Sunday, June 16, 2002
And to a point, it's all true.
There are few places as raw or as charming as this anywhere in Europe. The brooding landscape is dotted with forbidding castles, monasteries and churches perched in a wild, mountainous terrain that swoops dramatically across northwestern Romania.
Dracula could have come from no other place.
In a Romanian-made Dacia car, a non-loaded version of a French Renault, a friend and I bounce along two-lane roads, kicking up summer dust as we leave the sprawling capital of Bucharest behind. We pass men inching along on horse-drawn wagons and black-frocked women standing in the shadows beneath vines cut to form arches running from gate to stoop of low-slung houses. Dogs emerge from nowhere to chase our wheels. Roadside merchants, beckoning us to stop as we cruise slowly by, sell hand-woven baskets and, despite the heat, handmade woolen sweaters.
Looming above us are the peaks of the southern Carpathian Mountains, a gorgeous vista featuring steep gorges, thick forest, deep caves, lush meadows and cold blue streams where bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar still find sanctuary.
The beauty is both heightened and scarred by the remnants of communism -- the cinder-block apartment buildings and broken factories that ring even the most exquisite medieval towns. But excise the careening traffic, litter and urban grit, and this becomes one of the most timeless places on the planet.
For centuries, Transylvania was a frontier territory where the Ottoman Turks and the West met and fought. And today, the legacy of its dueling, polyglot populations of Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons and Gypsies are evident in the area's festivals and customs, and in the castles and fortified churches that stud the landscape.
Transylvania, like all of Romania, is for the semi-adventurous. The people are extraordinarily welcoming, but the tourist industry is underdeveloped, and once you're out of Bucharest, hotels, guest houses and restaurants are basic -- sometimes bland, sometimes surprising, but always affordable. I've stayed in lovely $20 guest houses and feasted on homemade bread, cheese, raspberries and honey washed down with mouth-burning local brandies.
Accept the place as you find it, then, and Transylvania -- Latin for "land beyond the forest" -- offers an unforgettable trip through myth, history and the painful transition from communism to capitalism. There is much too much to see on one visit, so I recently concentrated on a triangle formed by the cities of Brasov and Sighisoara and the Fagaras Mountains, a circuit of about 250 miles on narrow, winding roads.
Historically, these were largely Saxon lands, so-called after German colonists who first moved here in the 12th century at the invitation of a Hungarian king. For centuries, they built architecturally stout communities that echoed the styles of their homeland. They continued to speak German and worshiped in Lutheran churches that were built to withstand invaders.
Now, however, there is a terrible sadness to the Saxon world. In the past 30 years, these communities have dwindled to almost nothing because of repatriation back to Germany. What remains is the imprint of centuries of colonization, architectural treasures devoid of their people.