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Summer Travel: Transylvania
The opposite of vampiric terror, at least today
Part of the summer travel series in The Matterhorn
This summer, I’m posting short vignettes of places I’ve visited as part of the Summer Travel Series on The Matterhorn. It’s part of our ongoing look at culture and internationalism. We’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve been to or know more about these places, or if the descriptions generate ideas and make you think of something differently.
*You can also listen to a preview of my article on Writing and Embodying Consciousness on the podcast:
Dracula and literary perceptions
Why are some places so ripe for literature? Why does uttering the name conjure mystery? How did Transylvania inspire Bram Stroker to write Dracula with Bran Castle as the home of his infamous vampire?
At that time, Romania was a country not known to many foreigners, mostly rural, with a strong belief in creatures of the night. A country that still preserved alive the memory of one of its most feared leaders, Vlad the Impaler. The name of Dracula has its origin in his father's name, Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Dragon, a name he received after becoming a member of the Order of the Dragon. Dracula is the Slavonic genitive form of the word Dracul (Dragon), and it means Son of the Dragon. In modern Romania, drac means "devil", and this contributed to Vlad III's infamous reputation.
Although Bran is now a horrifically touristic destination as one might imagine, it is still beautiful and somehow maintains its mysterious aura despite the infinite line of foreigners teeming through it.
Like other areas I encountered in Transylvania, the natural landscape is captivating, perhaps intriguing by its raw beauty combined with castles and fortified towns.
Whatever version(s) of Dracula you have encountered over the years, you may have these feelings of terror connected to this region of Romania. The terror has been re-signified since the era of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, a real-life monster who made life difficult and dangerous for many Romanians and the previous persecutions of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, a Stalinist.
To grow differently, if need be, like children's teeth, like hair, like fingernails. To spring up at will, wild and untended. The chill of the sheets made me shudder, and so did the warmth that followed when I lay down. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it's being watched.
-Herta Müller, The Land of Green Plums
Herta Müller’s novel The Land of Green Plums as well as her essays is a great place to start to understand the effect of communism on the Romanian people. Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.
Ten years ago, I visited Transylvania for three weeks. Most of the trip was a self imposed writing retreat (and solo travel) experience with a few days at the end in Sibiu at a conference put on by Societas Ethicas on ethics and migration. I spent a week each in the wonderful towns of Brașov and Sighișoara where I wrote at cafes, ran through the small streets, and talked with locals as much as I could.
First, a warning
I was visiting family members of my ex in France before traveling to Romania. They were shocked at my destination. They feared for both my things and my safety, and even encouraged me to reconsider travel there. Basically, they thought I was totally insane to be going there, especially alone.
When I first arrived and was waiting for a train in the middle of nowhere to take me from Bucharest to Brașov, I thought they might be right. But it was only because I was lost and felt like a sitting duck waiting. My fears were soon assuaged though. The more Romanians I spoke with, the more comfortable and welcome I felt. Several different hotel managers and owners told me I did not even have to worry about leaving my computer on a cafe terrace; it was exceptionally safe. Maybe I didn’t leave things quite so on display (I wouldn’t do that anywhere) but I absolutely did feel safe the entire trip.
Of course, the French I had talked with were thinking of the Romani or Roma (distinctive from Romanians) who would sometimes camp in their town. And also of course, many of the stereotypes about the Roma are just plain wrong; and many others are due to their circumstance as ostracized people.
In fact, many researchers at the conference were investigating both prejudices against Roma people in Europe and information directly about their cultural identities, families, economics, and more. In Romania, I also witnessed quite a bit of discrimination against them.
There is something about a walled city that feels like living in the past or on a movie set. I guess that’s why I love it: you’re immediately propelled into an imaginary world. I like to walk or run adjacent to the wall and on top (when possible) to get a full feel for the stone and its design, as if creating a full ellipsis of discovery for the time I inhabit it.
In Sighișoara, I found an inn called Pension Am Schneiderturm that was inside of the fortification of the small city. The stone kept it cool inside and the innkeeper shared his homemade liqueur and honeys with the guests alongside breakfast and apéritif.
Soren told us about the local animals, the town history, places to visit outside the town, legends, and the horrors of the past that had made his family escape to West Germany. He had fun telling tales of local vampires with a laugh, but became serious in mentioning the true terror that had been experienced on these grounds. He was proud to return to his home and proud of its way of life; he found great connection between place and culture.
One day, I took a van tour on a freshly paved road to visit Viscri, a tiny traditional village also with a fortified church. I didn’t realize it was also the home of British royalty. Romania was full of surprises.
Apparently, at least a few years ago, King Charles considered Transylvania to be his second home. He owns a traditionally restored house there and promotes the UNESCO sites and eco-tourism alike. Apparently his foundation planted over a million trees there locally.
Fresh food was everywhere on my trip! And a lot of vegan food as well. Often in tapas form. Somebody explained to me that all of the food was both local and naturally organic, with very few modifications or chemicals used for farming. It simply wasn’t needed with all of Romania’s fertile grounds. Apparently they were wrong; there is little organic farming and most is exported. Still, the food tasted fresh, and it was certainly local.
Additionally, Romanians of the Orthodox church eat vegan at least twice a week. Therefore, there are loads of wonderful vegetable dishes on any menu and a beautiful use of herbs and spices. Whether you are vegan or not, you can find delicious flavors which I would argue are in large part due to this reality.
And have you ever had a Romanian cabbage roll??! Sarmale often do have meat in them, like this recipe. They are fantastic. I was looking online for authentic Romanian cooking and fell short. Do let me know if you’ve got a good website or social media account for this. Although the account above seems to be a kitchen in Bucharest specifically dedicated to this fine treat.
Here in Basel, I have several Romanian neighbors who have shared parts of their culture with me, including homemade bread. They’ve made me want to explore other areas of the country.
I had planned to visit again not so long ago, but, well, the pandemic. And this is how Nosferatu opens, with the plague descending upon the people, paving the way for the tale of horror. Our recent experiences give new meaning to the century old unauthorized adaptation of Stroker’s novel.
What is your experience with Transylvania or Romania? Have you read Dracula? Do you know Romanian people or perhaps you are Romanian yourself?