The wind whistled through the trees and an early evening mist rose over the rolling hills. It was a sunny day, but an icy fear gripped me as a name popped into my head, one that filled me with dread: Count Dracula. Then my husband, Cornel, burst out laughing. “It’s only a legend,” he said. “Calm down. He’s not real!”
We were hiking in the beautiful forests of Faget just outside the city of Cluj-Napoca, or simply Cluj, Transylvania, in Romania. Cluj is my husband’s home city. In fact, it’s the second-largest city in Romania after the capital Bucharest. It is also the unofficial capital of Transylvania. And for good reason.
The city itself is a mishmash of baroque, gothic and renaissance architecture. Gilt-edged, opulent palatial hotels sit next to Gothic-windowed buildings dating back to the Middle Ages. Those buildings are often made of stone both externally and internally and most churches are spired.
The influence of the Hungarians is also tangible (the city was once owned by them). It can be seen by the odd ornate building with columns and pastel-coloured walls jutting out against a stone, austere Gothic building.
Now my husband was showing me the surrounding forests, which seemed a world away from the bustling city, even though it was only an hour’s walk back to the centre.
Growing up, I have to admit, it was the clichés that sprung to mind whenever I heard about Romania – orphans and poverty after the collapse of communism; or grey, soulless tower blocks and, of course, the man himself, with his slicked-back hair, fangs and sweeping cloak.
But as we walked along through the trees bursting in all their spring glory, nothing could have been further from the truth. There was nothing soulless about this incredible, untouched landscape with its pure, natural beauty.
Hills would occasionally give way to flat areas of land. The air smelt of woodsmoke – I wasn’t sure whether from nearby houses or people making small forest fires, and I couldn’t help but inhale deeply all the same.
Transylvania translates simply as, “beyond the forest”. It is an area bounded on the east and south by the Carpathian mountains. This mountain range, which forms an arc of around 1,500km across central and eastern Europe, is a source of mineral water and boasts thermal spas for tourists as well as brown bears, wolves and chamois. And there I was fretting over a mythical character!
We’d been hiking from early morning with a leisurely picnic lunch along the way and despite this being a haven for walkers, we barely saw a soul all day; so dense and large was the forest. It was almost 6pm and so we decided to head back to the city before it got any later. “Did you know this forest is largely unprotected?” my husband said, as we walked over moss and fallen branches. He explained it was already under threat from logging and deforestation. “Prince Charles was recently campaigning to ensure the forests are protected for future generations,” he added.
“What a shame if they were to be wiped out,” I replied.
Still thinking about this, we walked in silence back into the city, and headed towards the centre of Cluj to see the ornate Opera House. It’s a beautiful lemon-coloured building, with large imposing columns and two turrets that was built between 1904 and 1906. Many famous eastern European and Russian artists have performed here and it’s a popular tourist landmark.
But it was still Transylvania’s most famous – or rather infamous – resident who fascinated me most. The Count Dracula myth was made famous worldwide by author Bram Stoker in 1897 with his novel Dracula. It was based on the ancient Transylvanian belief in vampires, although, as I learnt, the Dracula character is actually based on a historical figure called Vlad Tepes. Born in 1431, he was the bloodthirsty Prince of Wallachia, a region of Romania, who was known across the land for viciously impaling his enemies; and myths of blood-drinking abounded. This is thought to have led to the literary idea of Stoker’s that a stake should be driven through a vampire’s heart to defeat them. I’d read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, seen the film of the same name, as well as the old Hammer Horror films and Interview with a Vampire. But being where it all began felt extra special.
You can visit Bran Castle, where Vlad Tepes lived, in nearby Brasov – just three hours drive from Cluj. My intrigue was greater than my fear, so off we went to visit ‘Dracula’s’ castle.
When we arrived in Brasov, it was sitting, imposing, on the horizon – an enormous stone castle with terracotta red turrets jutting up to meet the sky. You drive up winding roads, and then it becomes so steep you have to walk up the rest of the way.
