I set off from Rotherhithe in east London for Terminal 5 at Heathrow on a rain sodden morning with a sense of excitement at embarking on a journey to one of the few remaining lesser travelled regions of Europe - Transylvania and the ancient Saxon fortified towns at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
Romania had been in the news again of late for all the wrong reasons; for its gypsies, both the gypsies that the French government was busy deporting and for the criminal gangs of gypsy children employed in London’s east end. The country’s history as the last province conquered by the Romans, its history as a bastion of western civilisation during the Holy Roman Empire’s long battle against the relentless advance of the Muslim Ottoman Turks, it’s rich multicultural heritage and the fact that it remains one of the last unspoilt wildernesses in Europe, receives far less attention than that of its most infamous minority.
The only other fact that most people seem to know about Transylvania is that it is home to Bram Stoker’s fictional account of a real historical figure, Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, or Count Dracula). And it is Hollywood’s love affair with Vampires, most recently on display again with the teen series of New Moon Vampire movies, that casts this region of Europe in the shadow of a truly gruesome historical figure.
My first stop on this trip was the grand old capital of the eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire, which until the end of the First World War had held sway over Transylvania for over half a millennium - Budapest. The BA flight to Budapest was full to a man, and the last man to board was the actor Jeremy Irons, who was clearly ‘Mad as hell!’ and trying to pound his oversized hand luggage into a nonexistent space above his seat. Another passenger who had tried to do the same seconds earlier had received a stern ticking off from one of BA’s Matrons; apparently celebs are allowed to indulge in a bit more air-rage than the rest of us. Upon arrival last on was first off, to be greeted by a celeb bag carrier and a budding Miss Hungary, who looked pleased as punch at the thought of rubbing up against such distinguished company.
My Hungarian friends, whom I’ve known since the bad old days of communism, were very kindly there to greet me and told me that in addition to Mr Irons, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were in town. ‘Not to adopt I hope!?’I asked. No, apparently not. They were here to make a film about the break up of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia. Hollywood producers never were very good at geography I thought; two countries down and to the left. I’m not sure how you can confuse Sarajevo with Budapest, nevertheless Budapest does make for a significantly better backdrop than grubby old Sarajevo and the movie going public are unlikely to notice or care, after all 007’s penultimate offering, in the form of Casino Royale, was filmed on location in Carlsbad and Loket in Bohemia, which in the film was for some unknown reason portrayed as being in Montenegro!
I had not been back to Budapest for three years and the city at night looked even more glorious than I remembered it and for once Europe’s grandest parliament building was not cloaked in scaffolding. Many of the city’s historic buildings along the river in both Buda and Pest were now resplendently lit. The old heart of the city, which had been trashed by the Red Army in 1945 and again in 1956, was beating more vibrantly than it had in decades. We headed for a street off Andrassy Ut near Oktogon square (home to the Continent’s first Underground station). The street was now lined with fashionable new restaurants. The one we entered was Budapest’s equivalent to the Paris Buddha bar and offered an incredible array of Eurasian dishes, alongside Hungarian specialities and some great local wines. (I recommend the Vilyan Ordog - the devil’s wine). I remembered this street from communist times, as back then it was famous for hosting one of only two specifically themed English restaurants I had ever come across, the Churchill here in Budapest, and Alexander’s in Buenos Aires.
On our way to my hotel, we discussed our route into one of the EU’s remotest regions; an area that in many ways remains Europe’s last frontier before you reach the vast expanse of the great Russian Steppe. We drove down the boulevard of Andrassy Ut past what the locals call ‘the Museum of terror,’ a museum dedicated to the crimes of a string of totalitarian regimes in Hungary but with a special focus on the crimes committed during the Soviet era. At the end of the street you enter Hero’s square; a beautiful open public space which contains statues to the, great, the good and the infamous of Hungarian history.
