We once had a book about Eastern Europe at home, in between the encyclopedias and Robinson Crusoe.  I do not remember its title nor the author’s name, but it contained highly atmospheric black and white photographs of Rumanian scenes.  There were baroque chateaux, sturgeons, eagles, wolves, bears, wild boar, bends in the Danube, flowered meads in Moldova, towering mountains and wayside shrines, farmworkers dancing in village squares or pushing horse-drawn plows; and an exuberantly mustachioed princeling, elegantly cross-legged in a chunkily carved wooden chair and smiling with supreme confidence at the camera, magnificent in spurred boots, breeches, saber, a frogged military tunic, and a fur hat.  Reading those place names—Wallachia, Oltenia, Moldavia, Muntenia, Maramures, Bukovina, the Banat, Turnu-Severin, the Iron Gates, and Transylvania—my eight-year-old mind was entranced.  The book was pulled to pieces, but its images have always remained with me—a romantic repository, a reminder that Europe could still be wild.  So it is really quite surprising that I did not get to Rumania until 2007.

The tarmac shimmered with heat as we took a taxi into Bucharest.  In the far south, animals were dropping dead in the fields, crops were withering, and rivers were drying up.  It was suitably extreme weather for a place that I had populated with folk-dancing, sausage-eating, rough wine-drinking, God- and vampire-fearing artisans wearing handmade clothes, living in wooden houses, and driving horses and carts.

There was very little evidence of this enchanted hinterland in Bucharest, a centerless city that has not been beautiful since the interwar years, when it was a “Paris of the East” filled with casinos patronized by the Hooray Heinrichs of Mitteleuropa.  Then came the war and a reluctant alliance with Germany, which gave Transylvania back to the Hungarians and wolfed down Rumania’s precious oil, while promising the return of Bessarabia and Transdniestr.  The city suffered a massive earthquake in 1940, then heavy Allied bombing, and finally fighting damage after Rumania sensibly switched sides in August 1944.

Whereas Budapest was restored beautifully after 1945, Bucharest was governed by people who felt that Socialist Man would prefer to live in massive concrete apartment blocks instead of houses with gardens.  Chief among these was one Nicolae Ceausescu, a man of obscure origins who had been imprisoned because of his Socialist affiliations.  By 1965, he had become Rumania’s leader, with a reputation as a man with whom the West could do business.  This business included a state visit to the United Kingdom in 1984, during which the “ghastly little man” (as the Queen is supposed to have referred to him) stayed at Buckingham Palace, from which he and his practical entourage removed not only monogrammed towels but even bathroom fittings as mementos.

Less amusing than this petty larceny was his decision to leave an architectural legacy to the ages.  Another earthquake, in 1977, encouraged him, but it was not nearly as destructive as his bulldozers.  One sixth of what remained of historic Bucharest was leveled on his orders, including ancient monasteries and churches and thousands of homes.  In their place there arose the neoclassical People’s Palace, dominating the whole southern half of Bucharest, like a gigantic ice-cream cake at the end of specially laid-out boulevards designed to focus all eyes on the seat of what is reputedly the world’s second-largest building (after the Pentagon).  Like everything that contains the word People’s, the palace is utterly heartless—a vainglorious confection that would look out of proportion in any setting.  Its chief quality is vast vulgarity.  It is impressive only in its dimensions, by Ceau­sescu’s insistence that everything used in its construction come from Rumania, and by the anecdotes of how he and his wife would contradict each other and respecify on the hoof, ordering door surrounds to be changed, and making and remaking massive marble staircases up to four times.  The building has still not been completed, and it is a massive financial drain for the postcommunist governments (who use it as their parliament building).

