Travelling in Romania, the EU’s newest member, is like being somewhere between an eternal Halloween and the Led Zeppelin IV cover that features a twig-carrying farmer. Even in cities where Audis zoom across highways under video-camera speed traps, Romanian life is defined by its sweet country heart. Most anywhere, you’ll spot horse-drawn buggies crossing the (often cratered) paved roads – up green mountains, past cone-shaped haystacks and herds of sheep – which bounce along as if the roads themselves are aliens to the land. And then there’s that Dracula thing. Many visitors, lured by bloodcurdling tales, make full trips out of Transylvania’s castles and lovely medieval Saxon towns like Sighişoara, where the ‘real Dracula’ (Vlad Ţepeş) first grew his teeth.
But travellers limiting themselves to chasing vampires will miss so much. The capital, Bucharest, has its critics, but the blend of grotesque communist monuments and purposefully hidden-away cathedrals makes for fascinating exploring. Excellent hiking, biking and skiing are found all over the Transylvanian Alps (aka the Carpathian Mountains), which curl across central Romania. Farmhouse B&Bs allow guests to soak up some village life, particularly in the bucolic paradises of Maramureş and Southern Bucovina, where cemeteries and monasteries are painted as boldly as pop-art paintings.
Romania’s neighbour Moldova – a trickier place to visit, but equally as fascinating – is no closer to EU consideration than when the Soviet Union collapsed, largely because it lives on as if this had never happened. Russian is spoken commonly here and its renegade province, Transdniestr, still supports a communist government. Adding a few days in this Cold War timewarp on a trip to Romania’s vampire trails and Alp-like ski runs easily makes up one of Europe’s most interesting, and least understood, destinations. Go now, before it changes.