Stockholm: Vasa is Sweden’s Titanic

Visitors to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum can’t help but gaze in awe at the massive wooden warship known as Sweden’s Titanic. Like the ‘unsinkable’ White Star liner, Vasa went to a watery grave, but was raised after 333 years under the Baltic Sea. It now sits, in showroom condition, in a museum that was built around it and is, unsurprisingly, Sweden’s top tourist attraction.

The massive and magnificent warship Vasa in its custom-built museum in Stockholm

The great Swedish warship Vasa, which was launched in Stockholm Harbour on August 10, 1628, had the briefest of maiden voyages. It had gone only 1,300 metres when a gust filled its sails and caused the top-heavy vessel to tip to port. As citizens and dignitaries on shore looked on in disbelief, water gushed in through the gun ports, which had been left open, and flooded the lower decks. Within an hour, Vasa was on the seabed and 50 of the 100-strong crew were dead.

Thanks to the absence of the voracious teredo worm, which can’t survive in brackish water but turns up frequently in crosswords, Vasa’s timbers remained undevoured as it sat upright and intact in the mud. But what would happen when, more than three centuries after it sank, the ship was brought up and exposed to the air? Would it collapse like a souffle? Would it disintegrate to the touch?

These were two of the many nightmare scenarios that haunted 38-year-old marine technician and amateur naval archaeologist Anders Franzen (1918-1993), who located Vasa off the island of Beckholmen on August 25, 1956 after several years of trawling the archives and dragging and sounding the harbour from a little rowing boat.

Anders Franzen, who located the wreck

“My booty had consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees and dead cats,” Franzen said, recounting his frustrating search which, unusually, failed to turn up any supermarket trolleys. Then, on that fateful summer afternoon, he struck gold – well, oak.

A couple of days later, Franzen’s friend and fellow Vasa enthusiast, the diver Per Edvin Falting (1911-1995), donned his cumbersome canvas suit, big brass helmet and lead-soled boots and went down to investigate. Reporting back to Franzen on the surface via a crackling intercom, he said: “I can’t see anything, it’s pitch black here.”

Franzen, a man of infinite patience, stood by. A few minutes passed before Falting was back on the blower. “I can feel something big – the side of a ship,” he said. “Here’s one gun port – and here’s another. There are two rows. It must be the Vasa.”

Diver Per Edvin Falting

The discovery was reported in a snippet in the evening paper, Expressen, which read: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”

Franzen was no ordinary private person – he was Sweden’s foremost expert on 16th and 17th century naval warfare; and Vasa was no ordinary warship – it was King Gustavus II’s pride and joy. It was meant to impress and intimidate his enemies, especially Poland, with which Sweden was at war over control of the Baltic, but it never got the chance.

On April 24, 1961, Vasa broke the surface without breaking apart. In the six decades since then, it has impressed more than 30 million visitors, at first in a temporary museum at Wasavarvet and since 1990 in the custom-built Vasa Museum at Galarvarvet on the island of Djurgarden.

The three masts poking through the roof are steel replicas. The top of the main one is 52.5 metres above floor level, the ship’s original height as measured from the keel. When Vasa sank in 30 metres of water, the two and three-section masts stuck out above the surface, presenting a hazard to navigation. It’s believed they were removed not long after the disaster.

Moment when Vasa broke the surface

Vasa is Sweden’s Titanic. Like the Belfast-built liner, it was the greatest vessel of its time, was lost in disastrous circumstances and became a national embarrassment. Vasa was seldom mentioned in Swedish histories until that snippet appeared in Expressen, and Belfast people for decades shrugged off the loss of Titanic by saying “it was perfectly all right when it left here”.

Now, thanks to the Vasa Museum, Gustavus’s dreamboat is the centrepiece of a world-class tourist attraction that welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year, while the Titanic Belfast centre, which opened in 2012, welcomes close to a million.