The following morning, we set off early for what my Hungarian friend called ‘Boratland,’ as the scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen’s film ‘Borat’ that were supposed to represent the utter backwardness of Kazakhstan were in fact nearly all filmed in Romania. We crossed the great Hungarian plain in the basin of the Carpathian Mountains at speed, on newly constructed motorways, which then quickly petered out as we crossed the border into Romania and began a slow climb on winding roads through the ancient region of Partium (pronounced Partzium), the gateway to Transylvania. We were lucky with our timing, as we reached the summit of the Partium hills at Kiraly Hago just in time to catch a glimpse of the amazing autumnal colours of surrounding forested hills, before darkness fell.
After hours on the road we began the descent. As we’d been driving in relative silence for some time, I turned on the radio only to catch Vincent Price’s chilling laugh echo across the airwaves at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which was followed by a trailer for Radio Transylvania! Very timely! Did the count know we were rapidly approaching Sigisoara (Schaessburg) – his birthplace and the repository of the legends and myths that surround Vlad Dracula! The book I was reading by a local historian said his black cat kept jumping up on to his desk every time he began writing about the Count. I felt a shudder go down my spine recalling Gary Oldman as Dracula, before this was replaced with another sensation entirely when I pondered if I’d be encountering any vampish looking brides of Dracula!
To add to the sudden sense of chilling revelry, the clouds parted to reveal a full moon, which silhouetted the peaks of the Carpathians in an enchanting silvery light. As we headed off deeper into the Transylvania countryside, I did not see any good looking Vamps but we were now passing an increasing number of ‘Gypsy carriages;’ simple low slung horse and carts filled mostly with horse shit, junk or a travelling band of gypsies. This medieval form of transport was for the most part however kitted out with new EU number plates! When the clouds again covered the moon these ‘shitbuggies’ were also all but invisible on the narrow winding roads, that is until until you were right upon them. Only once did someone at the back of one of these carts, hold aloft an old kerosene lamp as we rapidly closed in on this one horse powered mode of transport with (by Transylvanian standards) our spaceship like SUV. We’d already picked up one speeding ticket en route! We were now playing the part in Bram Stoker’s Dracula film where we raced the Gypsies against the setting sun, on a crumbling mountain road, as they tried to get Count Dracula, still in his coffin, up to his castle, so that he could burst forth as soon as the sun set to take on his pursuers…
The Romanian police were the bit of the movie I did not remember. In fact, had the Romanian police been as active on the highways of Transylvania in the 15th century as they were now, the whole Dracula story would have descended into a farcical episode of the Keystone Cops with Van Helsing and Count Dracula regularly having been stopped for speeding, the plot would rapidly have unravelled and the audience lost interest and the count would mostly likely have nailed a stake into his own heart! The police offered what can only be termed a not altogether tourist friendly ‘Welcome to Romania.’ This took the form of tickets and stop-fines for not having your lights turned on full beam when driving in daylight hours through the countryside and then fining you again for not remembering to turn them off when you passed through built up areas; three shacks and a chicken coup being the last one we were stopped at that classified as driving through a built up area! Added to which there were no signs to inform you of these laws, nor of what the actual speed limits were on different stretches of road. This was all very reminiscent of the days of communism, where the police used to lie in wait for Western motor vehicles and charge you spot ‘fines’ for driving a mere two miles an hour over the speed limit, which then had to be paid in hard currency. This was not going to do much to foster the desire of more tourists to visit Romania by car. Nor were its appalling roads, which were clogged full of trucks and on which the locals overtook with almost suicidal abandon, even on hair pin bends. It made me wonder why there were no famous Formula One drivers from Romania? No doubt because they were all buried head first in the hairpin bends!
We were now taking in a host of new sights. In addition to the gypsy carriages, there were ever more wonderful but largely unfinished gypsy palaces, where the families still appeared to live in wooden shacks at the back of their plots, whilst these grand villas of several floors, with ornately decorated silver (Pearly Queen stylee) roofs, were being constructed along the roadsides. We were also passing an ever increasing number of Borat’s sisters, who were touting for business, whose income was no doubt contributing significantly, one trucker at a time, to these elaborate constructions. Apparently truck drivers can’t drive with a hard-on and the young ladies’ obvious charms were causing them to swerve their trucks violently into non-existent lay-bys at a moment’s notice, forcing us to take extreme evasive action to avoid rear ending a trucker or ending up with a gypsy lady’s rump landing on the bonnet of our car!!
