x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A spectral grace in Romania

Into the wild Even at its most desolate, Transylvania has a mysterious allure.

Bâlea Lake, 2,034m above sea level in Romania's Fagaras Mountains, is eerily calm.
Bâlea Lake, 2,034m above sea level in Romania's Fagaras Mountains, is eerily calm.

Tarmac in rural Transylvania is only a fleeting apparition, we discover. Crammed into a compact Daihatsu, my friends and I strain for a glimpse of road beneath treacherous black ice whenever the fog momentarily creeps away. Dread is diverting our attention away from the strange beauty of this land in central Romania, where a thousand shades of grey are punctuated by grape and turquoise houses. All around us evergreens are frosted at the tips - not unlike the wilting hair of the young man selling sheepskins at the opposite end of an empty car park into which we finally turn.

From near there, we hope to set off in a gondola lift to Bâlea Lake, 2,034m above sea level and deep in the frozen Fagaras Mountains, to visit a church built entirely out of ice. Our knees had still been quaking when Phillip, my travelling companion, and I met Manu, our Romanian friend who had recently returned to her homeland, at the airport in Sibiu. Gone was my Zen-like repose on which I had often congratulated myself during turbulent flights. After hours of being jostled in our creaking seats by the tempestuous skies, Phillip and I had been prompted - white-knuckled and ashen - into negotiations with our maker.

It had been our second flight of the day - from Timisoara to Sibiu - in one of Carpatair's tiny Saab 2000 turboprop workhorses, which were only in production for five years, and now are used almost exclusively by the small regional airline. In the midst of my prayers, I thought that Phillip had shown a strange foreknowledge when, in an e-mail before we left home, he'd misspelled the name as "Carpartair".

We found a good night's sleep at Manu's house, and the three of us convened for breakfast at the smartly renovated Cafe Wien in the small city's centre. Manu laid out a map and charted our course: Sibiu to Cirtisoara - to Bâlea Lake and the ice church - for two nights; onwards to Sighisoara via Carta, followed by Biertan; then, winding back to Sibiu for another couple of nights before we fly home.

Each of us had our own reasons for being in Transylvania, but for me it was curiosity about this land, which popular imagination has shrouded in darkness, and serendipity in equal measure. I believed that somewhere in the wilds of the Fagaras Mountains lived the soul of the Balkans, a region so named in Turkish, for its wooded hillsides. Having friends to share this adventure with me made the prospect irresistible.

When we finally turn off the mountain road, another frightening vehicle awaits us in lurid, cherry-red, emblazoned with evidence of Coca-Cola's omnipresence. The tramway's gondola, paused beside what looks like a Soviet-era bullwheel, makes me wonder if there is a mode of transport in the whole of Transylvania that isn't terrifying. Through the moving cabin's frosted windows, we can barely see the Transfagarasan Highway below, a ghostly, gossamer floss weaving its way through the mountain range. Some 15 minutes of disorienting snow blindness passes before we step out onto a concrete platform at the base of the glacial lake.

The ecumenical ice church lies just ahead like an igloo mounted with a cross. Inside, some of the walls of ice have been carved to resemble marble busts, and behind the altar there is a nearly full-sized rendition of da Vinci's The Last Supper; a motif that's nothing short of an obsession in Transylvania. Its image can be found adorning everything from key chains to beer mugs. Only a few metres away is the Bâlea Lake Ice Hotel, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe. The techno music blaring from the hotel's long neon-lit bar can be heard outdoors and is strangely juxtaposed with the church's spectral grace. We step inside the hotel where every platform - beds, benches, the bar top - is a frozen block. We notice with some amusement that the rooms have refrigerators and ice buckets.

There is something undeniably foul smelling, like the stale aftermath of a university party. Phillip lifts up the bedding on one of the mattresses, to reveal a layer of mossy funk. The place is dark, frigid and happy as a morgue. However, the lone member of staff informs us that the beds are fully booked several weeks in advance. Later that night, at the warm, comfortable Pensiunea Dealu Morri, a bed and breakfast in Cartisoara, we grow enamoured with the proprietor, who we simply refer to as "Renaissance Man". A keen winemaker with a cellar-cum-chemistry lab downstairs, he grows his own muscat grapes and distils fiery tuica plum brandy and sour cherry liqueur. He invites us to sit down next to his wall of medieval torture instruments and tells us stories about one of his other passions: renovating buildings. Serendipity strikes again and we learn that one of his recent projects took place an hour away, in Sibiu. It was Cafe Wien.

From talking to him and others, we realise that tourism has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, and it is easy to see why. Transylvania maintains an understated and uncomplicated loveliness, with an abundance of Saxon villages, citadels and fortified churches. And then there is the Count Dracula factor - I wish I had a dirham for every person back home who warned me to cover my neck while on this trip. In his sensational novel, published in 1897, Bram Stoker's fictional vampire was inspired by the legendary Sighisoara-born Vlad the Impaler. In Sighisoara, however, we are bemused but impressed to discover little capitalisation on the theme.

Phillip and Manu are more eager than I am to explore each new place that we visit. I become irritable with caffeine cravings, coldness and my asthma that has kicked into overdrive thanks to all the mildew. The Church of Biertan is the most impressive of all the area's fortified churches, but my only religious experience at this stop on our trail is at the Unglerus Medieval Restaurant. It is in this most unexpected of places that the tinge of homesickness that I am feeling is dispelled.

A friendly waitress serves us clatita, a type of crêpe filled with walnuts and doused with a light-bodied honey to create a moist, yeasty pancake dish similar to the Middle Eastern qatayef eaten during Ramadan. Sarmale, or stuffed cabbage rolls, are garnished with sour cream, while the smoky aubergine dip on the table is rich with mayonnaise. My favourite Romanian staple is mamaliga, a cornmeal porridge typically served with cream, cheese and eggs. Much of the Romanian culinary lexicon reminds me of the Middle Eastern dishes I've loved all my life, but the ones prepared here are done so with a heavier hand to suit the colder climate.

On our way back to Sibiu, Manu pulls the car over and buys a sheepskin. We pass Roma men, also known as Gypsies, walking briskly along the road. We drive past villages and windswept meadows, skeletal forests, packs of stray dogs and groves of gnarled trees crowned with stork nests. We stop to rest beneath a cluster of otherwise bare trees hung with orbs of mistletoe. Back in Sibiu, we look out of the window of Manu's kitchen, marvelling sleepily at the countless crows crowding rooftops or sweeping across the empty sky. And I decide that although there are parts of Romania that have felt desolate and remote, as I watch the arcs of these dark creatures, I think only of the curiosity that Transylvania inspires, its intrigue growing every time I hear a bird's uncanny cry. travel@thenational.ae