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Traipsing around Transylvania

By Chris A Hale

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 1 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

My youngest daughter, Heather, turned 19 this past September which meant, as an airline employee, I had one last opportunity to take her on a trip before her flight benefits expired.

You might expect a teenager to choose Paris or Rome or even Brazil as her final destination. Not my Heather, though. She chose Transylvania in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.

So we flew to the former communist eastern European nation and set ourselves up in the city of Brasov as our base of operations.

I thought because I had previously navigated the United Kingdom in a rented Volkswagen Beetle that driving around Romania would be no problem at all. While we all arrived home safely, let me humbly divulge I was not up for the challenge as much as I had believed.

The mountains of Romania are intercut with infinitely scenic two-lane highways between villages and various tourist attractions. The conditions of the roads are not exactly what Americans are used to, and, surprisingly, neither are the Romanian drivers.

We heard, after more than one near miss, that a little convincing of the right official was often the way to get your driver’s license in Romania — no driving school or practical exam required.

On reflection, I believe these drivers may be in the majority.

One time I literally had to come to a complete stop in the middle of my lane to avoid a head-on collision with a delivery truck passing a string of cars as it headed up the hill with no hope of getting back inside its lane in time.

I laugh about it now because I discovered my wife’s previously unknown ability to communicate with a series of hand signals. Ah, good times.

Because of the roads, we didn’t get to see everything during our stay that we would have liked to. Even though attractions were only 50 or 100 miles away as the crow flies, the distance would take four or five hours to drive because of the meandering roads.

We did, however, see some really amazing things.

Within a short drive from Brasov is a 13th-century medieval fortress built by the Teutonic Knights and known as Bran Castle. People who have a nominal knowledge of either Romania or vampires will recognize the name thanks to its international billing as Dracula’s Castle. According to the its website, Bran Castle gained such noteriety due to the fact that it fits the description of author Bram Stoker's imaginary castle.

The Saxon-built structure rises out of the rock on a hill with story book charm and the surrounding gardens are tranquil and beckoning. At the base of the hill, hawkers sell embroidered blouses and other homemade fare. The local food is plentiful, savory and very reasonably priced.

Right around the corner from Bran is the peasant citadel known as Rasnov Fortress located in another small town. If travelers can look past the lighted Hollywood-type "Rasnov" sign on the hill, the medieval structure is really quite rewarding to see. Admittedly, it wasn’t on our agenda, but we decided to add it when our trip to Poinera fell through. We’re quite glad it did.

The most impressive of the three castles we saw is found in the small town of Sinaia and is known as Peles Palace. Built around the turn of the 19th century, the previous royal residence is now a museum that shouldn’t be missed. There are very few castles or palace museums around the world that I’ve seen that are as ornately decorated or stunning as this gem.

As I reflect, I believe the most poignant impression I brought home from this trip to eastern Europe came from the stunning beauty of the Carpathian Mountains. The leaves were just starting to change for the season and clouds often partially obscured the mountain tops lending an eeriness one may expect while visiting Transylvania.

Another one of my lasting impressions was that of a country not too far removed from a brutal dictator state.

Wherever we traveled, we saw the remnants of dilapidated factories, communist bloc housing and communities still struggling toward post-revolution economic recovery.

In Bucharest, we saw the impossibly spacious Palace of Parliament building built during the mid-'80s by Nicolae Ceausescu. Inside is a lavishly decorated government building second only to the Pentagon in square footage. Unfortunately, the citizens of the country experienced great hardship and poverty while Ceausescu and his wife were spending uncontrollably on this monument to megalomania.

Romania has so much more to offer than we had time to see. In the far north along the Ukrainian border is the Merry Cemetery. Engaging, to say the least, the grave markers are made of wood and colorfully hand painted with irreverent epitaphs or poems to describe who is buried beneath.

In the same part of the country are quaint painted monasteries — another must-see, if you can brave the roads and difficulty in getting there.

Then there are the ruins of Poenari Castle. We planned on seeing this site, but unfortunately missed it due to time constraints. The castle would certainly be something to see, as it was the residence of Vlad the Impaler, the man widely believed to be the real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker's Count Dracula.

We expected — and even anticipated, perhaps — to experience spookiness by visiting the land of Dracula and vampires. After all, we were walking around the land fabled for its vampires. We were a little disappointed, however, because there was none of that mystique at all. In fact, there was next to zero promotion of vampires or Dracula, even for the tourists.

There were a few souvenirs of the actual man, Vlad Tepes. His likeness was painted on decorative plates or sewn into tapestries. He isn’t known for biting people’s necks and sucking their blood; instead, he is a national hero for fighting against the invading Ottomans. His cruelty and barbarism are regarded as tactics to reclaim the country from corruption.

Even though we weren't able to see everything we’d intended to, we enjoyed our last trip with Heather very much. It’s so hard seeing your kids grow up. Hopefully she will remember the times she has spent traveling with her dad — especially the time we went traipsing around Transylvania.

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time, he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at chrisahale.com

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