Romanian Road Trip: Transylvania without Vampires

Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?

There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14. 

While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.

Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.

The inner courtyard suddenly transports you to a different century.
Reconstruction of the Throne Room – where the Ottoman representatives would come to discuss terms with the leaders of Transylvania.
Council room for the brief period during which Transylvania was independent of any empire.
Traditional German men’s costume from the region.
Traditional Hungarian women’s costume from the area.
Traditional Romanian costume from the area.

It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.

The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)

You can barely make out the mountains in the distance but on a clear day it is utter heaven. I’ve been hiking in these mountains many a time – and my parents live just on the other side of them, about 100 km as the crow flies.

We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.

The Small Square, which marks the second set of city walls in Sibiu.
The tiny windows in the attic are known as ‘the eyes of Sibiu’.
Four strapping young boys braving the Liars’ Bridge. Local superstition has it that if you utter a lie on this bridge, it will collapse.

By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!

One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).

18 thoughts on “Romanian Road Trip: Transylvania without Vampires”

  1. Another lovely post, Marina. Your friends’ family stands as a model for how nations should live together. That looks like a spectacular carpet of autumn crocuses in your last shot.

  2. What a journey you have embarked upon. The massive, imposing buildings seem to harbour the incredibly dark and mysterious history, and myths, of this fascinating country. How enriching for your children, and yourself, no doubt. It is good that you keep up speaking Romanian to your boys. They will appreciate it when they get older, if they do not at this time. My parents were born in Russia but spoke both Russian and German, my father being of German extraction, his family having come from Hamburg during the time of Catherine the Great. Their story during the second world war is too Tolstoyan to get into here. I will tell you about it when you come to France in the Spring.
    We were shunned when we moved to Canada because of the German connection, therefore we learned to speak English very quickly and without reservation. I regret deeply that I lost my resolve to continue speaking at least the German (my parents spoke Russian to each other but German to me and my siblings as we were all born in Germany). I could be tri-lingual but the French keeps getting in the way.
    I vividly remember when we first met how easily you jumped from speaking English, to French, and to German as well, I recall….without hesitation……or fault. This woman is one smart cookie, I thought to myself, in awe, blushing internally at my own inadequacies.

    1. I was wondering if you spoke any Russian, but it’s not the easiest of languages to keep up if you’re not surrounded by it. At least, that’s the excuse I use for my largely forgotten Japanese… Also, I learnt it as an adult and somehow it doesn’t ‘stick’ as well.

  3. I find your discussion about language absolutely fascinating, Marina Sofia! And I’m happy that your sons speak several languages. All the research points to benefits on many levels if one is multilingual. And how interesting the difference is between myth/legend and actual history. Thanks for sharing those photographs; I feel as though I’ve been virtually along with you on your holiday.

    1. Thank you for putting up with all my blog posts on the topic. I do feel a bit like that boring friend who invites you to dinner and then insists on showing you every one of their holiday snaps (still happens nowadays, except now it:s on their phone).

  4. Fascinating. I remember passing through Sibiu and Brasov, and passing a couple of days with my penfriend (not panfried, spellcheck!) in Cluj, where she was a student. Back in the 70s we had to be careful what we said in public; agents would be listening out for that rarity, a westerner/English speaker, and to associate with one was potentially difficult. We had to report to the local police station daily when we moved up to her sister’s near the border in the north. Your mention of the folklore puts me in mind of the Transylvanian trilogy by Bánffy, that I read and posted about recently; gives great insight into the culture and politics in the years leading up to WWI in the region.

    1. I love that trilogy – well, I’ve only read the first volume so far, but am definitely keen to read it all. He was an outstanding man and politician, Banffy.

  5. Beautiful images again Marina, and lovely pictures of the boys! I can imagine how annoying the Dracula thing must be – I used to get really wound up about Scottish cliches! And having a command of so many languages is very, very impressive! 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing those happy moments with us! And your pictures are great; makes me feel like going to Romania for some intensive sketching.

  7. Oh, this brings back wonderful memories of my visit to Sibiu, between a few days of cycling near Fagaras (in and around Soars) and Timisoara, a couple of years ago. You could have added a photo of the Orthodox cathedral in Fagaras for good measure – the scale and the cost of the place in this otherwise not very sprightly town completely baffled me.

    1. If you look closely, it’s there in profile in the picture of the castle. Yes. We sid not visit it on the inside. And it’s by no means the only oversized church in small towns. Making up for 50 years of state atheism, I suppose…

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