It’s a bright August morning, and I’ve just begun driving around this achingly scenic part of central Romania, where the green hills are dotted with giant conical haystacks. As I make my way from one hamlet to another, occasionally stopping to peek inside magnificent 13th-century churches that once doubled as citadels, the welcome is not exactly warm. Pretty much everyone I pass—farmers weeding their fields by hand, groups of kids playing by the roadside, stooped women in head scarves carrying bags of tomatoes—sizes me up with a severe, wary look that seems to be some kind of Transylvanian Death Stare. Granted, whenever I pause to speak with anyone, the stern facade crumbles quickly; one young guy in a tracksuit cheerfully shows me how to scale a stone wall so that I can look around an abandoned medieval rectory. But in the next village, the intense glowers begin anew.
Courtesy of Condé Nast Traveler.
We are in The Clearing. The trees stop in a uniform oval where nothing grows and where, since official records began, nothing has grown. “Once when I came here,” says Alex, our guide, “I found 60 people from Bucharest trying to open a gate into another dimension.”
I set a significant scene in Daughters of Shadow and Blood here.
Courtesy of The Independent.
Rocking my bike from side to side, I crested the final rise and the landscape opened out before me. A high-altitude meadow freckled with cows rolled down into a shallow bowl surrounded by savagely contorted, parallel slabs of limestone sticking straight up from the earth. Beyond was 2,523-metre Bobotov Kuk, the highest point in Montenegro’s wondrous Unesco-listed Durmitor national park. Behind me were yet more staggering views, across glacial lakes to rows of mountain peaks, deep river gorges and pine forests populated by wild cats, bears and wolves.
Courtesy of The Guardian.
Romanian friends told us this area of medieval villages and fortified churches had little to do with the fiction of “Dracula,” yet the night was turning into a vampirish cliché. In his 1897 novel, the Irish writer Bram Stoker described the Carpathian pass as “an imaginative whirlpool” where every known superstition gathered. I saw how he might get that idea.
Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
The views from Kosovo’s highest peak are incredible. Or so I’m told. It’s a tricky thing to confirm in blanket murk and howling winds. I’ve just leaned into a gale to reach the 2,656m summit of Mount Gjeravica, where a shabby concrete marker displays a defaced plaque commemorating Kosovo’s first and only Olympic medallist.
Courtesy of The Guardian.
This remote and mysterious mountain range, much of it accessible only by foot, offers more than beauty. It hosts shepherds and goatherds and ancient pastoral traditions that have yet to be destroyed by mechanisation. In its isolated villages, traces still survive of a centuries-old code of conduct that combines extremes of punishment and generosity.
I’ve always said the “Accursed Mountains” would be right at home on a map of Middle Earth. Courtesy of the Financial Times.
Nighttime in Transylvania is as atmospherically spooky as you would hope it would be. During the winter, a thick, low-lying mist covers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the silhouetted turrets and spires of ancient castles and fortified churches. Many of the old homes there still burn wood fires, adding to the smoky air, while the towns are filled with gothic and baroque buildings that were once beautiful, but are now marked by peeling paint and crumbling facades.
Courtesy of Atlas Obscura.
I have a Pinterest board of the cities the characters visit in Daughters of Shadow and Blood for anyone who’s curious and wants to do a little sightseeing from their computer.