There's more to Transylvania than Dracula

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Everyone knows Transylvania as the home of the vampire count. But he wasn't the only interesting character to come from this area, says Marcus Tanner

The woman from Barclays was sharp with me down the phone line to Deva, an uninviting-looking town in the middle of Transylvania. "You should have told us you were going to Romania," she tut-tutted. "It's on our black list for identity theft and fraud. That's why we blocked your card." Thanks, I thought. There I was in the middle of nowhere, having hopped off the train on the trail of a 15th-century king I was writing a book about, and I couldn't get any money from the ATM.

I hurried on to the local castle at Hunedoara, hoping that the bank would have sorted my cash crisis by dinnertime. In the meantime I tried to forget money and lose myself in the Gothic turrets, battlements, moat and drawbridge. Hunedoara castle was once the childhood home of Matthias Hunyadi, one-time king of Hungary and a personal hero of mine, not so much for his extensive military conquests but his other activities.

Impressed with the example of Julius Caesar, emperor and writer, Matthias had laid aside his weapons in the 1480s, when he was getting on, and concentrated on high culture, building up one of the great libraries of Renaissance Europe and filling his court with philosophers, writers, artists and singers from every part of Europe. With his puissant Italian consort Beatrice at his side, he presided over a true golden age, whose legacy was smashed to smithereens when the Ottomans invaded Hungary in the 1520s, some years after Matthias's death.

During his own lifetime, Matthias dropped his family name of Hunyadi and styled himself Corvinus, "the Raven", and his castle in Transylvania, not far from where he was born, is full of raven motifs carved in stone.

Ravens apart, there were not many other signs that this had been the childhood home of a great monarch. Instead, the main exhibition was a waxwork collection of famous world personalities, including a stout-looking Lady Di dressed in eau-de-nil evening gown and tiara. A crowd of Romanian tourists bustled past, shepherded by their Orthodox priest, pausing briefly to stare briefly at Di and her waxwork companion, Osama bin Laden.

I left, a little disappointed. I'd tramped round much of Europe, looking for the remnants of the king's famous library scattered around Hungary, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Austria, and indeed England. But Transylvania was his "home turf", so to speak, and it was here I had hoped to come across more tangible relics of his life.

But as the silence surrounding his name in the castle had showed, this wasn't going to be easy, because Transylvania is contested land. Like Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, one nation is in possession of the turf, but another questions that fact.

In Transylvania, that "other" is the Hungarians, overlords of Transylvania until the First World War and disconsolate and unwilling citizens of Romania ever since. The Romanians pay that Hungarian resentment back in kind, resolutely ignoring the Hungarian character of Transylvania's ancient monuments – hence Lady Di's precedence over memories of Matthias in the castle.

I pushed on to Cluj, or Koloszvar in Hungarian, one of the jewels in Transylvania's crown, the old centre dominated by a fabulous red-roofed cathedral-sized parish church in which Matthias was almost certainly baptised and near to which stands the squat white townhouse where he was born in the 1440s.

In these shady cobbled side streets with their ivy-clad, sparrow-filled walls, one can see why one British writer in the 1920s drew vague likeness between Cluj and Oxford. But it's Oxford with a vein of ethnic tension.

Back in the 1990s, Cluj laboured under an ultra-nationalist Romanian mayor, named Funar, whose anti-Hungarian rants and campaigns have left their mark – and not just on the town's benches, which he had painted in Romania's national colours.

Mayor Funar also half-ruined the huge statue of Matthias in the main square, undermining the foundations with bizarre and unsightly archaeological digs aimed at unearthing various pots and shovels that would "prove" the antiquity of the Romanian presence in the area.

I felt relieved to leave the memory-laden gothic lanes of Cluj for the open, baroque squares of Timisoara, another Hunyadi family "seat" back in the 15th century and now one of Romania's most cosmopolitan and attractive towns. Arriving at a weekend, I was struck by the continuing devotion of Romanians to their church, because in the Disney-style Orthodox cathedral it was standing room only on Sunday, the huge congregation bulked out by a fair sprinkling of youthful, good-looking back-clad nuns.

