Transylvania is the most famous part of Romania, thanks to the legend of Dracula, conjuring up images of haunted forests and werewolves, medieval towns, vampires, dramatic mountains and turreted cliff-top castles. But when our Flightie Andrea MacDonald went to see this place for herself, she discovered something rather different than what was expected. She takes us off the beaten path and shares with us her amazing discoveries of Transylvania and why it’s rustic charm makes this place a must-visit the next time you’re in Europe:
I hurried along the dusty, cobbled streets of Sighisoara, trying to find my way back to the empty hotel near the train tracks. Around every corner I had to dodge another open grave, and the leers from the men standing next to them with shovels. The story raced through my mind about a 15th century prince who was captured by Vlad Tepes not far from here and was forced to read his own funeral oration as he knelt before his awaiting tomb.
It was dusk on Halloween day.
My best friend and I had spent the previous week travelling by rental car around Romania. We had fled the noisy, wild dog-ridden capital of Bucharest as quickly as possible to spend more time in the lovely little towns of Sibiu and Brasov. We drove through rural towns with wild horses grazing on the side of the street, watched jazz bands in smoky bars, and castle-hopped through the giant Rasnov fortress, the famously creepy Bran Castle, and the opulent Peles castle. Along the way, we ate delicious, hearty soups, stews and goulash, with potatoes as a side dish to everything. The little country had a lot to offer and we could’ve spent weeks exploring, but Halloween was fast approaching and Sighisoara was the main event.
We had expected to arrive in town alongside thousands of other tourists on a pilgrimage. After all, apart from a little town in Mexico where pumpkins are said to have originated, Sighisoara has the best claim to being the Halloween Mecca. Vlad III Dracul, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was born there around 1431 and was famous for filling Transylvanian fields with his impaled victims. In the hands of tackier countries, Sighisoara would have been made into a scary Disneyland long ago.
But with the exception of the half-dug graves, we didn’t see anything that screamed Halloween. It wasn’t the overt fright-fest we had expected. On the contrary, Sighisoara is a gentle, pretty place. Like much of Transylvania, it has pastel houses, coloured cobblestones, bright autumn leaves and pretty frescoes on the Gothic church spires. The historic centre of the city, perched on a hill, is a 12th century Saxon Citadel built by artisans and craftsmen. It’s one of the best preserved and most beautiful towns in Europe, like a small version of Prague. Christina and I were the only ones running around it in costumes.
Somehow, Romania has resisted turning this lovely town into another Niagara Falls, where the natural beauty is overshadowed by tourist traps. A few years ago, a proposal to build a Dracula theme park nearby was rejected because both the local and international community feared it would take away from the authentic, medieval character of the city.
There were a few carved pumpkins outside restaurants, and we were able to order a bowl of blood soup at Casa Dracula Restaurant. But there were only a handful of souvenir shops selling Dracula paraphernalia, and not a haunted house or Ripley’s Believe it or Not in sight. And that’s what made it a perfect place to spend Halloween. The lack of fake cobwebs or the “Monster Mash” allowed our imaginations to run wild with the quiet, inherent spookiness of Transylvania. The name itself conjures up stories of black cats and bats whipping through your hair at night. You don’t need a ghost-shaped, cardboard cut-out to give you the chills; just hearing the wind whistle in Sighisoara is scary enough.
We walked around town all day wearing black masks and fangs, taking photos of Gothic churches and hundreds-years old cemeteries. We didn’t need plastic Draculas… we were just thrilled to be in a town where spires look like pitchforks, footsteps on cobblestones sound like they’re coming just for you, and ordinary construction sites become open, waiting graves.