Bucharest does have attractive reminders of the past—candle-smoked, silver-lined Orthodox churches with naive paintings of saints ascending and the tormented descending, the Hanul Manuc (the only surviving 18th-century travelers’ inn), the remains of Vlad Tepes’s princely palace, a handful of old streets and alleyways in the Lipscani district, some handsome mansions along the monumental Sos Kisleff, and the Village Museum, containing rural buildings salvaged from Rumania’s regions on the orders of King Carol from 1936 onward.  The city museums contain some good items—a plaster cast of Trajan’s Column, which shows the eventual triumph of the Romans over the Dacian indigenes, Dacian artifacts, interesting Rumanian paintings, and an exhibition of Ceausescu memorabilia, including some hilariously bad portraits of the unhandsome First Couple.  We panted around the chief sites of the 1989 Revolution that finally put paid to Ceausescu, looking out for the bullet holes in buildings.  We tried to imagine his last speech from the balcony of the Central Committee of the Communist Party building; as the crowd booed, he escaped by helicopter from the roof while the police fired indiscriminately into the assembly of onlookers, who then surged into the Securitate headquarters, releasing prisoners and destroying documents.  No one was sorry when he was executed on Christmas Day of that year.

Having finished with Bucharest, we hired a much-scratched car and dashed across the Wallachian plain, along uncharacteristically good roads made ugly by oil derricks, nodding donkeys, and lurid flares.  It was strange to think that this was the home territory of Vlad Tepes, and that he had probably ridden along the route of this road, perhaps fleeing advancing Turks and plotting pointed revenge in the passes.  He could never have guessed that deep under his horse’s hooves was a viscous liquid that later Vlachs would regard as much more valuable than cattle or even churches.

Soon the road started to twist and climb—up into Transylvania!—and a thunderstorm broke around us, as we bumped in and out of potholes, behind massive trucks heaped high with thick tree trunks of up to 70 feet long.  Similarly sized trees towered over the road, and we began to see horses and carts, with blurry sack-wrapped people hunched against the heavy rain.  As we came into Brasov through vile industrial outskirts, the rain stopped for a while—only to return with great intensity while we were sitting in a pavement café an hour later.  Transylvania gets more rain than the rest of Rumania and retains its verdancy even in the hottest of years.

Outskirts notwithstanding, Brasov (formerly Kronstadt) is one of the handsomest towns in Transylvania (formerly Siebenbürgen).  Originally a Dacian settlement, Kronstadt became one of the most important Saxon towns, a staging post between Northern Europe and Constantinople.  This trading history is demonstrated colorfully inside Brasov’s most famous landmark, the large Black Church (so-called because its walls were blackened when Austrians burned the town in 1689), where beautiful Turkish rugs have been hung on the walls as offerings by devout merchants—a pleasingly exotic effect for a Lutheran church.

According to legend, the children enticed underground by the Pied Piper of Hamelin reemerged at Brasov, becoming the town’s first Saxon burghers.  In fact, the centuries of German occupation began in the 12th century, when Teutonic Knights were brought in by the Hungarian king to safeguard Transylvania’s eastern frontier.  They soon became too restive and were expelled, but they left behind the peasant families that had accompanied them from Saxony.  From that time right up to the 20th century, the Saxons of Transylvania were a major factor in Eastern European affairs—a determined, (eventually) mostly Lutheran ethnic bloc whose wealth was coveted or alliance sought by Hungarian, Tatar, Bulgar, Turk, Hun, and of course the Vlachs.  Their presence also impelled Hitler’s Drang nach Osten, and the Volksdeutsch of Siebenbürgen died in large numbers on the Eastern Front—which meant that they were the objects of revenge after 1945, like their fellows in the Sudetenland and East Prussia.  Kronstadters who survived the war and revenge attacks were targeted for dissolution through the expedients of moving Rumanians from outside the city walls into the town and importing Moldovans to work in the new factories.  In the 1980’s, many of those who had survived were offered the opportunity of going to Germany.  In the Kronstadt/Brasov area today, only around one percent are Saxons, although Germans are starting to move again to the area in small numbers, and German money has been put into building restoration and social projects.  The Saxons are not the only relict ethnic group in this area; the Csángós of Barsa Land, a tiny Hungarian population isolated from their fellow Szeklers, an outpost of an outpost, hang on just outside Brasov, where there is a moving museum filled with shaggy sheepskin coats and grotesque masks every bit as exotic as anything that can be found in Africa or Asia.

