Lucy Sweet goes in search of something she can really sink her teeth into.

Lucy Sweet

Lucy Sweet is a writer and journalist from Hull (2017 City of….oh, you’ve already heard that one?) who now lives in Glasgow. She has contributed to Glamour, The Guardian and Sabotage Times and can cut the top off a bottle of wine with a sword.

@lucytweet1
lucysweet.org

Published

October 31, 2014

In Romania, things can get pretty scary. Even though it’s the home of Vlad the Impaler – and more vampire-related tat than you can shake a stake at – I’m not talking about Dracula. The scariest thing is being in a taxi that’s overtaking into oncoming traffic on twisting Transylvanian A-roads at 100 km an hour.

Why travel by cab? Well, our driver is a neighbour of my husband’s relatives, and they’ve asked him to take our small family in search of the legend of Count Dracula. This is the kind of eccentric generosity you can expect in Romania. He’s a very accomplished driver, fearless in the face of slow moving lorries, and regards seat belts as optional. He’s also got a great playlist including the Beatles, the Buzzcocks and bizarrely, ‘Gordon is a Moron’ by Jilted John. And he loves to overtake – a LOT.

Hot on the heels of our driver, Romania itself is emerging from its many years of Communist rule at the hands of Nicolae Ceausescu, and is getting up to speed. Even the Roma gypsies chatter on their mobiles while they forage in the woods for mushrooms to sell at the side of the road. Clapped out Dacia 1300 cars were once ubiquitous, (the story went that if you lost your key you could ask your neighbour for theirs, because all the locks were the same). Now they’ve been given a flashy Volkswagen makeover, and thanks to a government trade-in deal, most Romanians have better cars than the British.

The cars may have changed, but out on the road, the old ways are in full effect. There are no motorways in this part of the country, so if you’re stuck behind one of many trucks, you need to flirt with disaster to get past. There are also no fences between the roads and the fields, so don’t be surprised if you have to swerve to avoid a stray dog with a death wish, or a wobbly country cyclist heading directly towards you.

But although driving in Romania is somewhat invigorating, shall we say, it’s still the best way to get a sense of this diverse, beautiful and occasionally bonkers country. And our trip to Bran Castle, the source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, takes in some of the most sweeping forests and awesome mountain sunsets you will ever see.

Image credit: Dennis Jarvis

We start our adventure in the capital of Transylvania, Cluj-Napoca, a bustling, young city with 10 universities and a modern – dare I say it – hipster edge. Here the kids have smartphones and drink Jagermeister and eat pizza in the street, which was unheard of back in the days of food shortages and rationing.

As in many Romanian cities, the monumental buildings in Cluj are built to Austro-Hungarian grand designs, but are crumbling at the edges due to lack of cash. Still, the city makes up for it with an energetic array of book and jazz festivals, as well as shedloads of bars and restaurants – including a Vasateria (that’s a cabbage café to you and me).

Before embarking on a Dracula themed visit, it’s a good idea to take the E60 and stop at Turda (stop giggling), which is a small town about 30km from Cluj. As Cluj is in a valley, you’ll see the city spread out as you pass through the small villages, which contain a mixture of Orange phone shops, deranged empty gypsy king palaces with Mercedes Benz logos on their silver clad turrets, Orthodox churches, and horses and carts.

Image credit: Cristian Bortes

Turda is full of salt lakes, and is also home to Salina Turda, a breathtaking salt mine which plunges you to the dark depths of the earth in a glass lift, where you can take the air, have a salt treatment and shout into its caverns to receive 17 spooky Scooby Doo style echoes. There’s even a boating lake at the bottom, and if you’re bored, a bowling alley, mini golf and even a big wheel, from which you can examine the salt stalactites and the sheer dizzying scale of the place. (Remember to pick your jaw up off the floor when you leave.)

