Think Italy, not vampires

A fondness for the U.S. is in Romanians’ blood

Sunday, December 6, 2009, The Washington Post

I say Romania, you say . . . Dracula, right? Well, put a stake through the heart of that outdated association, say Sheilah Kast and Jim Rosapepe, authors of the new book “Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy.” Rosapepe, a former ambassador to Romania, and his journalist wife Kast recently spoke with Travel deputy editor Zofia Smardz about Romania’s resurgence and the realities and pleasures of traveling there.

Bran Castle, a Romanian landmark widely thought of as Dracula's castle, is now a museum open to the public.

Bran Castle, a Romanian landmark widely thought of as Dracula’s castle, is now a museum open to the public. (Daniel Williams/the Washington Post)


Q. Romania the new Italy? What do you mean by that?

Rosapepe: We mean it is a country that punches above its weight class in history, in culture, in creativity and in attractiveness to Americans who visit. Another thing is cultural similarities. My Italian colleague when I was there said that Romanians reminded her a lot of her own people in that they are stronger on spontaneity than on discipline. As the Italian ambassador to Romania, she found herself caught between two spontaneities.

Kast: Also, Romanian is a romance language, the one closest to the Latin that was spoken by the Roman soldiers who were there two millennia ago. The Romanians think of themselves as Latins. They talk about themselves being an island of Latins in a sea of Slavs.

Q. Do you find much interest in Romania among Americans?

Rosapepe: There are deeper and broader cultural ties between the United States and Romania than you would think. In Transylvania, we were constantly running into American Unitarians. Transylvania is the Holy Land of Unitarianism. If you go to a Unitarian church in the United States, you’re going to find someone who’s been to Romania and someone about to go to Romania. And Romania had a very large Jewish population before World War II; about half perished in the Holocaust, and most of the rest emigrated during the communist period, many to the United States. The most famous example is Elie Wiesel. We wrote a section on his home town, what happened there during the Holocaust.

Q. If I’m an ordinary traveler, why I should go there?

Kast: It’s an incredibly hospitable place. Romanians are hugely pro-American and will tend to say to Americans, with a smile, “We’ve been waiting for you for 60 years,” because they really did hope after the communists moved in that Americans would come and save them. Even though we didn’t intervene militarily, they did see the U.S. as standing up to the Soviet Union all during the Cold War.

A more practical reason is that something like 25 percent of Romanians speak English. And if you know a little French or Spanish or Italian, you can probably make yourself understood. So for a place that’s as interesting and exotic as it is, and where, if you get out to the villages or to farms, you really feel like you’re in another century, it’s not scary, because you can communicate.

There are gorgeous mountains in Transylvania, very good skiing at East European prices. There’s also the Danube delta; it has an incredible array of wildlife and birds that don’t exist anywhere else.

Q. What’s your favorite place there?

Kast: One of my favorite parts is in the far north, a region called Maramures. That’s where Elie Wiesel’s home town is, that’s where this charming place called the Merry Cemetery is, where the grave markers are carved with little limericks, little vignettes of the life of the departed.

Rosapepe: My favorite place is Ploesti, which is sort of the Houston of Romania. Before World War II, Romania was the largest oil producer in Europe, so that’s the center of their oil industry. But it also was a big battleground in World War II, which a lot of American veterans know about because of the Ploesti raids. The American military was very focused on not letting Hitler get control of those oilfields. In the Ploesti raids, many American fliers were shot down over the town. And because Romanians are so pro-American, they took very good care of them. In [a local] museum are all these letters from American fliers about the Romanians who took such good care of them. It’s fascinating, particularly today, when we think of so many people not liking Americans.

Q. What’s the economic situation?

Kast: It’s still a poor country. That’s the good news for travelers. You can get a lot done on Western currency.

Q. What do you think are the worst Western misconceptions about Romania?

Kast: There are so many. One is the extent of corruption.

Rosapepe: The other is people defining Romania from its communist era and not understanding that it had a very rich history going back centuries that has nothing to do with communism. That’s really the point of our book.

Kast: That’s why we used the metaphor of Dracula, because that’s probably the first thing Americans think of when you say Romania. Bram Stoker, when he was writing “Dracula,” learned about Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, and sort of mooshed that together with legends of vampires to make a fictional character. And therefore there have been how many Dracula movies with a really gloomy, scary Transylvania? When Transylvania is gorgeous, with great mountains, wonderful small villages and big cities that were centers of culture before Christopher Columbus ever had the idea of sailing west.

Q. If I have just a long weekend, what are the places and things I really should see?

Rosapepe: The place to start would be Bucharest. It was called the Paris of the East, and it’s the major center of Romanian culture. One trip I recommend to people is to go to Bucharest for a couple of days, then drive up into the mountains and stop in Sinaia, which is the resort in the mountains where the Peles castle is, where the kings lived, just a beautiful, storybook, gingerbread castle. Then drive further to Brasov, in southern Transylvania. It was historically a German town, so it has a German church on the central square. Within an hour or two drive of there you can go to Simisoara, which is the most historic, well-preserved, centuries-old German fortified town. It was the birthplace of Dracula.

Kast: It was the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, but it would be worth going to anyway. It’s gorgeous, said to be the best-preserved medieval town in Europe.

Rosapepe: And close by is Bran Castle, which people always think of as Dracula’s castle. You can then either keep going north to the painted monasteries and Maramures, or you can go back to Bucharest and go south to Constanta, on the Black Sea. You can do a long day trip there.

Q. What do you hope your book will do for Romania?

Rosapepe: I’m less concerned with what it’ll do for Romania than with what it’ll do for Americans. I think Americans have a lot to learn from Romania.

Kast: Yes, we really wrote this book for our American friends.