Tuesday 20 March 2018


If - as they say - in order to gain inspiration you need to return to the source, then your humble scribe has been on a twilight mission to meet his muse. Yes, I'm pleased to report I have just returned from a brief stay in Transylvania – that region of modern-day Romania that has been a cornerstone of the modern gothic imagination since Jonathan Harker first arrived in Klausenburg (latterday Cluj-Napoca) on his way to Castle Dracula. So, what can you perceive about Goth from a high vantage point under Carpathian skies?
Obviously, the first thing to bear in mind is that it is nothing as you might expect – or at least it isn't if you're expecting a twee Hallmark card of dark romance. The industrial devastation, with miles of factories, warehouses and scrapyards, the suburbs of single-floor detached huts and the grinding post-communist poverty of much of the countryside clearly demonstrated that this was not an expedition to be taken lightly. A cheap holiday in other people's misery this was not, and Transylvania does not exist for the amusement of the casual (OK, not-so-casual) goth tourist from West Yorkshire.
So, the context was real enough. But there were still moments of real magic that hinted at the depths of the delights the land beyond the forest could offer; the long, slow descent of the plane over the Carpathians, the flock of ravens sat on the runway when the plane touched down at Cluj (I almost expected them to start speaking to each other, like some vampiric '80s children's cartoon), the magical night falling over the gothic architecture of the Piața Unirii and it's magnificent statue of King Corvinus, and the no-platform station in the tiny Carpathian town of Reghin as the IR1646 locomotive trod its way through the Transylvania countryside towards Bucharest. It may not have been what you might have expected, but then it just as often very much was.
But what was explicitly Goth in the realm of the vampire? Actually, rather a lot. Cluj was relatively laid back about the Dracula connection, but even they sold Dracula merchandise next to their Hungarian fridge magnets in the shadow of King Corvinus, Transylvania branding everywhere, with a knowing wink. Hotel Castle Dracula, with it's passport stamps, branded carpets, pseudo-masonry and authentic courtyard is a simply fantastic venue, yet it's merchandise game was somewhat subdued. Bran Castle (forget the tenuous nature of the Dracula connection) is a perfect attraction, a home to a professional installation of goth culture and modern accessories but also surrounded by a chaotic morass of amateur vamp-merch that sustains an entire town. There's Bucharest, which goes for Vlad in a big way, and where every souvenir store pushes the link between Romania and the gothic, and there's Bucharest airport with the biggest and most innovative collection of Dracula merch and booze I have ever seen. Transylvania certainly gives Whitby, Camden and Leeds a run for their money in the goth industry stakes (no pun intended). 

Yet probably the most inspiring aspect of the region was that which was authentic, and fresh: that of the chaos, the palinka, the conflicted vampire pride, the indifference and the darkness swirling together in mutual anarchy. Under Transylvanian skies you can feel far away yet still beneath the soil, and there is still the authentically gothic too – in the deep cravasses of the countryside, the lightless valleys of the Borgo Pass, and the timeless streets of Cluj and Brasov. It was the beat of a darker kind of drum.
It is easy to get sucked into vaguebooking, scene drama and bad festivals as our sole access to the gothic, but it is always worth going off the beaten track – like a Harker adventuring on a journey into goth itself – to keep your perspective fresh. There is always much to be said for the classic, if you can view it through clear, Carpathian eyes.

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