Family and friends had the same two questions when my wife and I shared our vacation plans: Transylvania is a real place? And, where is it?
More than just the setting for Bram Stoker's Dracula, Transylvania is a region of Romania filled with history, tradition, and lore. It features well-preserved castles, churches and once-fortified medieval towns, while reflecting the German and Hungarian influences of previous rulers.
For our first several days, Brasov was our base for exploring some of the popular tourist attractions, including Bran Castle (commonly known as "Dracula's Castle"), the Rasnov Fortress ruins, and the ornate Peles Castle, a former royal palace.
Our desire, though, was to experience as much of traditional Romania as possible, and that meant traveling farther into the largely rural countryside. A private guide escorted us to places that didn't appear in any of our tour books — a grist mill powered by a water wheel where the owner welcomed us with homemade palinca (a fruit brandy); a folk museum founded by an artist who had been jailed under Communist rule and now operated by his son; a former one-room family home now open as an exhibit where the docent was dressed in all black, which she was wearing for one year to mourn her mother's death. At each site, we were the only visitors, which gave us our hosts' full attention.
Our overnight stays were split between family-owned guesthouses and small hotels. Homemade dinners at the guesthouses gave us the chance to talk with the owners and their families, with our guide serving as translator. At one, the owner showed us how she diverted a stream of water from an adjacent river into two large basins that she used to wash carpets as a side business. At another, cows and horses were tied up next to a well below our bedroom window. By staying at hotels in towns, we could dine at local restaurants and stroll the cobblestone streets, taking in the architecture and street life.
The fortified churches that stood as centerpieces in many of the small villages captivated us. In Prejmer, the inside of the four-story defensive wall surrounding the church was stacked with 272 small rooms, enough to offer shelter for each of the village's families at the time it was built in the 1400s.
Another highlight was stumbling upon the "cows coming home" while passing through the village of Cobatesti. We drove right up to a large dairy herd meandering down the center of a busy road as they made their way home after a day in the nearby pastures.
Devoting two weeks to Romania, and venturing beyond the typical, we gained a deeper look at its culture. We were taken by the beauty of the country and the preservation of its history, and we left with an appreciation for the warmth, simplicity, and traditions of the people we met.