The Land Beyond the Woods -- Travels Through Transylvania





"I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe. "

These are words of Jonathan Harker, the novice solicitor and protagonist in Bram Stoker's 1897 epistolary novel, "Dracula."


To many Westerners, there's an undeniable mystique about Romania -- Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains in particular. Thanks to the descriptive writing of an Irish author (and the memorable movie performance of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi), Romania -- and its most infamous prince, Vlad III -- will invariably alway be associated with vampire mythology.



Eerie shadow of a dragon signpost on a medieval house
The house of Vlad Dracul, Sighisoara



 

The supposed influence for Stoker's Count Dracula, Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula -- son of the Dragon -- was in truth an important ruler in the country that is now Romania, but in Wallachia, a region adjacent to Transylvania. He was known for his fearsome resistance to the rampaging Ottomans whom he, well, impaled, and supposedly also engaged in a sort of biological warfare, catapulting the bodies of diseased prisoners into the Turkish encampments.


Bust of Vlad the Impaler in the medieval citadel of Sighisoara
Vlad III, Dracula, son of the Dragon, Sighisoara
 

Vlad III was also thought to be a fair ruler, doling out equal punishment to peasant and nobleman alike -- although it's also possible that he himself was a victim -- of Saxon propaganda.


Curiosity surrounding the inspiration for Stoker's monster certainly added to the intrigue of visiting Romania as my first post(?)-pandemic international travel. But to be honest, this Harker "quote" more appropriately sums up the allure of this young European country:


"All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. "


Green hillside with sheep and red autumn trees
Biertan, in Sibiu, Transylvania
 

I was lured to Romania by a Facebook group started during the first shutdowns of the pandemic. "What do you see from your window?" encouraged those locked down in their homes to post photos of their surrounding landscapes. Photo after photo of the Romanian countryside rolled into my news feed and enticed me with unexpected beauty. I had to see it for myself.


Pastoral valley with rolling hills and tile rooftops.
Biertan

View over medieval village rooftops and hills with trees
Sighisoara, Transylvania

 

Transylvania itself is a region -- a judet -- in Central Romania that is surrounded by the horseshoe of Carpathian Mountains. Its name means "Land Beyond the Woods," and it encompasses medieval citadels, fortified churches, Saxon villages and lots of castles, including Bran Castle.


Moody black and white image of a craggy castle on a high rock outcropping
Bran Castle, Transylvania

"Suddenly, I became conscious of the fact that the driver was in the act of pulling up the horses in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky."

While Bram Stoker never visited Romania, he was surely familiar with Bran castle, which was built on the site of a fort occupied by Teutonic Knights in 1212, high on a rocky outcropping on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia.


Construction on the castle itself began in 1377, and it served as a customs house for merchants and vendors traveling between the two regions.


While Vlad III never lived in Bran castle, he was a captive there for a couple of months in 1462, imprisoned by Hungarian king Matei Corvin for his punishments of German Saxon merchants who failed to abide by his rules regarding trade in Wallachian markets.


Secret stone staircase
Of course there's a secret staircase....

 

In 1920, after Transylvania became part of greater Romania, the castle was donated to their beloved Queen Marie, and it became her royal residence -- after a few homely improvements, of course.


Library with a cozy nook fireplace
Library with a cozy fireplace!


A handsomely furnished room in a gothic-style castle
King Ferdinand's bedroom

 

(As a fascinating side note for my Washington State readers, Queen Marie was great friends with Sam Hill, founder of the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge. In 1926 the Queen visited Washington for the dedication of the Museum, donating over 100 artworks, textiles and personal belongings.)


Elegantly appointed room in a gothic-style castle
Queen Marie's bedroom

When Queen Marie died in 1938, her daughter Princess Ileana inherited Bran Castle, and after Romania's Communist period, it subsequently came back into the hands of Ileana's children, who now operate it as a museum -- and tourist attraction for horro-philes, however tenuous the ties to the world's most famous vampire.



 

Arched medieval gateway
Gates to the citadel of Sighisoara

More closely associated with Vlad Dracula is the medieval citadel of Sighisoara.


Originally a 13th-century German Saxon settlement, it was fortified to protect its artisans and craftsmen from raiding Turks, with each of its 14 towers dedicated to a separate guild. Ingeniously, the towers were arranged in a sort of assembly-line, where one step of a craft would be completed, then passed on to the next guildhall.



Medieval tower with town below
One of the nine remaining towers in Sighisoara

While the Citadel itself is full of sites of historical and architectural importance, the one people flock to is the birth house of Vlad the Impaler.



Vlad III's father, Vlad Dracul, lived in exile in this house just off the main square from 1431-35, and it was in this house that Vlad Dracula was purportedly born (the record is a little ambiguous).


Vlad the Impaler's father was made a member of the Order of the Dragon (Dracul) by the King of Hungary

 

While you might not see the spectre of Dracula himself while tiptoeing through Sighisoara's cobblestone alleyways at night, you will sense the presence of the Stregoi of Romanian lore -- zombie-like ghosts that wander between "midnight and cockcrow," preying upon the living.


Spooky lamp-lit cobblestone street.
The streets of Sighisoara at night....

Nighttime image of a wooden covered staircase and lamp-lit tombstone
Scholar's stairs and the Tomb of the Uknown Hero

 

Its tumultuous history notwithstanding, Sighisoara is considered the pearl of Romania, and if you can get past the shadows cast by flickering street lamps, you can enjoy a pleasant stroll down its cobblestone streets and relax in its open plaza, waiting for the bells on the historic clock tower to sound.


Beautiful medieval clock tower with figurines.
Sighisoara clock tower with Dracul house in the foreground.

Medieval house with stag head mounted on corner
The Stag House

Gothic church front
Roman Catholic cathedral


Green medieval building on a cobblestone street
Casa Georgius Krauss

 

(And as another interesting side note for my Pennsylvania readers, my home state of Pennsylvania -- Penn's Woods -- became a home to a Transylvanian transplant in the late 17th Century. Sighisoara native Johann Kelp -- a theologian, mystic, musician and writer -- was invited by Willam Penn to come to Philadelphia in 1694 in the interest of seeking religious freedom. There, Kelp established a sort of commune in the valley of the Wissahickon Creek, to wait out the coming apocalypse. Vestiges of the settlement remain in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.)



Transylvania itself might be a place of mystery to those who haven't had the good luck to visit it, but in truth, it is a place where you can believe in magic and the spell of history. Saxon villages, mountains that whisper with the sighs of millions of trees, and medieval towns that still thrive with history intact.


Horse in front of rustic village house
The village of Viscri

Red-tiled rooftop with view of pastoral valley
View from the fortified church in Viscri

Beautiful red-tiled roofs in a valley lined with trees
The Transylvanian town of Brasov


Near the end of our journey to Romania, we pass a sign as we're leaving a Transylvanian village -- it says "Drum Bun." Is this a menacing medieval chant, a ward against evil? I ask our guide, Marius. He laughs and says "It means 'Good travels'" -- something that we experienced during the entirety of our ten-day tour of Romania. And not a vampire in sight....




Saxon village house with horse cart
Drum Bun!








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