In a Lost Corner of Central Europe
The figure of Count Dracula that captured the imagination of 19th-century author Bram Stoker did exist. Prince Vlad Dracula of Walachia (c. 1431-1476), who allegedly lived in Bran Castle in the wild and raw region of Transylvania, was never known in his lifetime for drinking blood – that was something born of Stoker’s fantasy as he researched the vampire-related tales prevalent in the folklore of eastern and southeastern Europe.
However, he was known for his ruthless cruelty, including his habit of having his perceived enemies impaled alive on enormous stakes – a practice from which he derived the nickname Tepes (the Impaler).
No one’s all bad, though, and in his native land Vlad is remembered as a hero for his battles with the Ottoman Empire. There is no proof that the prince actually ever lived at the medieval Bran Castle, but that hasn’t stopped the steady trickle of thrill-seekers, who find in this “land beyond the forest” (the Latin meaning of Transylvania) one of the last great European wildernesses, a time-locked country that seems never to have felt the 20th century’s touch, never mind the 21st’s.
Among the forest-blanketed Carpathian Mountains bordering Transylvania are ancient Saxon towns where farmers drive ox-drawn carts and maintain a simple life that by no means curbs the sense of hospitality for which they have long been known.
The Sistine Chapels of the East
A handful of vividly painted monasteries are the highlight of this dramatically remote corner of Moldavia in northeastern Romania, one of Europe’s most scenic and unspoiled areas. Most of the monasteries are painted inside and out, top to bottom, with elaborate frescoes – promises of redemption, warnings of damnation – remarkably fresh in color and quality despite 500 years of exposure to the elements and the whims of many rulers.
Acclaimed as masterpieces of art and architecture of the 15th and 16th centuries, when this area was under the threat of invasion from the Turks, the fortified monasteries were covered with biblical scenes to educate the illiterate faithful in the ways of Orthodox Christianity.
A kind of poor man’s Bible, these late medieval billboards are brilliant examples of a Byzantine aesthetic infused with the vitality of local folk art, mythology, and historical references to the Turks and past battles won and lost.
Arguably the most striking is the 15th-century monastery of Voronet, known by Romanians as the Sistine Chapel of the East. Its unique cerulean blue is obtained from lapis lazuli. Nearby are the painted monasteries of Sucevita, Moldovita, and Humor, all inhabited by small communities of nuns who keep their brand of Orthodox Christianity fervently alive in this dramatic mountain outpost where life has obliviously resisted the passing of the last few centuries.