In his 1897 novel Dracula, the Irish writer Bram Stoker described the Carpathian pass as “an imaginative whirlpool” where every known superstition gathered. I can see where he was coming from, says Dyan Machan in The Wall Street Journal. In reality the medieval villages and fortified churches of this mountainous region of central Romania, called Transylvania, have little to do with the fiction, but driving through mist and “ravaging rain” soon turns the night into a “vampirish cliché”.
“Our windshield wipers at max, we soldiered on toward our hotel in Bran, a small town that’s also home to Bran Castle”, which served as the inspiration for Dracula’s abode. Inside the “hidden passageways” and “cavernous rooms” you won’t find the count, of course – he’s made up – but one former resident, Queen Marie of Romania, did apparently have her heart buried in the grounds after she died so that she could remain there forever.
The rare banaticus
The banaticus – not a creature of nightmares, but rather a type of crocus – may prove as hard to track down as the count. “It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania,” says Robin Lane Fox in the Financial Times. “Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers”. This plant avoids both main roads and towns, so the best way to seek them out is by horseback.
“While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home… We [began] our hunt in the Transylvanian villages [around Viscri] founded by German-speaking Saxons”, many of whom accepted the offer of land in the 12th century in return for strengthening its defences and revitalising its crafts.
Mind you, the types of crafts you’re likely to find in the Transylvanian citadel of Sighisoara these days are of the “Dracula-themed tat” kind, says Stephen McGrath in The Spectator. But Sighisoara has much more to offer than simply existing as a “kitsch marketing tool”. It is a “treasure trove of history”, boasting a 14th-century clock tower you can climb for the views, and “there’s no shortage of places to eat and drink”.
The Church on the Hill, started in 1345, and sitting at the top of the 175-step “Scholar’s Stairs”, is a “must”, as is the adjoining Saxon cemetery. Its “ivy-covered tombstones inscribed with German names remind you of Transylvania’s history, and like all cities of the dead [it] tells a story of its own”.
A sleep to rival the dead
Down the road from Sighisoara is the small town of Crit, where La Hansi, a restored 500-year-old Saxon farmhouse that opened last October, sits among sloping green pastures and dense forest, says Alex Schechter in The New York Times.
Meals are taken together in a high-roofed barn, and a word of warning: “Transylvanian cuisine is not for the meat-and-dairy-averse”. Dishes include bulz, “a sort of polenta casserole bubbling with bryndza cheese, along with sausages, slanina (smoked pork fat) and a board with seven types of locally made goats’ cheese.”
The rooms have been stripped down to their essence, revealing how they would have looked in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the spartan aesthetic extends into the private bathrooms. With no TV or minibar, it’s like a fortress against the modern world. A two-foot-thick wall separates each room; “the lack of ambient noise gave me the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years”.
• From €60 a night – see Lahansi.ro.