What’s left of the great ocean liner that sank in April 1912 lies rotting away at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but 95 per cent of Vasa was recovered. Standing in the museum and viewing it from all angles, you’d think that if it were relaunched it could resume the voyage that was so surprisingly cut short, but you’d be wrong. From the moment Vasa cast off, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen – and it would be a catastrophe again.

Vasa went against every rule of seaworthiness and physics, and that was no one’s fault but the king’s, for it was he who insisted an extra gun deck be added. It was an act of supreme folly, but who was going to argue with the monarch?

As Vasa neared completion, Admiral Klas Fleming oversaw a stability test at the quayside. Thirty men ran back and forward across the main deck three times and had to stop or the ship, which was rolling dangerously, would have capsized; yet Fleming allowed construction to proceed, with appalling consequences.

The open gun ports, into which the water rushed, sending Vasa to the seabed

At the official opening of the Vasa Museum on June 15, 1990, Franzen stood beside King Carl XVI Gustaf and admired the magnificent vessel that sank 362 years before and was recovered thanks to his dogged determination. The inauguration was, much to his relief, a ribbon-cutting ceremony – he said later he had feared the king would smash a bottle of bubbly against the ship’s bow and undo years of painstaking preservation.

Various crackpot ideas had been put forward as to how Vasa could be raised from the seabed, but the craziest suggested filling the wreck with ping pong balls that would make it float to the surface, much like holding a rubber duck under the water in a bath and then letting go.

Witnessing the ship shooting out of the Baltic like a missile from a submarine would have been almost as spectacular as watching it sink, but I’ll content myself with seeing it just sitting there in the Vasa Museum, my all-time favourite visitor attraction in the world.

Vasas ornate stern

VISIT: When it reopens, admission to the Vasa Museum will cost 170 kronor (€16.70) for adults (free for visitors aged 18 and under). Guided tours are included in the entrance fee. The museum is easily accessible by ferry, tram and bus and has a great restaurant that prepares fresh dishes from scratch.

GET THERE: SAS Scandinavian Airlines flies daily from Dublin to Stockholm Arlanda. Frequent Arlanda Express trains connect the airport with Stockholm Central Station. Express buses go from Arlanda to Cityterminalen, next to Central Station. A taxi to the city centre costs around 500 kronor/€48. See arlandaexpress.com and flygbussarna.se

MORE INFORMATION: See visitstockholm.com

Vasa Museum from the water, with the three masts protruding from the roof

Collioure: Summertime, and the living is easel

The French Mediterranean resort town of Collioure has inspired artists for more than a century, which is no surprise — it’s as pretty as a picture. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 30km from Perpignan and 25km from the Spanish/Catalan border, it’s well-to-do without being pretentious and, unlike the rip-off Riviera, is wallet-friendly. For a short break or a wind-down week, Collioure comes up trumps.

The Royal Castle, Our Lady of the Angels church and bell tower and one of Collioure’s four beaches

Henri Matisse and his fellow artist and friend Andre ‘I’m Singin’ In’ Derain put Collioure on the map. It’s a good thing they didn’t draw the map, as no one would ever find the place.

Matisse (1869-1954) and Derain (1880-1954), who spent two summer months here in 1905, were the founders of Fauvism, a style in which unmixed colours and unbridled emotion ruled — and to hell with perspective. This resulted in a lot of paintings that sort of look like what they were meant to depict.

When the impoverished pair left their shared beachfront studio to display their works at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, the art establishment was scandalised. “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public,” wrote critic Camille Mauclair in the bi-monthly Mercure de France. Louis Vauxcelles, in the daily Gil Blas, dismissed the artists as fauves — wild beasts — and said of their paintings: “I wouldn’t give one centime for any of these.”

Fast-forward 105 years to June 2010 when, at a sale by Sotheby’s in London, an anonymous buyer paid €22 million for Derain’s Arbres a Collioure (Trees in Collioure). In June 2018, Matisse’s Oliviers a Collioure (Olive Trees in Collioure) went for €3.4 million. Both paintings were completed in an afternoon.

