Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Count me in

JOURNEYS – THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY: The ghosts of vampires and despots haunt a Romanian holiday, discovers Nick Cater | September 22, 2007

The Australian

VLAD the Impaler may be Sighisoara's best-known son but even in the heart of Transylvania no one denies he had his nasty side. Citadel Square in Sighisoara was one of the places Vlad performed his party trick: the insertion of a sharpened stake in the rear end of a wayward Turk or tax-shy merchant with such vigour that it would emerge beneath the shoulder blades. The human kebab would be raised and suffer a hideous death as a message to all that Vlad was not to be messed with.

Such is the power of Hollywood that, outside his homeland, it is not for his 23,000 impalings that the 15th-century Transylvanian despot is best known. An Irish writer named Bram Stoker with a less than assiduous approach to historical authenticity used Vlad Tepes as the model for Count Dracula and, 120 movie depictions later, midnight ghoulery has become his chief claim to infamy.

It is thus that I come to find myself at dusk in a darkened bar of Casa Dracula in the heart of rural Romania drinking a potent cocktail named Vampire's Kiss. I can't tell you what is in it ("It iz secret," the barman says ominously) but suffice to say it is deep red in hue, tastes suspiciously of the local cherry brandy and leaves you with the kind of hangover from which a swift impaling would be a blessed relief.

If bloodsucking kitsch were all there is to Sighisoara, I might happily have given the 4 1/2-hour train ride from Bucharest a miss. But it's not. Sighisoara's heart is a remarkably preserved walled Saxon citadel dominated by an elaborate clocktower at one end and imposing hilltop church at the other. These are joined by an intricate maze of cobbled streets and medieval buildings. The town's hinterland is rich in Saxon heritage, a patchwork of villages, many with the distinctive fortress churches of the region, mini-citadels built to withstand marauding Turks.

This is the heart of Romania, a Latin island in a sea of Slavs, territory ruled for many years by Hungarians, yet the culture is unmistakably Germanic, the legacy of settlers from Saxony. Medieval Romania, in other words, was a kind of European Union with all the feuds but without the bureaucrats.

Good luck and a little foreign persuasion by a conservation group that includes Prince Charles has meant Sighisoara's historic heart survived the bulldozer revolution of another local despot, communist president Nicolae Ceausescu, whose rural systemisation plan destroyed countless villages, rehousing country folk in Stalinist concrete blocks on the fringes of larger towns nearer the factories. Almost 18 years after Ceausescu and his scheming wife Elena were summarily executed after a popular revolution, and nine months after Romania joined the European Union on January 1, Transylvania's tourist potential is at last beginning to be realised.

The flip side of getting there before the crowds is that Sighisoara desperately needs sprucing up after years of socialist neglect and, instead of a gentle stroll, you're likely to find yourself stepping around gaping trenches as the local government, drunk with EU handouts, replaces the crumbling sewage system.

Romanians love the EU. After centuries under the Hapsburg Empire, a four-year flirtation with Nazi Germany and more than four decades as part of the Soviet alliance, the country has at last joined a club of which it is proud to be a member. Together with regional development funds have come squadrons of brightly coloured aircraft as Europe's rapacious budget airline industry moves in to take advantage of cheap landing slots and an expanding market.

Even so, tourism is still something of a novelty to Romanians after the claustrophobic years behind the Iron Curtain.

"What? You are going to Romania for a holiday?" asks my Romanian neighbour on the MyAir flight from Paris to Bucharest. "You are joking with me, no?"

As eastern Europe goes, she has a point. Anyone travelling to Bucharest expecting the period charm of Prague or the historic grandeur of Berlin will be disappointed. Earthquakes, wars and Ceausescu's demolition socialism have seen to that.

But away from the neo-Soviet boulevards, much of the old city has survived in a kind of time capsule that brings to mind Havana. Retreating from the August heat in the middle of the city for a cool drink, we find ourselves looking out on the courtyard of Hanul lui Manuc, an authentic 19th-century merchants' inn. Later, in search of some local cuisine, we discover the Caru Cu Bere, a 19th-century beer house decorated in grand gothic style that could pass as the set from Knights of the Round Table.

In the streets, on the cobbled spaces where Brussels-funded road-digging projects have not yet reached, street cafes have taken hold. The city, which between the wars claimed to be the Paris of the east, is regaining its mantle.

There is another, more recent, history to be explored chasing the macabre entrails of communism that those who, like me, are intrigued by the ideological madness that trapped half of Europe for much of the second half of the 20th century will find instructive.

After coming to power in 1965, Ceausescu turned his back on Moscow, looking instead to the dynastic socialism of North Korea's Kim Il-sung and Mao Zedong's China for his lead. As the Romanian people starved, Ceausescu wasted billions of dollars demolishing vast stretches of Bucharest to build massive boulevards and grandiose concrete buildings to create a mad, megalomaniac metropolis.

The centrepiece of this Stalinist Baron Haussmann's grand vision was the 1100-room House of the People, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon. Still not complete when Ceausescu's regime fell, it is obscene in scale, with ballrooms and conference halls extravagantly dressed in marble and silk, and big enough to land a small plane in. Tasteful, it is not.

A sobering part of the communist trail is Piata Universitatii, Bucharest's version of Tiananmen Square, where more than 1000 protesters were shot dead on the night of December 21, 1989, as Ceausescu struggled to keep a lid on the popular unrest.

Nearby is the familiar former Communist Party headquarters from which Ceausescu had addressed the crowds earlier that day. News footage showed his confusion verging on disbelief as he realised that what he had supposed was a staged rally in support of his regime was in fact a protest calling for his downfall. Four days later, the dictator and his wife were dead, summarily shot after a hearing at a military court, and Romania's nightmare was over. Like Vlad the Impaler, however, his ghost lives on.

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