Monday, April 16, 2007

Romania II: Transylvania

Tuesday morning, we left Cornu and headed to Transylvania, driving deep into the countryside. It was an incredible drive—and incredible driving. The roads are generally two lanes, but people pass aggressively, often swerving out of the way of an oncoming car with just seconds to spare. There were often horse-drawn carts slowing up the traffic, so passing was unavoidable; I sat in the backseat and tried not to pay attention. There was plenty to focus on instead—the snow-capped Carpathians in the distance, flocks of sheep, deep pine forests. And the houses—fairytale constructions of turrets and spires, gables and paned windows, set against the mountains and picturesque in exactly the way you’d expect. Along the road were women and men selling jars of honey, round cheeses, strawberries. The women often wore kerchiefs on their heads and long, heavy, patterned skirts.

Our destination was Bran Castle, which Vlad the Impaler once attacked—he was the historical inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as was the castle. However, whether Vlad the Impaler actually lived at this castle or not is unclear; various books claim different things, and several castles in Transylvania seem to have Dracula connections. In any case, Bran Castle was lovely, but far from the creepy, shadowy spectacle I’d had in mind from reading Dracula before I came; indeed, the day was sunny, the sky a cheery blue, and the airy castle rooms were more cozy than sinister. Outside the castle, Andrew and I bought a hand-embroidered tablecloth from a craftswoman.

We drove on, higher and further into the mountains to Poiana Braşov, a charming resort area. Vlad had booked three rooms at the Vila Daria, a hotel in the middle of absolutely nowhere—we drove up unpaved roads deep into the woods to get to it. Two large dogs roamed the parking lot; the woods were full of fog; a large bear skin, head and all, graced the lobby. We were the only six people staying at the hotel—this, unlike Bran Castle, was truly creepy. The rooms, however, were luxuriously huge, modern and comfortable; we were told that Nicole Kidman rented out the entire hotel during the filming of Cold Mountain.

It was late afternoon by this point, and we headed to a rustic restaurant called Coliba Haiducilor for lunch—heavily decorated in traditional Romanian style, with lots of painted pottery and walls covered with various animal pelts. Vlad ordered two platters of appetizers for us, one hot, one cold; Andrew and I tasted what looked to us like a croqueta, only to be told by Vlad that we’d just eaten brains. It was difficult to eat anything at all after that, though the venison with “hunter’s sauce” I ordered was delicious.

Later that night, we made a treacherous drive down the mountain into Braşov, which was, even at night, a charming little town. The main square and the large church looked beautiful; I wish we could have explored it during the day. It was late; we went to a bar to watch a soccer match, and ordered Heinekens. I had the very strange sense that though we were in a small Romanian town, we could have been anywhere at all in the world doing the exact same thing.

Wednesday, we left Braşov and headed to Sinaia, which is set dramatically against the Bucegi mountains in the Prahova valley. Once again, we passed fairytale houses and lovely, stunning countryside; we stopped at a roadside craft market, where Andrew and I bought a sheepskin rug. Our destination in Sinaia was Peleş Castle, a German-style castle where Romania’s King Carol I lived until he died in 1914. The rooms were ridiculously lavish, each decorated in a different style—a Turkish room, a Moorish room, a Venetian room—and full of gold, wood, marble, glass. This, for me, was an archetypal castle, with turrets and grand stairways, and there was a pleasing sense of creepy decay about it, particularly the statues outside, overlooking the lush landscaping and the misty mountains in the distance.

For lunch we drove to Taverna Sârbului (The Serbian’s Den) for another meat-heavy meal—I had pork schnitzel, which was delicious but reinforced my desire to never eat anything but salad, ever again. Vegetarians would not fare well in Romania.

I felt fully satisfied by both the food and our charming foray into the mountains as we headed back to Cornu. That night, Vlad’s mother cooked yet another huge dinner—polenta served with butter, sour cream, and a good local cheese that tastes much like feta.

On Thursday, before we left Cornu for Bucharest, Vlad took us to a golf course—one of two in Romania. The resort was lovely, with pretty views into the mountains; what was lovelier was the fact that we could get a massage for very little money. So Andrew and I left the group at a sunny café table and headed to the spa, where I soon found myself having my back pummeled by a very strong masseuse, near a window overlooking the Romanian countryside. If you’d asked me last April what I’d be doing in a year, I would never have imagined that this would be my answer.

A huge lunch awaited us back at Vlad’s house—devilled eggs, a delicious egg soup, stuffed cabbage, baked chicken—and then we were on the road again, headed to Bucharest.

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