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Transylvania, Romania

See Exotic Eastern European Architecture in Romania

The grandmother becomes more and more agitated as the train lurches towards the Hungarian-Romanian border. Tears leak into the furrows around her blue eyes. She clutches my hands. "Help me, help me," she begs in crude German, our only common language. I nod, terrified.

She bustles around the compartment. Bunica - that's the local word for granny - secrets a chocolate bar under my newspaper, rams a container of Viennese coffee into my duffel bag. "You're a foreigner. The police won't take your things," she explains, detailing all the border-thefts she has suffered. Though Romanian, she works in a brassiere factory in Austria, returning once a year to her family. I am smuggling her excess treats.

At least, I sincerely hope they are treats, not, say, cafe canisters crammed with cocaine. The train jerks through the ink-dark countryside. We stop frequently. Boots slam up and down the carriage. I pretend to doze, blue passport displayed ostentatiously. Bunica croons and rocks, hyperventilating slightly. I begin to hate her. Why did she pack 12 jars of instant espresso anyway? The Cold War is over. Supplies cross the border in happy, capitalist fashion. Did she miss the memo?

The grim guards finally materialize. They glance briefly at my documents, amused by a tourist on the Budapest-Cluj night service. Then they ransack Bunica's bags. She weeps. I watch sternly, doing my best U.N. Human Rights Officer impression. Perhaps it works: the border thugs leave her chocolate hoard in peace.

Bunica kisses me and dances around the compartment. Then she prepares a celebratory coffee from her stash, mixing the brown powder with fizzy mineral water. "Mmmmm. Gut!" she declares, shaking the bottle. I choke down the tepid mixture - quite possibly the worst beverage of my entire life - and toast my first trip to Eastern Europe.

The gritty, pokey train, rumors of crooked cops, stained concrete-slab apartment blocks and impassable, pot-holed roads were everything I expected from a nation ravaged by a corrupt Communist dictator. In three short decades, Nicolae Ceausescu unraveled centuries of pastoral prosperity and Austro-Hungarian high culture. He dined on gold plates while the people starved, encouraged children to spy on their relatives and allegedly funneled $470m into his private Swiss account. Despite his execution in 1989, the money has never been recovered.

That's a shame, because Romania deserves some pocket change and a reason to smile. Once I pushed through the raw culture shock (the rusted metal, the spavined orphans, the pleading glassware peddlers in horse carts), I found much to like, enjoy even. Cluj for starters.

Transylvania ClujGothic, Baroque and fin-de-siècle buildings cluster together along a winding river. The colors are warm: honey-yellow, pastel pink, robin-egg blue, even sunset orange, revealing the area's showy Latin roots. Spires and onion-domes soar above cobbled courtyards. Literary salons and cafe culture once held sway here, when the city's light illuminated the Balkans.

Cluj is also an outpost for Transylvania-bound travelers. I rent a clapped out Mercedes sedan, quite possibly older than me, and head for the hills - or rather the mist-shrouded Carpathian Mountains.

The countryside seems weirdly deserted...and so it is. After Ceausescu's fall, anyone with German lineage could claim German citizenship. Ninety percent of Transylvanians emigrated.

Exodus and identity crisis is nothing new in this Saxon swathe of land, settled in the 12th century. The Hungarians, Germans, Turks and Hapsburgs all laid claim - and waste - to the area.

Transylvania ChurchThe sad remainders eke out medieval lives, complete with stout churches and oxen hitched to hay carts. Kilns burn limestone. Professions are handed from father to son: blacksmith, woodcarver, butcher. Elders trundle down dirt tracks, spines bowed under heavy bundles of kindling. Shepherds sell round cheese, beside Magyars peddling traditional embroidery and stout fleece vests. Their liquor of choice is fierce homemade brandy - called tsuica or horinca - flavored with plum.

Tiled roofs slump, the red clay dragged back towards the earth. Lace curtains flap, revealing solemn furniture - all dark wood and heavy carvings. Oak-shingled church spires preside over villages that have never known pavement.

