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.