Transylvania: Count on Dracula

You don’t have to visit Transylvania at Hallowe’en to have a shockingly good time, says Richard Waters as he goes on the trail of Dracula in Romania

The children of the night, what sweet music they make.“For some reason these immortal words from Dracula – whose author Bram Stoker died a century ago this year – were on my mind as I waited in a forest hide for Carpathian brown bears to arrive, ravens circling in the twilit clearing.

Shortly afterwards a mother and cub rolled into view, standing on their hind legs to sniff our presence. Curiously, it's thanks to Nicolae Ceausescu, the former megalomaniac dictator (only he was allowed to hunt during his 20-year rule), that 60 per cent of Europe's brown bears are found in the country's Carpathian Mountains. There are an estimated 5,500 of them here, so your chances of seeing one are good.

But I was in Transylvania in central Romania not on the hunt for bears, but for Dracula. "Tran-sylvania" translates as the "land beyond the forests": roll the word around in your mouth and it seems to taste of wood-smoke and mystery. Its rugged mountains, forbidding forests, gothic castles and unspoilt countryside seemed identical to the fantastical land conjured by my childhood imagination.

Back in 1897, Stoker's protagonist Jonathan Harker noted in Dracula: "Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool." Few 21st-century cultures cherish their superstitions like the Romanians, be it Roma reading the tarot or villagers employing garlic and a crucifix to ward off strigoli (witches). When the total solar eclipse happened in 1999, certain villages across Romania were ringing church bells and building fires to ward off lycanthropes. And in 2004, barely 100 miles west of the capital, Bucharest, two men were arrested for exhuming a body and driving stakes through it to stop it haunting. I'd been in the country only a few days but it seemed to me to occupy a hinterland between folklore and reality.

I began my Dracula trail in the enchanting medieval city of Brasov. Legend has it the Pied Piper re-emerged here from Hamelin. It was also where the original inspiration for Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, impaled some 40 merchants in the 15th century. This massacre was a minor indiscretion compared with the 20,000 Turks he'd impaled in southerly Targoviste. Tepes's father was called Vlad Dracul, and Dracul literally means "son of the house of the devil". It's easy then to see why Stoker tapped into his diabolical bloodline.

These days, Brasov is considerably more welcoming, with its maze of cobbled streets winding into pretty Piata Sfatului (a square that was allegedly the scene of the last witch-burning in Europe). Surrounded by Austro-Hungarian gingerbread and Baroque façades, it's irresistibly romantic.

Brasov is also a good base for day trips to Bran Castle, the country's number one spooky attraction; the drive there took me past the jagged Carpathians eyeing me darkly across the horizon.

Rising from a rocky bluff in a mass of turrets and battlements, the castle ticks all the gothic boxes. At its entrance is a gauntlet of stalls hawking Dracula paraphernalia, plus a fabulously tacky ghost house teeming with bored attendants dressed as werewolves. But inside, Bran Castle is too whitewashed and cozy to really get the frightometer going. Legend has it Vlad the Impaler was once imprisoned here. Ever more curious to trace the inspiration for Dracula, I drove 90 minutes north-west to the town he was born in.

The fortified Saxon citadel of Sighisoara, with its cobbled square clustered with biscuit-coloured buildings, is straight out of a fairytale and a seemingly unlikely birthplace for one of history's great monsters. Close to the square, overlooking the formidable 13th-century clocktower with its peacock-coloured roof, is the house in which Tepes was born. Casa Dracula, the restaurant that now sits in its place, has a ghoulish bust of the count mounted to the wall and armour scattered around the suitably moody interior.

Stoker never set foot in Romania – preferring instead to do his research in the Reading Room at the British Library. But in that gothic yarn that spawned myriad horror films and a literary vampire genre, the most evocative passages are not in London but Transylvania: first its hero Harker spends a night in Bistritz where he is begged by locals to turn back; secondly, as he heads up the spectral Borgo Pass to the castle itself.

A short distance from the Ukraine border, Stoker's Bistritz is today's Bistrita, a low-key medieval town with cobbled streets, covered walkways, a huge church and the excellent Crama Veche restaurant, which provides sustenance in the form of knuckle of pork and grilled boar. From Bistrita, follow Harker's route to the lonely, Tihuta (Borgo) Pass. Perched on top of the pass in exactly the spot the Irish writer described the castle as being situated, is the vaguely gothic and eminently cheesy Hotel Casa Dracula.

It's spooky inside, with claret-red carpets, an antiquated reception with a stuffed wolf watching as you sign in, and a multi-tasking cleaner who deposits her vacuum, dons a cape and soundlessly ushers you down a creaky stairway to a crypt with a coffin.

Come evening, when the wind rattled the hotel's casements and those forests outside were black as coal, the place felt pretty creepy. But it wasn't until I took a walk up to the opposite hill the following afternoon that I really felt I was in Transylvania. As the sun slipped behind a ragged cloud, a solitary wolf howl echoed across the valley below. Those children of the night were singing again.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Bucharest is served from Heathrow by Tarom (020-3102 5480; tarom.ro); returns from £278. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow and WizzAir (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) from Luton.

Hire a car at Bucharest Airport with Autonom (0906 959 0002; autonom.ro) from €24 per day.

Staying there

Casa Wagner, Brasov (00 40 727 800 367; casa-wagner.com). Doubles start at €69, including breakfast.

Casa Saseasca, Sighisoara (00 40 265 77 24 00; casasaseasca.com). Doubles start at €32, room only.

Hotel Castle Dracula, Bistrita (00 40 263 264 010; hotelcast eldracula.ro). Doubles start at 220 Romanian leu (£39), including breakfast.

Eating & drinking there

Bistro de l'Arte, Brasov (00 40 0722 219 980; bistrodelarte.ro).

Crama Veche, Bistrita (00 40 0730 011 812; crama-veche.ro).

Visiting there

Discover Eco-Romania (00 40 728 974 801; eco- romania.ro) lists tour operators specialising in nature activities.

Carpathian Nature Tours (00 40 740 022 384; cntours.eu) offers guided bearwatching from €60 per day

Transylvanian Wolf (00 40 744 319 708; transylvanianwolf.ro) offers tours from €70.

More information

Romania Tourist Board: 020-7224 3692; romaniatourism.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried