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Train to Transylvania

Exploring Romania’s Land of Legend by Rail

Dracula's Castle in Transylvania, Romania
Although never occupied by the infamous count, Bran Castle is still popularly known as Dracula’s castle.

“Have you had your vehicle accident yet?” the fortune teller asked while she examined my open palm.

“Er, no,” I said.

“See this break in your lifeline?” she said pointing to a short crease on my hand. “It means you’ll die soon. But notice how the line resumes? That means you’ll be brought back to life.”

If I’d heard such a chilling prophecy anywhere else in the world, it would have been easy to dismiss. But seated at a table in Sighisoara, a fog-shrouded city best known as the birthplace of “Dracula,” it was tough not to pay attention. Especially since moments earlier, Razvan Balint, our local guide, had exclaimed how accurate her prophesies were. Now, he was in the uncomfortable position of translating the rest of the bad news into English.

“She says it will happen in a car accident,” he said looking apologetic as he passed me a good luck potion wrapped in rough fabric.

Fortunately, there would be a momentary reprieve. I would be doing most of my travel by train.

My journey had begun a few days earlier in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, a city just awakening from the aftermath of 50 years of Communist rule, a 1989 revolution, and years of political corruption. Strolling its tree-lined streets was like being on a architectural treasure hunt as remains of the city’s classical and medieval past emerged unexpectedly from behind mammoth Soviet-era structures.

From there, I’d traveled by train to Brasov, the launching point for forays into the Transylvanian countryside. First settled by Saxons from northern Germany who built village fortifications to defend against waves of invaders, today the rolling hills of wildflower meadows remain relatively untouched by the pesticides and industrial farming prevalent in other parts of Europe.

While best known as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula), the region’s pastoral beauty fringed by the peaks of the Carpathia Mountains is creating a new eco-tourism draw. Villagers in towns such as Viscri are renovating ancient stone farmhouses to accommodate hikers and others interested in venturing beyond the Dracula trail. They hope to preserve the area’s rich heritage of myth and legend without losing their 12th century village traditions.

“Locals recently fought off a “Dracula Land” theme park in favor of small-scale development,” Balint explained.

Despite the controversy surrounding the commercial exploitation of the vampire myth, I enjoyed exploring “Dracula’s Castle” in nearby Bran. In addition to its spooky narrow stone staircases and massive dungeon, the castle’s picturesque setting between the Bucegi and Piatra Craiuli Mountains, combined with a local market, make it an intriguing day trip from Brasov.

Another atmospheric town is Sibiu, chosen as a 2007 European Capital of Culture. The unusual “eyelid” rooftops atop its well-preserved buildings seem to follow the visitor as they traverse the cobblestone streets. Adding to the unsettling feeling is the allegation that Vlad III Ţepeş impaled over 10,000 of the town’s citizens during his reign.

Several days later, I ended my medieval explorations in Sighisoara’s historic center, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site. As I prepared for my overnight journey to Budapest, Hungary and tucked the fortune-teller’s good luck potion in my purse, I realized that despite Transylvania’s dark and legendary reputation, I wasn’t too worried about her foreboding prophesy.

After all, I did have another train ticket in my pocket.

For More Info

Transportation: Rail connections between Bucharest (Romania) and Budapest (Hungary) make it easy to travel between countries and explore the Transylvania countryside. Get more information at www.eurail.com and www.romaniatourism.com.

Cultural Romtours (Bucharest) offers a range of custom tours that can include pick-up at train stations. For information, visit culturalromtour.com.

 
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