Andre Derain’s Arbres a Collioure sold at auction for €22 million, proving money does grow on trees

The bar of Collioure’s Hotel Restaurant Les Templiers, the walls of which are covered with hundreds of original oils, most by long-forgotten artists, has seen many a sing-song over the years, having been a favourite hangout of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour when they were in town. Sacha Distel was another regular, and as I shelter inside from a rare June shower I can’t get the words of his 1970 hit single, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, out of mine.

Matisse and Derain spent their evenings in Les Templiers; best buddies Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali often shared a corner table; Winston Churchill added Cuban cigar smoke to the Gitanes and Gaulloise fug during his several painting holidays in Collioure and nearby Argeles-sur-Mer; and Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco were no strangers to the place, which will remind visitors from Dublin of Grogan’s Castle Lounge — the gallery that serves Guinness.

Les Templiers, which opened in 1895 as a cheap cafe for local fishermen, is run by the descendants of original owner Madame Pous. Her son, Rene, took over in the early 1920s, and he and his wife, Pauline, added the hotel and bar. They became great pals of Picasso and were kind to hard-up artists, allowing them to exchange canvases for food and drink in lieu of payment. Picasso gifted the couple many paintings, which for years took pride of place on the walls until several were stolen. The remaining originals were put away in a safe and reproductions now hang in the spaces they occupied.

Time for a coffee and a read of the morning paper in the bar of Hotel Restaurant Les Templiers

Patrick O’Brian, the author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of naval novels that includes Master and Commander, which was made into the 2003 Oscar-winning film starring Russell Crowe, lived for 50 years in Collioure, from 1949. He scribbled notes for his best-selling books in Les Templiers, where he became acquainted with Picasso (his 1976 biography of the artist is regarded as the best of the many written).

O’Brian went to great lengths to protect his privacy, and interviewers granted a rare audience had to promise not to mention Collioure and write only that he lived in the south of France. The Pous family and their staff always told visiting fans they had never heard of him — even when he was sitting within earshot at his favourite table — and townspeople would say they hadn’t seen him in years.

His real name was Richard Patrick Russ, which he changed by deed poll in 1945, and he passed himself off as an Irish Catholic born in Galway, although he was an English Protestant of German descent born in Buckinghamshire. O’Brian died a sad and lonely widower, aged 85, on January 2, 2000 in Dublin, and is buried with his wife, Mary Tolstoy Miloslavsky, who died two years before, in Collioure’s Nouveau Cimetiere.

Another grave of note, in the Ancien Cimetiere, is that of Antonio Machado. The Republican poet from Seville fled Spain in December 1938 before Franco’s thugs could put a bullet in his head, as they had done to his friend and fellow Andalucian intellectual, Federico Garcia Lorca, in Granada at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936.

As the Nationalist forces closed in on Barcelona, Machado and his 85-year-old mother left the city, crossed the border into France and found refuge in Collioure. It was a short-lived exile: Machado, who was in bad health, died aged 63 on February 22, 1939, and his mother drew her last breath three days later. They’re buried together in a plot that has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of the poet’s work.

Art expert Cleo Dankert conducts one of her tours of the Fauvism Trail. Below, one of the pole-mounted brass picture frames through which visitors can see what Matisse and Derain saw

A more recent regular visitor to Collioure, when he had his health, was the late Northern Ireland peacemaker and Nobel Laureate John Hume. He was a friend of the late Dutch president of the European Parliament, Piet Dankert, who had a home here and whose actress daughter, Cleo, is an expert on Matisse and Derain.

Cleo’s walking tours, which even those who don’t know their arts from their elbow will find fascinating, take in the Fauvism Trail and halt at the many spots where the two painters set up their easels side by side. Twenty wall-mounted reproductions of their works, which they rattled off at lightning speed (80 paintings each in eight weeks), allow tourists to compare the sights with what the artists saw all those years ago. A clever touch is the series of pole-mounted brass picture frames through which you can look at the little-changed views they committed to canvas.