The Rumanian demographic dominance is symbolized by a bronze of Romulus and Remus outside the city hall; the Rumanians pride themselves on their real or imagined Daco-Roman ancestry, a habit encouraged by Mussolini, during whose rule Italy donated many such sculptures.  Today, E.U. membership has meant that the Rumanians are also emigrating in large numbers, leaving “skills shortages” behind them even as they fill them in Western Europe.  Undermanned or parsimonious Rumanian factories are starting to employ workers from further east—Moldavians, Ukrainians, Russians, even some Chinese.  In Western Europe, many “Rumanians” are actually gypsies.  It was after a crime spree carried out by Rumanian gypsies in Italy that Alessandra Mussolini made the fatuous remark that “all Rumanians are criminals,” which led to the resignation of the Greater Rumania Party (PRM) members from her E.U. Parliament group Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty and its subsequent collapse.  It is ironic that a rude remark about gypsies should have led to this result, especially given the PRM’s notorious anti-gypsy sentiments.  Dislike of the Romany runs right through Rumanian society, with even President Traian Basescu being censured in November for referring to a journalist as a “stinking gypsy.”

Brasov is a good base for exploring the famous Saxon fortified churches, as some of the best are within a 20-mile radius.  These churches, built as early as the 13th century and maintained as fortifications right up until World War II, are unique, but all look fairly similar—a square, tall tower with a pitched roof looming over whitewashed walls honeycombed with rooms, enclosing a courtyard where cattle could be protected.  The largest of these is at Prejmer, northeast of Brasov along typically atrocious roads, where there are 272 rooms and storage spaces within the church’s circumvallation.  Many of the town’s chimneys were crowned with the scruffy nests of storks on specially built platforms.

We met an elderly Saxon couple, Herr and Frau Thome, in the town of Homorod (Homoroden in German), who invited us into their kitchen to shelter from the rain, after which Herr Thome showed us around the fortified church.  From atop its steep shingled tower we could see a wide, soaking valley, with men cutting wood in their back gardens and cows leaning contentedly over handmade gates.  Herr Thome sat and looked into space while we climbed the tower and explored the nave, with its naive paintings of angels and illustrations from the parables.  He and his wife are 2 of only 15 Saxons left in the village (there were 800 before 1939); his uncle died in 1942 in Russia.  He had never forgiven the Russians—“Barbarisch, barbarisch!” he said to us and to the Polish cyclists who had arrived at the same time.

Our next stop was Vlad Tepes’s birthplace of Sighisoara (still Schässburg to Herr Thome), the most obviously archaic of all Transylvanian towns.  It has an extraordinary Gothic clock tower that dominates the skyline and up which you can climb for an expansive view of the Tarnava Mare valley, the nine remaining bastion towers, the Orthodox church across the river, with fields and woods beyond for shining miles.  You can also get a closer look at the quarter-jacks, which rotate endlessly out into the open beside the clock—Roman soldiers, goddesses, and lightning-bolt-wielding figures from myth.  The town contains other distinctive structures, such as the House of the Stag, where a stone stag’s head and antlers protrude out of the corner of the building; the Scholar’s Stairs, a covered wooden walkway built in 1642; and the Market Hall, where crude cherubim prop up local foodstuffs, including a wels, the famous giant catfish of the Danube.  There is also Vlad Tepes’s supposed childhood home, and a small bronze bust of him beside the Monastery Church.

Tepes is more than just a lucrative tourist icon for Rumanians; he is a potent symbol of uncompromising resistance to foreign domination—which on one occasion included impaling 10,000 Turkish prisoners in the path of an advancing Turkish army, which must have been somewhat discouraging for them, and on another evincing his displeasure with emissaries who had not removed their turbans in his presence by nailing them into place.  (By contrast, his younger brother, Radu the Handsome, was one of the Sultan’s catamites.)  Tepes may have been the first man in history to suffer from bad press; he was unlucky enough to commit his atrocities just when printing had been invented and the new industry was anxious for copy.  When he picked a fight with the Siebenburgers, the largely German printing industry was swift to rush to the epistolary aid of its compatriots by publishing highly sensationalized stories about Tepes—although the metamorphosis from murderer to blood-drinking undead was a later development.  In many ways he was merely a man of his times and place.  Incomprehensibly, the present Rumanian government, a Liberal-Democrat coalition reelected in November 2007, is a strong supporter of Turkish entry into the European Union.  (However, it also takes a pro-Serbian stance toward Kosovo secession—less out of hostility to Islam than out of fear of the precedent for the restive Szeklers.)

