When I first booked exchange, I expected to do a bit of travel. But one place I did not see myself was lost in a small Romanian town I couldn’t pronounce the name of, looking for a castle I couldn’t recognise. And yet, that was where I found myself this weekend, when the Erasmus Student Network in Vienna took 50 of us to Transylvania, Romania, to follow Dracula’s tracks.

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I knew one person on the trip before I left. I arrived, luggage in hand, at the university campus at 7pm to leave for a 12 hour bus ride to Sibiu, a small medieval town in the middle of Romania. I hadn’t done my research beforehand, but the city speaks for itself. We were greeted at 7am to a frosty cold to shake us awake, and an enormous medieval gate that spanned the town. It looked almost fake – picture the most stereotypical medieval gate you can think of, that was what separated the old town of Sibiu from its residential suburbs. We spent what time we could exploring the wall and the city itself, which was famous for the ‘eyes’ that were built into the roofs of houses. I won’t lie, these were really eerie – the city literally looks like it is constantly watching your every mood. The houses feel alive.

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The second day saw all of us get on a bus to Bran Castle – better known as Dracula’s castle. Here’s a bit of trivia for you: there’s no confirmed link between this castle and Dracula. The ruler that inspired Dracula only visited this castle on a few occasions, and the author of Dracula never once visited Romania. The description in the book seemed to match the image of the castle that people think Bram Stroker might have seen. Regardless, it was pretty cool – we got to watch some traditional Romanian dance in the corridor and pretend we lived in a kind of creepy castle.

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The next day was another visit to a castle; this time it was the Corvin castle. The best part was probably the stray dogs that greeted us when we got off the bus. We decided to call him Toby, and he was joined later by his friend that we called Corvin. He wasn’t allowed in the castle with us, so he waited for us patiently until we had finished the tour. Also, there was a cool castle, but Toby was definitely the highlight. He came with a few of us as we decided to find the middle of the town for food. It turns out that there is no “central town” in wherever we were, and we wandered suburban Romania for half an hour before giving up on food, and resorting to the Milka I had in my bag.

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Romania hadn’t been high on my list before I left, but I am so glad I went. It was further off the beaten track than I had ever dared to go, and it was so worth it. Not all Europe is equal, and not all Europe could recover from communism like the West. Walking through these streets, each one more dilapidated than the next, I got to see a part of Europe that felt underrated and unique. This was the Europe I wanted to see – the reality, the history, the way the continent works without the constant flood of tourists in every street.

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Honestly, Romania was one of the best trips I’ve done so far. I know I’m only early into my exchange and have more weekends than I know what to do with, but the bar has been set pretty high. While the castles themselves have been everything I thought they would be, the people you travel with make the journey.  Even when the bus broke down for 6 hours in the middle of the night in the middle of Southern Hungary, we still felt lucky.

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Only two weeks into my exchange semester at the University of Vienna, I can pretty safely say I have made friends I hope to keep for life, and seen some incredible things. If all I can say at the end of exchange is that I had a lit time in Transylvania, it will still be worth it. Exchange takes you places you would never have even seen yourself, with people you never would have met and now can’t imagine not knowing. Next stop: Slovenia!

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