“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the center of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.” (Dracula)
We had a lengthy February break, and so I headed east, to somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, to Romania. I had a marvelous time; it is a country that has retained some of its wildness and there are parts where the 21st century has yet to arrive. While the communist period shines through in the cities, in the Carpathians and the mountaintop castles that have long kept watch over the towns beneath them, one can see how this is a land that has inspired fairytales and more.
First, a bit on the history of Romania (because I love history). Romania has several main regions (see map below) which weren’t always united as the present day country. Dacian tribes inhabited the region until the Romans conquered it at the beginning of the second century AD, bring with them the Latin language (Romanian is a romance language). The Magyars (Hungarians) occupied Transylvania from the 10th century onward.
Stephen cel Mare of Moldova and Vlad Draculea (his surname means ‘son of the dragon’) of Walachia put up an admirable show of resistance against the encroaching Ottomans and are remembered for it. The latter is likely the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the prince earned the nickname Vlad Tepes (Impaler) for his favorite way of executing his enemies. Despite their valiant efforts, the Turks continued to advance. They occupied Hungary in the 16th century and Transylvania became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire. Not until 1859 did a state under the name of Romania form, and then it was only the Walachia and Moldova regions. Romania won its independence from the Ottomans in 1877 and the Dobrogea region the following year.
In WWI Romania entered the war on the side of the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia) with a key objective to retake Transylvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which they successfully accomplished (along with the Banat region). But as WWII broke out, they were forced to cede the region to Hungary on orders of Nazi Germany. The loss of territory created a political crisis in which the king was forced to abdicate and a brutal fascist dictatorship took hold. But on August 23, 1944 Romania abruptly switched sides, declaring war on the Nazis. Afterwards the Soviet Union engineered the return of Transylvania to Romania, a move which strengthened the left-wing parties and ushered in the communist period, but more about that later.
My first stop was Sinaia, a small town nestled in the mountains. There I saw Peles Castle, which was a wonderful introduction to Romania. It is a beautiful fairytale castle nestled in the trees.
From there I headed to Brasov, a lovely city in Transylvania. Legend says that the Pied Piper reemerged from Hamlin, Germany in Brasov, and one can see the German-Saxon and Austro-Hungarian influence in the beautiful old town part of the city. It is in the shadow of Mount Tampa, a backdrop that was beautiful in the snow, but has a dark history – Vlad Tepes impaled some 40 merchants on its peak when he took the city. One of the most prominent buildings is the Black Church, (called such because of a fire) a Lutheran church that is a testament to the German influence, as Romania is an Eastern Orthodox country.
Brasov is the jumping off point to visit Bran Castle – the castle intended to be Dracula’s castle in Bram Stoker’s novel – and other castles in the region. I reread Dracula as I traveled to Romania, and finished it the night before visiting Bran. In the final scene, the heroes gallop across the flatlands to try to overtake the wagon carrying Dracula’s coffin to the castle before the sun goes down, because once it sets, it will be too late to stop him, and the castle is in the background, silhouetted against the sky. They manage to catch up with it and topple over the coffin, dumping the Count (rather unceremoniously) on the ground right as the sun sets. Dracula’s smile turns from malicious to triumphant in the instant before they stab him through the heart (how one kills a vampire) and save the day. I had that in my mind as we approached the castle, but the whole experience did not prove to be as exciting as one might have hoped. If Dracula ever did live in Bran Castle, he left it long ago. The interior is from when it was the queen’s residence between the world wars, so it’s actually quite cozy. I wouldn’t mind living there, but it’s not quite what one thinks of when one thinks of Dracula’s castle.
Granted, there’s no real connection between the castle and Dracula or vampire legends except for Bram Stoker’s novel. An information panel in the castle grudgingly concedes that Vlad Tepes was likely the inspiration, but makes sure to point out that he wasn’t much worse than the other rulers of his time. Ah well. Bran Castle is still a neat castle to visit.
I also visited the town of Rasnov, where a citadel that dates back to Roman times perches on the mountain. The fortress affords incredible views of the flatlands in front of it and the forests behind it. It was more of a Middle Ages-type castle than Bran, and felt a bit more like the type of castle one would expect to find in Romania.
Visiting Romania in February worked out well, as the snow both added a beautiful and atmospheric backdrop and ensured that there would be no crowds of tourists. After Transylvania I headed eastward, to visit the painted monasteries, but that’s for the next post.
BOOK COUNT: 30. The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a wonderfully British old-fashioned adventure story), Dracula by Bram Stoker (good fun), and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (a book I would strongly recommend).