If you want to find a vampire then you are probably better off going to Forks, Washington – where you might run into one of those new sparkly versions – than going to Transylvania, Romania, where we recently returned. Romania has yet to truly market the hell out of the Dracula craze that we Americans like to impose as the long-standing symbol to Transylvania. Sure you can find some cheesy Dracula memorabilia; however, it is far less than what you would expect to see. And thank you god for that, because Romania is so much more than a fictional character created by an author that had never once been to this beautiful country.
The peaks of the Carpathian Mountains are like massive stones jetting up out of a river and the extensive skyline diverging around them. Romania is a country of towering, jagged summits and low-lying valleys worked by the local inhabitants. The people are as friendly as any I have ever encountered, and even though language was a slight issue from time to time we never once had difficulty navigating through the landscape or culture. Although, our GPS was wrong nearly 80% of the time and forced us to resort to our basic map navigational skills, and, of course, asking a local of our whereabouts – usually we stopped at a hotel for better chances of a local speaking English.
We only had five days to tour this extensive country and after a little preliminary research into the sights beforehand, we had decided to make Brasov (pronounced Brashov, with rolling the ‘r’ slightly like how the Spanish do with their r’s) as our base for exploration by car. It ended up being the right decision in the end. Everything we wanted to see and do primarily existed in the vicinity of Transylvania – which is a popular region of Romania, like a state or county, and not a city like a lot of westerners are led to believe, including myself initially. Brasov was the perfect city to stay in because it was large enough to offer different things to do every evening after returning from a long day of driving around and touring, but not too overwhelming where we would have to navigate a huge amount of traffic, such as we saw in Bucharest.
One of our first trips was Bran Castle, only 16 kilometers from Brasov. Bran Castle, which of course is the castle that was made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, sits hauntingly high and formidable as we curved through the winding roads to a parking area. But unlike numerous castles we have visited in Europe, this castle is entirely different in its design, and entirely refreshing. I would like to believe the physical difference between castles of Eastern and Western Europe possibly underscores the cultural differences that have existed for centuries, but that could just be me. Nonetheless, to the avid tourist it is like a breath of fresh air to visit a castle of unfamiliar aesthetic appeal. Many other websites and blogs have mentioned that this castle is a tourist trap, but I rather enjoyed it – plus if you want you can see the medieval torture exhibit which has numerous original grotesque devices utilized during the days of Vlad Tepes Dracula (or also known as Vlad the Impaler).
Driving from one town to the next it wasn’t unusual to see horse drawn carriages, or get caught behind one. Of course, I do not mean the horse carriages that take tourists around like they’re princes and princesses for half an hour, but the working kind, which were typically hauling hay, produce, lumber, and sometimes a group of teenage boys cruising the strip. We stopped to see Vlad Tepes Dracula’s birthplace – which is a tourist trap – a citadel in Rasnov with fortified walls and sweeping views of the Carpathians as well as the valleys and towns below, and we snacked upon what we called Romanian road food, which consisted of a wreath of circular pretzels and a couple of wafer-type treats. Driving in Romania, overall, isn’t as bad as many make it out to be. Maybe it’s because I have lived in Europe for nearly two years now and I’ve become accustomed to varying styles of driving, or that I have driven in a handful of different countries – including Ireland, which driving on the left hand side of the road really takes a bit to get used to – but renting a car in Romania and driving around was actually quite pleasant and the more preferable way to travel. After all, we’re Americans and road trips are something we live for, and the constant switchbacks tracing up a mountain is always exciting to drive.
On one of our few days in Romania we decided that we wanted to go on a day hike. I remember one of our hosts – we stayed in a BNB and had the best hosts, always pleasant and eager to share the wonders of their country – asked us “You want to see bears and wolves in natural habitat? Because I need to make call to arrange.” My wife’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head and said that we were only looking for something close and preferably without predators. Luckily, we found what we were looking for. In Brasov, such as in many of the cities and towns of Romania, there is a sign that sits atop a hill projecting the city’s name, much like the Hollywood sign in California. There is also a simple hike, or gondola ride, that one could take to the top for a viewpoint of the entire city. We got basic directions to the trailhead, and almost like everywhere else we went, we got a little lost. And just like everywhere else we asked for directions. A young lady – Romanian by birth but lived in Toronto, Canada for several years and spoke perfect English – helped us out as she was actually on her way to the same trail. The reason why we got a little lost this time was because the trailhead started behind someone’s house, and if it were not for the friendliness of our temporary Romanian friend we would not have found it. Nonetheless, the trail was beautiful, even if it were an inner-city hike. Trees and other plants were in their initial phase of blooming, and the trail was steep making our hearts pound within our chests. When we got to the top we walked over to the view point, which stands next to the city’s sign, and let the cool air whip past our bodies while we took pictures of the town below.
Besides the natural, raw beauty of Romania, and the friendliness that we encountered with the locals, there was also something else that made this trip amazing in its own right: food. The food in Romania is outstanding, and best of all it’s cheap. I say cheap because currently their currency is a 5:1 ratio for the Euro and a 3:1 ratio for the U.S. Dollar – but it is said that Romania will be taking on the Euro as its currency by next year, so prices are expected to increase. Nevertheless, we ate a fantastic dinner every night with drinks and dessert and never once topping 100 Lei (Lei is the name for their currency and is pronounced “lay,” which was only about 20 Euro). We drank Tuica – a very strong alcohol made by plums and a national favorite in Romania – which burned on the way down and radiated from the depths within my gut, and, of course, keeping with the traditions of being a tourist we drank a bottle of wine with the face of Vlad Tepes Dracula plastered on the front label. How could we not? Although, I think I actually preferred the Tuica.
We never did find Dracula. But that’s o.k. I’m from Washington state and I bet someday I will run into one of those melodramatic teen vampires soon enough – although I bet just regular teenagers are often confused with their sparkly counterparts. One of the most beautiful aspects to Romania is that the country has not yet become inundated with tourism. Its awesome landscape is a hidden Mecca of outdoor activity – something I wish I knew beforehand and made time for – and the general hospitality of its people stays with you long after you leave.
This older gentleman was actually very nice despite his stern expression.