From Sighisoara, we headed north to Târgu Mures (Marosvásárhely to Hungarians), one of the main cities in the Székeley Land, the Hungarian part of Rumania.  Just under half of the town’s population is still ethnically Hungarian, and there were ethnic riots here as late as 1990.  It is a town of fine Secession-era buildings and art-nouveau decoration dating from the belle époque of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the period recalled wistfully by Miklós Bánffy in his great trilogy Erdélyi Torténet (A Transylvanian Tale—published in English as The Writing on the Wall) and which Patrick Leigh-Fermor experienced just before it was finally swept away by the war.  Bánffy and Leigh-Fermor evoke a world of feudal estates, old country houses with “still undiminished libraries,” cultured and elegant men and women, picnics, dances, duels, hunts, and what Leigh-Fermor later described as the “unlimited kindness” of the Hungarian aristocracy even in its decline.  It is unsurprising that the Székeley national anthem pleads, “Lord, don’t let us lose Transylvania!”  Hungarians had possessed the province for around 1,000 years.  But ethnic Rumanians view things differently; for them, the long Hungarian suzerainty meant centuries of impoverishment, and social, linguistic, and religious marginalization, a debased state for a people tracing its descent from dogged Dacians and Roman soldiers.  Târgu Mures boasts one of Rumania’s best literary collections, in the shape of the Teleki-Bolyai Library, which contains over 40,000 volumes built up by one of the most eminent of Hungarian families.  There was also a fascinating collection of paintings by a Rumanian artist, Gheorge Opriz, an illiterate peasant who painted scenes of daily life, from candlelit graveyards to starlit shepherds calling home their flocks with alpenhorns.

Near Târgu Mures was the saddest place we saw—the former Teleki Palace at Gerneyeszeg (now Gornesti), with a window for each day of the year and a room for each week, the paint peeling off the dusky pink walls, the statues of gods and goddesses on the grounds teetering and broken, looking over choked ponds alive with jumping frogs.  The palace is now a sanatorium for children abandoned or suffering with AIDS, who sleep in echoing dormitories that were once elegant salons.  Healthcare posters are pinned up above blocked-up baroque fireplaces, linoleum has been laid down over parquet dance floors, and noble proportions have been foreshortened by partition walls.  Tough-looking, dark children tumble and play outside below mossy statues of pagan deities.  (Healthcare in Rumania has a bad reputation; the country still has a leper colony, Europe’s last, down amidst the whispering reeds of the Danube Delta.)

Another reminder of faded Hungarian greatness is in Cluj-Napoca (Kolosvár to Magyars)—where we found the house in which one of the greatest of all Hungarian kings, Matthias Corvinus, was born in 1443.  Corvinus, who was the son of another famous king, John Hunyadi, ruled Hungary from 1458 to 1490, during which time his famous Black Army kept peace while he and his cultivated Neapolitan wife initiated a mini-renaissance.  There was a popular Hungarian saying that “justice departed” with Corvinus’s death.  The imposing equestrian statue of Corvinus that stands outside the massive St. Michael’s Cathedral (Catholic, then Calvinist, then Unitarian, and now Catholic again) was for years the subject of an ethnic squabble between the remaining Szeklers and a bumptious Rumanian mayor who ordered the removal of the words Rex Hungariae from the plinth, and then tried to have the statue moved.  Also in the town is the Bánffy Palace, a late-18th-century beauty that once belonged to the author of The Writing on the Wall and now houses the National Art Museum.  Much lower down the sociocultural scale were the many inadvertently amusing T-shirt slogans sported by locals glorying in their sophistication—ugly machine-made garments bearing pseudo-Transatlantic constructs such as “Hi I’m Love Sexy” rapidly replacing the intricate embroideries and hard-wearing fabrics wrought with infinite labor from Transylvanian flora and fauna.  Like everyone else, the Rumanians are succumbing to the seductiveness of consumerism and E.U. membership, and it is a safe bet that within ten years Rumania will display much less character than she does at present.  Over the winnowing times ahead, much of what manages to survive from Rumania’s past may be saved for Western tourists.

