tour: Beyond the stereotypes

Transylvanian tour: Beyond the stereotypes
By Jane Burns

To be certain, there are things to fear while walking down an unpaved lane around midnight under a nearly full moon on an October night in Transylvania.
Cow pies, mostly.
Oh sure, it was a little creepy to open and close a giant, creaky manor house gate that looked as if it could have come out of any horror movie. This one, however, was beautifully finished wood that evoked elegance and charm, not chills and screams.
And indeed, it was interesting to meet a real count, who looked more like a well-heeled Ivy Leaguer than anyone Bela Lugosi would play.

Jane Burns
A horse-drawn cart heads up the main road of the Transylvanian village of Miklosoara. The carts are a common site on village roads or national highways.

Jane Burns
Bran Castle, known as "Dracula's Castle," despite only tenuous links to Vlad the Impaler, looms in the background over the market.

Because in Transylvania, reality is so far beyond, and so much more beautiful, than the stereotypes and the legends perpetuated by books and films. It only took one week to be reminded of what is a good rule for travel or for life: Never believe anything until you see it for yourself.
Traveling to Transylvania was pretty much a fluke of a holiday. About a year and a half ago I was on the Internet searching for something else and I found a link about a count who got his property back after the Communists were overthrown in Romania. The count, Tibor Kalnoky, turned his property in a semi-remote Transylvanian village into a place for visitors.
Half-joking, I sent the link to friends, one of whom has some weird vampire obsession. "When are we going?" seemed to be the general response.
After a little more homework, it seemed like the ideal vacation. "Old Europe," "a disappearing way of life" and "breathtaking landscapes" seemed to be the words that popped up most. Unlike those vampires, the phrases turned out to be true.
Transylvania is a region of Romania, taken from Hungary when the borders were redrawn after World War I. With a geography dominated by river valleys and the Carpathian mountains, it can be a skier's dream and a hiker's paradise.
It's also a place where sustenance farming is still an important way of life, and lone farmers harvesting with scythes can be seen loading hay onto their horse-drawn carts. Those same horse-drawn carts are as common on the highways there as is an SUV in the States. Village roads also become filled with cows going to and from the fields in the mornings and evenings, so watching your step is important.
That's the Transylvania that Count Kalnoky wants the world to see, which is part of why he created his guesthouses.
"I wanted to show that this country is more than Dracula, orphans and Ceausescu," the count said over dinner one night at the manor house that is the heart of his visitors' compound.
At Count Kalnoky's estate, visitors are pampered in beautifully restored cottages in what could be called an all-inclusive vacation. It's a perfect escape: no phones, no TV, no alarm clocks needed because I woke up every day to the sounds of cows mooing under my window.
For a reasonable fee depending on the length of stay, guests get their elegant but cozy cottages or rooms, transport, all meals, including a three-course dinner with wine, and a variety of guided tours, hikes and other activities.
That fee, in turn, helps to restore the properties in the village of Miklosoara (called Miklosvar by the 400 or so Hungarian-speaking villagers) and pay the wages of the 15 families employed at the estate.
"Right now we have more families working here than guests," the count joked, but later it was noted that accommodations had already sold out for New Year's.
* "We are so lucky to live here," said Karsci, a guide who accompanied us on our hike around clear, clean Lacul Sfanta Ana (Lake St. Anne), Europe's only volcanic lake.
It was probably hard to imagine such enthusiasm about life in Romania before 1989, when a revolution overthrew the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Kalnoky had sneaked onto his family's estate once or twice in that time, but now is home for good.
Likewise with Karsci, who worked in tourism in Norway and on this day was leading a group of Americans, Irish and English through the same woods he camped in with his grandparents when he was a little boy.
A day at the lake, and a later steep climb to a sulfur cave casually referred to as the "Stinky Cave," was the most outdoorsy choice we made for an activity. Each day, we were presented with two options, one cultural and one nature. The choice wasn't always easy.
The medieval city of Sighisoara, with its narrow passageways and cobblestone streets, provided a great introduction to the region. The small city's skyline is dominated by a 14th-century clock tower, and the community retains much of its Saxon (German) heritage.
Sighisoara would be a draw itself, but is also notable to tourists as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), whose cruelties while Prince of Wallachia and family name of Dracul help create the myth that he was the original "Dracula."
Other choices offered to guests at the Kalnoky estate include cart rides, medieval churches, an introduction to life in the village, high mountain tours, bird watching and, in the winter, sleigh rides.
One choice wasn't so tough, however. Because we were in Transylvania, there was one place we had to go.
* "A farce. A farce," said Josef, who drove us the three hours from Bucharest to Miklosvar. He had been asked by one of my friends about the vampires, and he dismissed it with the sort of wave of a hand that clearly is an international symbol for "that is such a load of crap."
Yet the tourism draw wouldn't be the same in some places without the legends that reached their zenith with the publication of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" in 1897.
It all comes to a head in the town of Bran, where an imposing castle looms overhead. It's the same castle seen in myriad Hollywood horror films. Below it, the tourist trade runs rampant, as if we've stumbled upon a Romanian Wisconsin Dells, without the water slides and go-karts.
"I like this the least," our guide Imre said of the trip to Bran. Fortunately we were there in midweek, minus the pack of tourists, so it wasn't so painful for him or us. Indeed, in the narrow quarters of the castle's interior, we probably wouldn't have enjoyed it much with a crowd, either.
Yet like Transylvania itself, Bran Castle is nothing like it seems. The imposing exterior hides an elegant interior that resembles a vintage Hollywood mansion. It looks more like a place where Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford would have lived, not characters played by Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn.
The castle was a royal residence, a gift of the people of Transylvania to Queen Marie of Romania in 1920. She restored it in a grand manner, and her heirs lived there until forced out by the communist-controlled government in 1947.
The association with Dracula is sketchy at best. Imre said Vlad Tepes might have been thrown into the dungeon there for a couple days.
Time might be running out for the chances to visit one of Romania's most popular tourist attractions. In May, the castle was returned to its owner, Dominic von Habsburg, grandson of Queen Marie.
What von Habsburg might do with the property is uncertain. The government will continue to manage the castle until 2009, but no further plans have been made public.
* There's a bigger concern for Romanians than what will happen to Bran Castle. They wonder what will happen to them.
This is a country in transition; Romania is scheduled to become part of the European Union in January. On the one hand, outsiders could see that as a chance to pull the country into modernity. The locals in the village we visited worry about outsiders buying up bargain real estate and small farmers having to conform to a different standard. Count Kalnoky spends a lot of time at antique fairs, trying to find traditional furnishings before bargain-hunting foreigners cart them all out of the country.
But one thing is certain. The people there live in a land that deserves the pride they exude. As one born and raised in Dane County, I understand pride of place and the feeling that you live in one of the most beautiful areas the world has to offer.
It's why the count has opened his home to intrepid travelers.
It's why our guide Imre goes out of his way to show us a spectacular view above the beautiful city of Brasov.
It's why our guide Karsci felt so lucky to spend his day with tourists in a peat bog.
Their love of home is why I took a little part of Transylvania with me back to Madison.
And not just on my shoes.

(See related links for more on Transylvania.)
Published: October 31, 2006


Anonymous A. Trendl said...

The challenge of overcoming a stereotype ripe with vampires, old villages, and more recently, communism and the related poverty left behind, is huge for Romania. The connection to the EU can help open doors, create international commerce in ways undreamed of.

While the evil of Nicolae Ceausescu is part of the modern history, tourism will grow as articles like the one you posted are seen by travel guides and covered by magazines.

A. Trendl

November 26, 2006  

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