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Bloodless praise of Transylvania

Email|Print| Text size + By L. Kim Tan
Globe Staff / March 6, 2005

TRANSYLVANIA, Romania -- Coming to Transylvania was my wife's choice, not mine. My reluctance had to do with Vlad Tepes, the bloodthirsty 15th-century Wallachian prince whom novelist Bram Stoker embellished into the bloodsucking Count Dracula to scare generations of children, myself included.

Terrified as a child, why would I want to traipse through Dracula's hunting grounds?

My Transylvanian experience, however, became anything but scary for me. Except for an overnight in Harman, a seemingly timeless village outside Brasov that boasts a 15th-century church and citadel, and where we left our windows open for the night and I let my eyes trick me into seeing bats under the eaves of the inn, I was not as spooked as I feared I might be. I was a rational, happy traveler, delighting in the new sights, sounds, and smells before me.

There was much to take in, and we didn't linger. We hiked up to a fog-laden ski resort in the wooded Bucegi Mountains outside Sinaia early our first day; by the next afternoon, we were among musty pews gaping at the scores of 17th- and 18th-century Turkish rugs hanging from the balconies of Brasov's famed Black Church, still in use today by Lutheran worshipers and said to be the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. From Harman, we walked about 5 miles to a tiny town called Prejmer, settled by Saxons from Germany in 1240 and home to a 13th-century evangelical church surrounded by a stone wall into which cells -- 272 of them -- were built to shelter the local populace during recurrent sieges. Feeling our way along a walkway deep in the citadel wall, with light only from the foot-wide slits through which Saxon guards shot at advancing invaders, we imagined how bleak and desperate it must have been to face plundering Tartars and Turks over the centuries. We marveled at the Saxons' resolve to repel the waves, by erecting walls so strong and thick -- up to 14 feet at Prejmer -- that many of the citadels and fortified churches are still standing centuries later. Today, all the Saxon churches of Transylvania are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

One would expect Transylvanians to capitalize on Dracula's fame, but we were surprised how few places used the count as a tourist draw. Aside from Bran in the south, where tourists flock to see the so-called Dracula's Castle (not true, since Tepes didn't build it and is only believed to have spent a few nights there while eluding invading Turks), and Bistriþa in the north, where the Transylvanian Society of Dracula offers tours, few cities and towns boast establishments selling on the theme. You will not see ''Cafe Dracula," ''Dracula Hotel," or Dracula paraphernalia hawked everywhere you go, and that is so even in Sighisoara, Tepes's hometown, where a government-backed proposal to carve a Disney-like Dracula park out of a medieval oak forest west of town was defeated by conservationists.

Many Romanians will tell you they are dismayed at what they see as the misappropriation of Tepes, a national historic figure, by Stoker and Hollywood. We befriended an elementary school teacher from Oradea, a graceful town near the Hungarian border, who laughed when we told her about my irrational fear of vampires and such.

''It's not real!" she declared (as if I didn't know), before insisting that it was the non-Romanians coveting Transylvania who first painted the prince of Wallachia as being far more evil than his contemporaries, naming him Tepes (''impaler") for the way he finished off many of his enemies. Another young Romanian, whom we hired to drive us from Sighisoara to Biertan, told us he was pleased the ''Draculaland" concept never got off paper.

''I don't mind the businesses" profiting from the mythology now, he said. ''But I don't want to be involved in the lie of Dracula. Sighisoara is too beautiful a place to be involved in something out of Disneyland or Hollywood. We don't need a theme park for Dracula."

We found ourselves agreeing with him. Sighisoara is charming and unforgettable as it is, with its hilly terrain and ancient cobblestone streets, its magnificent old buildings, and its proud, soaring Clock Tower that used to form the main entrance to the fortified city and now offers a panoramic view from the top and houses a splendid history museum displaying Renaissance furniture, medical instruments, and other medieval artifacts. Surrounded by all that, it was easy to overlook the house where Tepes was born in 1431, now home of the not-so-charming (to me) eatery called Casa Dracula, and the modest statue nearby of the count himself. Romania's political leaders have said they now plan to build the multimillion-dollar Dracula Park at Snagov Lake, an upscale resort near Tepes's burial site 25 miles north of the capital, Bucharest. Tepes's birthplace, which surely wouldn't survive the modern-day hordes of tourists and kitsch that follow mega attractions, apparently has fought off another would-be invasion.

Sibiu, a 12th-century Saxon city about 60 miles southwest of Sighisoara, was the last place we slept in Transylvania. Sibiu is great for walking and one of the prettiest cities, its old part anchored by three large squares ringed by some of the most handsome facades in the region. As are many other Romanian cities and towns, Sibiu is rebuilding; many buildings, streets, even public staircases, await repair and rejuvenation from the deep malaise of the former communist regime, toppled just 15 years ago. The exodus in the 1990s of some 150,000 German descendants is still felt in the poor, complex, and proud country, especially in Transylvania, even as Romanians lurch into the 21st century with designs for economic progress through membership in the European Union.

We hadn't taken note of them elsewhere, but, standing in one of the public squares in Sibiu, it suddenly hit us that the dormer-like ventilation openings on the top-third of many buildings looked just like eyes, the way they are shaped and set above the roof line. A pair to each building and lined up alongside others just right, they were a beautiful, eerie sight.

The next day, we would see the eyes again in the Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization, an open-air ethnographic park on the outskirts of Sibiu where hundreds of rural houses and other buildings, many of them centuries old, had been brought in from all over Romania and reassembled, down to the wooden pegs. The well-worn buildings, some built in the 1600s, were impressive indeed. Many had astonishing features one wouldn't replicate today, such as entire staircases carved out of a giant tree trunk and solid wooden floorboards 2 feet wide and 2 inches thick. (What would the crew of ''This Old House" have to say about that?)

But it's the eyes gazing back from those buildings that followed me onto the train that night, when we said goodbye to Transylvania and crossed the Carpathian Mountains into Moldavia, where the painted monasteries of southern Bucovina awaited.

L. Kim Tan can be reached at tan@globe.com.

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