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september 8, 2004 -> transylvania gets our blood pumping

A gigantic, metal cross materialized from the clouds.  Constructed of steel girders, it looked like the Eiffel Tower refashioned by Christian zealots.  The base of the cross remained swaddled in wooly vapors; it was floating, or perhaps held by an unseen giant's hand.  How appropriate for the mountains of Transylvania, I thought.  In horror movies, even the smallest crucifix keeps the nastiest vampire at bay.  This cross was big enough to rid all of Transylvania of its famous undead.  The truth, of course, is more prosaic: the cross was a memorial to local soldiers who died in the First World War.  High atop the Bucegi Mountains in central Romania, the cross commands a spectacular panorama of deep valleys, clear rivers, and wooded mountains. 

The hiking in Romania is wonderful.  The Carpathian Mountains arc through the heart of the country; sub-ranges like the Bucegi and Fagaras mountains attract hikers and mountain climbers in summer and skiers in winter.  Like Bulgaria, Romania has become the cheapskate's option for European skiing.  We explored the region from our base in Sinaia, an odd (but oh so quiet) ski resort town that desperately needed a layer of snow to hide its dowdiness.  While not as popular with tourists as nearby Brasov, Sinaia had a number of attractions, most notably the 19th century monastery with its impressive bell tower, and the fantastic Pelisor castle, which evokes fairy tales as easily as Mad Baron von Ludwig's Neuchwanstein Castle in Germany.  

One of the best walks in the region follows the high mountain plateau between the towns of Sinaia and Busteni.  Very steep trails run directly from either of these towns to the plateau, but it is much easier to take the cable car and enjoy the views on the way to the top.  It was about a two hour hike.  To our right was the edge of the escarpment - hidden by clouds - which fell sharply to the populated valleys below.  To our left, the mountains rose slowly into jagged peaks.  We saw shepherds with tall woolen caps goading sheep, whose tinkling bells could be heard from afar.  Here the trees were stunted by cold and wind; we walked through a pine ‘forest' that looked like untended hedgerows.  We passed by an incongruous running oval, which we assumed must be for the high-altitude training of Romanian athletes.   

I have never seen trail markings like in Romania.  Each trail has its own symbol: a vertical yellow line, a horizontal red line, etc.  In wide-open stretches, where it would be almost impossible to lose the trail, there are markers every five meters, usually rusted metal poles with the symbol on top.  In confusing areas, where paths intersect or briefly intertwine, the trail markers disappear altogether.  We had lunch beneath the Bucegi cable car terminus, before deciding to continue on in search of the cross. 

Another must do in Romania is a visit to rural villages.  We hired a taxi from Brasov and told him to take us into a remote valley – in retrospect, it would have been well worth it to rent a car and spend a few days exploring rural Romania.  Not far from Bran Castle, we turned onto a dirt road that led us through a rocky gorge and straight into the 19th century.  A tiny village sat in a picturesque, steep-sided valley.  On the green hillsides were gumdrop-shaped hayricks and bleating sheep.  Garlic bulbs hung in bunches from weathered barn doors.  Cows with massive bells around their necks came closer in hopes of food.  An old shepherd sat in a beam of sunlight, puzzled by our presence.  This little village – Moeciu de Sus – was straight out of a landscape painting by the Dutch Masters. 

OK, enough nature; back to the vampires.  Romania has a cross to bear.  Like the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, or Amityville, New York, Romanians (and Transylvanians in particular) are not overly pleased that their tourism industry revolves around grisly tales of murderous malefactors.  On the train from Sinaia to Brasov, I heard a Romanian woman complaining that “everyone thinks that Dracula is real, but this is just a story.” 

Let me set a few things straight.  The undead, blood-sucking Count Dracula of Bram Stoker's novel was fictitious.  But Vlad “The Impaler,” King of Transylvania, did exist, and he was sometimes known as Vlad “Dracul,” for the dragon-shaped clasp that held his robe in place and indicated his membership in “The Order of the Dragon,” a club for royal heirs.  Vlad was pitiless when it came to punishing enemies and lawbreakers.  Legend has it that on St. Bartholomew's Day he impaled 30,000 merchants for disobeying trade laws.  (Victims were impaled through the anus, and stood upright like human popsicles.  The weight of their own bodies slowly drove the stakes higher.)  Soon, “Dracul” came to also mean “devil,” and increasingly fantastic tales of his bloodlust spread (such as his legendary cannibalistic dinners.) 

Myth and reality had long been confused when Mr. Stoker wrote his popular novel, forever linking Romania with vampires.  Every day, hundreds of tourists crowd into the narrow rooms of “Dracula's Castle,” marching single-file up a ‘secret passage' and looking in vain for something frightening or mysterious.  The castle's real name is Bran Castle, not Dracula's Castle or Vlad's Castle – yet guidebooks continue to publish misleading names.  There is no evidence that Vlad ever spent a night there – but that has not stopped a tacky Dracula souvenir market from springing up at its base.  Most people find a visit to Bran quite disappointing; nearby Rasnov Castle is bigger (if still partially ruined), has better views, and far fewer bloodthirsty souvenir peddlers. 

The Dracula legend – perhaps appropriately – refuses to die.  My advice to the local tourism authority would be to just go with it.  “Come for the vampires, stay for the hiking!” could be the slogan that takes Romanian tourism to the next level, or perhaps “Sink your teeth into Romanian nature!” or even “Romania: You can't keep a lid on it!”  They could finish their advertisements with a cheeky warning to “make sure you're back home before nightfall!” followed by the ominous creaking of an opening coffin.