On a winding dirt road in Romania’s Carpathian mountains, a Transylvanian farmer drives his horse-drawn cart slowly up a hill in a cloud of dust. As the horses amble along, the traditional red tassels on their bridles bob gently and the only sound is that of cart wheels crunching in the dirt… and a familiar ringing sound. The driver pulls over, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a mobile phone.

It’s a contrast typical of rural Transylvania, where scenes straight out of pre-industrial Europe often come with a 21st century twist. On one hand, rural households make their own wine, hand-built haystacks dot the fields and horse-drawn carts dodge trucks on the highways. On the other hand, mobile phones are everywhere and satellite dishes sprout from the eaves of folksy village cottages.

Though reminiscent of a world lost in time, Transylvania is most famous for its links to a fictional one. Thanks to the Victorian writer Bram Stoker, Transylvania will forever be known as the homeland of Count Dracula.

It’s not entirely clear why Stoker chose this mysterious corner of Europe as a setting for his novel Dracula – perhaps he just liked the name. In any case, it’s in name alone that the ‘real’ Dracula has anything in common with his fictional counterpart. Vlad Dracula was a 15th century prince dubbed Vlad the Impaler for his habit of skewering his enemies on wooden spikes. Romanians, who regard him as something of a national hero for standing up to the invading Turks, have never associated Vlad with vampirism. While wisely cashing in on the tourism potential, they are also quick to point out the differences between fact and fiction.

It’s somehow apt that the legend of a warrior prince still haunts Transylvania, for it’s not just the scenes of rural life that conjure up a distant past – the legacy of medieval battles lingers in its fortified churches and magnificently preserved citadels.

Sweeping down through Romania and curving around Transylvania like a protective arm, the Carpathians might seem to shelter it from the outside world. However, it was their strategic passes that made the region such a coveted prize.

Settled by Romans, claimed by Hungary, laid waste by the Mongols and defended against the Turks and Tatars by pockets of staunch Saxons (German settlers), Transylvania only became part of modern Romania in 1920. There is still some ill-feeling over its status, with many Hungarians believing the region should belong to them.

Travelling through the mountainous south, traces of this complex past are everywhere. Some of the most spectacular visual evidence can be found in Saxon-built cities such as Brasov and Sighisoara and the smaller settlements scattered between them.

Local legend has it that the Pied Piper first brought the Saxons to Transylvania in the form of the children he spirited away from Hamelin. They emerged back into the world in the town square of Brasov, a picturesque city high in the Carpathians.
More prosaically, it was actually the regions’ Hungarian rulers who introduced the Saxons to the area in the 12th and 13th centuries, to defend the crucial mountain passes from the onslaught of the advancing Turks and Tatars.

With its beautiful baroque facades, medieval Old Town square and café culture, it’s not surprising that Brasov is often referred to as the Prague of Romania. The town is surrounded by tree-covered mountains where wild bears and wolves roam, and there’s a popular ski resort at nearby Poiana Brasov, where Cold Mountain was filmed. Brasov is a beautiful spot to wander around and enjoy some Transylvanian nightlife, but it’s in the nearby villages such as Prejmer that the defensive skills of the Saxons is most impressively evident.

Completely encircling the village’s church is an enormous fortified wall. Its solid exterior hides a rabbit’s warren of small numbered rooms, each once belonging to a Saxon family. At the first sign of trouble the entire village would up sticks and disappear behind this imposing edifice.

The church caretaker proudly explains that Prejmer was never conquered, despite 50 attempts by the Turks. Doing a lap of the wall’s defence passage, it’s easy to see why. Dimly lit by shafts of light from the alternate firing-holes and pitch-pouring spouts, the entire structure is so solid and well preserved that it seems it could withstand another invasion now.

Less forbidding, but more romantic, the spires and towers of Sighisoara mark it as another iconic Saxon centre. Unesco-listed, the town centre is one of Europe’s last inhabited medieval citadels. With 150 original buildings still in use, its sloping streets and jumble of tiled roofs make the perfect setting for the town’s medieval festival that takes place every July.

Ironically, the most visited Saxon fortification of all is famous for reasons that have nothing to do with Transylvania’s convoluted history. Bran Castle’s gothic turrets and imposing appearance are no doubt why it came to be known as Dracula’s Castle, for its links to the real-life Vlad are slim.

Originally built by the Saxons of Brasov to defend the pass into neighbouring Wallachia, Bran was later given to Romania’s beloved Queen Marie and became her summer residence. The castle is now a hugely popular tourist draw, full of intriguing nooks and crannies, and with spectacular views over the valley below. In the town market, dubious-looking bottles of traditional Romanian plum brandy are sold alongside tasty Hungarian snacks such as kurtos kolacs, steaming-hot ‘chimneys’ of sweet dough dusted with sugar, cocoa or coconut.

Bran’s tourist pulling power might be based on a myth, but behind all the Dracula paraphernalia it’s appropriate that you can still spot the Saxon, Romanian and Hungarian influences that mark Transylvania as unique.