The Breite Plateau, a broad sheep-grazing ground of 300 acres or so, lies a couple of hundred miles north of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, but only a ten-minute car ride from Sighisoara, the city of 38,000 that owns the land. Interspersed here and there across the plateau are 120 venerable oak trees. When I drove from Sighisoara to Breite to see those gnarly giants not long ago, I was accompanied by a couple of earnest young environmentalists who darkly warned that the trees would soon be felled. A large white billboard explained why. “Aici se va construi DRACULAPARK,” announced the text in crimson letters: something called DraculaPark was to be built there.
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Over the past year and a half, a furious controversy surrounding this proposal has focused attention on an area so obscure that many people today still assume it’s fictitious: Transylvania. But located high within the curling grip of the rugged Carpathian Mountains in central Romania, Transylvania is as real as real can be—rich in mineral resources, blessed with fertile soil and filled with picturesque scenery. Although its name means “land beyond the forest,” this historical province of more than seven million souls was not known as a particularly spooky place until 1897, when the Irish writer and critic Bram Stoker published his sensational gothic novel Dracula. Casting about for a suitable backdrop for his eerie yarn about a nobleman who happened to be a bloodsucking vampire, Stoker hit upon Transylvania, which he described as “one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.”
As it happened, Stoker never set foot there himself. English libraries provided all the maps and reference books he needed. His ghoulish imagination did the rest. Count Dracula, he of the “hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory,” inhabited “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”
Dracula proved to be one of those rare tales that tap a vein deep within the human psyche. The book has never been out of print, and Transylvania, through no fault of its own, is doomed to be forever associated with the sanguinary count. Which explains both the billboard that went up last year on the Breite Plateau and the outrage it provoked.
It was Romania’s own minister of tourism who came up with the idea of building a Dracula theme park in the heart of Transylvania. For the region as a whole, and in particular for the city of Sighisoara, it’s only the latest chapter in a long history of unwelcome intrusions from the outside.
It began with the Romans, who arrived late in the first century to impose their harsh discipline and Latin tongue on the ancient Dacian people native to the area. Next came the Magyars from what is now Hungary, followed by various barbarians and Mongols, then the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Back and forth they all went in true Balkan style, and the dust never quite settled.
Romania did not even exist as a nation before 1859, when, in the wake of the Crimean War, the principalities of Moldovia and Walachia united as a single state. Transylvania belonged to Austro-Hungary until 1918, when the Allied powers awarded it to the Bucharest regime after World War I. No matter what flag flew over it, though, Transylvania has been divided for centuries roughly between three ethnic groups: Romanians, Hungarians and Germans.
The Germans left the most indelible mark. Colonists from the Cologne archdiocese—Saxons, they were called, because in those days Germany didn’t exist, either—first came to Transylvania during the 12th century. They preferred hills for their villages, walling them and grouping their houses in tight, defensible rows. Strategically placed in the centers of those citadels were the churches, the last sanctuaries into which an embattled population could retreat. The Saxons made sure their houses of God were as much fortresses as places of worship: massive stone towers with battlements and sentry walkways surrounded by walls with reinforced gates and defensive trenches. Some 150 of these mighty fortress churches remain in Transylvania today, and they are rightly valued among Romania’s greatest national treasures.
The Saxons were talented, thrifty and hard working, but they also tended to be clannish, maintaining their own sectarian ways through the centuries. German schools invariably stood near German churches, and even today, 800 years after arriving in Transylvania, some Saxons still speak German, not Romanian, which antagonizes non-Saxons. Nicolae Ceausescu, the late, unlamented dictator who imposed a weirdly personalized form of communism on Romania from 1965 to 1989, was a fervent nationalist who actively strove to get rid of the minority Saxon culture.
In the end it was the minorities who finally got rid of Ceausescu. It happened more than a dozen years ago, and the place where trouble started was the city of Timisoara. After Ceausescu’s secret police, the Securitate, fired on crowds demonstrating there against the regime, a nationwide revolution flared up; within days, Ceausescu and his wife were condemned by an anonymous court and executed by a firing squad. When I arrived in Timisoara to cover that story, town authorities were still burying young people shot in the demonstrations, and the windows of my hotel room were pocked with bullet holes.