There was still time for reveries as we drove south through an Elysian countryside—small fields of organic crops, acres of sunflowers, meadows filled with colorful “weeds,” clumps of unkempt trees, rocky rivers, eagles wheeling in thermals, startlingly large butterflies, people with lived-in faces and homespun clothes selling brilliant peppers and squashes by the side of the road, gypsies in carts, handmade haystacks built around poles, dogs rolling around in dusty village streets, artesian wells, comfortable wooden houses with heavy verandas and flower-heavy balconies, heaps of great logs piled up against the winter, enclosed Protestant graveyards, great houses with gaping blank windows and grass growing in the gutters.  Today this beautiful landscape, with its rare plants and animals, is subject to the Common Agricultural Policy.  It is too early to say whether the CAP’s professed commitment to preserving “traditional rural landscapes, and bird and wildlife conservation” can prevail against all the opposing regulations governing such things as farm hygiene and rights of access for foreign produce.  It is but fair to state that E.U. money has meant a reduction in the amount of industrial pollution, with further improvements planned.

All too soon, we arrived at Sibiu, which, as Hermannstadt, was the chief town of the Saxons for over 500 years.  It is generally considered to be Rumania’s most attractive town—perhaps because Ceausescu took no interest in it.  Because it was so prosperous, it attracted hostile interest and was sacked by the Tatars in 1241.  It accordingly developed strong walls and bastions, some of which have survived, along with streets of handsome houses, the Brukenthal Palace (now Transylvania’s best art museum), and the monumental Evangelical Cathedral, where Tepes’s son, Mihnea the Bad, is buried.  (He was stabbed to death just outside the cathedral in 1510 after having been voivode of Wallachia for just three years.)  Along the internal nave walls are wonderfully baroque funerary reliefs, where dancing skeletons hold up dead deer and scrolls extolling the departed.  Just outside the town is a large open-air museum of vernacular architecture—churches, oratories, wooden and stone cottages, grape presses and olive presses, sluice gates, watermills, windmills, grave markers, fences and high gates, many ornately carved with folk motifs and crucifixes, most of the houses furnished with locally made furniture, some ornamented with Fraktur inscriptions and badly painted eagles, primitive-patterned quilts and rugs, tools, clothes, treen utensils and dishes.  Some of these houses could easily be early American—until you step back outside and find yourself facing high wooden gates festooned with ancient abstract patterns, squinting faces, and double-armed crucifixes.

On the last day, I walked from Cisnadie, a town with a fortified church around five miles from Sibiu and called the “Red Town” by the Turks because of the blood they shed attempting to capture it, along breathlessly hot roads lined with orchards to the dome-shaped rock at Cisnadioara.  The rock is crowned with the remains of an early-13th-century citadel that had withstood numerous Tatar attacks only to fall prey to depopulation.  In an early example of eugenic practices, young men from the village were only allowed to marry if they had first carried a large stone up the steep sides of the hill into the citadel, from where the stones could be pitched down onto the helmets of attackers.  Climbing up the track that weaves around the hill, trying to lose the stray dogs that follow anyone who scratches them on the head, with your heart trying to escape through your rib cage, it is easy to understand why the Tatars never quite succeeded.  But to stand with your back to the severe chapel and look out from the top of the remaining ramparts down over miles of thick forest, precipitous pastures, and, in the distance, the orchards and spire of Cisna­die makes it worth the effort.

On the way back, I met a trilby-wearing shepherd who gave me maggoty wild apples from the pockets of his waistcoat and smiled shyly as I photographed him against the sylvan backdrop to the deep clonk of the sheep bells, the only sound in the whole sunbathed valley.  It was an immemorial scene, emblematic of the whole sequestered province—but one freeze-framed against a looming background of relentless and potentially ruinous change.