To me, on that day it looked like a beautiful fairy-tale castle; a place for Rapunzel to let down her hair. But I could imagine how terrifying it could appear by night. Looming on the top of a hill, this building is breathtaking and to the people under Tepes’s rule, it must have stood like an all-seeing eye over the town of Brasov and a fearful reminder of their violent ruler.
We took a 45-minute guided tour to see how the man who inspired so many Gothic tales once lived. The interior of the castle was all low ceilings covered in dark wooden beams, while the views from the arched windows were breathtaking.
As we walked from room to room (60 in total) I half expected a vampire to jump out from behind a creaking door. But thankfully none did.
“So you see,” my husband said, “it’s all myth... Well, mostly.” He thought it was funny that the Dracula myth has always been something tourists and foreigners fell for, not locals.
And now suddenly, with a bit of historical perspective and realising that the bloodthirsty stories were conjured up to terrify Vlad Tepes’s enemies, Dracula didn’t seem so frightening after all. Now I could relax, and back in Cluj I could enjoy what the city had to offer. A university city, there is a vibrant nightlife scene, but plenty to see and do in the daytime too. You can choose from cool cafés where the young and hip hang out, to ancient, rustic hide outs such as Etno – where archaic Transylvanian farming artefacts such as old plough parts and hand-held devices for reaping crops hang from the walls.
But for the gourmands among you, Hubertus Restaurant is the place both to dine and be seen. Specialising in Spanish and Romanian food, the restaurant has a vast menu of delicious fare to choose from. The atmosphere is highbrow but warm, with impeccably polite staff.
I opted for a rustic dish of a Romanian stew served inside a loaf of bread instead of a bowl. The presentation was as incredible as the taste. Romanian food itself is a blend of many traditions and reflects the influence of its many conquerors throughout history such as Romans, Ottomans and Hungarians. Yet, each region retains its own traditional dishes – and Transylvania is no exception.
During my stay I tried everything from sarmale (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice, herbs and meat), which is actually a Turkish word meaning ‘a stuffed thing’ – Romania was part of the Ottoman empire for over 200 years – to cozonac, a sweet bread flavoured with nuts and poppy seeds.
After all that food, a bit of exercise was necessary. I was in Cluj for 10 days and after our walks in the unspoilt woods a few days earlier I felt it was time to walk the streets of the city itself.
Cluj centre, although busy with cars and trams, is an easy city to stroll in. The streets are wide and clean and there is the huge Central Park – the largest in the city – which is situated on the shore of the Somesul Mic River that runs from the Apuseni mountains, through Cluj and to Dej, a city 60km north. Green and leafy, this large open space is a peaceful haven for walkers – with ornate water fountains dotted around and plenty of grassy areas to sit and picnic or relax.
It was lovely strolling along in the sun to one of the most famous landmarks of Cluj-Napoca, Saint Michael’s Church. The Gothic towered building is said to be one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture in Romania and was built in the 14th century. Inside, vast, gaping Gothic arches tower above you and it is impossible not to get a crick in your neck from simply gazing upwards. Some walls even have remains of ancient frescos that have been preserved and stood the test of time.
Afterwards, we walked to the Cluj Botanical Gardens, which are part of the the Babes Bolyai University. Covering 14 hectares, it is home to more than 10,000 species of plants. The gardens are simply stunning, and include the Japanese Garden and a Roman Garden. All too soon though, our trip was over. As we said goodbye to my husband’s parents I realised I had seen so much of Romania – the tourist highlights and the local secret surprises too.
I left my husband’s city of birth, feeling not only refreshed but enlightened. I’d seen the parks he played in as a child and the cafés he’d frequented as a student. But I also realised just how wrong I’d got this beautiful country. There are few places on earth one can feel influences from Turkey, the Romans, the Hungarians and the lands of myths and legends all weighted down in a thick blanket of history.
And as for Dracula... well, he doesn’t scare me any more. Not much, anyway..!