Transylvania Today

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

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.

The revolution of 1989 liberated Sighisoara, and it is now quietly flourishing. Posters advertising MISS TRANSYLVANIA CONTEST 1996 festooned the main drag during my recent stay, and upscale pizzerias have replaced the fetid autoservire cafeterias of the socialist era. Visitors will enjoy losing their way in the perfectly preserved Cetate. The thirteenth-century clock tower, with Roman figurines that have emerged midnight after midnight for 700 years to mark the changing day, and the crows roistering to roost at dusk under the fortress walls evoke a sense of the Gothic and medieval that anyone, Dracula buff or not, may appreciate.

Other changes have come too, some of which appear startlingly final. This past November, I climbed the 175 wooden stairs toward the fourteenth-century Saxon Bergkirche ("Church on the Hill") towering above the Cetate. It was closed for restoration; in a cemetery under some cedars nearby, a monocled young Saxon was dipping a slender brush in black paint and touching up the lettering on a tombstone. He greeted me in German, but for my sake we switched to rudimentary Romanian.

"Since 1989 most of us Saxons have left, either to Germany or ..." He looked down at the tombstone.

In fact the exodus to Germany pre-dated the revolution. Ceausescu himself abetted it in order to tilt the balance of Transylvania's historically Magyar-Saxon urban population in favor of Romanians. Yet if the German spoken across Transylvania since the thirteenth century has almost vanished, the Saxon legacy in stone remains. Fortified cathedrals dot the landscape, the best example of which is Biertan (in German, Birthälm), classified as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. (The site is sixteen miles southwest of Sighisoara. You can hire a taxi for the trip there and ask the driver to wait for you; the bus runs once a day, if at all.) Rising yellow-beige above a gabled village where only the grunts of oxen under yoke break the smoky blue silence, Biertan's house of worship brooks none of the incense-induced transcendentalism of Byzantium that one finds in Transylvania's Orthodox cathedrals. Built in 1516, when the Turks were massing to the south, the church has an air of impregnable temporal fortitude. Yet its Saxon parishioners have fled, broken on Ceausescu's lurid socialist wheel.

Stoker's ingenuous protagonist, Jonathan Harker, begins the final leg of his journey to Dracula's Borgo Pass castle from the town of Bistrita, in northern Transylvania. There never was such a castle (I knew this), but once I was in Bistrita, the famed beauty of the pass (actually called Tihuta) prompted me to hire a crusty late-middle-aged driver named Nicolae to take me there just the same. "There is such a castle," Nicolae declared as we swept out of Bistrita through the late-morning fog. "You can even spend the night there, if you want."

As we ascended, we passed horse-drawn carriages and donkey carts rocking along the rutted road, their drivers wearing handlebar moustaches and floppy felt hats that one might have expected to see in Europe a century ago. Prundu Bîrgaului and Murasenii Bîrgaului and the other villages looked deserted—only chimneys with trailing gray plumes betrayed the presence of life. Gargantuan firs arose beside the road. The slopes behind them, though steep, ended in summits and ridges less dramatic than what Stoker described (Harker passes a peak so awesome that the locals call it God's Seat). Yet the slanting light of autumn invested the firs and carriages and felt-hatted peasants with the woebegone charm of the fey, reminiscent of some childhood scene irretrievably remote, perhaps never even lived but only read of in the Brothers Grimm. Nicolae honored this melancholy with silence.

We reached Tihuta Pass. The "castle" turned out to be the Hotel Castle Dracula, whose very name was an insult to what should be the chief attraction there: the alpine domain. We inhaled the piney air for a few minutes, and then began the descent, but soon Nicolae took a detour. "I have a surprise for you," he said. We turned left before Murasenii Bîrgaului and lumbered onto a dirt road.

An hour later we were standing outside a slat fence in the village of Bistrita Bîrgaului. Nicolae whistled and knocked on the gate. "I have a cousin here," he told me. The gate opened and a stout woman wearing a coarse wool scarf and knee-high rubber boots welcomed us in and led us to the kitchen, where a crackling wood stove exuded a soporific warmth.

"Try my tuica." She poured me a shot glass of the potent plum-distillate liqueur, and we two drank to our meeting (Nicolae, with the drive ahead, abstained). Then hot buns, piles of mashed potatoes, and disks of delicious flour-battered chiftelute (ground beef) appeared. The tuica and the sudden warmth awakened a ravenous appetite in me, and I feasted away.

The cousin—whose name I never learned—and Nicolae began an animated discussion about his pension and a certain question of debt, attended with a declamatory flailing of arms and a punctuative stomping of feet; she interrupted her part in it only to replenish my tuica. Their Romanian, rippling with musical cadences and Latin cognates, sounded like demotic Italian; with the heady tuica, the language, and the drowsy stove, it seemed I was lost in a Sicily that had been banished in its entirety to some remote northern land.

Partly for reasons of convenience, travelers might want to save the best of the land for last. The moated, machicolated fifteenth-century castle of János Hunyadi (or, in Romanian, Iancu de Hunedoara), in Hunedoara, about a hundred miles west of Sighisoara and just off a rail line leading back to Bucharest, epitomizes the Hungarian and Romanian aspects of Transylvania's identity and may well provide the climax of a visit to the region. For the somber half of the year the castle looks like a black-and-white still from a Bela Lugosi movie, rising almost soot-black against a gray sky. As for Hunyadi, he was a warrior prince who may have been of mixed Magyar-Romanian parentage. What is certain is that in 1442 he defeated a major Turkish incursion thirty miles east of town. His castle reifies in stone and iron the spirit of defiance that kept Transylvania free during the Middle Ages. Gothic novels notwithstanding, it is just this conflation of architecture, history, and spirit that makes the "land beyond the forest" a prime medieval preserve worthy of the most discerning traveler's attention today.