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New Europe

Day Sixty-one: Sighisoara to Bucharest

The Transylvanian countryside 
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The Transylvanian countryside is some of the least spoilt in Europe. Chemicals and agribusiness haven't made much of an impact here.
Michael Palin - New Europe'Transylvania had its high Middle Ages... its Baroque, its Enlightenment, all the historical ages that made Europe... that did not exist in Russia or in Romania, ... Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Thrace, Greece and the Ukraine.'

These are the words of historian John Lukacs, quoted in Robert D. Kaplan's book Balkan Ghosts, and they neatly answer a few questions, like why the loss of Transylvania to Romania hurt the Hungarians and Germans so much, and still hurts. It also must explain the frustration of those who see Transylvania becoming synonymous not so much with enlightenment but with one of the world's most exportable fantasies.

When Bram Stoker created Count Dracula he created not just a monster but a monster people wanted to believe in. Dracula emerged, not just from death into life, but from fiction to reality.

Bran Castle, 17 miles south-west of the city of Brasov, soars dramatically from an unassailable crag. Red-tiled hipped roofs, a towering crenellated keep pierced by stone chimney stacks, all framed in golden autumn colours.

Though there is no evidence that Bran Castle had anything to do with Vlad the Impaler, apart possibly from a bit of besieging in 1460, people want to believe that these were the real walls he clambered round, and these were the actual lamp-lit windows he entered. So, around us, beside the car park, the Dracula industry is in full swing. For the drinkers, Vampire Pinot Noir or Dracula's Blood, for the parents, T-shirts and mugs, for the kiddies, severed hands, and for the clubbers, a Prince of Darkness disco, complete with twitching skeletons. And it could have been much worse. A proposal to rip up hectares of oak forest to build a Dracula theme park was successfully derailed by an alliance of Romanian environmentalists and the Mihai Eminescu Trust, a group set up to preserve traditional farming methods, of whom Prince Charles is a patron.

I walk up to the castle with Petre Moraru, an actor who makes a bit of pin-money playing Dracula at a club in Bucharest.

'It's Halloween coming up,' he reminds me. 'I'm very busy.'

In his opinion, the idea of human vampires was around long before Bram Stoker. The Romanian peasants were, and still are, deeply religious and nothing frightens them more than the idea of the Un-dead, the suspicion that a body might enter a state in which it's technically had it, yet the spirit remains alive. He had heard only recently of a stake being driven through the heart of someone who'd been terrorising a family.

Which, as far as he's concerned, can only be good for business.

The appearance of Bran Castle further blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction. It looks exactly like the sort of castle you'd find on a book cover or a theatre backdrop, and the interior is a set in itself. A combination of National Romantic and Arts and Crafts style, with lots of spooky windows, flickering fireplaces and winding stairs, it was decorated and furnished in the 1920s by Queen Marie of Romania and her court architect.

When the Turkish empire was breaking up in the late nineteenth century, the European Powers provided a complete make-over service for newly liberated countries, with a constitution, borders and a monarch. Thus Prince Charles of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen found himself King Carol of Romania, even though he'd never heard of the place. (The Greeks were given a George, and the Bulgarians a Ferdinand.)
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-one: Sighisoara to Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Braşov
  • Book page no: 145

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