While Romanians see Transylvania as the birthplace of their nationality, and Hungarians insist it is the fortress of theirs, making it a case of cradle vs bastion, there was once a third player on Transylvania's ethnic stage. These were the Transylvanian Saxons, once 300,000 strong but now down to a handful of Lutheran pastors and few thousand oldies, like Sam Hutter, bellringer and practically the last Saxon in his once populous village, near Sibiu.

I had swung down to Sibiu to visit the former stamping ground of King Matthias's most infamous houseguest – Dracula. Yes, the prince of darkness not only existed but started out as a protégé of Matthias's father, Janos, who dusted down the hick young Romanian princeling and took him off to the Hungarian court in the 1450s to get spruced up.

But after Janos died, and after the young man's boiling and impaling activities got on everyone's nerves, Matthias had Dracula placed under comfortable house arrest at his summer palace in northern Hungary at Visegrad.

There the captive's luminous eyes and fearsome reputation (much bruited about by Matthias) attracted the attention of curious diplomats, including the papal nuncio who wrote a long description of him to Pope Pius II. The Pontiff was fascinated. "Such is the discrepancy between a man's appearance and his soul!" he wrote.

I'd always thought "Dracula" was a name cooked up by Bram Stoker, but no; Dracula was precisely what Matthias called him, when he wrote to the Saxon burghers of southern Transylvania commending "our friend Dracula" to their tender care as he journeyed home, following his release.

Yet it's a pity that Romania's tourist authorities play so relentlessly on the Dracula cult to the virtual exclusion of all else, for it totally overshadows the more accessible and no less interesting Saxon history of southern Transylvania.

The Saxons may all have gone – all bar Mr Hutter, that is – but their pointy churches enclosed by high walls, built to withstand Ottoman sieges, remain, as do those villages of gingerbread houses, kept from ruin by funds sent from Saxons living in Germany.

Sibiu, which the Saxons called Hermannstadt, and Europe's capital of culture in 2007, is a fine base from which to explore these semi-deserted gems, which now only echo to the ancient German dialect of the Saxons when they return each autumn to their annual festival.

The Saxons never claimed Transylvania as their exclusive property. Not for them talk of cradles or bastions, for which reason the Romanians eye them with less suspicion than the Hungarians. The Romanians of Sibiu are far much more inclined to celebrate the town's Saxon heritage than their counterparts in Cluj are ready to acknowledge their city's Hungarian dimension, for example. They have even elected one of the handful of remaining Saxons in the town as mayor.

Funnily enough, it's the visiting Germans who seem least interested in their Transylvanian kith and kin – those descendants of youngsters who suddenly left the Rhineland for the distant Carpathians far off in the 12th century, so spawning the legend of a sinister pied piper who had lured the children into the dark mountains. "They were all Nazis," a German woman working temporarily for a Roma charity told me, curtly.

Maybe. Certainly, when old Sam Hutter took to me to his village war memorial, to point out a long roll call of Hutters who had died in the service of the upright old Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, I couldn't help notice that a fair number of local Saxons had died rather more recently, in the service of another, less reputable Austrian.

Transylvania, land "beyond the forest", a shifting sort of place, not always as comfortable as its name might suggest. But one evening, standing in a grass meadow outside the old Saxon church where the German woman had started telling me about the Nazis, what really impressed was the mysterious beauty of the place – golden sunset, old church, dark forest.

There are still bears and wolves in the immense forests of Transylvania though I didn't see any. But I did see a real raven, with a huge wingspan, gliding on the air currents from the churchyard where I stood across the valley below towards the dark green forest where it disappeared. And I thought of Matthias who'd chosen that dark, unknowable bird for his emblem, possibly after watching one gliding across a valley toward the forest in much the same way as I had, years ago.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Wizzair (00 48 22 351 9499; wizzair.com) offers return flights from Luton to Cluj from £50.

In Cluj, the Victoria Hotel (00 40 264 597 963; hotel-victoria.ro) offers B&B from €73 (£65) per night. In Timisoara, the Valentina (00 40 256 497 535; hotelvalentina.ro) has B&B from €57 per night. In Sibiu, the Old Town Hostel (hostelsibiu.ro) offers B&B from €75 per night.



Further information

Romanian Tourist Office (020-7224 3692; romaniatourism.com).

Transylvania, by Kelet Nyugat, offers information on homestays (keletnyugat.hu).

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