Sir John Ure discovers the contrasts and challenges of the Romanian highlands, exploring monasteries, villages – and the legend of Count Dracula.
The romantic-sounding region of Transylvania, the eastern Carpathians and their neighbouring region of Moldova (though not the Republic of that name) all lie within one country – Romania. But as we spent a week travelling around this extended section of eastern Europe we felt that, although we might indeed be geographically within one country, we were in fact traversing three separate and quite distinct emotional and historical worlds.
The first world was one of Gothic fantasy. It is epitomised by Bran Castle, with its much-vaunted connections with Vlad the Impaler – better known as Count Dracula. Other castles crowd the hilltops with their turrets and dungeons, their armouries and torture chambers. This is a world in which Ludwig II – the mid-19th-century mad king of Bavaria – and Wagner would have felt at home.
The periodical rumble of thunder and flashes of lightning seem a natural backdrop to its dark coniferous forests, still alive with wolves and the occasional brown bear. Occasional encounters with light-fingered gipsy gangs lend a frisson of danger to the unwary traveller – as we were to discover during our travels. The swans on the moonlit lakes look as if they might at any moment transmogrify themselves into ballerinas in search of a lovelorn prince.
The second world is a more wholesome one of Saxon villages and simple peasant agriculture. Horse-drawn carts trundle slowly along the lanes; small old-fashioned haystacks line the fields and punctuate the horizons; smiling old men scythe in the fields and decoratively dressed women fork up the hay; poppies and other wild flowers enliven the meadows; wooden Saxon houses with their high gates and brightly coloured exteriors line the village streets; every telegraph pole seems to support a nesting crane newly arrived from Africa; Lutheran churches, with their outer defence walls, outnumber Orthodox and Catholic ones. This is the world beloved of Prince Charles, who has bought a manor house in the region. It is no longer Wagner's world, but rather that of The Sound of Music.
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