I visited Transylvania when I lived in Hungary and wrote this not long after coming back. It’s a fantastic place. Go there!
“You vant sumver to schleep?”
The voice came from behind me. I turned away from the map and faced a tall, very thin man, grinning from ear to ear, jumping from foot to foot. He had misty blue eyes.
I looked around the almost deserted train station and back to my map and shrugged. “Yeah, why not?”
I had travelled to Romania from Budapest on the kind of over night train I thought only existed in murder films. There were strange people wandering about the corridors, back and forth, occasionally staring into the carriage. The border guards hammered on the glass windows, shining torches in sleeping faces, demanding answers, “Where you go? You together?” The dodgy stories drift through the backpacker’s circle and grow in minds like Chinese whispers. So I stayed put, wide-awake. Just in case.
As the sun rose that morning, we crossed the border into the greenest place I’ve ever seen. The train crept through every shade of emerald, the trees heavy and wet, swallowing the tracks. The morning mist swirled around the summits of the hills and clung to the bottom of the valleys.
It was like I was time travelling. Smoke spluttered from crumbling houses, made only from a few bits of wood. Leather skinned gypsies worked the soil in the fields with only their hands. Farmers loaded their families into the back of their horse and carts and drove them parallel to the train tracks. I knew Romania was poor, but this was something else.
Signisora was a sleepy little town, nestled into the deep green forests in the heart of Romania. It was famous as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, nick named Vlad the Impaler, otherwise known as Dracula. It is a beautiful town of battlements and needle spires, with absolutely nothing to do once there. Which is probably the best thing about it.
I arrived at the youth hostel, led by my new guide, Andre, a bit of a legend himself. He was 19 and drank can after can of beer as he answered the phone in the hostel (if it ever worked). Beer was cheaper than chocolate, and unbelievably, cheaper then water, one reason, I suppose, why he drank so much. The other reason is the hostel. Thousands of backpackers pass through this town every year, although you could hardly tell. It was like a trade secret. We only ever saw the few travellers from our hostel, who, every night would ply Andre with beer. He would happily take us out to the only club in town, and help us order pizzas from the many Italian restaurants. He had never left his country, which wasn’t unusual for Romanians at that time. They simply could not afford to. For Andre, working in the hostel and meeting new people every day, was the best job in the world.
The town could be easily explored in a couple of hours as the pizza places and rustic bars far outweighed the museums. The torture chamber was fascinating, as was the clock tower, which had ancient carvings and a stunning view over the foxy brown tiles that roofed the town. Signisora, however, relied on Dracula for its main income, selling T-shirts and postcards with crude pictures of the Count on them growling and dripping with blood. The town itself was by far the best example of a museum. The houses were crooked, with tiny windows in the attics that seemed rather sinister. The STOP signs had horse and carts on them. The morning mist was actually all day mist here, which settled around the hills like candy floss. And I swear they trained their dogs to howl like wolves.
The strangest thing about the town were the people who, don’t get me wrong, all seemed ever so nice and eager to help. But if you looked at them…carefully, their eyes… seemed odd. Beautifully odd. Murky brown or misty blue, moving and swirling around the pupils. Hypnotising.
After a few days, I travelled to Brasov, a bigger town, further down the railway line. It was a hell of a long journey in a double decker train that smelt strongly of steaming, mouldy clothes. “The gypsy train.” Andre giggled afterwards. “Not good. Takes longer. Stops at every house.” Yes, thankyou André.
What a difference Brasov was. Not a horse and cart in sight. And the most striking thing? The huge ‘Brasov’ sign that lit up at night, Hollywood style, at the very top of the hill that towered over the town. I’m not sure if it compared itself to Hollywood, (maybe their sign was erected before?) but all the locals would do is grin and say, “like Hollywood yes?”
Brasov was packed with restaurants and people, and very disappointingly, even had a Macdonald’s. All of a sudden I felt like a tourist again. The buildings still lent against one another like old men, but the whole place lacked the quaintness of Signisora.
I travelled back to Signisora (on a modern train, which took two hours off the journey) and was greeted by Andre at the station with a hug and a handshake. He touts for business at the station, preying on backpackers, trying to persuade them to stay at his hostel. He looked hung-over, nervous and shook uncontrollably. But still had a smile on his face. I walked back with him to the hostel to discover the electricity was off. A lorry had driven past the hostel and knocked the lines down. ‘Not many lorries’, Andre explained. I woke up the next morning to the sound of a horse and cart trotting by. You just can’t beat that.
On the last evening I walked to the station to book my ticket back to Budapest. On the return walk, there was a couple of kids playing in the street with an old deflated ball. The bravest, a little girl, jumped up and down and shouted, “Take piture, take piture.” Several children gathered round as I took my camera out of my bag. Stories of muggings passed through my mind, which vanished when I reminded myself they were only kids. Vampire kids? No, just kids.
“What’s your name?” I knelt down and smiled at the little girl. They each shouted their names as they put their hands up, grinning.
“Ok, ready?” I said as they all posed.
I took the picture and knelt down to show them. They were fascinated to see themselves on screen. They pointed and shoved to get closer. They were all very dark children, black hair, tanned skin and looked like brothers and sisters. One of them had slightly crossed eyes, which still held that mist inside.
I was about to walk away when a young woman came up behind the kids. She had long dark hair, was very slim and moved very slowly as if she might break.
I showed her the pictures on the camera, and she motioned writing.
I figured she wanted me to send her a copy. I searched in my pockets but could only find my train ticket back to Budapest. After a moment’s hesitation, I handed it over with a pen from my bag.
She knelt down and wrote very slowly, leaning on her knee.
When she finished the strange numbered address, she stood up and gave the ticket back, smiling. I stopped, stock-still. She had huge incisors… I motioned to her to stand with the kids, so I could take a picture of her. I wanted those teeth on camera. She must have been aware of them and her mouth stayed firmly shut in a closed smile. Only the slightest shadow could be seen behind her lips.
I guess Bram Stoker came to Romania and noticed the local traits, the mysterious eyes, the sharp, large teeth. He made a legend out of them. The original vampires still live on in Signisora, in the greenest depths of Romania. I assume he made the blood drinking bit up.
I boarded the train as the weather closed in. It started to get darker as the black clouds crept towards the station. I thought about Bram Stokers vision of Romania. It was almost true. Almost. I settled into my seat as the train pulled away, echoing the rumble of the thunder. The lightening began to flash in the valley below