I made that mistake twice when asked by local shopkeepers what brought me to Transylvania. My enthusiastic response “Dracula!” received a stern look and a brisk response that there was no Dracula. I acknowledged the point but tried to explain the fascination with this character, only to be informed again that Dracula did not exist.
The next time someone asked why I came to Romania, I said: “The beautiful Saxon villages, of course.” This response seemed to make everyone happy!
The thing is, I traveled to Romania one time in October because – and I will use my inner voice so as not to upset anyone – I wanted the illusion of following the footsteps of Dracula during my favorite season of Halloween.
More accurately, the inspiration for my trip was the man behind the myth, the national hero of Romania, Vlad the Impaler. I had read the book “Dracula, Prince of Many Faces,” which I would highly recommend, and after reading his fascinating life story, I had to go there.
My first stop was Bucharest, a city typically overlooked in favor of its more popular neighbor, Budapest. This is easy to understand when you hear stories of Bucharest being full of crumbling, communist-era buildings and decomposing trash. Yet, Bucharest had a surprising effect on me. The more time I spent there and immersed myself in its rich history, the more beautiful everything looked.
There are enough impressive sites to explore for at least two days such as the Palace of Parliament which the heaviest building in the world which weighs around 9 billion pounds. The city also has several beautiful Orthodox churches and its own Arch of Triumph. The architecture of many of its buildings is incredible, and the old town with numerous restaurants and cobblestone streets exudes plenty of charm.
After dark, the area is full of lively music and growing nightlife. Most importantly, I was able to see the ruins of Vlad the Impaler’s residence at the Old Princely Court museum.
Next, I travelled to Transylvania, a home to a dazzling display of Saxon villages and haunting landscapes where you immediately feel transported back in time. Brasov is a beautiful town and a popular tourist destination known for its amazing architecture. The Saxons started to settle there around mid-12th century. They arrived in waves until about the mid-19th century. However, a popular story suggests that the first settlers were specifically the 130 children whom the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Germany, led away from their homes and brought here. I had actually visited Hamelin few years earlier, so this connection was an interesting surprise.
Viscri, another picturesque village with brightly painted houses, is best known for a fortified church designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The leaves were starting to change color while I was there and the views of the surrounding countryside were stunning. Sighișoara, also a UNESCO site, is not only known for its well-preserved walled old town, but also for being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.
Unfortunately, the house where Vlad was supposedly born is now a rather unimpressive and dreary restaurant, Casa Vlad Dracula.
Through my earlier research, I learned that, in 2006, Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, purchased and restored two 18th century Saxon houses in an effort to preserve and promote the traditional way of life in Transylvania. Excitedly, I booked an all-inclusive stay at his Count Kálnoky property, taken over by visions of a royal vacation.
Instead, I arrived at a pleasant – but rather rustic – guesthouse, mice included!! Although I really enjoyed my stay at the property, I would only recommend it to travelers looking for an authentic village experience where one literally gets to greet the cows coming home before dinner. Otherwise, Brasov has a good selection of modern accommodations and tour companies that provide daily trips to most of the regions’ main attractions.
Finally, I visited the Bran Castle, the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Romania, so it can get very crowded during the peak tourist season.It was built in the 13th century as a defense fortress and has a long history, including being the royal residence of Queen Maria of Romania.
Vlad the Impaler never lived there; however, he was a prisoner at the castle for two months after being captured by the Hungarians. The castle is now a museum with a small garden and a pond that visitors can enjoy. I found Bran Castle definitely worth a visit, but I would emphasize that the site is extremely tourism-driven; therefore, be ready for crowds and a lot of tacky merchandise.
Overall, my trip was a wonderful experience and I encourage everyone to add Romania to their travel list, especially anyone looking for that “off the beaten path” experience. Make sure to grab a book and get familiar with its turbulent history and the diversity of its people. It was that knowledge that made the country come to life in front of my eyes and I found myself quickly looking past the crumbling buildings, the impoverished surroundings, and the often haphazard and elementary tourist displays. I found beauty in things I normally would judge less worthy. In the end, I really valued that personal transformation as well.
Just do not start by talking about Dracula!
Read more by Suzana here in Dispatches’ archives.
Suzana Knezevic is a NJ native with a passion for travel and international affairs. She loves history and aims to visit all the places she read about in her childhood. She has had the pleasure of traveling to about 40 countries so far, and hopes to visit many more. She also loves hiking, dining, and wine tasting. Suzana currently resides in Washington, D.C.