Dracula has the day off, I was told. I was in Sighisoara — a 12th-century Transylvanian town touted as Dracula’s birthplace — where he usually could be seen lying in state in a coffin in his “birth room.”
“He had a very busy summer season,” the manager at the place explained apologetically.
Somehow, his absence seemed fitting. Ever since I’d landed in Bucharest and headed out to the Transylvanian countryside in search of Bram Stoker’s famous count, the guy had remained elusive. No billboards touting “Dracula’s hometown,” no roadside signs marking “Dracula’s Trail.” Even my guide and driver were quiet on the subject. Romania, it seems, isn’t keen to cash in on their connection to the vampire-obsessed Western world.
No matter, I soon discovered. Dracula’s homeland offers much more to see than a vampire.
Irish author Bram Stoker never traveled to Transylvania, but infused his “Dracula” with the legends and lore of the place. In doing so, he painted a foreboding landscape of evening mists, looming shadows, ancient castles and dark forests. But I kept finding its medieval towns charming and its autumn sunlit landscape more conducive to a fairy tale than a horror novel.
Traveling to Transylvania was like visiting the past. A man crossed a road carrying a scythe; another delivered milk, pulling an old-time tin milk container in a wagon. Horse carts dotted the highway. Sunlight turned the mounded haystacks in the fields to gold.
All that charm I would discover after my first evening in Transylvania. That first night, the weather as Stoker’s character Harker described it when he first entered the region: “On the dark side of twilight.”
Clouds hung low over the countryside and tall trees lined the empty highway, casting long shadows. High within the tree boughs hung huge airy orbs of mistletoe. The mood to me seemed perfect; it was the Transylvania I expected.
A truffle-filled meal
My first stop was in Sibiu, a town that guidebooks recommend as one of the largest and best preserved medieval towns in Romania. Some of its three concentric rings of fortified walls still stand, along with an intriguing spider web of squares, passageways and stairs dating from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
From rain-washed windows that night, I looked out onto the Piata Mica (Little Square). Across from me was the 14th-century Council Tower — hauntingly lit by a three-quarter moon that shone through wisps of clouds. The “eyes of the city” as my guide called them, stared back at me: Small oval-shaped windows that seem to have half-lowered eyelids are set into the roofs of most of the buildings in Sibiu.
In the morning, after a shower, I dried off with towels that smelled of sunlight and fresh air from line-drying (a hotel doesn’t get more “green” than that), before I dressed and headed to the town’s market.
Like other European countries, Romania’s open-air markets are plentiful and common. Food festivals are also popular. Besides visiting one in Bucharest, I also happened on another in beautiful Brasov — where its pretty Market Square was filled with umbrella-shaded tables and the scent of sugar from the popular kürtös kalacs, cinnamon horns or chimney cakes (a Transylvanian pastry treat that dates back to the 15th century).
In the tiny village of Crit where I stayed another night at a popular bed-and-breakfast, I happened upon an autumn cooking class and truffle hunt. After tramping behind a local guide with his two dogs into picturesque (and rain-wet) woods, everyone took part in preparing and eating a feast focused on truffles.
In the autumn, roadside stands in Transylvania were another common sight.
At the first market I visited, a friendly looking seller smiled and said in English, “all natural,” as he proudly pointed to bottles filled with berry juices and homemade tuica (the region’s potent plum brandy) along with piles of apples, pears, quince and walnuts. Then he cracked a walnut shell with tough work-worn hands and offered me the sweetmeat inside.
In Sighisoara, the desk clerk at the hotel where I stayed was proud to tell me she had made the blueberry jam served on the breakfast buffet table.
Real man behind the legend
Sighisoara turned out to be my favorite of Transylvania’s villages, with cobblestone streets and ornate churches. The Saxon fortress town is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval towns.
The town is considered the birthplace of Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes (or Vlad the Impaler), who supposedly was Bram Stoker’s inspiration for his bloodthirsty creation. Even with (or maybe in addition to) its kitschy “birth room” tourist site, the Old Town area within the walls was a bewitching mix: winding streets, secret passageways, sweet tearooms, towers and turrets and a magnificent 14th-century clock tower that still marks the time at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. In a city where it feels as if time has stopped, the clock seemed almost ironic to me.
The town of Bran was my last stop — and this is where I finally found the elusive Dracula. Stalls that lined the streets displayed fake fangs and T-shirts, mugs and shot glasses depicting the vampire. I even caught a glimpse of the back of Dracula’s cape as he wandered the crowd for photos (and kisses).
From the streets below, Bran’s castle high above with its steep stone walls and turrets appeared exactly as I pictured from reading Stoker’s book and seeing the films the book inspired. Indeed, I was told on the tour that this is why it actually became known as “Dracula’s Castle.” In truth, Dracula’s inspiration, Vlad Tepes, never lived in this14th-century castle.
The castle was hardly scary; it felt more like a favorite royal summer residence — which at one time it was. Romania’s beloved Queen Maria and family restored and used it during summers in the 1920s and ’30s.
The castle is haunted, according to a castle guide, but not by a vampire. More likely, he said, it’s the ghost of Queen Maria, who buried a small son here.
The following evening I headed out of Transylvania and back to city life in Bucharest. Again, my trip was made during twilight, but this time there were no brooding overcast clouds, just luminous strands of pink against a deep blue velvet sky.
As we passed through the main street of one small village, I saw a man sitting outside his home on the edge of town.
He did not smile, but he waved — and we sped by, the black shadow of the car racing beside us in the field.
Donna Tabbert Long, a freelance travel and food journalist, writes for numerous publications.