Transylvania - The author’s take

Medias, TRansylvania, Romania by Adrian Catalin Lazar, Dreamstime
The fortified Saxon town of Mediaş © Adrian Catalin Lazar, Dreamstime

Transylvania! The name is so evocative it demands an exclamation mark, although perhaps it should be a question mark – Transylvania? What is it? Where is it? Is it a real place? Wasn’t it invented by Bram Stoker and developed by Hollywood?

Author’s take

Transylvania! The name is so evocative it demands an exclamation mark, although perhaps it should be a question mark – Transylvania? What is it? Where is it? Is it a real place? Wasn’t it invented by Bram Stoker and developed by Hollywood?

As a place of the imagination, Transylvania is filled with forest-covered mountains, sinister castles on rocky crags, counts with pallid skin and pointed teeth, wolves, bears, werewolves, eagles, shifty-looking peasants, haystacks, and even Dr Frank N Furter, the ‘sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania’ in Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show – an image of rural Romania that would have right-wing politicians like Gigi Becali frothing at the mouth.

‘Transylvania had been a familiar name as long as I could remember. It was the very essence and symbol of remote, leafy, half-mythical strangeness; and, on the spot, it seemed remoter still, and more fraught with charms.’ So wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor of his romantic walk across this strange and beautiful land in 1934. Like many of his observations about Romania, it is still strikingly appropriate today, although to the Dracula myth we can add the enduring weirdness of those Transylvanian Romanian songbirds, the Cheeky Girls. Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who never visited, is responsible for its image of towering castles, dark forests and Count Dracula rising above them, but the real Transylvania is more interesting and complex than the strangest of fictions.

‘Transylvania – the very name seemed a one-word poem’ was a more apt summary from the Irish travelogue maestro Dervla Murphy, whose journey on foot across the country in the early 1990s, just after its violent revolution, inspired me throughout my travels across sunlit, flower-filled alpine meadows, through wild untamed forests, along rushing brooks and through what the botanist Dr John Akeroyd called ‘the very last example of an untouched medieval landscape in Europe’. Transylvania is so much more than bloodthirsty counts – after all, Vlad III Ţepeş, the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula, was the ruler of Wallachia, not Transylvania. He might have been born in Sighişoara, Transylvania’s most perfect turreted symbol, but he spent most of his brutal days in other parts of Romania.

Transylvania is packed with romantic palaces, rocky ruins, imposing fortresses and forbidding citadels. There are more Saxon fortified churches than you can shake a stick at and dozens of lost-in-time villages where all visitors will hear is Hungarian spoken and the only transport is a horse-drawn cart, laden with the day’s hay harvest. Transylvania is the perfect escape from the hectic, stressed-out Western world. It’s impossible to rush; the roads will see to that. You have to take your time, go with the flow and admire the scenery en route. The distances are vast and the infrastructure is still getting its act together. The service in some restaurants and hotels can still seem locked in the surly 1970s, but many enterprising locals are working hard to improve the tourist industry.

Transylvanian noblemen and women are returning to their family seats and restoring them as luxurious yet traditional guesthouses and many ecotourism groups strive to ensure that Transylvania’s natural splendours are not spoiled in a hasty surge towards Mammon. Besides the cultural, architectural and historical treasures of the hidden villages and stunning cities such as Sighişoara, Sibiu, Braşov, Alba Iulia, Târgu Mureş and Cluj-Napoca, Transylvania’s countryside is stuffed to the brim with destinations for sports enthusiasts, from skiers to hikers and cyclists to wind-surfers, and is an unspoiled paradise for nature lovers, bear trackers, birdwatchers and environmentalists.

The region is still extremely affordable, and is getting easier to navigate by the month. The local cuisine is delicious, hearty peasant fare and often the gorgeous fruit and vegetables are organic and locally produced. Transylvanians like a drink too, from herbal teas to refreshing beers to the fiery spirits such as ţuică. Transylvania has something to offer everyone – not just vampires.

Author’s story

Bradt is the only UK travel guide publisher to devote an entire guidebook to the Transylvania region and it is typical of their pioneering, ground-breaking attitude that they are the first to recognise that Transylvania has more than enough fascinating historical and cultural features, sporting hotspots and natural wonders to merit a book of its very own.

I wanted to write a travel guide that could lead travellers around a region that has an incredibly complicated history and blend of cultures and faiths, with Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons and Roma all struggling together and apart during the brutal Ceauşescu dictatorship. It is also quite a difficult region to visit; the infrastructure is not always in place and the roads are often diabolical. For an English-speaking visitor, there is a confusion of languages to wrestle with: Romanian, Hungarian, German, Romani and a complicated geographical demographic.

However, Transylvania is an immensely rewarding country to visit, there is so much to discover and enjoy: romantic castles, Saxon fortress churches, secluded villages with ancient traditions and folk crafts, haystacks and hay-laden horse-drawn carts, gorgeous countryside, forests, rolling hills, more bears than anywhere else in Europe and welcoming, hospitable people offering delicious dishes and a wide range of lethal alcoholic drinks.

I haven’t even mentioned Dracula yet! Although the Count’s inspiration, Vlad III Ţepeş (the Impaler) was, in fact, a prince of Wallachia, a region to the south of Transylvania, Irish author Bram Stoker and later Hollywood placed him firmly in the more atmospheric setting of Transylvania and there are many places where his bloodthirsty name is evoked. Bradt’s unique brief gave me the chance to express personal feelings about the region (and Transylvania always elicits strong reactions). I hope readers will gain a deeper understanding of the region and a love for this unique, complicated and exciting part of Europe.

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