HashOut: 2007/09/29
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Land of Dracula

Panoramic view with the Clock Tower
Sighisoara, 11 hours by train from Bucharest, the Romanian capital is the sleeping Beauty of Romania, a perfectly preserved medieval town in a pristine countryside, all but unknown, visited by only a venturesome handful. Now it seems about to be kissed awake by the unlikeliest Prince Charming -- Dracula. Who says you can't go home again?

For we are in the heart of Transylvania, whence the vampire legends sprang, mountaintop setting of ominous Castle Dracula where, in reels and reels of horror film and mountains of literary gore, fiction's best known ghoul sucked his victims' blood to keep himself alive. This Dracula was the invention of a hyper-imaginative novelist, but he was based on a real-life 15th century swash buckler name Vlad Tepes, also no bundle of charm. They called him Dracula, meaning Son of the Devil, because of his penchant for impaling captured foes and watching them writhe while he ate his dinner.

A street in Sighisoara with Clock Tower in the background
The Romanian government had announced a joint venture with German investors to build a theme park, Dracula Land, in Sighisoara but ultimately rejected, as it would have detracted from the medieval style of the city.

Sighisoara remains off the beaten track offering not plasterboard castles on a make-believe landscape, but an authentic journey into the past. Without elbow-to-elbow tourists.

A thousand years ago it was a Roman citadel high in the gentle Transylvanian hills, circled by a silver coil of river. Western Europeans made it into a commercial center that flourished for three centuries, then slipped into the shadows of history. Now, frozen in time, it looks much as it did then.

It is the only inhabited medieval fortress in Central Europe. Each of its 137 houses is a historical monument, but families live in all of them. Of the nine towers that rise above the spires and battlements, the most magnificent is the 64-meter clock tower with its dazzling tile roof. The clock works.

Wednesday and Saturday are especially good days to visit. Villagers in horse-drawn wagons clatter into market with home-grown fruit and vegetables, and jewelery, scarves and T-shirts of a distinctly Romanian or Gypsy style. Bargains abound.

The supposed birthplace of Vlad Ţepeş
If none of this matters to you more than the Dracula myth, you can visit the place where Vlad Tepes was born, a stout medieval homestead that now houses a beer hall and restaurant. And there, for a reasonable fee, you can have your portrait painted -- in your own blood.
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