Tired out by all the things you had to look out for on the roads of Transylvania, we called it a night and pulled into the equivalent of a Romanian Travel Lodge for the cost of some 90 Lei (the local currency not the services on offer) which is about 20 pounds. A form of currency that is made of plastic by the way, which you cannot tear and which will apparently survive a spin in a washing machine, but which has a distinct Monopoly style quality to it.
The next day we passed through the old Hungarian cities of Cluj (Kolosvar in Hungarian), now Romania’s second largest city, and then on to Turgu Mures (Marosvavarhely), which along with Nagy Oradea (Nagyvarad), still has some of Europe’s most stunning Secessionist (Art Nouveau) architecture, but these islands of multiculturalism, for all their attractions could not hold us long, as our destination on this day was the ancient Siebenburgen Saxon town of Schaessburg, modern day Sighisoara; Dracula’s birthplace. We were again in a race against time to reach this fortified citadel before the sun set, stuck as we were behind a slow moving convoy of trucks on what passed for Romania’s main highway which stretched diagonally across the country from the south easterly capital of Bucharest to Hungary in the West. We finally arrived in Sighisoara at four p.m. with around an hour and a half of daylight remaining for us to explore the town...
We parked in the lower city and headed up towards the rocky outcrop on which the citadel was imposingly perched. Pumpkins adorned the walls of the fortress, reminding us that Halloween was approaching, as we walked up the long, steep wooden staircase to the old Saxon church and cemetery that lay behind it. We arrived at the top of the stairs as the sun was already low in the sky which helped to magically illuminate an amazing autumnal setting. Out of breath, after a steep climb, we rounded the back of the 13th century Saxon church, past a Hansel and Gretel style gate keeper’s house and then entered the cemetery, which tumbled down the sloping hillside towards the edge of the fortresses walls which clung precariously to the rocky outcrop. The cemetery was tightly packed with crumbling, tottering gravestones and family tombs. It was an eerily beautiful sight. Elderly gypsy men were sweeping the autumnal leaves into piles and then setting them alight, leaving a pall of smoke lingering over the lower part of the cemetery.
Much myth making has surrounded the infamous legendary figure of Vlad the Impaler, alias Count Dracula. He is certainly a real historical figure and a former ruler of Wallachia, a region to the south of the Carpathian Mountains, rather than of Transylvania which lies to the north of this natural fortress frontier. The ‘Dracu’ nickname was acquired by Vlad’s father who had been inducted into the order of the Dragon; an order of knights inaugurated by the Holy Roman Emperor in Nuremberg in 1418 to take on the growing threat from the Ottoman Turks. In the Romanian language membership of the Order of the Dragon brought with it the title ‘Dracul’ (the Romanian word for Dragon is Dracul), which is apparently also interchangeable with a Romanian term often used to describe the devil.
Vlad is associated with numerous places both to the north and the south of the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania as well as in Wallachia, during what was an exceptionally bloody period in these regions’ history. The Turkish push into Europe, which would come as far north as Vienna by 1683, kept ripping back and forth across the Carpathians with the forces of the Muslim Ottoman and the Christian Austro-Hungarian Empires battling each other from the early 15th to the late 17th centuries, in a struggle which one historian of the period described as being as relentless and as certain as the rise and fall of the tides. Count Dracula is associated with a number of the Saxon fortress towns including Brasov (Kronstadt), the fortress of Suceava and the castle at Toerzburg, the latter being the most popular and spookily gothic setting and remains a favourite for tourists to visit who are on the ‘Dracula trail.’
To read my latest book on the history of Germany and its influence on modern Europe, please take a look at 'Death of a Nation', available now.
Image credit to Wyoreel