Fangs for the Memories!

Transylvania is well worth place on bucket list says by Patric Baird

Nobody wants their holiday spoiled by getting a bite or two from some of the less-than-hospitable local fauna. Insect repellent usually does the trick in keeping the nasty little blighters at bay, but what’s the best remedy for warding off the unwelcome attentions of something a bit more substantial, such as, say, vampires?

Believe it or not, travellers to Eastern Europe during the latter part of the 19th century could readily purchase an ‘anti-vampire kit’, usually containing all the essentials such as garlic, a bible, holy water and a selection of sharpened wooden stakes, complete with a sturdy mallet.

I was fairly confident that my trip to Transylvania would be vampire-free, and anyway, there are quite a few of those items which would never make it through security at Dublin airport, so I was quite happy taking my chances, especially as there was nothing on the Foreign Office’s website warning travellers to Romania about any threat from marauding vampires.

Romania is one of those European countries which lies just outside the comfort zone of many holidaymakers. Even I, as a seasoned traveller, had never visited and most of its Balkan neighbours were uncharted territory as far as I was concerned. Romania shares its borders with Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine, as well as a maritime border with Turkey.

Blue Air operate direct flights from Dublin to Bucharest, as well as to the more northern Romanian city of Cluj, meaning that getting there wasn’t going to be difficult. The idea of visiting Transylvania had always been on my ‘do these places really exist?’ bucket list, along with Timbuktu, Outer Mongolia and Christmas Island. My plan was to spend one night in Bucharest, then head north for a few days to the more attractive medieval city of Brasov. As it turned out, I would have happily spent more time in Bucharest – it’s mostly quite modern, in a 1950s Communist-era kind of way, but there are older buildings as well and the wide boulevards add something to its charm. It’s very clean and everything is very cheap – my hotel (hotelcapitol.ro/en) was built around the early 1900s and was quite grand inside, but it was less than £70 per night, which included a sumptuous breakfast and was ideally located in the heart of the old town.

Feeling quite hungry after a three and a half hour flight, my taxi driver from the airport had recommended a nearby restaurant, which served traditional Romanian food – in fact, he told me in no uncertain terms that no visit to the city was complete without visiting it. I strolled around the corner expecting to find his brother-in-law’s dodgy bistro, but what I discovered was something else entirely. Caru’ cu Bere (carucubere.ro/en/) is a beautiful old building with space for hundreds of diners over two floors. Resembling an old neo-gothic church, complete with stained glass windows, carved wooden panels and exposed stonework, it has been operating as a brewery and restaurant for well over a century. So, thanks to my persuasive taxi driver, I enjoyed a slap-up Romanian meal in amazing surroundings, heavy on the roast duck, potatoes, home baked bread, as well as the in-house brewed beer and palinka (the local fruit-based fire water), and all for the price of a starter in a London restaurant.

I reluctantly departed Bucharest the following day, bound for Brasov, a good three-hour drive away, depending on traffic. Romania is a very big country, with good transport links, but as I wanted to make a few stops along the way, I employed the services of Daytrip (mydaytrip.com), an excellent private door-to-door service with a local driver which operates throughout Europe. I was able to arrange a pick up by the friendly, English-speaking driver at my Bucharest hotel and drop off at my hotel in Brasov, with a 90 minute stop at Dracula’s Castle (or Bran Castle, to give it its proper name), as well as an hour’s stop at the ancient Rasnov Citadel, both of which are on the route to Brasov. Bran Castle is another must-see attraction – although its deep in the heart of Transylvania, don’t expect to see any vampires – in fact, there’s barely a mention of Dracula and his nocturnal chums, because it’s not something the Romanians like to shout about. Although Bran Castle is well worth a visit – remember to buy your tickets online (bran-castle.com) in advance, to avoid the queues – its link with the Prince of Darkness is somewhat tenuous. Because it is the only castle in Transylvania that actually fits Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s Castle (even though Stoker never even visited Transylvania), it is known throughout the world as Dracula’s Castle. Although it was a long drive through the mostly-flat countryside, the occasional forest, Carpathian mountain and small town or village (some of which become ski-resorts during the winter), added to the visual experience.

While Brasov boasts its fair share of gothic and medieval architecture around the pretty town square, with numerous church spires dotted around the city, there is still the occasional nod to modernity, with a few Soviet-style public buildings and a large Hollywood-style sign, just so you won’t forget where you are. It’s the perfect place to spend a long weekend, with great shopping, museums and numerous restaurants to suit every taste. Take a cable car 940m up to the top of Mount Tâmpa, famous as both an exclusive playground of the rich and famous, as well as being the site where local bad-boy Vlad Țepeș launched a mass-impaling of 40 noblemen.

An hour’s hike brings you to a small viewing platform offering stunning views over the city. I stayed at Hotel Drachenhaus (drachenhaus.ro/en-gb), very centrally located and, while fairly basic, was fantastic value at around £50 per night, with all mod cons and breakfast included. In a departure from the Romanian’s usual reticence surrounding their most famous fang-endowed export, Hotel Drachenhaus boasts Dracula’s Cellar, an excellent underground theme bar and restaurant beneath its cobbled courtyard. Guests of the hotel get a restaurant discount on already incredibly cheap food and drinks, and the service is superb. Just be careful of the dark cellar steps after one palinka too many, or you might just get it in the neck, in more ways than one.

Destinations from Dublin: to Bucharest, Bacau, Cluj-Napoca. Blue Air, a Romanian airline headquartered in Bucharest, has been operating for 14 years. The company has more than 1,400 employees and nine operational bases, in Liverpool, Bucharest, Bacau, Cluj-Napoca, Constanta, Iasi, Larnaca, Turin, and Alghero, with flights from Dublin to Bucharest, Bacau, Cluj-Napoca. Blue Air has received the certificate of IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) for its outstanding operational standards and it is also a full IATA member. This spring, the carrier has been included on the list of the Best Low-cost Airlines in Europe in TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travelers’ Choice Awards for Airlines. To book, visit blueairweb.com.

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