Beach and fishing boat scenes abound, and the 13th century Royal Castle of the Kings of Mallorca and the nearby 17th century Church of Our Lady of the Angels are frequent subjects. The 16th century hilltop Fort Saint-Elme, which Brigitte Bardot tried unsuccessfully to buy (it’s owned by a local anchovy-canning tycoon), also features in many paintings.

The fun part of visiting the fort, from where the views of the bay more than justify Collioure being known as the Jewel of the Vermillion Coast, is the ride up and down on the little road train that passes terraced vines first planted in the sixth century BC by the Greeks, who established a trading port here.

The Royal Castle of the Kings of Mallorca. Below, the gilded retable in Our Lady of the Angels

 “A picture must possess a real power to generate light,” Matisse wrote. Well, visitors to Our Lady of the Angels must possess a one euro coin to do the same — insert it in the electricity meter by the altar rail and the floor-to-ceiling gilded wooden retable is immediately illuminated. The work of master sculptor Josep Sunyer, it was completed in 1702 and is considered one of the finest examples of Catalonian Baroque carving.

With the Spanish border so near, the Catalonian influence is everywhere to be seen in Collioure. Yellow and red-striped flags from the independence-minded province next door flap on poles they share with tricolours, and street nameplates, billboards, shop signs and menus are in French and Catalan.

Before the dome on the church’s 30-metre-tall bell tower was added in 1810, this round structure, which dates from the 13th century and once stood alone surrounded by the sea, doubled as a primitive lighthouse and lookout post. At night, flames from a log fire on the top warned passing mariners to keep their distance from offshore rocks. In daylight, the town was alerted to hostile ships by acrid smoke spewing from burning rags and vegetation. Would-be invaders were a formidable enough threat, but the sentinels on the tower had to contend also with angry housewives who had just hung out a washing.

An artist at work in the sunshine. Below, one of Collioure’s 30 commercial galleries

Although Matisse and Derain died nearly 70 years ago, Collioure has continued to attract artists. The town, which has a population of 2,650, is home to 30 commercial galleries — one for every 88 residents. There are dozens of studios, too, where painters, printmakers and ceramicists work, most of them in the mainly car-free narrow streets of the old Moure neighbourhood with its yellow and pink pastel facades.

Here, half-an-hour after the clouds drift off, steam rises from the pavements as the sun clocks on late and quickly makes up for lost time. Potted plants on balconies and hanging baskets overflowing with geraniums add a vivid splash of red against the now clear sky. “There is no sky so blue in all France,” wrote Matisse, which is why photos posted on social media take so long to upload.

Moure is where fishermen and their families once lived, in cottages bought and renovated in recent years by wealthy Parisiennes who occupy them only in the summer months. The few working fishermen still left, now apartment-dwellers in town, set out each night in their brightly-coloured little wooden boats to harvest the anchovies on which Collioure’s wealth was built.

A visit to the Anchois Roque Collioure factory, a small family business established in 1870, is a pleasant, albeit pungent way to spend half-an-hour learning how these little fish are cleaned and filleted by hand by a small team of cheerful women who process thousands of them each day. The guided tour is free, as are the salty samples.

Happily hard at work in the Anchois Roque Collioure anchovy factory. Below, sports bar Cafe Sola

In Cafe Sola, where we seek to quench our anchovy-induced thirst, owner Laurent Puig-Sarbent has followed Les Templiers’ lead and covered the walls with portraits — of his football heroes. It’s evident from across the street where Laurent’s loyalties lie: on the awning over the terrace is emblazoned in Catalan the legend “Mes que un cafe” (“More than a cafe”), a take on FC Barcelona’s battle cry “Mes que un club”.

