Thieving monkeys and grumpy vice presidents in Transylvania

By Jane Wynyard – Poiana Brasov, Transylvania, 2005

Forget Dracula, vampires and werewolves. The most menacing creature you’re likely to encounter in Transylvania these days is a thieving monkey dressed in a blue suit that hangs around nightclubs.

A resident at the ski resort of Poiana Brasov in the Southern Carpathian mountains, the jittery, red-eyed primate with the sharpest fangs in the business, is usually shoved by its Dracula-like owner into the arms of gullible and unsuspecting tourists.

If you don’t pay the 150,000 lei (three pounds, fifty) for a photograph, the monkey bares his fangs, extends his long spidery hand and shoves what little money you have into his mouth. Then he and his owner, who happens to have the personality of a blood-drained corpse, disappear into the mist. It happens so quickly that all you can do is stare in amazement.

Being mugged by a Transylvanian monkey is probably not high on everyone’s list but this story definitely shouldn’t put you off visiting the beautiful Poiana Brasov – touted as Romania’s premier ski resort. Besides everything is so cheap here that any encounter with this furry delinquent won’t leave much of a dent in your pocket anyway.

No crowds, great snow

Poiana Brasov, about four hours from Bucharest and close to the medieval town of Brasov, guarantees great intermediate skiing from December to April. There is plenty of accommodation (albeit basic) in large hotels and a jumble of cable cars, chair and drag lifts hugging the skifield.

Compared to the luxury resorts of Chamonix or St Moritz, Poiana Brasov is definitely much more primitive but what it lacks in sophistication and style, it makes up for in other ways.

There are no crowds, it’s ridiculously cheap, you can crash through snow-covered trees, have entire runs to yourself and the views from the top of the slopes are to die for. The countryside is so beautiful and haunting with jagged mountain peaks and thick forests you’ll curse yourself for not bringing a camera.

Whoops, sorry Vice President

It is in Poiana Brasov that you will find Romania’s tiny population of rich and famous including government ministers and, we were told, rich counts. The latter never materialised but we did meet the vice-president of Romania drinking beer in the lobby of our hotel at 2am one morning. He actually told me off for noisely banging my heavy suitcase down the stairs. My reply “well, it would help if perhaps you got off your arse and helped me!” He didn’t say a word in response and it was only later that my driver said I’d just insulted the vice president of Romania.

The resort is a stark contrast from the rest of the country where most of the population live in post-communism poverty, surviving on less than 50 pounds a month. In the countryside, peasants dressed in traditional costume work the fields with horse and cart, and in Bucharest beggars, orphans and large packs of stray dogs can be found on every street corner.

In Poiana Brasov, locals go to all lengths to make money from tourists, even offering a traditional Transylvanian blessing by whacking you across the head with a branch. Some are not so amusing and unfortunately it is the animals that suffer at the whim of tourists such as our money-eating monkey and a giant black bear we saw shackled in chains being photographed with tourists in the royal town of Sinaia.

It certainly all adds to the surrealism of visiting and skiing in Transylvania. When you’re not dodging Romanian skiers dressed in 80s-style ski outfits and huge fur hats, you can sit in splendour at the mountain-top chalet and gorge yourself on red mulled wine and chicken soup (ciorba) – the mainstay of the Romanian diet while imagining Dracula lurking about in the thick forests that stretch out before you.

Blood sucker

Dracula fans can tour the nearby peasant villages for their fix of castles, Vampire wine, horse and carriage rides and rattling keys. Head to Sighisoara to the birthplace of Dracula (or Vlad the Impaler/Vlad Dracul – the Prince of Wallachia –  whom the character was named after and used to impale his enemies while they were alive) and go to the local square where public executions, impalings and witch trials were held.

You can buy bottles of beautiful red wine for 100,000 lei (Romanians are fanatical about their wine) and plates piled high with mititei (spicy grilled meatballs) for about 50,000 lei.

Izzy the skier-chasing St Bernard

Transylvania is also famous for being home to some of Europe’s largest carnivores. There is an enormous St Bernard dog called Izzy that chases skiers down the slope and plenty of bear and wolf tracks dotted around the skifield but unfortunately the only live wildlife you will probably see are those in either chains, clothes or at the Large Carnivore Centre in nearby Zarnesti.

While it’s the blood curdling stories of Vlad the Impaler and his namesake Count Dracula that still seem to attract busloads of tourists to Transylvania, others are also starting to discover the delights of a lesser-known sport – skiing in the breath-takingly beautiful Carpathian Mountains.

Probably highly illegal and somewhat disturbing to animal rights activitists, there are even huge black and brown bears chained around the ankle that will pose with tourists for the right amount of money.

If you think the animals are hostile, wait until you meet some of  the locals.

While we did meet a couple of fabulous locals like our driver Nicolae Stancu  – he once drove Brigette Bardot around Bucharest – who drove us all the way from Bucharest to Poiana Brasov in his classic mercedes for only 100 euro, and our tour guide, Elena, most Romanians seemed formal, reserved – bordering on brusque.

However this isn’t entirely their fault.   We were told by Elena that this behaviour was a throwback from communism when the then ruler of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, forbade Romanian people to talk to foreigners. Their punishment, he said, would be arrest and imprisonment by the feared secret police.

Poiana Brasov is popular with snowboarders and boasts the best boarding and downhill ski school in the country. There are 12 runs in total and the longest is about 4km on fairly tame terrain through forests of pine trees.

A number of hotels run ski schools but the largest is the Ana Group. It’s quite difficult for skiers to travel to Poiana Brasov without being part of a large organised group and you can book great deals through Balkan Holidays which includes accommodation, all meals, ski school, equipment hire and ski lifts. Our package, at the busiest time of the year between Christmas and New Year, cost inclusive.

Just remember, if you plan to go dancing at the local Capra Neagra nightclub, take a couple of bananas just in case a monkey gets shoved in your arms.

Published in The Daily News, March 2006.

Tips, costs and how to get there:

We booked our trip through Balkan Holidays and flew from London to Bucharest. As it was Xmas Eve, we secured a cheap deal at the Marriot Hotel and stayed one night.

We hired a limousine taxi via the hotel to drive us to Poiana Brasov which cost us only four million lei (£60 in total) for the four hour journey.

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