The land is torn into canyons, peaks and cliffs, barnacled with castles. Broad river valleys rustle with orchards, bears and wild boars. The scenery is show stopping; a small wonder Anthony Minghella shot Cold Mountain among these crags.

Bram Stoker captured the essence of the haunting landscape and distilled it into the Dracula myth. Ironically, he never ventured into the Carpathians. His vivid descriptions were cobbled together from guidebooks in the British Museum Reading Room.

The vampire count was based on a fifteenth century prince, Vlad Tepes, who was merely blood thirsty in a conventional battle-crazed sense. He slaughtered thousands of Turkish invaders, often impaling victims or mounting their heads on pikes. The Transylvanian town Brasov plays up the gory story, but general consensus dismisses "Dracula's castle" as a cheesy tourist trap.

Really Ceausescu sucked far more life from this once-prosperous nation, a Balkan breadbasket. His smoked-smeared factories and crumbling nuclear reactors still blot the emerald countryside. Orphans roam the streets begging and sniffing glue, thanks to his anti-contraception, baby-pushing policies. Even from the grave, his shadow looms.

But the country's heart shines through the murk. The people are wise, deep and generous, prone to merry outbursts. Their spirit burns bright.

In the grip of the Reformation and its Spartan style, the Transylvanians whitewashed their church wall paintings. Yet over the centuries, the chalk dissolved. Outlines, then details, emerged ...and now the stunning Medieval frescoes glow, restored and revived.

May Romania do the same.


Transport :
Austrian Air flights from New York to Bucharest, Timisoara or Cluj ( Expect to pay more for a five-mile cab ride into the center of Cluj, also called Cluj-Napoca, the best jumping-off point for Transylvania. The #8 bus runs from the aiport to Piata Mihai Viteazul)

The direct train from Budapest to Cluj takes about nine hours (reservations are highly recommended. Smuggling is not). From the station, it's a twenty-minute walk to the bustling main square, Piata Unirii.

Arrange an affordable car rental from Pacr-auto (Tel: 0265-443-297; English spoken). Be braced for rough, pot-holed roads, lengthy construction delays and long lines for fuel, however.

Where to stay :
Splurge on Transylvanian glamour at Miklósvár (aka Miklosoara), a frescoed hunting manor from the 1500s. Excursions include carriage rides, birdwatching, bear tracking and hikes to the Almas Cave, which supposedly sheltered the Pied Piper ( Tel:742.202.586.

Experience Romanian hospitality and authentic country conditions (read "lack of indoor plumbing" there) through the National Association of Rural, Ecological and Cultural Tourism. (ANTREC, Strada Maica Alexandra 7, Sector 1, Bucharest, Post Office Box 22-259. Tel: 122.370.24.

The Retro Youth Hostel boasts constant hot water, tidy new bathrooms and Internet access. (Potaissa St. 13, Cluj-Napoca. Tel: 0264-450452.

Where to eat :
Like their distant cousins in Italy, Romanians turn out good pizzas. Gente Senior serves pasta and pies in a cheerful atmosphere...cheerful by local standards, where customer service is not yet highly prized (Horea St. 5, Cluj. Tel: 0264-13204).

Cabbage is the (unlikely) star at Varzaria. Sample a soup, pie or the regional delicacy: rice, sour cabbage, mince and sour cream simmered in the oven (Varza a la Cluj). The decor won't impress, but the tiny check might (B-dul Eroilor 35, near the Orthodox Cathedral).

The Romanian National Tourist Office provides glib and glossy information (14 East 38th Street, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Tel: 212-545-8484.

Travelers bemoan Cluj's tourist office: recently privatised, it hustles package holidays and skimps on the free local advice. Try your luck at Sincai 2, on the corner of Strada Memorandumului, the main road west from Piata Unirii.

Cluj is home to Europe's largest botanical garden, founded in 1921. Over 10,000 species grace the sprawling grounds (42 Gheorghe Bilascu. Tel: 264.597.604).