May 2005: My girlfriend and I rented a Dacia, small Romanian made car, and drove around Romania for a week with an emphasis on Transylvania, a mountainous region (average elevation 5,000′) in central Romania steeped in superstitions about werewolves, and vampires. Transylvania is a land of gypsy caravans, medieval villages where horse carts are as common as cars and countless castles, many abandoned on forested hilltops. Traditional European rural life is probably best preserved in Transylvania. Many of the old customs, clothing wooden style of houses, and horse carts can still be found there. This is largely due to the geographic isolation of the region because it is surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, which have historically cut the region off and also because of the isolationist policies of the ruthless Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, who ruled the country for decades until 1989 when he was overthrown in a revolution and executed with his wife by firing squad. Transylvania is not only a great place to visit medieval villages that have an old European feel, but there is also the association of Dracula. During my visit the experience of traveling in Transylvania was very raw and wild, it felt like a country that had just recently shed its communist past and was trying to discover its new identity and despite all of its Dracula and general tourism potential to draw millions of foreigners, it was still an untrodden destination. I knew after my visit that this would not last. Transylvania was just to cool to stay this way.

 

Because of Transylvania’s isolation, rugged mountains and vast forests, it has also emerged as one of Europe’s last wilderness areas where you can still see bears and wolves in the wild. There are many reserves with endless hiking opportunity such as the wild Retzat Mountains.

The Driving Route

We arrived in Bucharest and picked up our rental car, which I arranged from a local company without an office via email. A company representative met us in a parking ramp and handed the Dacia rental car to us. During the course of the week, we would push the little red Dacia vehicle with low clearance passed its limits and get our full money’s worth out of the car.  We decided to immediately leave Bucharest and start driving north into the Carpathia Mountains and get into Transylvania as soon as possible.

Route in Transylvania

The legacies of communism and its drab and monotonous architecture was prevalent across Bucharest and many of the outlying cities. And it was interesting to see the contrast between the small rural wooden medieval villages and the dystopian landscape of monolithic concrete communist block apartment buildings.

 

Palace of Parliament  second-largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon) andbuilt by  former dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu

Depressing Communist Era Buildings

Our first stop was Lake Snagov just outside of Bucharest. We hired a small boat to take us to an island on the lake where a monastery is located. The monastery is believed to be the final resting place of the buried head of Vlad Dracul Tepes-the historical figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad Dracul made a lot of enemies in his life, and he eventually was captured and beheaded. His head was taken to the island in lake Snagov. Vlad is considered a defender of Christianity who helped unify Romania against the invading Muslim armies Ottoman Empire and because of this he is considered a kind of saint and his burial spot is venerated by becoming a monastery.

After visiting lake Snagov, we drove to the northern Carpathia mountains and started to climb through remote forested winding mountain roads, where villages became scarce and the ones we did pass appeared forgotten by time. As we drove through the small villages with wooden houses, the air was filled with wood smoke from fireplaces burning stacks of wood for warmth. A common architecture is a Ornately carved wooden fences and gates in front of a house that had a small bench adjoined to it. usually, an elderly person would be seated on the bench, man in a traditional hat or woman in a head scarf watching us curiously as we drove by. The villages all seemed to lack a large population of young people or children.

As we ascended into the mountains it was dark and there were no villages, and it was late. Even though there were villages or houses for miles we would occasionally come across someone walking along the road in pitch blackness with no flashlight. We eventually were too tired to drive anymore and there were hotels, so we pulled over on a small wooden track and camped in my tent that I brought along for the trip.

Carpathian Mountains

Region of Mara Mures Frozen in Time

The next day we skirted the northern Hungary border as we drove further over the Carpathian Mountains until we reached Cluj Napoca, another drab communist city. But once we were outside of Cluj, it didn’t take long before we felt like we had traveled back in time to a much older Europe where people wore traditional clothing, men in wooden hats, women in colorful dresses and head scarfs. Churches were wooden, old and modern industry was nonexistent. farming was done manually with animals and wooden carts were the main form of transport. People were friendly and commercial tourism has yet to take root in this magical land. We were in the region of Mara Mures and I was in love with it.

Once in the region of Maramures, the pavement ended and we were on dirt or gravel roads, some in poor shape displaying the years og government neglect which has also led to the isolation and survival of the uniqueness of this land.

