- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2003

Bram Stoker called Romania “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe” and asserted that “every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians.”

Stoker put the country on the proverbial map in his 1897 novel “Dracula,” but he never even visited Romania. From the annals of a British library, he could not possibly have understood how wild and unknown this area was, and he certainly could not have known that this still would be the case more than a century later.

For an American tourist, it would be impossible to expect anything but the unusual from this country. After all, it is known for Stoker’s bloodsucking vampire, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s” “transvestite from Transylvania” and the National Basketball Association’s former 7-foot-7-inch center and “star” of the movie “My Giant,” Gheorge Muresan. Can this really be the land of eccentrics and anomalies? I went to Transylvania to find out.

The province of Transylvania lies in the center of the country, where it is enclosed by the Carpathian Mountains. Although it is part of Romania, it was under Hungarian rule until World War I. Hungarian and Habsburg influences, along with the German influence from the many Saxon settlers, still can be found today. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first Transylvanian town in which I stop, Cluj-Napoca.

At the center of this former Transylvanian capital is St. Michael’s Church, a Gothic building from the 15th century. Although the church is impressive, I am more intrigued by the massive statue in front.

To my untrained eye, there is nothing unique about it artistically. You find something similar in almost any city. A man sits regally atop an imposing steed, both dressed in the green and blue of aging bronze. Nevertheless, I am captivated because the man looks strikingly similar to a man who sits on many a horseback in Budapest’s public spaces. I check my guidebook and find that the statue is of Matthias Corvinus, the celebrated 15th-century Hungarian king.

It seems a bit cruel for the Hungarians, who ruled this region and its Romanian majority, to make the locals pay homage to one of Hungary’s great kings in their most public place. I mean, the Union never demanded that Richmond erect a statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the Governor’s Mansion. As it turns out, Cluj is the birthplace of King Matthias. When I seek out his house of birth, however, I am surprised to find only a plaque on its exterior and no museum inside. Perhaps this is retribution for the vainglory of his statue.

Because I cannot enter the former home of the Hungarian king, I turn up the street named after our closest thing to a king, F.D. Roosevelt Street, and enter the History of Transylvania Museum. This, evidently, is not a very popular museum. The same gentleman I pay for entrance walks one room ahead of me throughout the museum, turning on the lights and opening curtains. I feign interest, pretending to read the captions, which are written exclusively in Romanian.

As night falls, I find the streets of Cluj equally boring. It’s not that nothing is going on. To the contrary, university students walk the streets, and Eminem emanates from the shops and pizzerias. All of this I find disappointing.

In “Dracula,” the count tells his prisoner, Jonathan Harker, “We are in Transylvania. … Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.” Cluj is not strange enough, so I head deeper into Transylvania.

It does not take long on the ride from Cluj to Sibiu for me to discover just how agrarian — 19th-century agrarian — Romania still is. John Deere means nothing here.

Through the window, I see entire families sitting atop 8 feet of hay as they are pulled by a horse. Their primitive hay carts make the horse-drawn Amish buggies of Lancaster, Pa., look like exhibits in a 21st-century auto show. At the time, I am unaware that the hay carts are common even on city streets, and I am fascinated. It is as if I have just arrived in Wyoming and seen my first buffalo, not knowing that within a week, nothing short of a stampede will make me even glance up from the newspaper.

Now, though, as the sun sets over pastoral scenes in the mountainous countryside, I would not dare look away and deny myself such beauty.

Sibiu, the medieval town that seated the Austrian governors when Transylvania was under Habsburg rule, is everything Cluj is not. The narrow stone streets, peeling paint, Gothic towers and desolate 13th-century alleys give the town an eerie feeling suited for a Vincent Price film. It doesn’t help that I arrive at night, when the town is vacant and quiet. I almost expect to turn the corner and bump into Bela Lugosi, in character but not being filmed.

In Romania’s countryside and small towns, I get the impression that the 20th century advanced east through Europe, arrived at the formidable Carpathian Mountains and decided to call it quits, content with the area it had conquered already. Sibiu, for a well-known town, gives the same impression. Its few Internet cafes and Coca-Cola vending machines seem appallingly anachronistic, and I feel as if some set director definitely will get fired for keeping them visible.

Sibiu’s most prominent features are its 16th-century Council Tower and 14th-century Evangelical Church tower. In the morning, I ascend the steps of the Council Tower and look out over the Piata Mare, the town’s central square. The prodigious square is almost lifeless. In other European towns, it undoubtedly would be lined with cafes and bars.

This town, which does not house any universities and sees fewer tourists than some of its neighbors, shows the country’s rugged and rustic face. As the poorest of any country on track for entrance into the European Union, Romania is for the adventurous and unpampered traveler.

