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.
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.
Reader, I ran. I still don’t know whether we were running from a bear, a boar, or a banshee. But thankfully, we reached the Land Rover before it did.
Transylvania is a beautiful but fragile alloy of cultures. It needs tourism to energize its economy, but insensitive investment could turn it into Trashylvania. Everywhere I traveled I saw new construction work, much of it cheap and ugly. Only by preserving what is best about local tradition, from agriculture to craftsmanship, and safeguarding the natural environment, will it retain the wild charm that first lured Victorian visitors. I left determined to return, like Jonathan Harker, in the snow.
The “imaginative whirlpool” had claimed another soul.
Sara Lodge, a lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.