After that diversion into the bowels of the earth, we head 2 hours east through farmland to Sighisoara, past roadside onion sellers and endless cornfields. Outside the cities, Romania is busy toiling in the fields, and is doing rather well at it. One of my Romanian mother in law’s jobs as a schoolgirl was to paint wooden fruit to create the illusion of abundance to the rest of the world, as Ceausescu ran the country into the ground. Now it’s one of the top 10 ten world’s biggest producers of corn. At harvest time, it’s stacked up in sheds and lorries, and hangs like bunting in back gardens.

But step away from the tourist nonsense and you’ll find that Vlad grew up in a pretty nice little town.

Soon the rural crops give way to woodland in blazing Autumn reds and oranges, and you can tell you’re getting closer to the Carpathian mountain range. Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, named due to his thirst for spearing the Ottoman Turks on spikes in the most agonising of ways. A folk hero in Romania, Vlad is emblazoned on a variety of fridge magnets and comedy mugs, and you can visit the room in which he was born. However, don’t expect much historical information – Casa Dracul is above a restaurant and for the princely sum of 5 Romanian lei (£2) you’ll be greeted by a creaky old dude who rises up from a coffin and shakes your hand. Then you can go into his dining room, where presumably the young Vlad drank blood from his Tommy Tippee cup.

But step away from the tourist nonsense and you’ll find that Vlad grew up in a pretty nice little town. Initially built by German craftsmen, it’s all medieval churches and a lovely clock tower museum that features gingerbread presses, wooden clogs and painted furniture. Or you could walk through the 16th century covered walkway up to the fresco-clad church on the hill, which boasts a ravishing pine covered hilltop graveyard – the sort of clear-aired enclave where you would happily expire and not even bother to rise from the dead.

Image credit: Ray Smith

So far, so not very spooky. Surely there are some trap doors and bats at Bran Castle? Owned by the Romanian royal family before they were exiled in the late 1940s, it’s widely seen as the setting for the Dracula story. From Sighisoara it’s another two hours, via Brasov, in the foothills of the Carpathians, known as a ski resort and renowned for its international film festival. As the mountains loom on the horizon, you can feel a theatrical shiver descend. Surely we’re getting closer to the man with the fangs.

70km later, the castle emerges through the trees. And it’s gorgeous – not terrifying at all. Amazingly, it was also put up for sale in May 2014, and is on the market for a cool £50 million (although you probably won’t find it on Rightmove). Equipped with dark wood, secret staircases secreted behind bookshelves, terracotta turrets and loggias, it’s a really nice gaff, furnished by Queen Maria, who clearly had great taste. Heated by blue and white tiled furnaces, there is a bewitching music room, lovely rugs and soft furnishings, daisies in flowerpots and a rather nice four poster bed for Prince Ferdinand. But where is the lord of darkness?

Image credit: Jorge Láscar

Well…it turns out that Bram Stoker didn’t actually set Dracula in Bran Castle. Instead Dracula lived in an imaginary castle on a nearby mountaintop, bordering Moldova. Vlad the Impaler didn’t really go near Bran either – apart from a passing visit. But Stoker mixed up the bloody antics of Vlad Tepes with far-fetched Romanian folk tales about vampires and demon succubus, and Bran Castle became the nearest and most likely looking location. In fact, Romanians themselves had no idea about its local links to Count Dracula until the 1989 revolution, and at first the whole idea was met with some confusion.

But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the mountain view or the games room or the wishing well in the courtyard. It’s a magnificent place, even though there might be a lack of lightning bolts or creaky coffin lids. And you can always buy yourself a bottle of Dracula Merlot if you’ve developed a thirst for blood.

Back in the cab, it’s time to hit the bumpy road again, to avoid passing cows, go through more one-horse towns and overtake some more slow-moving lorries. But perhaps because of its lack of soulless motorways, Transylvania is a stunning area to drive through. Every village and truck stop is different, every incongruous gypsy palace and tin shack is a surprise. The roads snake and dip through the hills and you never know what’s round the next corner  – a picture perfect Germanic Medieval town, verdant forest, or vast, silhouetted mountain ranges.

And while Dracula probably wouldn’t have said: ‘I vant to buy a postcard’, even he might have stopped biting necks for long enough to admire the beautiful scenery.