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Out for the count: Hitching a ride in Transylvania

Dracula is big business in these parts, but it's not all Vlad in Transylvania. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

I didn't plan on hitchhiking to Bran Castle, in Transylvania, but Romanian drivers have a habit of offering lifts to anyone waiting at a bus stop. For a small fee, of course.

Vasile coaxes me into his clapped-out car along with three shopping-laden housewives, who all seem to know him. Just as I'm congratulating myself on ditching public transport, we halt in the next village to let the women out and begin kerb-crawling in search of new passengers. Presumably petrol is expensive in these parts.

Seats full again, the car wheezes on towards the craggy Carpathian Mountains. There are pauses for personnel changes every so often but once I get used to the ebb and flow of rural commuting it's a convivial way to spend the morning.

As we drive deeper into the foothills, Vasile and I chat in schoolboy French, switching to sign language every time we encounter linguistic road blocks. "Undead" and "blood-curdling" prove particularly challenging.

Transylvania has been associated with vampires ever since Bram Stoker based his 1897 novel Dracula on a real-life nobleman with a fearsome reputation. Vlad III Dracula had a penchant for skewering his enemies on spikes and leaving the corpses to rot, which earned him the nickname Vlad the Impaler.

The serial-killing count also displayed a fondness for eye-gouging, amputation, scalping and skinning. He hammered nails into the heads of his unfortunate foes and boiled them alive.

Despite his bloodthirsty behaviour, however, Vlad became a national hero after having led the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire.

We eventually arrive at Bran Castle, fabled home of the torturer-in-chief himself. Instead of angry clouds, forked lightning and bats swarming above the towers and turrets, there are deep blue skies and glorious autumn sunshine. It's about as scary as an episode of Scooby-Doo.

Academics claim there is no evidence that Mad Vlad ever set foot in the infamous fortress, much less actually lived in it - a fact conveniently ignored by locals who are too busy making a living from the legend to concern themselves with historical accuracy.

Bran village is a kind of Disneyland for goths. Souvenir shops peddle false fangs, cloaks and "vampires are a pain in the neck" T-shirts. Touristy restaurants offer "stake" and chips, washed down with a Bloody Mary. Servings are small, bite-sized even, although when I suggest this to the waiter, he fails to see the funny side.

It's time to move on and I'm slightly disappointed when the bus to Sighisoara arrives before another freelance cabbie.

Settled by Saxon craftsmen in the 13th century, Vlad's birthplace is an enchanting town - more Brothers Grimm than Balkan. Rows of Hansel and Gretel houses, medieval cobbled streets and fairy-tale churches keep tourist cameras clicking. Locals have been busy with the emulsion and buildings are painted in colours so lurid you half expect the Teletubbies to emerge from a doorway, rather than a nocturnal neck nibbler.

Despite a steady stream of vampire-related revenue, townsfolk are somewhat jaded by the daily procession of Dracula devotees. Street performers dressed in ghoulish garb display a world-weary "quick, pop your fangs back in, another coach party is coming" approach to their job.

They're lucky to have an income. The journey south to Brasov hints at Romania's status as one of Europe's poorest nations. Derelict former industrial sites are a reminder that less than 25 years ago the country was under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Horses and carts outnumber motorised vehicles, dwellings have a forlorn, neglected appearance and there's a general sense of deprivation.

One group of Hollywood filmmakers liked what they saw, though. The opening scenes of the movie Borat were shot not in Kazakhstan, as the storyline suggests, but in the rustic settlement of Glod, which means "mud" in Romanian. Villagers had no idea their poverty was being made fun of and lawsuits followed.

The city of Brasov, with its smart merchant houses, pedestrianised precincts and stylish outdoor cafes feels prosperous by comparison. A walk around its fortified walls provides an elevated introduction to Transylvania's most popular holiday spot and includes a few compulsory stops en route.

The Black Church is the largest gothic structure between Vienna and Istanbul and derives its name from damage caused when a 17th-century fire charred the interior. Nearby, Rope Street is reputed to be the narrowest street in Europe, although it looks suspiciously like an alleyway.

Find a coffee shop on photogenic Council Square and you can eavesdrop as earnest young go-getters at neighbouring tables plot their career paths in a fast-changing region.

From January 1, Romanians will have the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union. A flood of impoverished welfare applicants are expected to arrive in western Europe, according to some commentators, but the youngsters I speak to have no plans to leave.

"We want to create opportunities here so we don't have to leave," one budding entrepreneur explains in impeccable English.

Brasov's veneer of affluence and youthful optimism masks a depressing legacy. As darkness falls, members of the communist-educated, Russian-leaning (and speaking) older generation binge-drink the evening away on street corners. Expectations of a brighter tomorrow aren't universal, it seems.

From 1950 to 1960, Brasov was named Stalin City, after the Soviet leader. On the surrounding hillside, trees were chopped down in a formation to reveal the dictator's name - just in case anyone should forget who was in charge.

The sinister arboreal outline has long gone; replaced in 2004 by a faux Hollywood-style sign, proving to the world that Romania has a sense of humour. Sightseers can take a cable car up for a closer look at the giant white letters and follow hiking trails to lofty vantage points.

My guidebook warns that bears inhabit the hills and maulings are not unknown. As I'm absorbing the implications of this, competitors in the 2013 Brasov Marathon breeze past. My shouts of encouragement quickly turn to unease. If a bad-tempered bear decides to put in an appearance, I've picked the wrong group to try and outrun.

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Bucharest. Trains run almost hourly from the Romanian capital to Brasov, which is also served by daily rail connections from Budapest, Hungary.

 

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