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domingo, 31 de agosto de 2008

A Transylvania & Bucovina non-Dracula tour

Some friends came over during my holidays and we made a short, 8-days, 1.300 km. trip from Bucharest to Transylvania and Moldavia. [Don't mistake Moldavia -Romanian region- with the Republic of Moldova -an independent country-]. An orientative map of our route is the following:

We were not after the Dracula's legend (supposedly based on Vlad Ţepeş), but maybe it will be more entertaining to describe our trip related with the Dracula tour, as most of names if cities and regions will say nothing to you, and Dracula is a well-known character. So beware, a vampire is hiding behind these lines...

After some problems with car hiring, we headed West, taking one of the only two motorways currently existing in Romania, the one to Piteşti. The traffic jam in Piteşti was huge and, still with a fresh memory of the traffic jam suffered in Bucharest, we decided to take the risk and take a secondary road. A very lucky choice, as there was no traffic, and we passed by a bunch of nice Wallaquian vilages on our way to Curtea de Argeş, where the Transfăgărăşan road to cross the Carpathians starts, leading to Sibiu through Bâlea glacier lake (2,034 meters of altitude). With most of the national roads under repairing works, we did the same many other times, always a good option if the weather is good and the sun is still on the sky, as at night the walking peasants, bikes, horse carts, cattle and straw dogs are no more part of the landscape and become a real danger... More danger of killing than of being killed, but it's not, in any case, a confortable environment to drive.

Just where the Carpathians begins lay the ruins of the Poienari Citadel, the main fortress used by the Wallaquian prince Vlad Ţepeş against the Turks during the second half of XVth Century. If you have to chose one, this would be the "real" Dracula fortress.

We stayed two days in Sibiu, a beautiful Saxon town (Hermannstadt in German) that was 2007's European Capital of Culture, and had subsequently its historical centre renovated. The "eyed" roofs are maybe its more remarkable feature. Then, on our way to Bukovina we visited Alba Iulia and Cluj-Napoca, watching from the distance the impressive Turda gorge, other Romanian natural wonder we had to leave behind. Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár in Hungarian) is, with 300.000 inhabitants, the third largest city in the country, an important economical, cultural and scientific center whose buildins whispers about a rich XIX Century bourgeois history, and whose statues, flags and graffities shouts about the complex Magyar-Romanian relationship. Had I chosen national feelings and interethnic relations as the driving idea of my story, Cluj (ruled by the ultranationalist mayor Gheorghe Funar, from România Mare -Big Romania-, between 1992 and 2004) would have deserved, for sure, a whole chapter. But I chose Dracula instead, and we must move forward.

We headed East and passed Bistriţa, leaving Transilvania for Bucovina just for a couple of days. We visited some of the famous, UNESCO-honored painted monasteries from our "base camp"at Gura Humorului, a summer location, a shtetl without Jews, a remembrance of recent, non-literary terrors. 100 km before, in the border between Transilvania and Bucovina, is Tihuţa pass (or Borgo Pass, according to Bram Stocker) the entrance to Dracula realms, the Bârgău Mountains, another impressive landscape in this hilly country made of ups and downs. So, if you want, you can call this place the "fictional" Dracula homeland, although Vlad Ţepeş never put a foot on this area, and no castle or fortress ever existed. There is now a "Hotel Castel Dracula" in Piatra Fântânele, at the top, that is more respectful with the environment than one would have expected, with very few "thematic park" elements appart from the name. Not a bad place to stop by; Lemonade is served cold, I don't know about blood.

On our way back to Transilvania we went fast accross Neamţ region to spend more time at Bicaz gorge and Lacul Roşu (the Red Lake), one of the most weird places I've ever seen: a lake created by an landslide in 1838, where the fosilized remnants of dead trees still can be seen. Another good spot to dream of camping and hiking, another good location for made-up terror stories about lost camp children or flooded villages.

We spent our last three days back in Saxon Transilvania, visiting Braşov (Kronstadt in German) , Prejmer Peasant Fortress (a very special fortified church), Bucegi Mountains... Being in a reasonable distance from Bucharest (let's not messure on km here, but on driving hours, 2-4), so maybe still some of you reading this will be come and visit these places or others we couldn't visit because of lack of time: Sighisoara, Fărăgaş, Piatra Craiului, Sinaia... And Bran Castle, "Dracula's castle", a war fortification with no relation either with Bram Stocker's Dracula or Vlad Ţepeş life that, once reconstructed, became one of the many summer residences of Habsburg royal family during XX Century. At an easy distance from Bucharest (1,5-2 hours), some smart guy noticed its touristic potential, sticked a poster at the entrance and won the game. Thus, you visit a worthy place, but with a very different story (Habsburg-related) than expected, and with the surroundings spoilt by oversized Dracula souvenir shops. Let's call it, then, the "touristic" Dracula's Castle.

And then just the way back to Bucharest left, through Prahova Valley and Dambobiţa County, from Bucharest surroundings to its outskirts, from the outskirts to its distant neighbourhoods, and from there to the city centre, to Cişmigiu park, where everything started and where no vampire has ever be seen. However, some evenings, while hearing the birds croaking like crazy when the sunset comes, I can't help thinking of Hitchcock's birds...

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