Transylvania Today

This part of the world isn't just for Dracula buffs
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King Matthias Statue

Bram Stoker, whose Dracula was published a century ago, called Transylvania "one of the wildest and least-known portions of Europe," and probably these characteristics led him to choose it as the setting of his Gothic novel. Even today the "land beyond the forest" reposes in relative obscurity, off the Western tourist routes now leading from Vienna to Budapest and Munich to Prague. Still largely medieval in façade, Transylvania is perfect terrain for those desirous of journeying into a fantastically well-preserved twilight zone of European history.

Transylvania's territory composes a fecund third of present-day Romania. The 1989 revolution, culminating in the execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, ended Ceausescu's plans to "systematize" Romanian rural life (which involved bulldozing villages and dispersing peasants to concrete "agro-industrial complexes") and broke the command-economy fetters that bound the country, but Romania has been limping along ever since, a lame Balkan cousin of Hungary, the Central European dynamo to the northwest. Yet economic malaise has had a collateral benefit for Transylvania: the helter-skelter commercialization marring the historical ambiance in much of the former Soviet bloc has not occurred here. Moated castles, citadels of spires and clock towers, and ramparted towns still transport travelers centuries back to an era when bespoke suits of mail were de rigueur for local counts, and Ottoman warriors threatened the very gates of Europe.

Transylvania presents visitors with none of the logistical hurdles encountered in the hardscrabble lands to its east. Trains go almost everywhere, and tickets cost roughly two dollars an hour for first-class travel (first-class Romanian-style, that is, with tatterdemalion but comfortably upholstered compartments and equally tatterdemalion but solicitous attendants). There is no need to rent a car: taxis may be hired in the cities at a rate of only thirty cents a mile (if you are not a poker-faced bargainer, have a concierge or a Romanian acquaintance arrange this). Serviceable, clean hotels run a reasonable $15 to $40 a night. Latinate Romanian comes easily to the ears and tongues of French- or Italian-speakers, and English is no longer a rarity. All in all, ten to fourteen days should make a good trip, allowing you to see the places described below and perhaps a couple of others, such as Cluj, the vibrant fin-de-siècle Magyar capital of northern Transylvania, and Sibiu, the German bastion of the south. Transylvanians tend to be unpretentious and hospitable, and you may well be invited home to share a meal. Once you make local friends, you may decide to scrap your itinerary and surrender to the near-bucolic rhythm of life in this largely agricultural land.

The only caveat in order concerns money: divide your resources between traveler's checks (safe, but exchangeable only in banks, at poor rates) and cash dollars (in demand everywhere, but susceptible to theft—carry them hidden in a money belt). Off season a traveler wanting comfortable accommodations, first-class train tickets, and wholesome restaurant meals should spend about sixty dollars a day; summer sojourns are likely to cost 10 percent more. Romania—The Rough Guide is the guidebook I recommend; it covers all budgets, has immensely useful town maps, and provides first-rate historical and cultural background information.

Below the beetling summit of Mount Tîmpa spreads the city of Brasov, a grid of red gabled roofs dominated by an odd slate-gray monolith. Founded by Saxons (ethnic Germans) in the thirteenth century and originally known as Kronstadt, the town, which was situated where three trade routes met, quickly grew into a major medieval commercial center, self-governing, fortified, and orderly. It is still the first significant Transylvanian stop for travelers approaching by rail or road from Bucharest. Stark fortifications stand in places around the old town, reminders of the centuries-long Ottoman threat and the Saxon determination to counter it. Yet Brasov's Baroque lanes and friendly rathskellers beguile visitors and make it a comfortable place to spend three or four days preparing for forays farther north in the region.

The gray monolith, which rises just off the central Sfatului Square, is the Biserica Neagra, or "Black Church," so named after a fire charred its exterior in 1689. Puzzling from a distance, the church presents an enigma even when viewed up close. Over and around its entrance hang signs in four languages: CLOSE THE DOOR! THE CHURCH SHALL NOT BE VISITED ON SUNDAYS! IT IS FORBIDDEN TO WALK DOGS IN THE COURTYARD! Inside, Turkish carpets have been draped from every banister and railing, each with a DO NOT TOUCH! QUIET! sign shouting into the stony silence. The rest of the interior, with its white walls and oaken pews, gleams with Lutheran austerity. The Black Church, like Brasov, belongs to Saxon Land.

Once a backwater colony of the Roman Empire (whence Romania's name and language), Transylvania achieved limited historical prominence in the eleventh century, when the Hungarians brought it under their rule, settling it with their lower-caste nobility; with descendants of Attila the Hun, called Székely; and with Rhinelanders, who came to be known as Saxons. These three "nations" (as they called themselves) consolidated aristocratic privilege over a mainly Romanian peasantry, and their intrigues kept the region an autonomous buffer zone between a fearful Christian West and an expanding Muslim East. Even today travelers may hear Transylvania variously referred to as Erdély (Hungarian), Ardeal (Romanian, though Romanians may also use the less nationalistic "Transilvania"), and Siebenbürgen (German), depending on the ethnic background of their collocutors. This is no linguistic vestige of a defunct history: the region for the most part belonged to Hungary until 1920, and Magyar irredentists raise the "Transylvanian question" still.

The advent of the Turks in Europe isolated Transylvania and gave rise to Prince Vlad Tepes, on whom Stoker loosely modeled his ghoulish Count Dracula—one of the most enduring characters of literature and pop culture. In 1462 Tepes ("The Impaler") routed invading Ottoman troops, sending them fleeing southward in terror through a forest of 20,000 Turkish and Bulgarian prisoners he had impaled on stakes, rectum to sternum. Whatever Stoker made of Tepes for his novel, the ruthless vanquisher of the Turks came to be regarded in his homeland as a champion of Christianity, and Romanians today do not associate him with the vampire superstitions once prevalent in Transylvania—except when angling for the tourist buck, mark, or franc.
Tepes was born in Sighisoara, which I first visited in 1983. More than its Dracula connection, Sighisoara's renown as a trove of medieval architecture drew me there: its elevated old town (known as the Cetate, or "Citadel") is ranked as one of Eastern Europe's most stunning sights. But once there, I lost my appetite for sightseeing: Sighisoara then was a bare-bulb freezer of despair and creeping inanition. Romanians were suffering under Ceausescu's debt-reduction austerity plan, shivering to death in almost unheated apartments, wasting away on food rations that barely sustained life. The "Genius of the Carpathians" and his ruinous misrule were desiccating the beauty of Tepes's birthplace.

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Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books.

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