Would you enjoy a winter-sports holiday in Romania, famously home to Vlad the Impaler and 60 per cent of Europe's remaining wild bears? Given that Poiana Brasov, the country's only internationally established resort, is the cheapest in Europe and one of the most cheerful, the answer is almost certainly yes. As is customary in places with limited ski slopes, the Romanians make every effort to provide back-up entertainment for their guests, be it paintball warfare, excursions to historic sites or folkloric evenings.
Vlad's legacy is alive and well, but when you dine at the Touristic Sheep-Cot near Poiana, it is clear that the bears face a less certain future. The silver lining is that they would be even more at risk if the restaurant employed a better chef. The owner shoots to kill, filling his larder with five bears a year, each yielding 200 to 300kg of meat, plus 20 wild boars. Luckily for the indigenous wildlife, a little sinewy overcooked bear goes a long way.
The evening began with a serenade by Gypsy musicians round a bonfire, accompanied by hot brandy and spicy sausages. Then it was time for the indoor bear-fest, eaten round communal tables in a furry environment. The wolves that share the surrounding forests don't make it on to the menu, but they too have paid a price: their pelts make excellent wall-hangings. As we tackled the groaning platters, the Gypsies performed traditional dances, with both men and women intent on persuading the more beautiful visitors to kneel in the middle of the floor and snog. Very full-on, but welcome as respite from the hard stools.
Since the passing of the corrupt and brutal Ceausescu regime in 1989, Romania's recovery has been slower than in many other former Soviet-bloc countries, but today's average wage of £150 a month outside Bucharest makes for ultra-tourist-friendly prices. With beer at £1.20 a litre, vodka 30p a shot and a large Gordon's gin and tonic at £1.60, a round for eight in the neo-Brutalist Blitz club in Brasov cost £14. Compare that with Courchevel if you dare. The taxi driver charged £1.50 to get back up the mountain at 2am and the next day's recuperative massage cost £4 for half an hour.
Three thousand five hundred Britons ski in Transylvania each winter, many of them year after year. Poiana Brasov, 13km above the medieval town of Brasov, is not Romania's only resort, but as yet it is the only one to feature in mainstream brochures. It lies on the south-eastern fringes of the Carpathian mountains, three hours to the north of Bucharest's international airport. The random sprawl of hotels in the pine forests around the base of Mount Postavaru are short on architecture and atmosphere, but the interiors are spacious and comfortable. In the absence of a village focus, the best place to stay is the Sport, Bradul and Poiana complex, less than five minutes' walk from the nearest cable car.
There are two of these, plus a gondola, all of them venerable, rising some 750m to the shoulder of the mountain and accessing 14km of undemanding but reasonably prepared pistes. With the top station at a modest 1,775m, the runs are cut from the forest and graded more on breadth than steepness. With 68 instructors, many of them fluent in English, and a maximum of 10 pupils in each class, this is a cost-effective and enjoyable place to learn to ski or snowboard. After a couple of days on the nursery slopes, most beginners can tackle the long, gentle, top-to-bottom descent from the Kanzel pub, stocking up first with pinot noir Vampire (£2.40 a bottle) or chocolate cake to die for (60p a slice) according to taste.
Poiana Brasov's slopes have obvious limitations at any level above unambitious intermediate, but the cultural rewards for those who are prepared to look beyond a basic piste-bashing holiday are high. Bran Castle and Peles Palace, a "must do" day trip, provide fascinating insights into the country's turbulent past.
After centuries as vassal states of the aggressively expansionist Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires that surrounded them, Walachia and Moldavia were united as Romania under Ottoman rule in 1862. Fifteen years later, the country won its independence and accepted a German prince as King Karel I. After Transylvania joined the party at the end of the First World War, Romania acquired the boundaries it retains today.
Karel was an excellent choice, increasing his fledgling kingdom's prestige abroad and building extensively at home. His flagship is Peles Palace, a 116-room German Renaissance castle set in an English-style park at Sinaia, Romania's second but very undistinguished ski resort. Built at his expense between 1875 and 1914 by 400 craftsmen from across Europe, it is vibrantly eclectic, with elaborate carved wooden panelling, Venetian chandeliers, Italian marble, inlaid ebony furniture, bronze doors and specially commissioned copies of masterworks by Rembrandt and Michelangelo. What Karel liked, he liked in a big way, including a dining table for 36, a Turkish smoking room and a ground-breaking cinema. He also proved he was way ahead of his time by installing central heating, electricity and an elevator as early as 1883 and by keeping part of this magnificent summer palace open to the public all year.
Were it not for Bram Stoker, Bran Castle would just be a fine if chilling example of the ring of fortresses built in the 13th century to defend Brasov from invaders from the south. The Irish writer originally intended to call the blood-sucking villain of his gothic horror story Count Wampyr, changing it only when he read about Vlad Dracul in a Walachian history book in Whitby Public Library in 1890. In the 15th century, Vlad was a local hero due to his savage resistance to the invading Turks but, although he was the grandson of Mircea the Old, who built Bran Castle, there is little evidence that he spent more than the occasional night there.
Nevertheless, he was a worthy role model for the fictional Count Dracula. Nicknamed Vlad the Impaler because he enjoyed watching his enemies bleed to death over several agonising days while he was eating his meals, he probably inspired Stoker's liking for the stake as a weapon of destruction, while his rejection of the Orthodox church in favour of Roman Catholicism is sometimes used to explain the vampire's terror of holy symbols. In the 20th century, Bran Castle was converted into a summer palace for Karel I's nephew, Ferdinand, and his wife, Mary, one of Queen Victoria's many granddaughters. These sticklers for English tradition took tea promptly at 5pm every afternoon, but atmospherically Bran Castle remains much more Vlad than Euro royal.
Back at the resort, we took the paintball option in the all-pervading Transylvanian forest. Equipped with camouflage suits, body armour, helmets and guns, we deployed venom in the manner of Dracul as we dodged and slid among the trees, shooting to kill wherever possible. With paintballing at £9 for a three-part battle, a rate that included a seemingly unlimited supply of ammunition, we were never short of fire power. No staking, but on this occasion, Vlad's team won.
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Minty Clinch travelled with Inghams (020-8780 4433, www.inghams.co.uk) which offers seven nights at the Hotel Sport from £311 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers, half board accommodation, six-day lift pass, pre-booked ski tuition, rental of boots, skis and snowboard.Reuse content