Day One: Bucharest
“The only thing that terrifies me in this country are the dogs,” says my tour guide, talking about Romania’s legions of stray canines. “This guy obviously hasn’t met Dracula,” I think to myself.
I am in Romania at the request of Prince Vlad Dracul III, the 15th-century leader who inspired Bram Stoker’s vampire (in reality, I’m meeting actor Luke Evans, who plays the prince in Dracula Untold). He has summoned me to Transylvania to discuss his film — a reimagining of how Vlad the Impaler might have become Dracula the vampire. Who am I to refuse such an invitation?
Bucharest welcomes me in darkness, with a thick mist clinging to the landscape like a damp shroud. The streets are dusted with January snow, but it’s mercifully mild — I am told it was -18C here last week.
My transit from Otopeni Airport unveils a city with an architectural split personality; torn between communist-era brutalism and elegant baroque and neo-classical styles.
A short walk from my hotel, I discover the city’s Old Town. Here, I dine at a popular spot called Caru Cu Bere (the Beer Wagon), a church-like, art nouveau grotto kitted out in seductive curves of dark wood, with stained glass windows and rustic-yellow walls. I gorge on specialities including bean casserole, plum brandy, liver wrapped in bacon, chicken broth and pork knuckle with sauerkraut and polenta.
With all this in my belly, I’ll sleep like the dead. Tomorrow I head north to Transylvania.
Day Two: Bran Castle
It’s a few hours’ drive to the southern edge of Transylvania (train services are also available from Bucharest). En route are glimpses into a world forgotten by western Europe: horse-drawn carriages carrying logs across mountain streams; roadside shacks selling sheepskin rugs; grubby faced children in bobble hats.
Beside the jagged Carpathian Mountains, we stop for lunch in Sinaia, a ski resort peppered with triangular-roofed chalet-style houses. From there, we negotiate the hairpin bends towards Bran Castle, known to tourists as Dracula’s castle.
This is the building that inspired Bram Stoker’s novel and all those old Christopher Lee Hammer films. You won’t find a Romanian translation of Stoker’s book here though; hardly anyone in the country has read it. It’s not even certain whether the real Vlad Dracul visited Bran at all.
Our guide here is a comedy Vlad the Impaler, sporting an unconvincing moustache. His idea of fun is scaring the bejesus out of his guests by leaping out at them from dark corners. This is, admittedly, quite amusing. More disturbing are the rooms full of antique torture instruments. You could be tortured for anything in Vlad’s day; there’s even a neck clamp for “punishing minor offences such as arguing and bad musicianship”.
After sunset, my companions and I have Bran to ourselves for a banquet including delicious Romanian wine (Chateau Bran merlot 2007? Keep pouring, please), not so delicious schnapps, and wild boar stuffed with plums. Fortunately, it’s the only bite any of us get tonight.
Day Three: Brasov and Targoviste
I wake in the 13th-century Saxon town of Brasov, in a charming traditional-style hotel called Bella Muzica.
After breakfast there’s a tour of the town, with its Teutonic-looking buildings. Brasov is set against the backdrop of a mountain-forest nature reserve: home to boars, buzzards, owls, eagles, lynx, wolves and bears, with a cable car to take you to the top. I’m told a grisly tale about a man who was eaten by a bear near here a few years back.