No bats and not a single vampire stir the stifling summer heat. No undead and no impaler roam the hot and humid nights. There is definitely no need to grip the rosary tight or to splash on some garlic-scented holy water. Although we are in his hometown, very little reminds us of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s fictitious keeper of Bran Castle. The literary figure was inspired by Vlad epe, an infamous evil-minded marauder and arsonist who terrified central Romania in the mid-fifteenth century. A Rolls-Royce Ghost in Transylvania — this was meant to be a mystic trip through the ruins of the dark ages, when howling wolves, an eternal full moon, and scythe-swinging living dead set the scene for Dracula’s descendants, who would sleep in coffins and drink blood for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Except it wasn’t. The fabled dark forests, towering mountains, and yawning gorges are, in fact, at best lush rolling hills that would make a perfect setting for Shakespeare’s pastoral sonnets. And the foreboding castle turned out to be a well-kept tourist attraction surrounded by souvenir stalls that sell mugs and T-shirts with vampire motifs. Perched on the only serious cliff that we saw within a 300-mile radius, the impressive edifice was relinquished by the government in 2009 to the children of Princess Ileana of Romania, among them Dominic Habsburg, who turned Bran Castle into a thriving business.
The real nightmares of the area have nothing to do with shadowless people of pale complexion, suspiciously red lips, and pairs of pointed teeth. Instead, today’s traumata are traffic, pollution, unemployment, an underdeveloped infrastructure, the blatant clash between modernity and the Ceau escu-influenced past, and widespread poverty, especially in rural areas. You would think that in this part of the world a $250,000 Rolls-Royce would act like a red rag to a bull, but nothing could be further from the truth. Wherever it wafted, the Ghost was welcomed as if it belonged. It was treated like royalty by the doorman of the Sibiu Hilton and by the owner of the Transylvanian Inn, who drove his Dacia into the ditch to make room for the dust-covered crown jewel. It was the instant star of every gas station we stopped at (in pleasantly infrequent intervals). To cell phone cameras, its attraction exceeded that of a squadron of vampires. And it was the uncrowned king of the road on Romania’s number-one national battleground, where truck drivers, van pilots, sales reps, and vacationers fight it out with an often-lethal mix of underpowered laissez-faire, overoptimistic urge, and innate fatalism.
The adventure began at the Hungary/Romania border crossing near Szeged, where a clown in uniform demanded proof of ownership, allegedly to stop us from smuggling the car to Russia, which he claimed is the world’s largest black market for Rolls-Royce vehicles. Instead of flashing a twenty-euro bill, which might have settled the issue on the spot, we produced enough papers and documents to impress the customs squad, who agreed in the end to pose with the Ghost for a portrait. Unlike Hungary, which is autobahn heaven despite its numerous radar traps, Romania is a third-world country as far as its ill-kept road network is concerned. Take, for instance, the road that connects Arad and Sibiu. Winding and very casually surfaced, this two-lane roller-coaster run with an occasional third lane works according to the principle of “survival of the maddest.” Since the middle lane can be accessed from both sides, overtaking traffic races toward each other until one party gives in, or not. On two-lane terrain, it’s the vans that pull out all the stops — even forty-ton trucks will gracefully swerve onto the soft shoulder so that the Suicide Mission players can advance to the next level. Although there are enough police around to enforce the 100 kph (62-mph) speed limit, chasing the culprits in a 1.2-liter Dacia Sandero and finding a safe spot to pull over violators is perhaps even scarier than watching the death toll rise on digital roadside skull-and-crossbones meters. Nationwide, a busy holiday weekend typically claims more victims than Dracula could suck dry in a year.
As it turned out, the Ghost took on the challenge from the word go. At 5400 pounds it’s quite a heavyweight, but the silent 6.6-liter V-12 whips up 575 lb-ft of torque that generates a mighty kick in the butt even by supercar standards. At 563 hp, the 212.6-inch-long RR eclipses the 229.9-inch, $380,000 Phantom by a very useful 110 hp. While the larger model makes do with six forward gears, the Ghost features the more finely calibrated eight-speed ZF automatic transmission. When you put your foot down, it will jump as many cogs as it takes to lift the car’s Bauhaus prow and make the air-sprung rear end squat in awe. The factory claims that the Ghost can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in only 4.7 seconds. Perhaps even more amazing is its midrange grunt, which propels the boxy crowd magnet from 45 to 65 mph in a mere 2.1 seconds. Attaining top speed, which is limited to
155 mph, takes about as long as shaking a dry martini to perfection, but 125 mph can be reached quite quickly, and the Ghost practically owns the 50-to-100-mph bracket in the same way that a BMW M5 or a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG does. Even though the Romanian part of the journey was a constant steeplechase for our mighty chariot, the fuel consumption over 2088 miles worked out to an acceptable 16 mpg.
Although the Ghost was one of the fastest fish in this amorphous shoal, it never dared to dice with the real road sharks. Black, with tinted windows, glaring xenon headlights, and bulging twenty-inch wheels, late-model BMW X5s and X6s came and went like the progeny of the Securitate secret service that used to terrorize the country before the tyrant Nicolae Ceau escu and his wife were executed in 1989.