Inside, amid all the posters and branded souvenirs celebrating Barcelona greats past and present, is a faded black and white photo of Dubliner Patrick O’Connell who, as manager in 1936, rescued the Nou Camp giants from imminent bankruptcy (this was 12 months after he had steered no-hopers Real Betis to their first and only La Liga title, an achievement akin to Leicester City winning the English Premier League in 2016).

Born in Fitzroy Avenue, in the shadow of Croke Park, O’Connell (1887-1959) was the first Irish captain of Manchester United; however, it’s as the coach who defied Franco’s Civil War sanctions, set up a secret French bank account and took Barcelona on a lucrative tour of Mexico and the United States that he’s remembered and revered in the Catalan capital — and in Cafe Sola.

“Patrick O’Connell was our saviour,” Laurent says, and tells a waiter to bring a round of beers on the house “for my Irish friends”. Cleo opts for a small glass of the region’s sweet fortified wine as she has to head home to take delivery of some Ikea kitchen units. Making sense of the self-assembly instructions with a clear head would be challenging enough; with any more than a mouthful of Banyuls on board, Cleo’s new cupboards could end up resembling something Matisse or Derain cobbled together.

One beer leads to another, and cosy Cafe Sola begins to fill up with locals and tourists. There’s a great buzz about the place, and with no other plans for the evening, we decide to stay put. Eight o’clock becomes nine, and before we know it, it’s nearly 11.

There’s a Liverpool fan among us who’s itching to ask Laurent about the Champions League match the month before when Barcelona, 3-0 up from the first leg at home, were hammered 4-0 at Anfield. Nipping the mischief in the bud, we call it a night — before things start to get Messi.

Outdoor cafe culture in Collioure. Below, one of the colourful streets in the town’s old Moure neighbourhood

GET THERE: In normal times, Aer Lingus operates up to five flights a week from Dublin to Perpignan, with fares from €59.99 one-way, including taxes and charges. Trains and buses connect Perpignan city centre with Collioure.

STAY: Three nights’ B&B in Hotel Mas des Citronniers, Collioure, costs from €178.50 per person sharing.

FURTHER INFORMATION: See visitcollioure.co.uk

Transylvania: Fangs for the memories

Transylvania rocks – at least it does every August when its main city, Cluj-Napoca, welcomes 300,000 party animals to the Untold Festival of electronic music. For the rest of the year, Romania’s biggest region plays host to a more sedate yet no less enthusiastic influx of tourists who quickly discover that it’s not all vampires. The scenery is spectacular, the people are warm and welcoming and the beer is a mere €1.40 a pint. Put it on your bucket list now.

Romania’s No.1 tourist attraction, the spectacular and spooky Bran Castle, better known as Castle Dracula

For tour guide Radu Zahanie, memories of life under the cruel dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu are triggered by the most innocuous of sights, such as an apple tree in a roadside garden as we approach Bran.

“When I was a boy in Sibiu,” Radu says, “our teacher told us Ceausescu was coming to visit our school and we must make a good impression. The few leaves on the trees outside were brown, so we painted them green and tied apples to the branches. They weren’t even apple trees, but Ceausescu was an ignorant man and didn’t know the difference.”

Like all of his compatriots who endured the hunger and other hardships of the Communist era, Radu relishes the freedom that post-revolution democracy has brought. However, while the machine gun execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989 rid Romania of two real life monsters, it’s stuck with a fictional one, and most people don’t like it one little bit.

It’s ironic, then, that the 14th century Bran Castle, brilliantly marketed worldwide as Castle Dracula, is Romania’s number one tourist attraction. Even more ironic is the fact that Bran has nothing to do with the blood- sucking count created by Dubliner Bram Stoker, whose 1897 Gothic horror novel has spawned scores of films; nor is Dracula based on 15th century Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, who disposed of his enemies by skewering them on sharpened wooden poles.

To put it bluntly, Bran, a fortress built on a rock, is a business built on a book. It’s a national monument, but a national embarrassment to millions who resent their go-ahead country being viewed as steeped in silly superstition and primarily identified with a vampire. Nevertheless, the Dracula legend provides a living for thousands of people in an economy where the average monthly take-home salary is 3,300 lei (€677).

