I hardly pouted at all when our search for vampires in Romanian cities came up empty. A skeptical observer might raise an eyebrow, but I assure you: foot stomping and annoying grunts is not pouting. It’s an incredibly effective way to shed the city grime. Besides, exploring Romania’s cities wasn’t a total loss. Timisoara and Cluj are beautiful places to visit. And after way too much immersion in Bucharest’s intoxicating night life, I learned that “clubbing” has the same impact on me as it does for baby seals.
The search wasn’t over yet. Once we left the big cities, I was sure we were going to get lucky.
Escaping from Bucharest
Once we leave Bucharest, things change quite a bit. Romania is a surprisingly big country, roughly the same size as the entire U.K. (or Minnesota if you remember your US geography better than I do) but has a population that is nearly 4x smaller. And most of these people pack into the cities. Beyond the cities, vast swaths of Romania are untainted, undeveloped, and offline. The perfect place for a vampire to settle in for a few centuries. No expectation to keep up with the latest political scandal, fend off nosey neighbors asking to borrow a cup of sugar, or worry about being harassed by millennials looking for a free hotspot.
There are several escape routes to follow, but hopping in a car or on the train are the most common for those planning to stay in the country.
Carpathian Mountains: Romania’s answer to roller coasters
Romanian roads are an adventure in themselves. Narrow and poorly maintained, drivers are too busy dodging potholes and oncoming traffic to admire the scenery, or give intelligent responses to questions lobbed from passengers about whether the stove was turned off before we left.
You’d think roads would straighten out once you leave town. Buildings constructed before paved roads were an option are behind us. The only distractions separating us from a straight path to the horizon are wide gorgeous meadows, lightly wooded copses, and the occasional farm. Instead of building highways that follow straight lines, I suspect that Romanian road designers compensated for the lack of amusement parks in the country by throwing in extra curves and roundabouts. For the fun of it.
This is particularly true of two major arteries passing over the Carpathian Mountains. The mountain range reminds me so much of the northern portion of the Appalachian Trail it makes me a little homesick.
The Transalpina provides a scenic path between Bucharest (in the south) and Transylvania. It forces drivers to slow down and enjoy magnificent vistas. Near the summit (roughly 7,000 ft), The terrain looks so similar to the presidential mountains along the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire that I began to get a little homesick. Or nauseated from following the serpentine route.
Transfagarasan – I’m pretty sure it’s Romanian for Fahrvergnügen*
While not as direct as the Transalpina for those hoping to go from Bucharest into northern Romania, the Transfagarasan is arguably one of the most beautiful roads in the world. Past several glacial lakes, through brief but eerie tunnels, and over a saddle between Romania’s highest peaks (Moldoveanu and Negoiu), it’s impossible not to live in the moment.
Unless you’re a dedicated vampire seeker like me.
*Please tell me at least one of you remembers this Volkswagen slogan from the 90’s. The blank stares I get when I mention this to the “whippersnappers” is making me feel old.
Along the way we pass Poenari Castle. This 13th century ruin perched precariously on a cliff was once home to Vlad the Impaler (the guy who made torture and bloody deaths cool long before vampires hopped on the bang wagon). The steep climb keeps many tourists away, but a quick tour of the crumbling ruins was enough to convince us that no self-respecting vampire would continue to call this place home.
After a dizzying tour over the Carpathian Mountains via the Transalpina, or Transfagarasan, we’re deposited into Transylvania. Lodged in the heart of Romania, much of Transylvania still maintains traditions and lifestyles that originated hundreds of years ago. While there are several thriving cities (like Cluj), it’s easy to search out villages. Modest but colorfully painted homes are closely spaced around a central market. It’s common to see a handful of village elders lounging outside a shop on wooden benches, watching sparse traffic pass in silence. Horse-drawn wooden carts filled with loose hay or scrap metal are led by pleasant laborers. Surrounded by these idyllic tableaux, it’s easy to forget we are in the 21st century.
All this driving has given me plenty of time to practice my Romanian. However, when I ask: “Ai vazut un vampir pe aici” (have you seen a vampire nearby), I’m surprised that no one seems to take me seriously. Monica gets a few sympathetic looks, but the best advice we leave with are suggestions that we try looking someplace else, preferably one that is far away.
