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).

Quick-Fire Reviews for Holiday Period

It’s been a long time since I last posted any reviews, although my reading has continued unashamedly. So I have some wonderful books to share with you. I will post more in-depth reviews of Tove Jansson’s memoirs and Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, because I am comparing and contrasting two or more books in each case, but here are some quick reviews of the books I have enjoyed during the final days of 2014 and the first few days of 2015.

IslandersPascal Garnier: The Islanders

The ultimate anti-feel-good Christmas story. Olivier reluctantly returns to his home town of Versailles on a frozen December day to prepare for his mother’s funeral. Iced in, unable to leave, he bumps into his childhood sweetheart Jeanne and gets invited to Christmas dinner at her house, where she lives with her malicious blind brother, Rodolphe. Is it the spirit of generosity which makes Rodolphe invite a homeless man to take part in their celebrations, or something more sinister? And just what terrible secret binds Olivier and Jeanne? What I want to know is: how does Garnier manage to deliver, again and again, in such succinct formats, a devastatingly accurate description of people on the margins of society and on the borderline of alcoholism and madness? Once again, it starts innocently enough: a funeral, a claustrophobic and snobbish little town, strained family relationships… and it all ends in confusion and mayhem.

BlueNightsJoan Didion: Blue Nights

The same year that Didion lost her husband, she also lost her daughter after a prolonged battle with illness, coma and hospitals. Another moving book about loss, grief, the guilt of parenthood, the fears of being a parent, and the frailty of human life in general. I haven’t read a better description of the flaws and limitations of the medical system, of the humiliations of growing older, of the doubts, challenges and joys of parenting – elegiac rather than angry, thoughtful rather than didactic. A meditation on the reliability of memory, on multiple interpretations of facts and on what it means to love and be loved.

Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

Perhaps more disconnected and woolly than the Year of Magical Thinking book, more jumping around with seemingly disparate pieces of information, but it still has that vulnerability and depth which made the other book so memorable.

ShallowWatersRebecca Bradley: Shallow Waters

I’m always a little nervous when I read books by friends – what if I don’t like it? Will it destroy our friendship? Dare I be honest? But, luckily, there was no need to worry about that with this book! An in-depth review is forthcoming on Crime Fiction Lover, but for now let me just say that this is a solid police procedural, with an engaging female lead who is not profoundly damaged, drunk or unbearably lonely (what a relief!). The author skilfully hints at quite a back story there, but doesn’t let that overwhelm the investigation. The story revolves around kidnapping, abuse and murder of young girls, so it becomes almost unbearably grim in places, and we see just how much this affects each individual member of the police team too.

The very atmospheric cover, perfect for the genre and fitting so well with the story, has won a gold star from the very demanding Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer fame.

PiercedHeartLynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart

Lynn Shepherd has created a great niche for herself with novels which may loosely classified as ‘historical crime fiction’, in which she plays with re-imaginings of real historical people and events, full of literary allusions. Her Victorian investigator Charles Maddox was previously involved with the family of the poet Shelley, and with the ambiguous justice system of the time (in a retelling of ‘Bleak House). This time it’s an interesting twist on the original Dracula – the vampire sceptic’s book about vampires, perhaps. Close enough to the original (right down to the names) to please fans of Bram Stoker’s book, but full of healthy human rationality and investigations. If you are sick and tired of YA literature’s obsession with vampires – or if you have family in Transylvania and are tired of factual inaccuracies about the historical precedent of Dracula – this is the book which combines spine-tingling suspense with a good dose of satire about superstitions. Some reviewers have found the end of the book implausible or over-the-top, but that is precisely the point, as far as I can see.