Despite the detractors, the castle is a spectacular and spooky must-see, though only from a distance because the interior is a disappointment. Every year, Bran lures 600,000 people through its creaking main door (“They deliberately don’t oil the hinges – it’s for effect,” says Radu) and then lets them down.

Professionally translated and edited information boards and literature and some interactive displays would help make the visitor experience a more positive one. Until that happens, the 40 Lei (€8.20) entrance fee would be better spent on six pints of the excellent Ursus lager or a three-course lunch with wine − food and drink in Romania are remarkably cheap.

Peles Castle, former summer residence of the Romanian royals

Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in six Hammer House of Horror films in the 1960s, said while on location in Romania that it was “the saddest country I have ever visited”. It’s a happier place now, and Bogdan, our ever-smiling tour bus driver, is the epitome of the ebullient spirit we note in encounters with people throughout Transylvania.

Earlier in the day, the bus rolled through the ski resort of Sinaia, which in late October was snowless and all but deserted. Half-a-kilometre after what looked on approach to be a kitchen showroom but turned out to be full of coffins, Bogdan swung a left and drove up the steep, snaking road to Peles Castle.

The Beauty to Bran’s Beast, Peles was built in the German Neo-Renaissance/Gothic Revival style between 1873 and 1883. This 160-room former summer home of the first king of modern Romania, Carol I, and his queen, Elisabeth, appears to have been crafted by a master chocolatier using Milky Bars for the main exterior structure, Dairy Milk for the timber features and Caramac for the ornamental brickwork. It’s exquisite.

Peles, which has been a museum since 1953, was inherited recently by Princess Margareta, the eldest of deposed King Michael I’s five daughters and an old girlfriend of former British prime minister Gordon Brown − they were an item during their five years as students at Edinburgh University.

Michael, who was born in Peles in October 1921, died in Switzerland in December 2017 at the age of 96. On December 30, 1947, he was forced to abdicate by the Communists. With a pistol pointed at his head and the threat that 1,000 student protesters under arrest in Bucharest would be shot if he didn’t step down, he signed on the dotted line. Later that day, the monarchy was abolished.

The late king was a great great grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria and a fourth cousin of Charles, Prince of Wales. Charles’s connection with Romania comes as a big surprise: the heir to the British throne is a great grandson 16 times removed of Vlad and besotted with Transylvania. However, Radu is saving that story for later the next day, which begins with a pleasant walk around the medieval city of Brasov.

Brasov’s version of the famed Hollywood hillside sign

Anyone arriving blindfolded in Brasov would know exactly where they were as soon as sight was restored − look to the top of the 960-metre Mount Tampa and there’s the city’s name in giant white letters that are illuminated at night.

In October 1950, Brasov was renamed Orasul Stalin (Stalin City) and remained so until 1960, when it was changed back. There was no Hollywood-type sign in those days, but local people swear that huge swathes of the forested mountainside were cleared so that the treeless spaces spelled STALIN.

Only one photo exists of the comrades’ tribute to ‘Uncle Joe’. It could be genuine, but weighing up the flimsy evidence − a grainy old black and white image that looks like it has been doctored − it might be a tale as tall as Mount Tampa.

Brasov’s star turn is the originally Roman Catholic but long-time Lutheran Black Church, which was built between 1385 and 1477 and is Transylvania’s biggest Gothic place of worship. Officially the Church of Saint Mary, it got the name by which it’s known from its charred facade following a fire in 1689 that was so ferocious it melted a six-ton bell in the tower.

Outside the church is an age-tarnished bronze statue of Brasov-born theologian Johannes Honter (1498-1549), with his extended right hand pointing into the distance. Fans of Mel Brooks’ comic horror movie, Young Frankenstein, never miss the opportunity to stand beneath the statue, point like Honter and say: “Werewolf? There wolf.”

