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In Vlad We Trust

‘You’re at the Transylvania station at a quarter to four .  .  .’

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By SARA LODGE
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Brasov, Romania

Transylvania has, for centuries, conjured images of wildness and danger. 

Bram Stoker, the Irish theater manager and author of Dracula (1897), never visited. But fellow Victorians did. Andrew Archibald Paton in 1861 described a region of spectacular beauty, haunted by violence. A rich but inflammable ethnic brew of Saxon German, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy communities exploded during the 1848 revolution. The peasantry, long oppressed under the Austro-Hungarian empire, turned on the landowners. As Emily Gerard recounted in the 1880s, 

They pillaged the country houses, setting everything on fire, and put the nobles to death with many torturing devices, crucifying some and burying others up to the neck, cutting off tongues and plucking out eyes, as a diabolical fancy suggested.

Gerard recorded a host of ancient superstitions whose influence remained current, with stories of werewolves and vampires. Paton, who described his passage through burned-out villages and pits of human bodies, worried that the “savage peasant” like a tiger having “once tasted human flesh .  .  . will not be satiated.” Small wonder that later Victorians, steaming into Transylvania by train, thrilled to the thought that their necks were unsafe.

In Dracula, the lawyer Jonathan Harker travels by rail for three days from London to the “imaginative whirlpool” of Transylvania. Now the trip takes only two days. But despite Romania’s admission to the European Union in 2007, the destination remains mysterious. I decided to follow in Harker’s footsteps. I, too, would sleep nervously amongst strangers. I, too, would stay with a count. And I, too, unexpectedly, would encounter a creature of the night that caused me to flee in terror.

I boarded the Eurostar at London’s newly revamped Victorian station, St. Pancras, for the first stage of my journey: to Brussels. In Brussels you change for Cologne and take the night train to Vienna. This, for me, was where the adventure began: I’d never slept on a train before. I’d certainly never slept in a compartment with five complete strangers, in bunks one above the other like sticks of chewing gum in a packet. 

“It’s all right, we’re Germans,” a woman muttered darkly. “It’s the Romanians you have to watch out for.” I slept surprisingly well with my laptop under my pillow, soothed by the rocking motion of the train as it dashed by lake and mountain, delivering me into Vienna with the morning post. I spent the day in the National Gallery before boarding the night train to Transylvania.

My spine tingled with apprehension. I studied my five male companions as we prepared to fold up the seats to construct our bunks. As far as I could tell, their teeth were normal. They smiled warily. “It’s all right, we’re Romanians,” they muttered. “It’s the gypsies you have to watch out for.” Clearly the region’s ethnic tensions, though buried, are still very much alive.

My friendly fellow passengers fed me apricots and explained that Vlad the Impaler was really an unfairly maligned and misunderstood national leader. He defended Transylvania from the incursions of the Turks. And he inculcated a policy of national honesty by compensating anyone who had been robbed, overpaying the reimbursement, and then seeing if they reported the overpayment. If they did, they were rewarded; if they didn’t, they were impaled. He left golden jugs by drinking fountains: Everyone knew that if they stole one they would meet an excruciating end. 

“So he was really the inventor of Zero Tolerance,” I suggested. 

“That’s right,” they nodded, “very effective man. Besides,” they added hotly, “everyone impaled people in those days.” 

“Stakeholder politics,” I agreed doubtfully.

Where Jonathan Harker endured a nightmare coach ride into the
Carpathian Mountains, I was met, by prior arrangement, by a genial employee of the count, who drove me from Brasov to the village of Miklósvar. Count Kálnoky has renovated a number of 19th-century houses there, where he rents rooms. The count does have a passion for bats. But he also has a passion for birds and leads guests on guided walks around his Renaissance castle where you can spot nesting storks and golden orioles. 

Tibor Kálnoky is a trained veterinarian who spent the Communist years in America but returned in the late 1990s to renovate Miklósvar, largely through encouraging tourism. His scheme appears to be working. The farmhouse where I stayed was delightful: My attic room had exposed beams, bright homemade bedcovers, and antique furniture worn by long use to a patina like the coat of a well-tended horse. There was a string of garlic round the door, but the only thing likely to startle me from sleep was a rooster. 

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