They call it "dark tourism," a desire to travel to destinations associated with suffering and grief —the best known of these is the Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland, which attracts close to a million visitors a year. Other people prefer to explore the man-made desert that surrounds Chernobyl, in Ukraine, whose reactor number 4 exploded in 1986. Still others like to tramp over the hills of Culloden Moor, in Scotland, where British troops, led by the Duke of Cumberland, nicknamed "The Butcher," crushed the Jacobites in 1746.

What has Romania got on the "dark tourism" map? "Many tourists come for the Dracula legend, and to visit Bran Castle," explains Traian Badulescu, a spokesman for the Romanian National Association of Travel Agents, "and there is also another kind of dark tourist who likes to visit sites from the 1989 revolution." With this in mind, the Sighet Memorial for the Victimsof Communism was created inside the buildings of Sighet prison. Built in 1897 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was originally intended to house criminal offenders, but in the late 1940s it became a detention centre for political opponents of the communist regime.

The Sighet Memorial website explains that the regime claimed "the prison was "a special work unit," and referred to it as "Danube colony," but in reality, it was an extermination centre for the country's elite. "Prisoners were held in unsanitary conditions, hardly given any food, and were forbidden to lie down during the day in their unheated cells. They were not allowed to look out of the window, and prisoners that were considered too recalcitrant were punished by being placed in a dark cell with no light of any kind. Eventually, authorities installed shutters on the windows which restricted the field of view to a patch of sky."

In 1955, when Romania joined the United Nations, some prisoners were freed, and the others were released and placed under house arrest. Soon all of the dissidents in Sighet's cells had been replaced by common criminals. Sometime later the prison fell into disuse. In 1977, it briefly became a broom factory before it was used for the bulk storage of salt, an activity that continued until 1993, when the Civic Academy Foundation took over the building to turn it into a museum. The 51 cells have now been transformed into an exhibition space. "The museum has preserved the structure of the building, which is exactly as it was in the 1950s. Visitors can see exactly how the inmates lived in the cells with their metal beds, rough blankets and straw pillows," explains museographer Robert Fürtos. The names of the 8,000 people who died in communist prisons in Romania are inscribed on the walls of the ramp which descends to the "Space for prayer and remembrance."

The exhibitions are grouped in chronological order, from the 1940s to the 1980s. Every room is organized around a theme, such as deportation or anti-communist resistance in the mountains. The museum's managers have recently added a new room devoted to the "golden age" of communist kitsch, where the memorial's many visitors – there are close to 50,000 per year, of whom approximately 15% are foreigners — have a chance to experience the personality cult of Nicolae Ceausescu and admire oil paintings of the "much-loved leader" kissing children.