Minis – A quintessential Romanian village
We finally got lucky in a small village near the northern border of Romania. Same wooden carts. Same silent and skeptical group of elders watching over the town from benches. However, beyond the village proper, on a dirt road leading to several tenant farms, we were welcomed by Mr. Traian.
Luck wasn’t the only thing that led us here though. We’d visited Mr. Traian in Minis before.
During our initial visit, I didn’t give much thought to his overwhelming hospitality. He feasted us on a steady stream fresh food that he and the 2 women living with him raised themselves. They pressed us to “Eat! Eat!” and “Drink! Drink!” so often, I began to wonder if we were being fattened to take a more active role in the next feast.
While we were devouring ciorba (a delicious sour meat and veggie soup) boiled in an enormous outdoor caldron, he sat with his never-empty glass of tuica (a homemade plum brandy that tastes like moonshine and burns like bleach). Despite being several decades older than me, he looked younger and was never tired. He had never even heard of an “after-breakfast nap.” Apparently, his tuica diet was responsible for the seemingly endless energy, and strength.
Or was his incredible vitality an attribute of something far more interesting? Could he be the “real” vampire I had been searching for?
The more I thought about it, the more pieces fell into place.
The modern-day vampire
Monica was skeptical: “He’s so tan!”
Me: “Sure, he has no problem spending all day out in the sun. But I’ve always suspected the vampire’s aversion to sunlight was a myth they perpetuated to throw us off.”
Monica: “I’m pretty sure that’s not the only myth we’re dealing with here. Besides, Mr. Traian is a wonderful man. And he tells such amazing stories!”
I wanted to point out that this was the most convincing evidence of all. I noticed the way groups would listen with undivided attention as he shared stories about the Old Ways. He was an even better storyteller than me. Clearly, he had supernatural talents that we mere mortals couldn’t compete with.
Undeniable proof that vampires exist is in the guacamole
I was convinced, but the scientist in me knew that we would need undeniable proof to support my claim. Fortunately, I knew how to design an infallible experiment to prove that Mr. Traian was in fact, a vampire.
It all hinged on one of my irresistible recipes: homemade guacamole.
It’s incredibly difficult to get ingredients to make guacamole in Bucharest, so I was sure that it had never been served in a little village in Transylvania. My guacamole also has a ridiculous amount of garlic (3 large cloves for every 2 avacoados). Nonetheless, my green goop is so delicious that no human has ever been able to resist it. When I offer to share my prized creation as a gift with our host, Mr. Traian would be honor-bound to accept.
If he tried it and didn’t like it, then he would obviously be a vampire. No need for wooden stakes or holy water. It was brilliant.
When we arrived at Mr. Traian’s farm, I was excited. However, the chaotic cacophony of farm animals and pets raising the stranger-danger alarm briefly caused me to forget my mission. Dozens of roaming chickens, 2 territorial roosters, flocks of ducks and geese, one rambunctious goat, and 2 lovable dogs all swarmed to check us out. Mr. Traian waded through the pandemonium with a big welcoming smile.
Within minutes we were whisked to a picnic table, seated, and feeling like family that had been away too long. The sense of comfort and belonging was undeniable. I knew that if I didn’t focus on my experiment, I would be lost to his spell. I told everyone that I had a surprise gift I wanted to share, and that I needed to use his kitchen to prepare it. It was difficult to ignore Monica as she rolled her eyes.
By the time I returned with the guacamole and chips, the tuica was already out. The label on the bottle even said “Dracula.” He gave me a knowing look as he handed me a half-filled glass. He knows I know that he’s a vampire!
We all raised our glasses for a toast. I mourned the loss of my taste buds as the tuica burned its way down to my stomach. However, in moments, we would all have undeniable proof.
I scooped some of the irresistible guacamole onto a chip and explained that this was a delicacy where I was from. As a testament to its greatness, I could still detect a hint of garlic despite my lost taste buds. I scooped another and waited for him to join me. I could tell that he had doubts about the “irresistibility” of the green creamy gel with chunks of tomato and jalapeño suspended in it. He tentatively raised a loaded chip to his mouth. His face had that fixed expression of pleasure that can only be learned after years of telling grandma that her burnt meatloaf was delicious.
He quickly followed up with a long drink of tuica and said “multumesc pentru minunata experinta.”
In English, this means “thank you for the wonderful experience,” but we both knew what he was really saying…
Vampires do NOT like garlicClick To Tweet