With darker evenings casting a menacing shadow over the evening commute, what better time of year to escape for a long weekend to deepest, darkest Eastern Europe. Known for its towering castles, endless forests and the Prince of Darkness himself, what more fitting choice than a mini-break to Transylvania? Stocking up on garlic cloves, I set off for the Romanian wilderness.
After settling into our hotel in Bucharest, we depart on our two-hour bus ride to Transylvania. Winding through the velvety forests of the Carpathian Mountains, we keep our eye out for roaming brown bears and mysterious dark figures lingering by the roadside. As the mist finally lifts, we leave Twin Peaks country behind and make our descent into Sinaia.
Spindly, stiletto-style turrets suddenly rise out of the gloom as the fairy-tale Peles Castle is revealed. Boasting seven terraces stacked with Grecian statues, stone-made wells and marble frontages, the estate is a German Renaissance masterpiece built on epic proportions.
Brandishing our ticket to tour the mythical kingdom, all chaos descends as a mass scramble ensues for the 2.00pm tour. (Make sure to arrive in plenty of time). Just making it inside before the huge door creaks shut, we don our slippers for the tour.
As the former residence of King Carol 1 of Romania, the 160-room-plus estate oozes opulence from the Murano crystal chandeliers through to the ebony and ivory sculptures and the ostentatious gold and silver dinner plates. But it’s the glinting swords adorning the walls that cause the greatest stir. Hosting a four-thousand-piece collection, we learn that the centre piece, a 15th century sword was reserved to behead noblemen while those lower down the food chain would be fed to the lions.
With a shiver of trepidation we depart Peles in giddy anticipation of the horrors that await us in Brasov – home to the infamous Dracula castle. Based on the Romanian Crusader, Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker’s alter-ego was regarded as a hero in his home country for protecting Romania from the Ottoman Turks. With a penchant for spearing his victims onto stakes, Vlad was a far more terrifying figure than the more timorous blood-sucking Dracula. Residing 150 miles from Brasov, we later learn that Vlad only made fleeting visits to Transylvania while fleeing from his enemies.
Milking the somewhat tenuous associations for all they’re worth, ghoulish signs announce our arrival into Dracula town. Closer to the castle, we discover a roaring trade in Dracula tat – mugs, keyrings and fake fangs are just a few of the must-have items on offer. Resisting the temptation to snap up a new mug for the office or even an early Secret Santa gift, I make my way to the glowering turrets of Bran Castle.
Crawling up tortuous passageways in a snail-like procession (beware those with claustrophobia) we discover simple rooms stripped to the bare essentials. White-washed walls, heavy dark-wood furniture and wrought iron light fittings predominate while bear skin rugs add a hint of much-needed warmth to the floors.
In true gothic horror fashion, the master bedroom contains a forbidding four-poster bed covered in elaborate carvings and scarlet velvet drapes – perfect for a spot of vampire seduction. Gazing onto the courtyard, the most chilling site is the human-sized weighing scales. Suspected followers of Satan would be put on the scales and weighed against rocks deemed to be appropriate for their size and shape. If the rocks weighed more than the subject, they would be tortured into confessing their associations with the Devil. No need for the 5:2 diet over there.
Tucking into some blood-red beetroot soup a few hours later, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a sliver of red silk flitting between the trees. Could there be something to tell colleagues back at the office after all? Straining to get a closer look, it appears that it may be one of the stallholders packing up for the day. Eyeing his wares, I decide a Dracula mug might be in order after all. Happy Halloween!
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