…I know what you are thinking…
My visit to this notorious region of Romania has nothing to do with the works of Bram Stoker. His novel has spawned a micro-industry whose popularity in these parts extends no further than a smattering of tourist tat vendors. Indeed Bran Castle – the impressive “home” to count Dracula – begrudges one solitary room to the story.
When 800 years of power have been wielded by monarchs and rulers from within these walls you don’t need to resort to fiction to tell a great story. Today the castle is a popular but worthy visitor attraction despite, not because of its literary affiliations.
Bran is one of many castles that lend a fairytale quality to the region. Bordered by the Carpathians and swathed in forest you really feel like you are travelling through some vast film set. Which would explain why Transylvania is a popular set location for film directors.
The royal palace of Peles near Sinaia might just have been penned by Walt Disney. I have been fortunate to visit the bonkers castle of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria and Peles left me with that same feeling of wonderment.
Despite any number of remarkable old buildings Transylvania’s greatest assets are natural. We don’t have anything as mountainous in the UK as the Bucegi range. One bright but breezy day we commissioned a 4WD tour to summit the Caraiman peak (the cable car was closed due to the winds).
Our hairpin ascent finally broke through the tree line to leave us in snow near the 7800 feet summit – almost double the altitude of Ben Nevis. In the winter months much of this area is transformed into ski resorts and I’m tempted to return and experience that elemental rawness, followed by the fireside hospitality of some welcoming lodge.
The valleys and foothills are every bit as dramatic and for the most part unspoilt. Perhaps the pot-hole strewn track into the Piatra Crailui national park has been instrumental in warding off developer attention. Our hire car is a suitably rugged 4WD Toyota Hilux (named “the beast”) which seems the minimum requirement for this route, until I see a Daewoo Matiz romping along the track, in a cloud of dust and detached body parts.
With a mere scattering of farming settlements and lodges the park offers peace and tranquillity. And this view…
A 6 mile walk through the valley unfolds a dream-like panorama. The snow capped mountain ridge dominates a dense forest that gives way beneath the foothills to a lush green valley and glacial melt-water river.
It’s hard not to be on the constant lookout for movement in the trees. Are we being watched? Brown bears live in this area leaving me torn between the desire to see one and the desire for it not to see me. Needless to say I witness no sign of bears or of the resident lynx, wolves or adders.
The marvellous Libearty Bear Sanctuary nearby in Zarnesti hosts 85 of these beautiful creatures, often rescued from incarceration . Romania has a bad track record on animal welfare. Many of the rescued bears spent their former lives chained up or caged outside mountain lodges in this region so it’s good to see a change in public attitude.
Today’s walk is not without its natural encounters. Disturbed turf where wild boar have been rooting for food. Beautiful horses roaming with a sense of freedom. Buzzards circling overhead and ungainly storks perching on one leg. Why do they do that?
Time outdoors here is restorative. The aches and pains of modern life evaporate and the week’s dietary excesses (see my previous blog on Romanian food) are forgotten, if not forgiven. My family are not so forgiving when the route I have led them on expects us to ford a fast flowing river. Like I’ve been here before…
A weathered shepherd materialises from the landscape to guide us across a concealed log bridge. Life must be very tough in the cold months when isolated communities like this are cut off in the snow. There is little in the way of automation for the many Transylvanians who spend their lives tending herds or growing crops. People here are tough – they just get on with it.
This landscape must be full of stories. People have witnessed a lot of change – the fall of communism, induction into the EU and creeping globalisation – but some things haven’t moved on. It’s common to see people working the land with a scythe. Horse drawn carts remain in widespread use, whether as an aide to farming or family transport.
Nowadays the shepherds are invariably fiddling with mobile phones and even the cart drivers are glued to Angry Birds, but Transylvania, like the Caraiman peak, rises dismissively above the diversions of modern life.