Also visible from the tower is the charming Iron Bridge, dubbed Liar’s Bridge after a myth that telling a lie while on the bridge will cause it to collapse. Across the bridge is the Evangelical Church. It was outside of this church that the son of Vlad Tepes, the prince of Wallachia who was the real-life inspiration for Count Dracula, was assassinated in 1510.

From Sibiu, I take the train to Brasov. Nowhere in Romania have the people adapted so successfully to capitalism as in the train stations. Anyone with an extra room suddenly becomes a bed-and-breakfast owner, and anyone with a car becomes a tour guide. Some have become so successful that they are mentioned in the guidebooks, which they are quick to advertise.

When I get off the train, I am handed a business card from Gabriel Ivan that advertises, “Guest rooms in the city center and tours to Bran and Rasnov castles.” To prove his credibility, he shows me his picture book of former guests, accompanied by letters they have sent testifying to his hospitality. I agree to a private room for $10 a night.

As we drive to my room, he crosses himself periodically while weaving among lanes, braking harshly and turning his car on and off at every light. I wonder with whom I have accepted a ride. He sees my concern and explains that Orthodox Romanians cross themselves whenever they pass an Orthodox church. I am relieved to know he is not praying that he doesn’t kill us both on the road, but I imagine this could be quite a workout, given the number of Orthodox churches in Romania.

“Brasov is the best in all of Romania” he says. He may be biased, but many seem to agree.

Brasov is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. This Transylvanian gem is colored with baroque buildings and picturesque mountains. Its streets and town square are filled with in-line skaters, vendors, diners, people-watchers, gossipers and all the other standard characters of a charming and popular city.

I stroll through the town, ending up at the beautiful Piata Statului, the town square. The baroque facades of its buildings are yellow, pink, green and red, all set against the green curtain of Mount Tampa behind it. It looks like a giant Rubik’s Cube left in a child’s back yard.

South of the square is the Black Church, whose dark exterior makes it stand out from its neighbors. The Gothic church, erected by the Saxons and still used for Lutheran services, derives its name, and its appearance, from the fire it survived in 1689. Inside the slightly charred church are ornate Turkish rugs draped along the walls and a massive organ.

At the base of Mount Tampa, I take the cable car to the peak, where I can look down on the miniaturized town. I feel a bit guilty having taken the cable car to the top, but not so guilty that I can’t enjoy a beer at the bar.

Two popular destinations outside Brasov are Bran Castle, also known as Dracula’s Castle, and Rasnov Castle. They are accessible by bus, but because I have learned about the popular labor market at the train station, I find a taxi driver willing to escort me to each.

After a few minutes riding with Nicholas, the cab driver who offers to chauffeur me around, I realize I have made a wise move. Nicholas is the type of driver who honks at all the pretty girls and has no trouble conversing for the entirety of the 30-minute trip despite my not knowing a word of Romanian and his not knowing a word of English.

When he discovers I am from Washington, he hollers, “Bush, Bush.” I thought only a “Saturday Night Live” writer could be so excited about our president. He then struggles to remember another name. “Clinton?” I offer. He laughs and says, “Yes, Bill Clinton. Monica Lewinsky” while thrusting his hips at the steering wheel and laughing hysterically. It is nice when people recognize your hometown.

We arrive at Bran Castle, a white castle with a bright orange-tiled roof. It looks as if Walt Disney designed it. It is named Dracula’s Castle, an undoubted misnomer because Vlad Tepes had no affiliation with it. In fact, this former prince of Wallachia has very little connection with Transylvania. I am sure this is a historical inaccuracy the tourism board is willing to overlook.

Although the castle never housed the legendary crusader, it was converted from a military stronghold to a royal residence in the early 20th century, making its chambers well worth a look.

After Bran, we putter our way to Rasnov Castle. Most cars putter in Romania, where the majority of people drive Dacias, communist-era relics that were produced by state-owned factories. It is not uncommon to see a driver beating on the dashboard or steering wheel, trying to will the car into motion. Nicholas does this a few times as the horse-and-hay-cart drivers pass us.

Rasnov Castle is markedly different from Bran. This hilltop fortress obviously served only military purposes; there are no posh rooms for royalty. Its greatest attribute, however, is that after hiking to its peak, one is rewarded with a stunning panoramic vista of the surrounding Carpathians, uncluttered by the tourists from Bran.

I part company with Nicholas to take the train to Sighisoara. I discover on the train that Nicholas is not unique in ignoring the language barrier. The only other occupant of my cabin tries to teach me Romanian and a few magic tricks, one of which involves a knife. Afterward, he offers to sell me the knife. Of course, when this gentleman learns I am American, he too screams “Bush, Bush,” and then “John Wayne.”

