For horror fans, the name sits in the throat and is urged out with an unholy drawl, but -- aside from the sheer Gothic drama of medieval towns and hilltop citadels -- there's very little to evoke Transylvania's ominous association. Yes, Vlad Tepes was born in the fortress city of Sighisoara, and wolves do roam the Carpathians (in fact, they're considered a protective force in Romanian culture), but Transylvania's reality is more one of fairy-tale forests surrounding charming Saxon towns and fortified church steeples poking through the treetops.
A possession of the Hungarian king from the 10th century, Transylvania has been the source of a power struggle for 1,000 years. Hungary only gave up its territorial claims in 1996. Legend tells how the lost children of Hamelin emerged from a cave here; of course, that's a fanciful account of the arrival of Transylvania's Aryan German-speaking population, the Saxons. Settlers from the Lower Rhine, Flanders, and the Moselle region, these blue-eyed blondes were lured here in the 12th century by the Hungarian monarchy who promised them land and other liberties in return for protection against the Ottoman and Tartar threat. The Saxons established seven fortified cities, the Siebenbürgen, with outlying villages centered on fortified churches, serving as both spiritual and military protection. Today the major settlements of Brasov, Sighisoara, and Sibiu remain popular destinations, but there are dozens more Saxon villages throughout Transylvania that are remarkably untouched by modern life. The Saxon community has dwindled over the centuries, but Transylvania still includes a sizeable Hungarian minority tracing its ancestry to the Széklers, a clan of warriors accorded noble privileges for defending Hungary's eastern frontier.
Separating Transylvania from Wallachia in the south and Moldavia to the east are the Carpathian Mountains, where Anthony Minghella filmed Cold Mountain, a movie shot through with images of a sublime, beautiful wilderness. While you won't encounter any wolves, were- or otherwise, you will -- as many trekkers discover -- come across the odd shepherd or remote mountain village where smiles and frowns are your only tools of communication.
Near Brasov is Bran Castle, touted by the ill-informed as "Dracula's Castle." With a gorgeous medieval Saxon center, Brasov is also home to the ominously pretty Black Church, the biggest Gothic cathedral between Istanbul and Vienna. And if you are pining to rub shoulders with a real count, Transylvania may have the answer: Count Tubor Kalnoky offers some of the best lodgings in the country in the Hungarian farming community of Miclosoara.