We picked up some very interesting hitch hikers. One elderly woman, very brawny and tougher than me by far was carrying a large basket and we stopped to ask her directions to a wooden church, and we managed to communicate with sign language and photos, and she offered to show us, so we offered to drive her to her destination.

We also picked up a Romanian Orthodox monk on the side of the road with his black robes and long beard and we took him to his monastery. He was kind but reluctant to let me take his photo. which was a common trait for monks.

500 Year Old Wooden church Maramures

A highlight was visiting one of the 500-year wooden churches. It is amazing that the tall churches made entirely of wood have stood this long without being destroyed by fire. Most villages in Maramures are accompanied by one of these old churches and to visit them we had to find the key keeper in town and he had to meet us at the church to let us in. On the outside was an overgrown graveyard with Gothic looking gravestones barely sticking out of the tall grass, some dating back hundreds of years or more. The inside of the church is a dark and mysterious world with a tapestry of hell and brimstone paintings inscribed on the walls. Some paintings are very blunt and depict vulgar torturous acts of demons inflicting suffering. Almost every church we went into in Romania had something similar on the walls to remind the living of the consequences of a sinful life.

Interior paintings depicting demon torture of the damned

Interior paintings depicting demon torture of the damned-Demons Hammering Objects into the Rectums of the Damned

Abandoned graveyard

We didn’t have a place to stay and there were no obvious hotels or guest houses, so we just walked up to a small wooden house, and I asked a woman in the garden there in sign language if a place to sleep existed in the village. She caught on right away and offered to let us stay in her house, so we ended up staying the night with her and she cooked a traditional meal of organic freshly made local ingredients. Then from her house I traveled around the village by hitchhiking on the back of horse carts with other villagers. I would ask if I could hop on, and they always agreed, and I would just ride around the village and eventually hop off and get back on another one going the other way.

Ornate Gates 

Maramures Village

Painted wooden hats of village men 

Elderly woman who hitchiked with us 

Horsecart driverds in Maramures

Woman casually sowing in Maramures

Elederly lady sheperd 

Maramures Village Life

Maramures Village Life

Custom being practiced of putting pots and pans in a tree of the front yard of an available woman in the household-a dissapearing custom 

Tough natured people, elderly woman carrying boards of wood on her back 

Villagers on horsecart carrying wood 

Scărișoara Cave in the Apaseni Mountains

After departing one of my favorite regions on Earth, Maramures, we drove to the Apaseni Mountains to find the  Scarisoara Ice Cave. The allure of more idyllic rural mountain villages lured us on some bad rutty roads that once we were on them, they were too narrow to turn around. We bottomed out multiple times and occasional 4wd uphill conditions was too much for our little Dacia engine to handle and it began to have tantrums on us almost stalling sometimes.

Scarisoara Ice Cave was incredible, and we were the only visitors. We had to descend hundreds of feet to the bottom of the pit and from there a caretaker showed opened the entrance and we explored the cave on our own. The cave is one of the only in the world with perennial ice inside those dates back to the ice ages. The interior is thousands of feet across and full of huge, towering ice stalactite and stalagmites. There were some parts that were steep and slippery and even though we loved crawling around the ice to explore we knew that if we slipped into some of the dark deep ice pits, we would never get out.

Apuseni Mountain Village

Apuseni Mountain Village

Me inside the Scarisoara Ice Cave

Me inside the Scarisoara Ice Cave

Sigisoara Village-Birthplace of Vlad Tepes Dracul

After driving all day, we arrived in the medieval hilltop village of Sigisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes Dracul. We booked a homestay inside the old walls of the village and parked our car and explored by foot at night. We were exhausted but Sigisoara had an enchanting hauntedness to it that surprised us with more wonder around every corner. The Gothic towers, narrow cobble stone roads, and covered bridges and walkways and creepy old graveyards were just simply awesome and Sigisoara rates as maybe my favorite medieval village. The best part of the visit was that despite the incredible tourist potential, we were always alone everywhere we went.

