“The road is not silent. It has a language of its own, heart-piercing and true, and faithful to travelers. The road is refuge. It is hope. It is absolution.”
My great-grandfather’s words stare gravely at me from the height of heroic times, and I feel small, undeserving. The letters are uneven, the paper – crumpled – the entire page a painful, but dignified sign of great torment. I stare up at the snowy peaks of the Bucegi mountains, rising steadily in front of me from the cool morning mist, and imagine my great-grandfather and his two friends making their way across the steep passes. Their first sight of Home after long years of war, and wandering, was the tiny village of Bran, waking up to its daily millennial chores, as it does now, all around me.
I have been to Bran many times, but my most poignant memory of it is the childhood image of the Castle appearing from beyond the mountain side, proud and unmoved, like the soldiers who had delivered Transylvania back to Romanians during World War I. My great-grand father was one of those people, and the words I’m reading were the last ones scribbled in his make-shift travel diary, as he made his long way home from far away fronts. A peasant woman passes me in a hurry, obeying the imperative call of the church bells. I look at her feet, and see that she’s wearing opinci, traditional Romanian shoewear. They are made of a single rectangle of cow, ox or pig hide gathered round the foot, and one can find them at street fairs in Bran and other parts of Romania as souvenirs. The people who buy them nowadays, however, rarely know their meaning, or their history. My great-grandfather’s feet were bleeding when he arrived – and he proudly remembered he had “broken” 3 pairs of opinci on his way home. I remember him grey, but lively-eyed, holding one of the shoes in his hand, and telling me “A single piece of cow hide. Just like our country is one. That’s what we fought for, what we died for!”
I smell Kurtoskalacs roasting in the distance, so I gather my things and start walking towards Marcela and Virgil’s house. They are my hosts almost every time I come to Bran, as my family moved to Southern Romania short after my grandmother was born, and their house no longer exists. Marcela and Virgil operate what’s called a “Pensiune”, a cross between an inn and a bed and breakfast. Highly popular, especially with foreigners, they combine the best of Romanian hospitality and low prices. As a matter of fact, Bran is not the place for big, posh hotels. For that, people go to nearby Brasov or Sinaia. The village stubbornly retains its heritage and small, quiet life. “There is nothing pretentious, nothing fake about it!” I muse to myself while Marcela lays a plate of steaming Kurtoskalacs in my lap. As I look towards Bran Castle, however, the bite I just took turns sour in my mouth – the building, a historical and cultural landmark, has had the wrong introduction to the world: it is known to most of those outside Romania as Dracula’s Castle, and surely enough, an entire industry of cheap souvenirs (I am especially horrified by the vampire face mugs) has sprung up to cater to tourist tastes. I have run along its corridors as a child, marveled at the portraits of the Romanian Royal Family, which kept the Castle as a temporary residence, and cursed Bram Stoker in my mind for clothing Transylvania in such a twisted, horror-Goth mantle. There are kids running around me in fake blood-stained T-shirts, frantically taking photos and screaming in all languages of the Earth. There are sometimes also filming crews, shooting some clip for a famous artist, or a part of a movie. I see nothing of that. I see only the old forests shining red, like a blood confession – not the kind dripping from sharp fangs, but the one smeared on my great-grandfather’s last diary page. I realize he wrote those words when he did not know if he would ever see home again. That he hoped for the road to deliver an absolution from all the horrors of the war, that he had seen and perhaps done himself.
To say I spend time at Bran is a lie, because time here is never “spent”. It does not flow, nor diminish, nor dissipate. It inhabits this ancient village hidden in the mountains as fully and truthfully as the history from which it was born. And all its secrets will inhabit you as well, the wise traveler who shuts his soul from modern noise, but keeps it open for the stories of its people, those still here, and those living in the blue mist adorning the Bucegi mountains and the smell of Kurtoskalacs.
About the Author: Adriana Popa graduated with High Honors from Swarthmore College in May 2012, and has lived, worked and studied on three continents. She is currently buying her time in the “real world” before returning to academia (Columbia University, for graduate school). She finds inspiration in the framed message hanging over her desk: “Live, write, travel”.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.