written by: Fabio Brunello
All Saints’ Day holidays, or rather Halloween for children, are well suited to the discovery of Count Dracula and Transylvania!
After some reading from guides and advice from friends, we organize ourselves for a 5-day trip to Romania. Being a large country, we decided to focus on Bucharest and especially Transylvania, the central region of the country, using the figure of Dracula as the leitmotif of the visit.
We only have 2 half days for Bucharest and the expectations are quite low, we expect many communist-style “barracks” and a grey (and perhaps sad) city.
The visits, on the other hand, allowed us to discover a vibrant, decidedly European city, with architecture of value, even if not comparable with other European capital cities.
The first visit is to Cotroceni Palace, a historic building that has undergone various changes of use: from monastery to royal palace, from Ceausescu’s attempt to make it a hotel to the current museum.
Although the building has gone through major restorations, not many originals remain, but the mark made by Queen Marie is significant. Granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II, this English woman had a decisive impact on the social and artistic life of Romania in the early twentieth century. She defined a lot of fashions. Also, she was directly involved in various artistic activities. Overall, she seems to have improved the situation of the country. We really appreciated this queen, whom we will “meet” several times during our visits, a sign of her significant impact.
Home of Nicolae Ceausescu
The visit extends beyond the scheduled time. Fortunately, the reckless driving of a taxi driver makes us arrive on time for the next visit, the home of Nicolae Ceausescu. The Romanian dictator, in power from the 1960s until 1989, had a sumptuous villa built on the northern outskirts of the city, with dozens of rooms for himself and his family. The villa strongly contrasts with the situation of poverty in communist Romania of those years, but it remains a beautiful monument to visit. Especially spectacular is the indoor swimming pool, entirely decorated with fine mosaics. We were also impressed with the winter garden, the “golden” bathroom and the huge wardrobe of his wife Elena.
Where to eat in Bucharest
After so much culture, we deserve a nice dinner and to entertain the children (Giuseppe of 11 and Cesare of 9), we book at Excalibur Restaurant. It is a medieval-themed restaurant. The interior is decorated with various swords and armour. Also, the menu recalls the saga of King Arthur and the Round Table. At the entrance, there is even a sword in the stone! Apart from this playful aspect, the service was excellent and the food very tasty.
Another must-try restaurant in Bucharest is Caru’ cu Bere, a true institution. It is the oldest restaurant still in business and has a very beautiful interior, similar to certain German breweries. The same company also manages another historic site, the Hanul caravan menagerie, which has now also become a restaurant.
Our tour of Bucharest ends with a free walking tour, a type of tourism that we really like. Our talented guide Daniela went mainly into the ancient period, from the Dacians to the Ottoman Empire. She also explained the situation of education, the health system, the cost of living, and typical dishes, … to note, the orthodox churches of Stravropoleos and S. George, both richly decorated and with beautiful frescoes.
What do you need to know about Count Dracula?
In Bucharest, there is the first reference to Dracula, the palace of Curtea Veche, where Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) ruled. Well, since I mentioned Dracula to you, it’s time to tell you about him! It is just a literary figure, created by the Irish author Bram Stoker in the late XIX century, but which is based on multiple references to Romanian culture.
The character recalls a prince of Wallachia (the region of Bucharest), who lived in the fifteenth century. Vlad, known as the Impaler, is a character remembered for his cruelty but also for defending the country against the Turks. The name Dracula comes from his father, who belonged to the military lodge of the Dragons (Dracul).
Vlad was not a vampire and did not drink the blood of virgins, but it is said that he drank the blood of his enemies, as a sign of superiority and victory. In popular legends, there are also many other spirits, such as the Strigoi: these and other elements have been well mixed by Stoker first and then by the cinema, to make Dracula a mythical character.
Visiting count Dracula
Dracula’s region is Transylvania, so here we are ready to visit! It is a region that joined Romania only at the end of the First World War. For many centuries it was under the domain of Hungarians and Germans. Remains of those times are very noticeable in Central European architecture. Also, it is visible in a high number of Lutheran /Evangelical Churches, unlike the rest of Romania, with a decided Greek-Orthodox majority.