Statue of Johannes Honter in Brasov. Below, the poky cells where the people of Prejmer sought refuge during sieges

We leave Brasov for Prejmer and a tour of the town’s fortified church, the first of two on today’s travels and one of seven in Transylvania that together are classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built by Saxon settlers between the 13th and 16th centuries, these seven, plus scores more throughout the region, offered protection to villagers in times of assault and siege by Wallachian, Mongol and Ottoman raiders.

From the street, Prejmer’s whitewashed circular fortifications resemble an Andalucian bullring. Germanic Teutonic Knights began building the church within in 1218, but were expelled seven years later; it was completed in 1240 by Cistercians and is worth a quick peek inside, no more, because it’s the impressive defensive structure that tourists come to see.

The walls are five metres thick and 12 metres high and house 270 poky cells on four storeys. In these cramped spaces, 1,600 villagers would shelter, sometimes for weeks or months and to the point of starvation, when invaders descended on them. The terror, and the increasingly unsanitary conditions that led to the rampant spread of disease as families cowered under the onslaught from without, can only be imagined.

It’s with these unsavoury scenes in mind that we reboard the bus and set off for the heritage village of Viscri, where the only invaders these days are tourists.

Exterior and interior (below) of the fortified church in Viscri, a Unesco World Heritage site

Romania’s membership of the European Union, to which it was admitted in 2007, has brought many much-needed improvements to the country’s transport infrastructure. However, when Bogdan indicates right as the sign for Viscri comes into view, we’re in for a 7km bone-rattling ride along a cratered gravel track. This is the village that time and Tarmac forgot and which, says Radu, Prince Charles adores.

Two hundred years ago, Viscri was 100 per cent Saxon. Today, it’s home to 430 people − 65pc gypsies (the name they call themselves), 30pc Romanians and 5pc German-speaking Saxons. However, for one week every summer the population increases by half-a-dozen when the royal visitor and his small entourage come to stay.

Charles owns a four-bedroomed house for which he paid €15,000 in 1996 and which caters to paying guests. It’s also the headquarters of his Romanian charitable trust, which works to preserve rural architecture through training courses for unemployed people who graduate with restoration skills that often lead to full-time jobs.

Walk the streets of Viscri − there are only four − and you’ll soon have a gang of nosy and noisy ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys in tow. A 150-year-old scooped-out tree trunk serves as a water trough for horses, which are the main means of transport and haulage for the gypsy families. In the surrounding fields, it’s horses that pull the ploughs, threshers and other antiquated agricultural machinery. It should all be in black and white.

The village’s time warp charm is reason enough to visit, but the fortified church dating from 1230 steals the show, which is hosted by Saxon caretaker, historian and local tourism promoter Gerhild Gross, who immediately apologises for the state of the access road. She’s appeased when we tell her it’s like an airport runway compared with some of the potholed obstacle courses we have to negotiate while driving in rural Ireland.

The whole ensemble, including the surrounding defensive walls and towers, is a lot smaller than Prejmer’s yet just as impressive; however, Viscri’s modest church looks and feels lived in, like a much-loved pair of old slippers. In a Daily Telegraph list of the world’s two dozen most beautiful churches, it ranked fifth.

Count Kalnoky’s guest cottages (interior below) in the village of Miclosoara

Prince Charles’ old friend and fellow conservationist Count Tibor Kalnoky is also in the bed and breakfast business, and it’s to his cosy, 200-year-old guest cottages in the village of Miclosoara that we proceed after saying auf wiedersehen to Gerhild.

The half-dozen former hunting lodges, set around a grassy area with a redundant well in the middle, were heated by log fires and lit by oil lamps and candles until only a couple of decades ago; now they have electricity and en suite bathrooms but, refreshingly, no TVs.

