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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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From my window, I watched horse-driven wagons passing, loaded to toppling point with sweet-smelling hay. In Transylvania, you can still experience elements of rural life as it was in the 19th century. Fields are stippled red, blue, orange, and white by the hundreds of wildflowers that thrive where there are no crop sprayers. The fresh sheep’s cheese, made by local shepherds, tastes of herbs and grasses. You can wander in pristine forest until the cows come home—which in summer is at 8 P.M. Families gather to see them sway back in tranquil file, each cow turning off of her own accord into her own barn.

At Miklósvar, all the guests dine by candlelight in the wine cellar at one long table. Waitresses bring clear soup with dumplings, pork, and potatoes with vegetables, then perhaps a cake made with local cherries and honey. There is robust but flavorful Romanian wine. And you can discover what brings other people to Transylvania. I encountered committed Goths, with 26-point black eyeliner, channelling the vampire vibe. But I also met enthusiasts of Saxon building techniques, hikers, train-spotters, and self-confessed carpetbaggers. 

“We’re following the rug route,” they announced, “from here to Istanbul.” Transylvania’s complex cultural heritage is literally woven into its fabrics: Churches here boast priceless prayer rugs influenced by Ottoman and medieval Christian design. The continuation of local arts and crafts in wood and needle-work, with the unspoiled countryside of aspen, beech, and oak, attracts many who enjoy organic food and support traditional skills: Prince Charles owns two properties in the neighborhood. 

He might, however, hesitate to spend the evening at The Shed, Miklósvar’s principal nightspot. The Shed is—well, a shed: The kind of outhouse in which you would store your lawnmower. But it contains a bar that sells plum vodka so cheap that for $10 you can get the whole village drunk. There is also impromptu folk dancing with burly men who wrangle livestock for a living. The smell in The Shed at 11 P.M. on a Saturday is many times scarier than Christopher Lee. I liked the place enormously.


 

If you tire of rural pleasures, you can visit Sighisoara, a UNESCO world heritage site. The design of Sighisoara, like the road signs in Romanian, Hungarian, and German you pass on the way, reflects the region’s conflict-ridden history. The Saxon town, on a rocky massif, once presented a beautiful battery of 14 towers (nine remain), each historically maintained by a different guild: the tailors’ tower, the tinsmiths’ tower, and so on. Whenever Sighisoara was attacked, the men would throw down their tools and swarm up their tower to defend it.

Now the streets are invaded by tourists, in search of ghoulish ghoulash and rose-flavored ice-cream. But the ancient buildings retain their mystique. Above a formidable gateway rises the 14th-century clock tower where, at midnight, one of seven Baroque figures revolves into view—Diana, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the Sun—representing in pagan symbology the days of the week. Below the clock is a torture chamber; victims must have been able to measure their last hours by the chimes. 

Memories of violence and concealment are never far away here. Locals told a joke about a nearby “bicycle factory” during the Cold War. A man who had worked there for two decades was teased by his friends: “Laszlo,” they said, “why don’t you own a bicycle? Surely after all this time you could have stolen the materials.” 

“It’s puzzling,” he admitted, “but however often I try, when I assemble the parts at home, all I get is a gun.” 

I learned more about the Communist years from Gazdag Levente who, as a teenager, was informed on and arrested for listening to rock ’n’ roll and spent a night in the cells. Now he runs the Black Stork guesthouse in Aita Mare and, if you ask nicely, will take you to look for bears. Wolves, lynx, and bears still haunt the forests of Transylvania. Of the three, bears are most numerous. 

“We’ll go to the river at dusk,” he said. “They come to drink.” Eager to spot a bear, I nonetheless felt rather nervous when I met him as arranged and found he was armed only with a pair of binoculars—and a garden hoe.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked. 

“Of course,” he rejoined, “follow me.” I was jumpy as a cricket as we shuffled through the long grass, crossed the river on stepping stones, and climbed a hill to the fringe of a wood. We sat on a tarpaulin, gazing at the riverbank through binoculars. Nothing. Sounds of shepherds partying in their hut on the high pasture. Nothing. Beautiful shooting stars. Nothing. And then, right behind us, a loud and terrifying noise, something between a growl and a bellow: “Run!” said Gazdag.

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