Sigisoara streets

Sigisoara Tower At Night

Covered wooden walkway leading to an old graveyard

Graveyard at night we walked into with ancient tombstones

Transylvanian graveyards with photos of deceased 

Our homestay in a home hundreds of years old. The accent of the owners of our homestay with very Dracula like.  The owners moved out of their room when we inquired and gave us their sleeping quarters. We found a secret passageway in our room that appeared to be another living quarters where we think the owners stayed while we were in the house. 

Portrait of Vlad tepes-Dracula at a restaraunt we ate at in town 

Romanian Gypsies 

No visit to Transylvania is complete without encountering the Gypsy people or Roma. Thousands of years ago Gypsie’s followed Alexandar the Greats army back from India performing all of the tasks such as grave diggers for Alexandars army and have been in Europe since. Gypsie’s have been given a bad rep over the years, some of it deserved and some not, but one thing is remarkable about the Roma, they have managed to maintain a unique culture despite thousands of years of living in Europe and even though they are mostly treated as outsiders everywhere they go, they are adaptable and always find occupations that suit them and their nomadic lifestyles. Romania has one of the largest populations of Roma in Europe and there are approx. 2 million of them. Towards the south of Transylvania, we started to spot caravans of nomadic Roma traveling across the countryside. We also drove to a Roma village but when we arrived a group of 20 of them started to chase after our vehicle and my girlfriend gave panic and we sped off as the Roma shouted waiving their hands.

Gypsy caravan 

Gypsy Village

Gypsy caravan 

Hunedoara Castle

We left Sigisoara driving across southern Transylvania through more tranquil villages. Our goal was to get to the wilderness of the Retzat Mountains, a wild range of mountains with some of the largest wild populations of mountain goats, bear and wolves in Europe. Along the way we stopped at the Gothic castle of Hunedoara where Vlad Tepes Dracul was imprisoned for a while. Hunedoara Castle was the quintessential castle with a drawbridge and moat. The only complaint I had about it was its location which seemed out of place in a town of communist block apartment buildings.

On the way to the Retzat Mountains we drove through some beautiful countryside with abandoned hilltop castles. There were just too many to explore and too little time. We stopped in a few small villages with their own unique architecture from other areas of Transylvania we have been. 

Hunedoara castle

Transylvanian village

Transylvanian village

Abandoned hilltop Castle

Camping in Retzat Mountains

We arrived in the Retzat Mountains in the afternoon and paid a village to look after our car while in the reserve. Once we started hiking a village dog joined us and stayed by our side for the entire hike and well into the next morning before disappearing. We followed a trail through forested valley with towering snow-clad mountains on both sides of us. Our loyal dog companion by our side. We crossed the river multiple times on fallen logs, broken bridges The water was high, and the river rapids were furious. 

Retzat Mountains

Retzat Mountains

River crossing

River Crossing

Me crossing a bridge

Me with our companion that followed us from a village

With no map of the trail and no real idea of where we were going, we walked for hours deep into the mountains until it started to get dark and cold and when we arrived at an abandoned cabin that looked like it was falling apart, we decided to make it our place to camp for the night. We pitched our tent outside the cabin and started a huge bonfire to keep warm. At some point in the night while we sat by the bonfire having a drink of wine, our canine friend started growling loudly and barking at the darkness around the periphery of our campfire. It was a little worrisome because we couldn’t see anything. Then the dog frantically barked and gave chase and disappeared. We waited for the dog to return but it never did, and we ended up walking around looking for him but there was nothing but thick forest and a whole world of darkness out there. We ended up going to bed and we never did see the dog ever again. The next morning, we hiked back to pick up our car and we continued our drive via Sibia to Bran Castle.

Abandoned Evil Dead like cabin where we camped for the night

Bran Castle

The next day we visited Bran castle, a picturesque castle sold to tourists as Draculas’ Castle however most historians say he may have only visited once if at all. From Bran castle we drove to the real castle of Vlad tepes Dracul, Poenari with the goal to cam there for the night.

 

Bran Castle

From Bran Castle we drove to Bucharest, dropped off our car which was covered in mud concealing the dents and scratches and since the rental car company didn’t turn on the engine, they luckily didn’t hear the sputtering of the engine damaged from all of the abuse we inflicted on the poor little Dacia. We ended up sleeping on the airport floor in Bucharest to save money and the next morning we flew to Frankfurt, Germany to spend the day there before flying home. 

 

15 + 6 =