The count’s PR executive, Iulia, is the perfect hostess in her boss’s absence and tells us about his heritage and educational projects over a splendid dinner in the main house that starts at 8pm and ends at ridiculous o’clock. It’s a cockerel with a death wish that rouses us from our hardly-slept-in antique beds just after dawn.

Breakfast is a subdued affair, and despite the enticing spread of fruits, charcuterie, cheeses and hot-from-the-oven bread, everyone craves coffee. Romanians like theirs black, and the waitress has presumed we do, too. Iulia asks her to fetch some milk, and she returns 15 minutes later, not with a carton from the village shop but with a pail filled to the brim, courtesy of the next-door neighbour’s cow. There’s another wait while she boils it (the milk, not the cow) before delivering a jug to the table.

Count Kalnoky is the main mover and shaker in these parts, and must have been shaking when he inspected his wine cellar after our departure. Luckily, we have a head start as Bogdan bowls along the highway towards the 12th century citadel of Sighisoara, where Vlad the Impaler was born. “Not Dracula − Vlad,” Radu stresses.

Tower entrance to Sighisoara’s medieval citadel

It’s a couple of minutes before midday, and in the main square all eyes are on the gilded clock face high up on the 14th century gateway tower. Radu explains that every hour, on the hour, animated mechanical figurines emerge from a niche to the left of the clock and put on a bit of a show.

His commentary attracts a dozen or so American tourists who edge closer to listen, until one of them spots a plaque on the wall of the nearby mustard-coloured building and excitedly beckons her friends to follow her. The inscription reads: “Vlad Tepes Draculea was born here in 1431.”

“No, please − the information is wrong,” Radu calls as they scurry off. “Vlad could not have been born there. It’s impossible! That house was built in the early 1600s − the original one is gone.” So, too, are the Americans, who spend the next five minutes posing for pointing-at-the-plaque photos.

Next door to the house is a restaurant that purports to contain the small, dimly lit room where the newborn Vlad drew his first breath – and many a terrified tourist nearly drew their last.

“Maybe four years ago, a fellow dressed like Dracula worked in that restaurant,” says Radu. “His job was to remain silent in the coffin in the small room and listen for visitors, then throw open the lid, jump up and scare them. Unfortunately, one day a lady tourist fainted with the shock and her husband punched Dracula very hard on the chin and he fell back into the coffin, unconscious. When he woke up, he told the boss, ‘PIease, I don’t want to be Dracula any more, it’s too dangerous’, and now he’s a waiter in another place.”

Cluj-Napoca, the gateway to Romania’s Transylvania region

Radu and Bogdan join us for a farewell dinner later that evening in the university city of Cluj-Napoca, from where we’ll fly home the following morning. The early chit-chat is of how our preconceptions of Transylvania – based, to our discredit, on decades-old horror films – have been blown out of the water.

There were occasions when we’d wished Radu would lighten up and stop doing the whole Dracula thing down, but in hindsight he’s right to focus on promoting Transylvania’s rich history, remarkable natural beauty and outstanding architectural heritage.

 “Transylvania isn’t all Bran,” he says, and we wait for the punchline to his breakfast cereal joke. We’re still waiting. Our guide doesn’t tell jokes, he tells fascinating stories about the country of which he and Bogdan are so rightly proud.

At the airport, Radu exhorts us to “take home happy memories of Romania”. We need no urging, but it’s a good thing he doesn’t know that in our hold luggage most of us are also taking home tacky mementoes of you-know-who.

Just what every mantelpiece needs

GET THERE: I travelled to Romania as a guest of low-fare airline Blue Air and the Romanian National Tourist Board. Blue Air flies direct from Dublin to Bucharest and Cluj.

GET AROUND: My tour of Transylvania was organised by long-established operator Eximtur. The company offers a wide range of escorted tours and tailor-made packages including transport, hotels and multilingual guides.

STAY: Cristian (near Brasov) – Ambient Resort; Miclosoara – Count Kalnoky’s Cottages; Cluj-Napoca – Hotel Beyfin