THE UNDEAD TRAVEL: How Tourism’s Instatiable Hunger for Exotic Destinations Keeps Romania’s Fictional Heritage Alive


[from the Best American Travel Writing 2010, originally published in The Believer, October 2009]

After a short stay in Vienna, I arrived in Sighişoara, Romania, a tiny town in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

An article in a guidebook to Eastern Europe from 1998—the source of my original attraction to Sighişoara—had warned that the area would lack the usual trappings of tourist destinations. Transylvania, it read, that region in Romania of which Sighişoara is a principal attraction, offers the traveler dark, mist-shrouded hills and startlingly preserved medieval towns, but is also characterized by unreliable transportation, rampant inflation, and occasional danger from rabid dogs. As I walked on that first morning through the town, whose cobblestone streets were lined by low, squat houses with tiled roofs, while horse-drawn carts creaked by me as often as coughing Soviet-era cars, and crowds of youths lounged against the lower walls of the citadel at the heart of the town, sporting spiked hair and tracksuits emblazoned with the insignias of exotic sports teams, while the dark spires of a medieval clock tower loomed above us all, awaiting the turning of the hour, when its miniature, painted wooden figurines would execute a tiny, lifeless dance, it was easy to imagine that I was the only foreigner in Sighişoara. At least those were my thoughts as I climbed the winding stone steps into the heights of the citadel. Looking down from a window of the clock tower at the comings and goings of the town, which seemed so free of the unnatural animation common to more famous cities, I found it almost impossible to comprehend that just three days earlier I had been in Paris, driven almost to distraction by swarms of foreigners, whom I had begun to imagine lurked with burning eyes and strange appetites in the shadows of every street corner.

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