When you tell people you're vacationing in Transylvania, you almost can see their mind's eye fill with spectacular images from Bram Stoker's "Dracula."
Of course, that is a novel. After spending 10 days there, what fills my mind is the contrast of the ancient and modern and how they co-exist so well.
It was not unusual to see a new Mercedes zip around a horse-drawn wagon on a country lane as a shepherd in a nearby field watched while talking on his cellphone.
Transylvania, located in northern Romania, has a large Hungarian population and in the part I visited, mostly rural. Much of that ethnic population's ancestors were proud citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its defeat in World War I.
The pace of life in rural Transylvania is slower. Our host and devoted tour guide, Kinga, my wife's childhood friend from when Kinga's family fled Romania for Idaho, told us to slow down each morning when we were eager to get started.
"Reeeelllaaaxx," she said, dragging out the word.
Transylvania is a wonderful place to do that. It is also a place where you can get your tourist fix.
Kinga and her family drove us around for a weekend. We saw the influence of German immigrants in the buildings of Sighisoara, the intricately carved gateways to ethnic Szekelys homes and the Bran Castle, which tourism officials erroneously market as the home of Vlad the Impaler, who was the basis of the Dracula character.
Our first stop was Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 16th-century architecture, cobbled streets, ornate churches and burgher houses with their distinctive colorful paint. The German influence comes from a time when nobility periodically imported craftsmen after warfare decimated the population.
Sighisoara is the hometown of Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula, ruler of Walachia from 1456 to 1462. Attractions include the Church on the Hill with its 500-year-old frescoes, a 12th-century citadel and the Church of the Dominican Monastery, known for its carved altarpiece, pulpit and 17th-century organ.
The town was busy but not overcrowded like Bran Castle, which was the only negative experience of the trip. The castle was built years after Dracula's death.
The hordes of tourists and overpriced plastic souvenirs made it feel like Disneyland on a weekend, but without the rides. You are better off spending time in Sighisoara.
We spent the night in Brasov, which had its weekly free dance concert in the town square, adjacent to a cathedral undergoing renovations. That is a common sight in a region enjoying a higher standard of living since a revolution in 1989.
Do your best to find a favorite spot of the locals. Our friends took us to Lake St. Ann, Romania's only ancient volcanic lake.
After spending a lazy couple of hours relaxing as our guide commanded, we drove through a number of villages that each hosted weekend festivals. A favorite was Odorheiu Secuiesc, where they celebrated St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary (1001-1038). It was there we saw Szekelys gateways. The Szekelys were the Huns' fiercest warriors; a fact that fills to day's ethnic Hungarians - some named Attila - with pride today.
We finished the trip in the artisan village of Corund. It was about 10 p.m. and only one of a dozen shops remained open. We still hit the jackpot in quality traditional goods from local weavers and potters.
The exchange rate for the Romanian Lei (about three for every U.S. dollar) made prices reasonable. Romania also takes Euros as a member of the European Union.
We arrived back at our friends' home near Targu Mares and, you guessed it, relaxed.
Make your trip to Transylvania soon either to relax or absorb a rich history. As Romania works to bring in more tourism dollars, crowded spots such as Bran Castle will become more common.
But chances are there still will be a horse-drawn wagon for your rental car to zip around. Slow down and enjoy it. It is that blend of old and new that makes Transylvania a wonderful to visit.