Opposites abound in the homeland of Dracula, a name some translate as devil and others use as a synonym for vampire. Consider Deva, for example, a run-down industrial town 130 miles east of the Hungarian border that looks like a living gray museum of shuttered steel mills, abandoned coal mines, mothballed sugar-beet refineries, and disintegrating multistory housing complexes compiled from prefab modules rejected by higher-rank comrades in Bucharest or Craiova. In stark contrast is Sibiu, a thriving city just seventy miles down the road that received European Union money to restore its charming downtown, construct a brand-new business park, and rebuild its infrastructure. Between these two extremes, rural Romania has plenty of space to spread out. This is an enchanting country largely untouched by progress, strongly connected to tradition yet always open to new ideas, traditionally devoted to agriculture and religion, pleasantly unstructured, and incredibly friendly.
Bran Castle is an ancient monument spiced up by modern trickeries such as the Bram Stoker Room in the main tower, the dungeon where Vlad epe was imprisoned in 1462, and the secret staircase from the first to the third floor, which Dracula allegedly used to escape from the Turks. Fact and fiction are close neighbors in this part of the world, where old women still sell wreaths of garlic in the streets as the only proven protection against a vampire bite. At night, when the sparsely lit castle casts an eerie picture-book silhouette against the blueberry-cream sky, it takes only a mix of credulity and vivid imagination to mistake a tired stray dog for a werewolf, to see the ghost of Mina (fiancee of Jonathan Harker, the tragic hero in Stoker’s novel) behind a young woman in a long dress, and to believe for a moment that Kacher in his costume might be a doppelgaenger of big bad Dracula.
Over the first 400 miles or so, the Rolls was disappointingly boring to drive. Not only did it make virtually no noises, it also refused to communicate in a way many lesser cars would. Splendid isolation was evidently the brief, and all 5.4 meters of Goodwood’s finery obeyed it. The steering was light and a bit lifeless, the gearbox would flee to higher ratios at the earliest opportunity, the brakes felt first spongy then wooden, and there was a strange poltergeist haunting the suspension, which plopped-popped over expansion joints as if someone had overfilled the air springs and the tires. The rear suicide doors were strong on show value but only average in terms of practicality, and the packaging did not excel considering the car’s large size.
But, you guessed it, the Ghost grew on us as the miles built up, turning us into starry-eyed suckers for unbridled luxury in ninety-six short hours. Even in difficult conditions, the flying lady scored with a fine blend of competence, composure, and comfort. The brakes didn’t really start to shine until the car was pushed hard. The steering lit up only when more g-forces were involved. The transmission wanted to be in Low mode before it would fire up torque flow and throttle response. The suspension craved tighter radii, more challenging surfaces, and a truly committed rhythm to show off its multifaceted dynamic talents. There is no stability control button in the Ghost, but you can either deactivate it in an iDrive submenu or store the function on a panel of presets above the climate controls. Off means totally off, which is no mean feat when 2.7 tons start swinging from Bran Castle toward Campulung with no more than a handful of daisies separating the hissing dual tailpipes from a concrete guardrail installed in the 1960s. The soundtrack generated by the tail-sliding whale is quite different from what your ears have come to expect. Although the squeal of the twenty-inch runflat tires still sets the tone, you also register the impatient gnarling of the pumps that mastermind the springs and dampers, you will be carried away by the angry dialogue between the high-pitched turbochargers and the large lungs of the intake plenum, and you may be a tad irritated by the metallic clonk of the suddenly very busy suspension, which was born and bred on much smoother ground. Thanks to BMW’s handling and active safety expertise, though, this sumo-size luxo-barge is putty in the hands of an enthusiastic driver.
There were many times when we feared for the Rolls and its pristine seven-spoke aluminum wheels, blatantly unprotected flanks, chip-prone panoramic windshield, and vulnerable rear overhang. But at the end of the ordeal, everything was still in working order both functionally and cosmetically. True, the Ghost’s vast 44.0-foot turning circle makes it almost as unwieldy as the Phantom, the 76.7-inch width (with mirrors folded) is hold-your-breath marginal through most construction zones, and the self-confident 129.7-inch wheelbase that easily exceeds that of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class renders standard-size parking spots absolutely useless. Despite these physical extremes, the British car with German DNA is astonishingly chuckable and maneuverable. And with the priceless collection of exterior cameras, even curb rash and park-by-ear scars are no longer an issue.
Thankfully, none of the gloomy pictures that fantasy had projected into the back of my mind was matched by reality. Instead, we discovered the hidden attractions of an underestimated country and the concealed talents of a little-known car. Although there is a lot more to Romania than its massive, mountainous backbone, it is here, high up in the Carpathians, where solitude and nature bond with a strong emotional impact. Of course the Ghost felt out of place in this former Communist no-man’s-land. Designed to shine on gravel driveways, groomed country lanes, and glittering urban capitals, the Rolls nonetheless displayed unexpected versatility and strength in this alien territory. Not only did it master some of Europe’s worst roads without a creak or a groan, it also turned out to be a rather complete driver’s car. Which puts an end to two carefully cultivated prejudices: that the Dracula family still rules in Transylvania, and that every Rolls-Royce gives preferential treatment to back-seat passengers. My next trip in a Ghost will be to the Nuerburgring — and that’s a promise.