The ghosts of vam­pires and despots haunt a Ro­ma­nian hol­i­day, dis­cov­ers Nick Cater

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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 41/ 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, minic­i­tadels 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 Knight­softhe 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.­ma­ni­a­ Susan Kuro­sawa’s Depar­tureLounge re­turns next week.


Broome new­comer giv­ing away pearls; free sea­plane flights to a Bar­rier Reef is­land sanc­tu­ary; four nights for the price of three at Noosa; new re­sort a Mag­netic at­trac­tion.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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