On a visit to Bucharest, Tolstoy noted that Romanians had a "sad destiny," his observation no doubt based on a strong sense of their troubled past -- Romania's soul is tormented by history, its loveliness overshadowed by the reputations of malevolent personalities like Vlad the Impaler and Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. But while bloodthirsty men have worked their ugly politics here, and Communism has left its ruinous marks on the land, it remains a country of great beauty, one that (unlike its most misunderstood cultural export, Count Dracula) is shedding its curse and pulses with life and fascinating diversity. It is also a land of mighty, staggering contrasts.

While Bucharest buzzes with the frenzied energy of a world capital, somewhere in a field, a farmer wields a scythe, harvesting the grass his livestock will eat during the cold winters. In the context of the European Union (Romania became a full-fledged member in 2007) the contrast between urban and rural life is staggering. It is a country coated in forest and defined by the curved backbone of Carpathian peaks. Its natural treasures include the Alpine splendor of snowcapped mountains and the vast frontier wetlands of the Danube Delta, one of the last great wildernesses in Europe. And along with the rolling hills and soaring peaks, swathes of green and vast tracts of preindustrial landscape, there are enchanting castles, richly decorated churches, and rural villages where time moves at a surreal pace. All of this reflects the varied histories of a people who, for centuries, have struggled to create and hold onto a single, united state. Romania's past is riddled with intrigue and tales of war and political upheaval.

During its isolation under Communism, many of Romania's great treasures were unknown to the world, considered unimportant by a leadership hellbent on fulfilling its sociopolitical master plan. To the outside world, this was a dark and foreboding place, legendarily haunted by Dracula's eternal ghost, and tormented by Ceausescu's living one. But while Ceausescu's program of systemization tried to squash the past -- the Communists built countless drab, gray apartments that still serve as cheap housing throughout the country -- many lovely centuries-old towns and cities have maintained their historic grandeur, albeit faded and crumbling. Retaining their historic core, occasionally centered on dramatic fortresses and fleshed out by rambling cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways or ancient gateways leading to secret courtyards, Romania's baroque, Gothic, and Secessionist cities are well worth exploring, and while much work is needed to improve tourism infrastructure, the time to visit Romania is now. For Romania is on the verge of yet another revolution; this time riding the wave of E.U. membership with bolstered economic hopes, it's a revolution that will inevitably take its toll on the medieval lifestyle of many of its backwater communities. Romania, once a country weighed down by its troubled past, is poised for a formidable future.