I get the “John Wayne” response a few more times on the trip. Among the older generation, which grew up under the oppressive and self-serving reign of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, John Wayne was their only exposure to the West.

In the days of state-run television, Mr. Wayne’s movies played regularly on TV — Mr. Ceausescu must have been a fan. As scary as it sounds, in those times, when English was not taught in schools, many learned their only English from the Duke.

I am picked up at the train station by Paul and Cristina Faur, a couple who offer guest rooms in Sighisoara. When I enter the guesthouse, they explain that they are trying to add new rooms before the summer’s medieval festival. It is hard for me to imagine any day in this perfectly preserved medieval town that is not a medieval festival.

The town, originally settled by the Saxons in the 12th century, is characterized by its hilltop Citadel, the fortified part of the old town whose walls were built in the 17th century to ward off the Turks. Inside its walls are charming old homes (including Paul and Christina’s), the town’s historic 14th-century clock tower with its functioning 1648 clock, a 15th-century Dominican monastery, the 14th-century Church on the Hill and the birth home of Vlad Tepes.

I begin at the clock tower, which hosts a history museum. The clock features figurines for each day of the week and two others that signify the passing hours by beating a bronze drum. Adjacent to the tower is the Dominican Monastery Church, founded by the Dominican order but converted to a Lutheran church by the town’s Saxon inhabitants during the Reformation.

Across the square from the church is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, whose father, Vlad Dracul (hence the name Dracula) resided in Sighisoara from 1431 to 1436 as part of the Dragon Order militia assembled to push the Turks out of Europe. Surprisingly, the house offers nothing more than a plaque and a restaurant inside. Perhaps Sighisoara does not need hokey hype to attract tourists.

Although it is not in honor of the legendary impaler, there is a torture room under the clock tower that demonstrates all the punishments that may have been doled out in the square back when punishment was not punishment unless it was cruel and unusual.

From the square, I walk up the covered stairway, constructed of 172 steps in 1642, to the Gothic Bergkirche, also known as the Church on the Hill. This original Saxon church, built in 1345, sits at the apex of this beautiful museum town, and it is a nice place to take in the old and preserved before I go off to find the old and living.

To conclude my trip, I am intent on venturing out of Transylvania to find the historic and renowned painted monasteries of lower Bucovina, the northwestern region of the country. I am so intent that I take a 12-hour night train (Romanian trains could possibly take days to cross Rhode Island) accompanied by Gypsies — and more than a few drunkards. I meet very few men who travel without a handle of hard liquor in their bags.

I arrive in Suceava at 6 a.m. and wake up a sleeping taxicab driver, the only one in sight, to escort me to Voronet Monastery. Fortunately, he speaks English and is a native of Voronet. We arrive at 6:30, and I feel uncharacteristically disciplined because I have beaten the nuns, who reside in a small convent across the street, to their own monastery.

While waiting for the nuns to open the monastery for the day’s worship, I take in the beauty of its painted facade. Despite being an English teacher, I must say I owe a debt of gratitude to the world’s illiterates. Like all of the painted monasteries, Voronet was painted with biblical scenes and teachings to educate those who could not read the Bible.

The southern wall, covered in distinctive Voronet blue, presents the genealogy of biblical characters, all stemming from the Tree of Jesse. I pause from admiring the exterior as two nuns open the monastery. Tentatively, and with encouragement from my taxi driver, I enter and find one of the nuns chanting as the other genuflects repeatedly before each icon.

As a suburbanite accustomed to attending a church where people wear khaki shorts and mumble the Lord’s Prayer, I feel out of place and self-conscious. As I walk out of the monastery, a third nun, Sister Gabriella, offers to explain the frescoes for a small restoration contribution.

When Sister Gabriella learns I am American, she is quick to point out, “Our monastery is older than your country.” Now I really feel self-conscious. She takes me to the western wall, where she presents the famed Last Judgment painting.

“This is the Orthodox Sistine Chapel,” she says. The painting depicts St. Paul guiding the believers to heaven as Moses shows the nonbelievers, primarily the Turks, that they did not recognize the truth and will have to suffer.

By 8 a.m., I have arrived at Moldovita Monastery. Again, I am the only visitor. I sit outside and admire the red-hued 1532 monastery as the sun beams directly down on it. Worship has begun, and while still outside, I hear the chanting of male and female voices. When I rise to enter, I see a young nun, covered in black, standing at the entrance door. She obviously is hard at prayer, and I decide it would be irreverent to walk past her toting my camera and wearing Adidas running shoes to enter the monastery she feels unfit to enter.

She remains in place for at least 30 minutes. I never enter the monastery. Some of this “least known portion of Europe” will have to go unexplored.

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