By Oliver Berry, Lonely Planet Traveller
It’s a freezing midwinter evening just outside the Transylvanian village of Miklósvár, and the forest is eerily quiet. Icicles dangle from the branches and silver blades of sunlight filter through the conifers, casting the forest floor in an iridescent glow. Apart from the crackle of the campfire and the stamp of horses’ hooves, there’s not a sound to break the wintry silence. It’s then that Count Tibor Kálnoky begins to tell the tale of the first time he visited the village witch.
‘One of my sons was suffering from sleepwalking,’ he explains, staring into the campfire as he pours out a round of pálinka, a fiery Romanian fruit brandy. ‘Every night he would wake up and wander in his sleep. We tried many treatments, but nothing worked. So we asked some local people and they told us to visit an old lady by the name of Marika Neni, who everyone just called Auntie.’ He sips his brandy, stirring the embers of the campfire with his leather boot.
‘She used an old remedy which involved melting some lead in an iron pot and then looking at the shape the lead made as it cooled, rather like reading tea leaves. Then she said some spells, gave us the lead to put under his pillow as he slept, and sent us home.’
He looks up from the fire, downs his pálinka and breaks into a roguish grin. ‘And believe it or not, he’s never sleepwalked since.’
With his dapper hair, jodhpurs and knee-high boots, Count Kálnoky doesn’t strike you as the kind of man who would believe in witches’ cures. But superstitions such as these are still a fundamental part of everyday life in Transylvania, even after decades under Communist rule. Having spent most of his childhood in government-enforced exile, Kálnoky finally returned to reclaim his family’s estates in 1999, following the fall of Ceaușescu’s regime and after an eight-year legal battle. Since then the count has learned to embrace Transylvania’s old ways.
‘It’s good luck if a stork nests on your rooftop,’ he explains, ducking through the timber gateway of a courtyard cottage, one of several he’s renovated around Miklósvár over the last decade. ‘And bad luck if you knock them down. We’ve got a nest that hasn’t been used for years, but I’m not brave enough to remove it!’
Entering the cottage feels like stepping into a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Stout oak beams underpin the roof and rough plaster lines the walls, while an antique ceramic stove pumps out warmth and shuttered windows peep onto the moonlit courtyard.
‘You should be cosy in here,’ says Count Kálnoky. ‘Don’t be alarmed if you hear noises in the night. It’s probably just the watchman stoking the fire. And, if not – well, that should help keep out the vampires.’ He gestures to the doorway, where a bunch of dried garlic has been nailed into the plaster.
Sprawling along the edge of the snowy Carpathians, Europe’s last truly wild mountain range, Transylvania is a land that is rich in myths and legends. A region of Romania since 1918 but historically an independent province, Transylvania’s history has been shaped by the many transient populations that have passed through over the centuries: Saxons, Ottomans, Hungarians, Jews, Serbs and Roma Gypsies. With them came stories collected on their travels: tales of goblins and giants, fairy queens and woodland nymphs, unearthly phantoms, man-eating ogres and predatory ghouls. Venture out on a moonlit night and you might encounter the pricolici, the devilish werewolves said to be the restless spirits of violent men. Even more terrifying are the samca, wizened hags with dagger-like fingernails that sometimes appear to children and women during childbirth; their appearance signifies certain death. And then there are the legends of the strigoi, or vampires – undead creatures risen from the grave to feast on the blood of the living – which fired the imagination of an Irish writer by the name of Bram Stoker, and inspired him to write his Gothic bestseller, Dracula, in 1897.
Like many rural corners of Europe, Transylvania has a tradition of oral storytelling that stretches back centuries. In a pre-scientific world, these allegorical tales served a dual purpose. They helped explain otherwise inxplicable events – disease, death, natural disasters – but also offered a source of entertainment to pass the long winter nights. Often, legends also provided moral guidance: one tale tells of the bau-bau (also known as the omul negru, or ‘black man’), a spindly figure dressed in a cloak who steals naughty children and hides them in his cave for a year.
Many of Transylvania’s superstitions have proved remarkably resilient, although perhaps this is unsurprising in a land where some villages have hardly changed since the Middle Ages. Driving through the sleepy hamlets around Miklósvár feels like journeying through Europe’s pre-industrial past: pastel-coloured cottages and tumbledown barns line the streets, horse-drawn carts rattle through the snow, and wood smoke drifts up from rickety chimneys. Many houses are still protected by ornate kapu, the distinctive carved wooden gateways which were imported to Transylvania by Saxon settlers over eight centuries ago.
Similarly, most villages have a witch or folk-healer who dispenses spells, removes curses and provides spiritual guidance. Since 2011, witches, palmists and fortune tellers have even been made liable for income tax – a controversial decision that proved so unpopular that local MPs felt the need to start wearing the lucky colour of purple in the hope of warding off the witches’ hex.
Nany Etelka has spent her entire life in the little village of Băţanii Mici, 20 miles from Miklósvár, and now runs the village mill with the help of her two adult sons, Domi and Laecsi. ‘I can still remember the stories I told to my boys when they were small,’ she recalls. ‘Many of them I learned from my mother, who learned them from her mother, and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are hundreds of years old!’ she laughs, raising her voice to be heard above the creak and clatter of the mill’s iron machinery.
