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Famous for its ties to Dracula, Romania has other surprising stories

Chicago Tribune

Are there any travel surprises left in Europe?

Put Romania on that list. You've heard of it, of course. It's somewhere in the gray background of Eastern Europe, one of the former Soviet realms, home of the cruel dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the fictional bloodsucker Dracula. That's about it for common knowledge.

But if you travel to surprise yourself, Romania is worth a visit. It has a fascinating mosaic of history, stunning mountain and pastoral scenery, cityscapes that echo Prague and Paris, imposing citadels, jewel-box churches and tiny villages that make you feel as if you've stumbled into the 14th century. It's an affordable, accessible land that your hosts, with few exceptions, haven't figured out how to make touristy.

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A little background: Romania's name reflects its roots as a Roman province. Its history is a litany of invaders — Germany, Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Habsburg Austria, Soviet Russia — and rebellions against them. Its ethnic heritage is Latin, unlike its Slavic neighbors. That's reflected in the cuisine and language — if you understand Italian, you can puzzle your way through basic Romanian.

Romanian cuisine is heavy on red meat, but vegetarians need not despair. One night at dinner, my wife and I asked for a typical Romanian salad and were rewarded with a dish of fresh tomato wedges with a big dollop of baba ghanoush and a crown of slivered scallions. Dessert was usually out of the question after meals of stuffed cabbage or roast pork, but in town squares, it's easy to find a bakery selling gogosi, a sort of puffy crepe folded to hold fruit or chocolate and sprinkled with sugar.

And then there's Dracula. The name, derived from "dragon," was used by a 15th-century order of knights including Vlad Tepes, a warrior-prince who acquired the nickname "The Impaler" from his practice of skewering captured enemies vertically on sharpened wooden posts.

The name Dracula entered popular culture when Irish writer Bram Stoker took it as the title of his novel and the name of its bloodthirsty, supernatural Transylvanian villain. Though Stoker never visited Transylvania, the novel, published in 1897, was a sensation and an enduring gift to every souvenir vendor in Romania.

Our itinerary was weighted toward Transylvania, in the center of the country. Our expectations for the capital city of Bucharest were low. We didn't bank on the broad, tree-lined avenues feeding into grand plazas and lined with lovely Baroque buildings. Vlad, though born in Transylvania, ruled from Bucharest, and ruins of his palace in Bucharest's Old Town, fronted by an intimidating bust of Vlad himself, are a highlight.

As if to provide a rustic counterweight to the palace, the National Village Museum stands in a peaceful park north of the city center. Beginning in the late 1930s, Romanian sociologist Dimitrie Gusti dismantled examples of classic village architecture — homes, churches and other structures — across the country and rebuilt them around a small lake. A visit is like a region-by-region tour of long-ago rural Romania in an hour's walk. On the Sunday we visited, it was also a handicraft market, with costumed vendors selling lace and embroidery, leather goods, reproductions of icons and intricately painted eggs.

Transylvania means "across the woods," and that's an apt description of the driving route there from Bucharest — up, over and down the Bucegi Mountains, a little more than 8,000 feet at their highest and mostly covered with thick pine woods. If you're a fan of twisting two-lane roads, this is the place for you. The roads were mostly smooth and the drivers cautious, but the combination of thundering semitrailer trucks and horse-drawn carts made for some exciting moments.

En route there's time for lunch in Sinaia, an Alpine resort town with a clean-scrubbed Swiss feel. Stopping here is an excuse to visit Sinaia Monastery, an Orthodox monastery housing two small churches, and Peles Castle, a sprawling summer palace built in a unique blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles. It was finished just over a century ago, as the Romanian monarchy was in its twilight. The terrace of the adjacent hotel and restaurant provides a beautiful mountain-valley view for coffee or lunch.

We chose the regional capital of Brasov as our Transylvania base, more for its central location than for its sights. Sighisoara, two hours to the northwest, is crowned by a hilltop citadel surmounted by a 14th century clock tower with animated figures that strike the hours. Down the street is the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, in a building that now houses one of the city's better restaurants.

Closer to Brasov is soaring Bran Castle, one of the best-preserved castles in central Europe. Completed in the 14th century and still owned by Habsburg descendants, the castle is now besieged by souvenir stalls and marketed as "Dracula Castle" (Vlad may or may not have been imprisoned briefly there). Inside, furnishings and photos tell far more poignant and factual tales of castle residents, such Queen Marie, a granddaughter of Britain's Queen Victoria who married into Romanian royalty and was decorated for bravery as a battlefield nurse during World War I.

One hidden gem of Transylvania is Viscri, a hamlet set in farm fields of green and gold, reachable via a detour off the main road from Brasov to Sighisoara. Viscri was settled by German-speaking Saxons invited in the 12th century to defend the Holy Roman Empire's southern border. The village's centuries-old tile-roof houses are a favorite of restoration champions, including Britain's Prince Charles, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in town and visits occasionally. Some houses are lovingly renovated, painted vivid lilac or sky-blue, while others are in major disrepair.

There is little effort to tend to tourists here. Villagers get around with horse-drawn carts, with only a sidelong glance at visitors, and cows and geese wander unimpeded.

Viscri's church, like many in Transylvania, was built as a fortress, a hilltop spot for villagers to run to when marauders threatened. Inside, a steep, stone staircase climbs to slit windows where an archer could let loose at attackers.

At the chapel window in this small village, it was easy to forget the 21st century and imagine the 14th instead, something we never expected of Romania — a very pleasant surprise.

John Dowling is a freelance writer.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: There aren't any nonstop flights from the U.S. to Romania, but there are abundant direct flights to Bucharest from major European gateway cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt, among others.

Getting around: Our rental car bill — a little over $400 for three days in a four-door Volkswagen Jetta, plus $58 to refill the tank before returning it — was the most painful aspect of our trip from a cost standpoint. But we paid a premium for the automatic transmission. You could save almost half by getting a smaller car with a stick shift.

Hotels: We stayed at the top-rated hotel in Brasov — the awkwardly named, four-star Chambers'n Charm boutique hotel — for about $100 a night, including an abundant breakfast; www.chambers-charm.ro. Three-star hotels were available for $60 to $70 a night in the same period.

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