Bite into Romania's colorful past

Forget about Dracula, there's more to Transylvania than garlic and vampires.

The hoarse crow of the neighbor's rooster stirs me from sleep. Beneath my window, the steady clip of horse hooves leads a rattling wagon. An oncoming cry geamuri (windows) grows louder.

Shuffling to the window, I spot a dusty bent-over man with wooden window frames strapped to his back.

A Gypsy boy approaches from the opposite direction carrying brooms made of sticks. As if performing a duet, he shouts his wares in a slow, deep baritone in tandem with the window man.

No, this isn't a movie set for the latest Dickens or Tolstoy remake. It's a typical morning in Transylvania's provincial capital, Cluj-Napoca. A place where stepping back in time begins by looking out your window.

My Romanian-born husband and I had pulled off the fast lane of our New York lives and, temporarily, set up home here.

Though Transylvania is more prosperous than the rest of Romania, sputtering economic reform keeps this overlooked corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire looking more like the 19th century than the 21st.

Most Westerners' perception of Transylvania derives from "Dracula," Bram Stoker's classic novel. And, like most Westerners, Stoker never set foot here.

Transylvania literally means the "land beyond the forest." Situated on the western side of the thickly forested Carpathian Mountains – home to Europe's largest wolf and bear populations – it retains its Central European past.

Cities that date back to the 12th century

Cluj-Napoca is one of the seven sister cities built by the Saxons, who arrived from Germany in the 12th century. They also built more than 500 fortified villages throughout the region, many of which are kept up today.

Historically, Transylvania has been populated by a mix of Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Jews, and Gypsies (now known as Roma or Romany). Cluj-Napoca, like most Transylvanian cities, also has a Hungarian (Koloszvár) and a German (Klausenburg) name. Napoca was recently added, emphasizing the city's Roman origins.

In downtown Cluj, as the locals call it, you're swept into an elegant mix of gabled roofs and pastel-colored baroque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau facades.

Cafes, reminiscent of Hapsburg coffeehouses, bustle with university students. In the summer, alfresco dining springs up in the airy courtyards of former palaces.

Chic students aimlessly meander along narrow cobbled streets in platform shoes while gabbing into their mobile phones. Romany flower-sellers are perched on every corner.

Exploring here makes you feel as if you've stumbled upon a great find, unlike in tourist-weary cities such as Prague. Even hunting for postcards is an adventure tempting you into old bookstores called anticariat.

After making your purchase, stroll to the post office where you can join the locals in attaching your stamps to the cards with glue. Everyone sits patiently around two wooden tables sharing glass bottles of glue.

From there, it's a short trek across the street to the unofficial "gold quarter." Romanies in traditional dress flock around a dozen or so bijuterie, or jewelry shops, buying and selling gold.

The women, nibbling on sunflower and pumpkin seeds, are draped in layers of bright floral skirts and scarves that give them a passing resemblance to colorful birds.

The men, decked out in black, look like Mexican cowboys with their black, broad-rimmed hats and droopy mustaches.

Thirty percent of the population of Cluj is made up of Hungarians, who have their own theater, high school, newspapers, and university classes in their language. The two ethnic groups are trying to maintain a somewhat peaceful coexistence.

Use Cluj as a base for exploring the region

Cluj is a good spot from which to explore other hidden treasures of the region.

Journey through the Transylvanian countryside and you are immersed in a medieval tapestry of rolling green hills sprinkled with haystacks, scythe-wielding peasants, forests that seem to go on forever, ancient fortresses and castles, and a stream of horse-drawn wagons in lieu of tractors or cars.

It's not unusual to see Romany caravans of covered wagons resting by the road.

The silver domes of churches and monasteries gleam like overturned chalices in the distance.

Two hours north by car is the region of Maramures, bordering Ukraine – a region so isolated that the villagers still wear embroidered folk dress even while working the fields.

Immense wooden gates with intricate carvings, specific to this region, guard quaint one- or two-story houses. Tiny wooden churches and monasteries dot the velvety green hills.

Tucked into one wool-spinning village is the "Merry Cemetery," where brightly painted wooden crosses depict the departed through cartoonish pictures and funny epitaphs.

Instead of staying in a hotel, some visitors take advantage of "agrotourism" – booking a room on a small farm. It's a great opportunity to stay with local people and enjoy home cooking. Here, ingredients are always homegrown.

Preparing a typical dish of stuffed grape leaves or peppers and polenta with melted cheese begins by plucking leaves off the grape trellises hanging over every Romanian's courtyard, picking the peppers from the garden, and milking the sheep.

You'll never want to go to a restaurant again.

A trip to Sibiu takes you back to the Middle Ages

Venture about three hours south of Cluj-Napoca to the superbly preserved medieval city of Sibiu (Hermannstadt in German and Nagyszeben in Hungarian) in the foothills of the soaring Carpathian Mountains.

The old town, perched on a hill, is still surrounded by fortified walls built to defend southern Transylvania from the invading Turks. Soaring 210 feet in the air is the five-pointed steeple of the Gothic Evangelical church.

Now I understand why my husband, who grew up here, speaks German and wore lederhosen as a child. Stand in the middle of the square and you could be in Germany. Small round or slanted windows encased in fish-scale-tiled roofs stare back. Wrought-iron signs still hang above shops that used to house craft guilds.

An exquisite collection of paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck are housed in the Brukenthal Museum, Romania's oldest and finest art museum.

A few craggy streets away is the market, the one place in Romania where the economy hums. Heaps of fresh paprika, herbs, beans, olives in great wooden barrels, every fruit and vegetable imaginable, nuts, and live fowl and rabbits vie for your attention.

I counted at least 20 women selling eggs. Walking down the cheese aisle, I'm offered more than a dozen varieties of sheep's milk cheese to taste. If you're short on guard dogs, you can pick up a German shepherd puppy on your way out.

Off to Bran to see what's called 'Dracula's castle'

The few tourists roaming Transylvania are usually bound for "Dracula's castle" in the village of Bran, south of Brasov – yet another exquisite medieval city.

But even here signs are few and the atmosphere is low-key. Romanians are bewildered by the Western interest in "Dracula." The book, published here only in 1990, is not widely read.

Some foreigners are disappointed to learn that the real-life Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, never lived in this castle and that Stoker's fictional Dracula lived farther north, near Bistrita, where no such castle exists.

This explains why Bran Castle looks more like a Mediterranean palace with its whitewashed walls, fairy-tale turrets, red-tile roof, and quaint rooms filled with baroque furniture.

Built in 1377, it was intended to protect a mountain-pass trade route. It was reconstructed in the Renaissance style during the 17th century and, from 1920 to 1947, it served as the summer royal residence.

Today, it's a museum of art and history. The only sinister sign is a solitary bulb of garlic resting on the bed in the largest bedroom.

But in Stoker's blend of fiction and folklore, some details of life in Transylvania ring true. Ropes of garlic and other herbs hang on the walls of many village houses.

In the novel, when Jonathan Harker embarks on his journey to the count, he observes his fellow passengers crossing themselves. Even today, some Romanians cross themselves at the beginning or end of a journey, whether they're going by horse and wagon or by plane.

And, just as for Jonathan, a trip back in time for them – as well as visitors – is just "beyond the forest."

• For more information, visit the websites www.romaniatourism.com (official travel information) and www.turism.ro(Tourism in Romania); write the Romanian National Tourist Office, 14 E. 38th St., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10016; telephone (212) 545-8484; or e-mail ronto@erols.com.

Austrian Airlines ( www.aua.com/default_e.asp ) flies to Romania from the United States.

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