She bustles into the kitchen, where a forest of pots and pans dangles from the rafters, and a battered coffee pot bubbles away on the stove. ‘During Communism, we were not encouraged to celebrate our culture,’ she explains. ‘But telling stories was one of the best ways we had of keeping our past alive.’
As she hands out mugs of treacly coffee and slabs of homemade kolach, a type of sweet corn bread, she explains that Băţanii Mici also happens to be the birthplace of Transylvania’s most famous storyteller: Benedek Elek, a journalist and folklorist who devoted much of his life to setting down the region’s fairytales. His stories of cruel kings, enchanted animals and paupers-turned-princes are still a staple bedtime read for most Romanian and Hungarian children, and a bronze statue of the author now stands in the village’s main square – a sign of the fondness with which the author is remembered, not just in Transylvania, but across much of Eastern Europe.
It’s not hard to see why Transylvania’s landscape has sparked the imagination of so many storytellers. Hemmed in by mountains, pockmarked by valleys and swathed in old-growth forests, it’s a land of strange and often supernatural beauty. Beyond the towns and villages, much of the country still feels fantastically wild. Lynx, deer and wild boars populate its woodlands, and golden eagles can often be spotted wheeling amongst the mountain peaks. In the more isolated corners, brown bears and packs of wolves still roam free.
'For me, this is such a special place,’ says Gabor Tomas, as he treks through the snowy woods around Zalanpatak, another tiny hamlet on the Kálnoky estate, about 15 miles southeast of Miklósvár. He’s been exploring Transylvania’s backcountry since he was a child and now works as a conservationist and nature guide. ‘There are very few places in Europe where you feel so far from civilisation. If you want to, you can still really taste the wild here.’
As if to illustrate his point, a winged shadow swoops low across the valley, fluttering to rest on a branch of a skeletal oak tree. ‘Look,’ he whispers. ‘A Ural owl. People believed they were an evil omen and signified death.’
We watch the owl loop and hover above the land, as the sun silhouettes spindly trees along the horizon and snowflakes tumble from the winter sky. ‘I wish people took the time to discover this side of my country,’ Gabor says. ‘Nature is our greatest asset. But as soon as you mention Transylvania, it means just one thing to people: Dracula. No matter what we do, that won’t change.’
It’s more than a century since Bram Stoker dreamt up his vampiric count, but Dracula is still big business in Transylvania. He’s everywhere: on T-shirts and keyrings, on leaflets and billboards, on coffee jars and toothpaste tubes. Every town claims a tenuous link with the count, or more accurately with his real-life counterpart Vlad Țepeș, known as Dracula, the bloodthirsty warlord who ruled the kingdom of Wallachia intermittently between 1448 and 1476, and who had a predilection for impaling his enemies on stakes, allegedly thousands at a time.
Few places sell their Dracula connections harder than Bran Castle in the Carpathian foothills, about 20 miles south of the well-preserved medieval town of Brașov. This sturdy fortress was originally built during the 13th century to guard the Rucăr-Bran Pass, a key strategic route into Wallachia. It’s now better known as the legendary location of Dracula’s castle.
It certainly looks the part: ringed by ramparts and riddled with echoing halls and secret passageways, it seems the ideal place for a thousand-year old strigoi to have made his mountain lair. Unfortunately, as so often with the Dracula legend, there’s no evidence that Vlad ever visited Bran, let alone lived there; his actual castle, now a ruin, was at Poienari, 150 miles north of Brașov.
‘When it comes to Dracula, untangling fact from fiction is the biggest problem,’ says local history professor Dr Nicolae Teșculă, as he surveys the red-tiled rooftops of Sighișoara, the hilltop town that’s now famous as Vlad Dracula’s birthplace. The winter sun is casting long shadows as we walk through Sighișoara’s alleyways, past merchants’ mansions, cobbled courtyards and fortified gateways. Ravens strut and croak on the medieval ramparts, and a faint peal of bells echoes from the church.
‘There’s no doubt that Dracula was a brutal warrior,’ Teșculă continues. ‘But many of the myths surrounding him are propaganda disseminated by his enemies. In fact, he’s regarded by most as a hero. He protected Transylvania against the threat of Ottoman invasion and ensured the survival of our own indigenous culture.’
He crunches on through the town’s icy streets and sets about debunking the Dracula myth with an academic eye. The name Dracula actually derives from a chivalric order called the Order of the Dragon, he explains. Vlad Țepeș’ father was a member of this order, and took the epithet Dracul – the dragon. Dracula simply means ‘son of Dracul’. Vlad’s reputation as an impaler was exaggerated by his enemies, to portray him as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The fact that Vlad’s body was found buried with no head is no surprise: his killers would simply have wanted proof of his death in order to collect a bounty.
‘But it doesn’t matter what I say,’ he laughs, watching tourists shopping for plastic crucifixes and vampire mugs at a souvenir stall. ‘I think that Count Dracula’s legend will outlast us all. Perhaps he really is immortal!’
He leads the way to Sighișoara’s clocktower, and we watch as darkness slowly falls across the snow-covered hills, and clouds of birds swirl home to roost over the town’s jumbled rooftops.
‘That’s the thing about all the best stories,’ the doctor muses. ‘They have a way of taking on a life of their own.’