If you’re expecting vampires and werewolves, know this: Bram Stoker never took one single bloody step in all of Transylvania. And if you’re listening for the children of the night, you’ll likely hear students listening to their iPhones in Cluj Napoca. The capital of the Romanian region of Transylvania happens be a blast of a student town, pulsing with fine-dressed locals, loud techno, and the odd lucky tourist. But before I skip the line-up to sidestep a meathead bouncer at the trendiest club in town, let me settle a few key issues:
Good, now we can forgo the horror and hit the real Transylvania. Remember the opening scene in the film Borat, set in a small village in Kazakhstan? That was actually rural Romania, and the town of Ture, an hour’s drive outside Cluj Napoca, proves it was no movie set. Horse and buggy carts pass rotund old ladies with fingers like pork sausages, milking water buffalos at sunrise. String bands play traditional music inside old wooden houses, most of which have electricity, but no plumbing. My overnight train from Bucharest deposits me in Ture when the cows came home having grazed overnight in the hills. Their bells ring in the early morning mist, and Christopher Walken was right, we do all need more cowbell. I find the 250-year-old stone house where I will spend the night, finding it cool even as summer heat bakes the dirt roads outside. Awaiting me is a pot of strong coffee, homemade sheep cheese, and some homemade palinka - the local moonshine that accompanies breakfast, lunch and dinner. My homestay host insists I leave the dishes (even offering to help is deemed an insult) and so I wander off to help a 75-year-old man shovel hay onto a buggy cart, all the while flirting with two old ladies cackling on a nearby wooden bench. Life hasn’t changed much in Ture’s long history, but the very idea of bloodsucking vampires and ravenous werewolves feel like miscast monsters in a fairy tale.
At sunset, the village band and dancers gather inside the village hall, bringing a large crate of beer. Local musicians live and breathe their music, performing for days on end at celebrations and festivals, and always at the beck and call of the villagers. They strike up a folk song, the accordion bouncing a rhythm off the violins, a tall double bass building a deep foundation. My pal form the hay buggy is here with an enamel sparkle in his eye, dancing, slapping his boots, shaking his hips, and gyrating with an energy that belies his age. The ladies applaud with approval. This old dog is teaching me new tricks.
Each house has a “Good Room”, set aside to show off the talents and domestic skills of Ture’s maidens for promising bachelors. It is laced up in red furnishings, painted plates, blankets, homemade food, and all the qualities one looks for in a Transylvanian wife. The matriarch of one house insists I dress the part of bachelorhood, providing some 80-year-old threads with the leather boots that creak when I walk. I may look like a leprechaun, but one must do whatever it takes to woo Transylvanian beauties. Just a pity all the young ones have moved to the city. No bother. We will drink. We will eat. We will toast with the battery-acid palinka, powerful enough to thin paint: Aga-shag-adray!
Astute readers will recognize that as a Hungarian toast. The villagers of Ture are ethnic Hungarians, the largest minority in Romania, most of who live in Transylvania. Fertile with forests, farmland and mountains, Transylvania has been used as a pawn on a geo-political chessboard for millennia, being annexed here, gaining independence there, attacked and conquered everywhere. Today it is part of Romania, although relations between Romanians and Hungarians can be a little turbulent. Transylvania nowadays is full of small villages that continue to exist as they have for centuries, but thousands of students descend on Cluj Napoca, the third largest city in the country, for its academic and nightlife offerings.
Back in Cluj, I accost some girls on the street that lead me a reggae bar, the walls lacquered with old newspaper clippings, the bass heavy, and the beer cheap. Everyone speaks good English, and you can get papercuts running fingers along those Transylvanian cheekbones. “You know, the world thinks Transylvania is home to vampires and werewolves and not much else,” I tell a group of new friends, their hair styled like Brooklyn hipsters. After a good laugh, they imagine the world to be as old fashioned as the farmers I met in Ture. In modern Transylvania, both farmers and city folk reckon its time someone drove a stake through the heart of Bram Stoker.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.