Vlad’s hometown is Sighisoara. It is a beautiful typically medieval town, with an imposing city wall and many towers. Their characteristic is that they are all different. Each tower was managed by a different corporation, which could customize it at will.
Historic Centre of Sighişoara
It was founded by German craftsmen and merchants known as the Saxons of Transylvania. Sighişoara is a fine example of a small, fortified medieval town. Described on the UNESCO Heritage List, as “an outstanding testimony to the culture of the Transylvanian Saxons, a culture that is coming to a close after 850 years and will continue to exist only through its architectural and urban monuments”.
In terms of historical places, we also visited a fortified evangelical church and Sighişoara Tower, with signage of Vlad’s birthplace.
There are also buildings in the centre of the village, with the church and several common areas used for the storage of food and tools.
We also visited a quite interesting fortified church Viscri – that was built in the 12th century.
Although we liked Transylvanian historical places, what shocked us was the visit to the Viscri village. It feels like a journey through time! Transylvania is definitely well-maintained. It is very clean and with excellent roads, but here in Viscri, we pass into another space-time dimension. Unpaved roads, mud everywhere, donkey carts, decrepit houses, you can breathe poverty. Worth mentioning that Prince Charles of Wales also bought a house in this region. Although his intention was to promote the Viscri region’s development, it is still an underdeveloped area.
The city that has remained in the heart, especially of my wife Elizabeth, is Brasov.
A city of traders, and crossroads of cultures, it is full of remarkable buildings and many parks, which decorate the historic centre. One of the most important monuments is the Black Church (Biserica Neagra), the colour of the walls reminding a fire, but it is nothing exceptional. The beauty of the town is just walking through its narrow streets and towers, for a slow-paced visit.
The most recent part, with shopping malls such as Afi Brasov, is typically European and modern. Eye-catching is also the “Hollywood-style” BRAȘOV sign on the Tâmpa Mountain.
Another great activity that we recommend is a visit to Liberty Sanctuary, the “bear sanctuary”. It is a nature reserve where over 100 bears are welcomed. They were brought mainly from zoos, circuses and other captive situations, to try to give them a more natural life. It remains a gated place, but the animals appear to be well-kept and in good condition.
Transylvania is a land of castles and we recommend two of them: Peles and Bran.
Peles Castle, in Sinaia, was the summer residence of the kings, who stayed there for long months. Set in a beautiful forest, the main building is sumptuous, especially beautiful on the outside. It had to rival the fairytale castles of Germany and the bet is definitely won.
The interior is decorated in a very eclectic way, with rooms in different styles (Moorish, Turkish, French, …) and a beautiful collection of historical weapons. Next to the main castle, there are buildings for the workers and the castle for the heirs to the throne, called Pelisor Castle. The interior is decorated in art nouveau style by Queen Marie, but we were not particularly impressed.
Bran Castle is a place that provokes strong emotions. Perched on a rocky outcrop, it dominates the narrow gorge. The myth has identified it as Dracula’s castle or at least reflects the description of the novel.
It was commissioned directly by the locals to protect themselves from enemy raids. In the last century, it was inhabited by one of the king’s daughters and her family. She adapted and added some premises, under the guidance of Queen Marie (yes, she again !). Rooms linked to royalty alternate with others that refer to local ghosts and myths, where he, Count Vlad, could not be missing!
The sky was quite clear, but the strong wind howled in the drafts of the balconies. That sound of the wind was making the atmosphere truly sinister and at the same time magnificent!
Our vampire tour ends at Snagov Monastery, not far from the capital. Situated on an islet of a lake, it is a beautiful and well-decorated monastery. Local tradition states it is the burial place of Prince Vlad the Impaler (Dracula). He was killed by the Ottomans and secretly buried at Snagov Monastery by the monks, in the XVth century.
Bucharest – the best place to relax
After so many visits, the children, and we too, ask for a little relaxation, so we end our trip at the Therme Bucuresti, a nice new facility near the airport. We – boys, have fun on the slides. Elisabetta basks in saunas and scrubs, to finish off with a cocktail at the pool bar!
Romania has been a beautiful surprise to us. Decidedly this European country is worth visiting. It is interesting in terms of the way of living, the beauties to discover and the specific culture. Romania also attracts tourists as this country lies at the crossroads of East and West, between Slavic and Germanic influences.