A dictator wanted to raze it with bulldozers. Investors wanted to turn it into a theme park called Draculaland. In a forgotten pocket of Central Europe, villagers struggle to preserve a way of life that leaves only the lightest of footprints on the land.
The steeply rolling hills of the Transylvanian plateau lie within the gnarled grasp of the Carpathian Mountains, which curve down through Central Europe into the heart of Romania. Although the Carpathians’ highest peaks rise only some 8,000 feet, rugged, irregular ridges, difficult to traverse, have always isolated the plateau from the capital city of Bucharest and the sprawling Danube-Black Sea delta to the south. Transylvania did not become a part of Romania until 1918. Even today, only a few roads cross the mountains, and the one I was on coiled in ever-tighter switchbacks as it wound through the cold, deep forest. I accepted the rigors of the passage, however, partly because my car had four-wheel drive, but mostly because I had been promised that through the woods (which is the literal meaning of Transylvania) I would have a glimpse of a lost world.