Fuelled by Dracula stories and plum brandy, Kim Wildman lets her imagination run wild in Transylvania.
A biting breeze sends a chill up my spine as I leave the train in Brasov, a medieval fortress city in the heart of Transylvania, Romania. Transylvania is renowned as the setting of Bram Stoker's 1897 gothic novel, Dracula based loosely on Vlad Tepes, the revered prince from the Middle Ages who impaled his foes on stakes and I'm here to sink my teeth into the legend of Count Dracula.
It's a cliche, I know, but I'm a sucker for a good vampire story. I've watched every episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I'm smitten with Robert Pattinson's brooding Edward in Twilight.
The appealing cobblestone streets, baroque facades and ornate Saxon churches of Brasov and the snow-capped mountains that flank it belie its dark past.
It was established as a trading centre in the 13th century, and since then the city's fortunes have risen and fallen dramatically, with much blood spilt on its fortress walls. First mentioned as Corona, it was later known as Kronstadt and was once even dubbed Staline.
I wander down Strada Republicii, Brasov's pedestrian-only promenade, looking for my hotel, past smartly dressed young Romanians. Amid the throng I spy two small children huddled on the side of a snowy street. After a quick discussion, the older one takes off his hat and lays it at their feet and together they start to sing Romano Roviben, an old, hauntingly beautiful gypsy song: "Chajpri romani, Jai, ker mange jagori, Na cikni na bari, joj, Carav tro vod'or ..." (Gypsy girl, make me a fire, not a small one, not a big one, I will caress your soul.)
Their words hang in the air above me as I open the door to the Hotel Corona.
Later that night I meet up with Colin Shaw, a British expatriate who operates Roving Romania. Purveyor of all things Dracula, Shaw has agreed to accompany me on my quest to find the Dark Lord. Fittingly, we rendezvous for dinner at Coliba Haiducilor, a traditional Romanian restaurant more commonly known as the Outlaw's Hut, in Poiana Brasov, a ski resort 12 kilometres from the city.
Taking a seat beside the hearth, surrounded by the restaurant's rustic decor dried corn cobs dangle from the ceiling, jars upon jars of pickles line the shelves and animal skins adorn the walls I an sStill chilled. I'm about to order the house speciality, ciorba de miel (lamb soup), when Shaw tells me it's served in a lamb's skull so you can spoon out the tongue and brains. I quickly change my mind and settle for muschi de porc (pork chops), washed down with a warming mug of tuica (plum brandy).
It is near midnight, and several mugs of tuica later, when Shaw and I leave. Outside the restaurant a gypsy woman dressed in a long, colourful skirt emerges from the shadows and offers me a garland of garlic. In a land with a history of werewolves and vampires, I decide some protection might be wise and quickly hand over a couple of lei.
The next morning, clutching my day pack with my garlic inside, I wince as Shaw swerves the car around another pothole on the road to Bran Castle, about 30 kilometres south of Brasov and the first stop on our Dracula tour. Suddenly he swerves again, this time to avoid a heavily laden horse-drawn cart that's hurtling towards us. The driver shakes his fist as we pass.
I'm beginning to doubt we'll make it in one piece, when, as we round the next bend, I catch my first glimpse of the castle peeking out from behind a forest of spindly winter pines. Despite its ominous reputation, the castle, with its whitewashed walls, red-tile turrets and fairytale towers, is anything but frightening.
Tucked in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and overlooking the village of Bran, the castle has become synonymous with the Dracula myth. Yet it's highly unlikely that Stoker or Vlad Tepes ever set foot here. Still, it was built in 1378 to defend the region from marauding Turks, so I'm happy to indulge in the savvy, though fanciful, marketing campaign.
The commercialisation of the bloodsucking vampire count comes to a crescendo outside the castle gates. Here, hawkers and vendors do a brisk business selling Dracula T-shirts, coffee mugs, drink coasters and baseball caps with the slogan "Got Blood?" and a portrait of the ruthless ruler.
