The land beyond the forestsComment on this story
London - The children of the night, what sweet music they make.” For some reason these immortal words from Dracula - whose author Bram Stoker died a century ago this year - were on my mind as I waited in a forest hide for Carpathian brown bears to arrive, ravens circling in the twilit clearing.
Shortly afterwards a mother and cub rolled into view, standing on their hind legs to sniff our presence. Curiously, it's thanks to Nicolae Ceausescu, the former megalomaniac dictator (only he was allowed to hunt during his 20-year rule), that 60 percent of Europe's brown bears are found in the country's Carpathian Mountains. There are an estimated 5,500 of them here, so your chances of seeing one are good.
But I was in Transylvania in central Romania not on the hunt for bears, but for Dracula. “Transylvania” translates as the “land beyond the forests”: roll the word around in your mouth and it seems to taste of wood-smoke and mystery. Its rugged mountains, forbidding forests, gothic castles and unspoilt countryside seemed identical to the fantastical land conjured by my childhood imagination.
Back in 1897, Stoker's protagonist Jonathan Harker noted in Dracula: “Every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool.” Few 21st-century cultures cherish their superstitions like the Romanians, be it Roma reading the tarot or villagers employing garlic and a crucifix to ward off strigoli (witches). When the total solar eclipse happened in 1999, certain villages across Romania were ringing church bells and building fires to ward off lycanthropes. And in 2004, barely 100 miles west of the capital, Bucharest, two men were arrested for exhuming a body and driving stakes through it to stop it haunting. I'd been in the country only a few days but it seemed to me to occupy a hinterland between folklore and reality.
I began my Dracula trail in the enchanting medieval city of Brasov. Legend has it the Pied Piper re-emerged here from Hamelin. It was also where the original inspiration for Count Dracula, Vlad Tepes, impaled some 40 merchants in the 15th century. This massacre was a minor indiscretion compared with the 20,000 Turks he'd impaled in southerly Targoviste. Tepes's father was called Vlad Dracul, and Dracul literally means “son of the house of the devil”. It's easy then to see why Stoker tapped into his diabolical bloodline.
These days, Brasov is considerably more welcoming, with its maze of cobbled streets winding into pretty Piata Sfatului (a square that was allegedly the scene of the last witch-burning in Europe). Surrounded by Austro-Hungarian gingerbread and Baroque façades, it's irresistibly romantic.
Brasov is also a good base for day trips to Bran Castle, the country's number one spooky attraction; the drive there took me past the jagged Carpathians eyeing me darkly across the horizon.
Rising from a rocky bluff in a mass of turrets and battlements, the castle ticks all the gothic boxes. At its entrance is a gauntlet of stalls hawking Dracula paraphernalia, plus a fabulously tacky ghost house teeming with bored attendants dressed as werewolves. But inside, Bran Castle is too whitewashed and cozy to really get the frightometer going. Legend has it Vlad the Impaler was once imprisoned here. Ever more curious to trace the inspiration for Dracula, I drove 90 minutes north-west to the town he was born in.
The fortified Saxon citadel of Sighisoara, with its cobbled square clustered with biscuit-coloured buildings, is straight out of a fairytale and a seemingly unlikely birthplace for one of history's great monsters. Close to the square, overlooking the formidable 13th-century clocktower with its peacock-coloured roof, is the house in which Tepes was born. Casa Dracula, the restaurant that now sits in its place, has a ghoulish bust of the count mounted to the wall and armour scattered around the suitably moody interior.
Stoker never set foot in Romania - preferring instead to do his research in the Reading Room at the British Library. But in that gothic yarn that spawned myriad horror films and a literary vampire genre, the most evocative passages are not in London but Transylvania: first its hero Harker spends a night in Bistritz where he is begged by locals to turn back; secondly, as he heads up the spectral Borgo Pass to the castle itself.
A short distance from the Ukraine border, Stoker's Bistritz is today's Bistrita, a low-key medieval town with cobbled streets, covered walkways, a huge church and the excellent Crama Veche restaurant, which provides sustenance in the form of knuckle of pork and grilled boar. From Bistrita, follow Harker's route to the lonely, Tihuta (Borgo) Pass. Perched on top of the pass in exactly the spot the Irish writer described the castle as being situated, is the vaguely gothic and eminently cheesy Hotel Casa Dracula.
It's spooky inside, with claret-red carpets, an antiquated reception with a stuffed wolf watching as you sign in, and a multi-tasking cleaner who deposits her vacuum, dons a cape and soundlessly ushers you down a creaky stairway to a crypt with a coffin.
Come evening, when the wind rattled the hotel's casements and those forests outside were black as coal, the place felt pretty creepy. But it wasn't until I took a walk up to the opposite hill the following afternoon that I really felt I was in Transylvania. As the sun slipped behind a ragged cloud, a solitary wolf howl echoed across the valley below. Those children of the night were singing again.
If You Go...
Hire a car at Bucharest Airport with Autonom (0906 959 0002; autonom.ro) from €24 (about R250) per day.
Casa Wagner, Brasov (00 40 727 800 367; casa-wagner.com). Doubles start at €69, including breakfast.
Casa Saseasca, Sighisoara (00 40 265 77 24 00; casasaseasca.com). Doubles start at €32, room only.
Hotel Castle Dracula, Bistrita (00 40 263 264 010; hotelcast eldracula.ro). Doubles start at 220 Romanian leu, including breakfast.
Eating & drinking there
Bistro de l'Arte, Brasov (00 40 0722 219 980; bistrodelarte.ro).
Crama Veche, Bistrita (00 40 0730 011 812; crama-veche.ro).
Discover Eco-Romania (00 40 728 974 801; eco- romania.ro) lists tour operators specialising in nature activities.
Carpathian Nature Tours (00 40 740 022 384; cntours.eu) offers guided bearwatching from €60 per day
Transylvanian Wolf (00 40 744 319 708; transylvanianwolf.ro) offers tours from €70.
Romania Tourist Board: 020-7224 3692; romaniatourism.com - The Independent