Whenever I told people that I was going to Transylvania, the very frequent response I received was: ‘Is that actually a real place?’. Yes, it is a real place and furthermore, it is a place well worth a visit. The mistake is understandable. The name undoubtedly, has a very mythological quality to it, conjuring up images of Van Helsing running around with a bow and arrow and after a three hour journey through the mountains, I might as well have stepped into a storybook. The sky was lying low over the mountains, an ominous, loaded grey colour, discolouring the surroundings like an old movie and the thunder was beginning to rumble threateningly at a distance. I was expecting to see Mr. Helsing around every corner.
We arrived, amid the storm, in Brasov (pronounced ‘Brrashof’ if you want to be understood by locals); this is the biggest and most well known town in the area of Transylvania. My first impression was that everything was small. Small and old. There was nothing that hadn’t been built to look attractive and the scenery was distinctly Bavarian with chalet-like houses decorating the mountainside. The town also boasts the ‘the smallest street in Europe’, of which they are very proud.
The antique beauty of the town, however, is comically juxtaposed by the white, Hollywood-style hilltop ‘BRASOV’ sign that provides the backdrop to the quaint market square. This square is lined by authentic, local restaurants that only provide freshly prepared food, including the best hand-cooked chips money can buy. The wine, however, was the most pleasant surprise. ‘One of the best in the world’, I was told by a local, but sadly it is not marketed properly, so it remains Romania’s best-kept secret.
As the storm had finally subsided, we decided to indulge in what Transylvania really does the best; castles. The day tour took us first to Bran, the home of the most complete castle, that is famous for its superbly tenuous link to Bram Stoker’s Dracula; ‘the castle that might look something like what Stoker may have had in mind when he wrote the book’, or words to that effect. This castle, however, does not need this link to be appreciated. Like something out of a (slightly sinister) fairytale, it is hilltop castle perfection. Inside, you are transported back centuries to a world of miniature doors, hidden, creaky staircases and dungeons, topped off by an elaborate collection of bearskins draped over engraved, wooden thrones. The only downside is the site’s extreme overcrowding, obviously overwhelmed by a recent surge in tourism, so early morning visits would be sensible for those who are not fond of queuing. The other inevitable is the excessive plugging of Dracula paraphernalia that one just cannot escape, so prepare to buy keyrings in abundance.
The second stop of the tour took us to Poenari Castle, ‘the real Dracula’s castle’, a further two hours terrifying drive out. Good advice would be to take a fix-in seatbelt or at least a portable air bag if you are given a local driver. This castle, however, is more valid in its Dracula claim as it was once inhabited by Vlad the Impaler, who earnt his name from his habit of impaling people and is believed to be the man who inspired Stoker’s Dracula. This castle does not have the beautiful exquisiteness of the other and it is a gruelling 1500 steps up the mountainside, but it does offer the original ruins of his fortress, lots of scabby dogs and one of the most spectacular views across the mountain landscape that I have ever failed to capture on camera.
So if you ever get the chance to visit Romania and the extravagance of Bucharest’s ‘Palace of the Parliament’ doesn’t take your fancy, take a trip further into the heart of Romania to Transylvania. Still a forest of myth, folklore and rather barbaric history, it is overwhelmingly beautiful, despite the weather, and rich with good food, exceptional wine and damn-good castles. And it definitely does exist.