We make our way past the maze of makeshift stalls and pay our admission at the kiosk. Once inside the grounds we enter a magical wintry world more reminiscent of a fairytale than a horror story. Enormous snow-dusted evergreens reach towards the sky and sunlight glints on the white-capped mountains in the distance. Turning my gaze to the castle, I wonder if we'll find Rapunzel rather than Dracula lurking inside one of the four towers.
Despite its ancient origins, the well-preserved castle has a distinctly modern feel. The summer residence of the Romanian royal family until 1947, it's decorated according to the tastes of Queen Marie, the wife and consort of King Ferdinand I. Along with 20th-century trappings such as electric lighting and heating, the castle holds many of Queen Marie's personal effects, including antique furnishings imported from western Europe and framed portraits of the Queen and her sister, Ileana.
Following a guide, we pass along wide corridors, climb secret stone stairwells and wander through ornately furnished rooms to the royal apartments. Here the guide points out an enormous carved wooden bed with a canopy, said to have been given to the queen by a Romanian actress, and shows us the austere room where her son, the young Prince Carol, once slept. Containing only a bed, a desk and a bookshelf, the cold, white room must have been a lonely place for the child. Fresh snow begins to fall as we stop to take in the view from one of the balconies overlooking the inner courtyard. I watch as the snowflakes dance their way slowly to the central fountain. In a whisper the guide tells us the fountain conceals a labyrinth of secret underground passageways where, legend has it, Vlad once sought shelter to evade the Turks following an attack on his fortress in the Arges Valley.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end suddenly and I'm overcome by a sense of dread. Had Vlad himself really been here?
On the way back to Brasov, Shaw detours to Miklosvar, a small Saxon village about 45 kilometres north-east of the city, telling me he wants to introduce me to Count Tibor Kalnoky. "Does he bite?" I laugh. We arrive to find a sophisticated, urbane gentleman, the second son of a Hungarian aristocrat. Not a black cape in sight.
Count Kalnoky's family fled Romania on the eve of World War II. Subsequently their property was seized, first by the Nazis, then the communists. After many years in exile, the count returned in 1995 to reclaim his ancestral home. Since then he has worked to turn his family estate into an environmental retreat and to preserve the region's architectural heritage.
The count shows us around the huge property and tells us about his eight-year tussle with the Romanian Government to win back the estate, the progress made on the restoration of its main building, the family's old hunting lodge built in 1686 and his hopes to open a boutique hotel. Today, visitors can stay in guesthouses on the estate decorated faithfully in the traditional Szekler and Saxon style with the proceeds helping to fund the manor's restoration.
With night now falling, in a scene from the pages of Stoker's famous novel, we retreat to the count's 17th-century wine cellar, with massive oak beams and fireplace, for a candlelit dinner. I take a sip from a glass of blood-red wine and I wonder how I will tell my friends I was courted by a bone fide Transylvanian count. OK, his wife is also at the table but a girl can dream.
As we drive away under an ink-black sky, I remember my garland of garlic. There are howling dogs in the distance but I know I won't be meeting Dracula on this or any other night. Buffy would be proud.
Getting there The nearest major gateways to Bucharest are Vienna, Athens and Istanbul. If your fare is with one of the major European carriers you can fly via such cities as Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt or Helsinki. Air China has a fare for about $2127, including taxes, from Melbourne and Sydney. Air China flights are non-stop to Beijing or Shanghai and then non-stop to Frankfurt, where you change onto a Lufthansa flight to Bucharest. Some flights from Melbourne go to Beijing with a transit in Shanghai. Brasov is about 166 kilometres from Bucharest; trains run hourly between the cities.
Staying there The Hotel Coroana's simply furnished double rooms cost €50 ($87). See aro-palace.ro. For €320 you can spend a long weekend as the guest of Count Kalnoky at his estate in Miklosvar. The price includes accommodation, meals and tours to local sights. Nightly rates from €36-€49 a person, including breakfast, with an additional €15-€18 a person for dinner-lunch. See transylvaniancastle.com.
Touring there Roving Romania has half- and full-day tours to Bran Castle departing from Brasov for $125-$210. See roving-romania.co.uk.