I must admit, I didn’t know much about Dracula and I probably knew less about Romania. Still, when the opportunity arose to join a Dracula expedition to Transylvania for Hallowe’en, I couldn’t pass it up. To brush up, I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula before I left and was excited when I spotted a 1901 paperback edition in the Dublin Writers Museum during my flight stopover. Was that enough to feel comfortable spending a week in Romania with 11 Dracula-enthusiasts? I hoped so.
Once in Bucharest, I forgot about Dracula, immersing myself instead in the throng of the city. Modern high-rises mingling with traditional architecture, traffic choking the streets and cafés selling wonderful coffee and pastries directly from their front windows to passers-by on the sidewalk; the city was buzzing.
Communist-era opulence still shouts at you from the Palace of Parliament. Ordered built by dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1984, he never occupied the white elephant. He was executed in 1989 after the Romanian revolution and before the Palace’s completion. It’s the second largest building in the world after The Pentagon, is visible from the moon and uses enough electricity to power a small city.
It’s well worth a visit, if only to shake your head at the incomprehensibly large rooms, of which there are 1100. (In one room, the carpet alone weighs 3 tonnes). Built of marble, it’s the heaviest building in the world and the entrance promenade is longer and wider than the Champs Élysées. Three shifts of workers slaved around the clock, removing 4,000 homes for the massive structure and promenade.
But back to the reason I was here: that afternoon, I joined 11 Dracula-lovers heading to Transylvania. Arriving after dark, the Carpathian mountain view from my balcony the next morning was a wonderful surprise.
And just down the road was Bran Castle, the infamous 13th century “Dracula” castle. I was getting excited. The Dracula-lovers were very excited. So it was a bit of a let down to hear that, by all accounts, its connection to Count Dracula is tenuous, in fact fabricated.
True, it’s perched on a rock and has sheer walls for Dracula to scale bat-like, while a shocked Jonathan Harker watches from an upper-floor window. Bram Stoker, however, never actually visited Romania and knew nothing of the castle (unless he’d seen it in a drawing). As an Irishman, his inspiration apparently came from crypts beneath a church in Dublin and the abbey ruins, windswept churchyard and long stair-climb up the east cliff in England’s seaside town of Whitby, where he rented a holiday home.
How this became Dracula’s castle is thought to have been the result of a Communist-era, government’s decision to market it as such, to increase tourism. Never mind. It was still a fine setting for a damn good Hallowe’en party.
I’d packed a costume, to which I’d given little thought. I’d grabbed one of many I’d sewn years ago for my children for Hallowe’en. I didn’t think then that the expeditioners would be so into this Dracula thing and so chose a lightweight, travel-friendly number.
Once dressed for the ball, however, it became clear I was a misfit, to say the least. There were Draculas, vampires, brides of Dracula, Beetlejuices, zombies and other dead and ghoulish things dripping in blood, and there was me…..a pink crayon. My daughter had been the crayon when she was 5 and the costume (as it should) went down to her ankles. On me, well…..the black tights saved me.
But once at the castle, among 1,000 or so Hallowe’en lovers, drink in hand and dance floor at my feet, I didn’t really care.
We paid homage to vampire Dracula, then followed the footsteps of the “real” Vlad Dracula (Vlad III or Vlad Tepes). Vlad III was given the name Dracula, which means son of Dracul because he was the son of Vlad II, who was called Vlad Dracul (meaning dragon) for his bravery. Born in 1431, Vlad III aka Vlad Dracula, was the Prince of Wallachia (beside Transylvania). He became known as Vlad the Impaler because of his penchant for impaling his enemies with stakes. In 1897, having read of Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker christened his vampire creation “Dracula”.
To understand 13th century life, we explored Rasnov, a fortress/citadel built by Teutonic knights and visited the churches and watchtowers of nearby Brasov, one of seven walled cities built by the Saxons in Romania.
Vlad’s footsteps then led up 1,480 steps through the forest to his fortress, Poenari castle, on a craggy outcrop. Here, Vlad Dracula’s wife threw herself to her death in the Arges River gorge to avoid capture by the Turks.
A battle was brewing in nearby Targoviste, between the Turks and Vlad the Impaler’s Wallachians. Vlad filled the forest with 23,000 impaled bodies of Turks he had killed in a previous fight to frighten away the Turkish army.
Leaving the 13th century for a day, we spent the night in Cuertes de Arges, a town full of hoarse dogs. I know this because the hotel heating, which was centrally controlled, was on “high”, despite the warm weather. With windows open, I lay awake listening to dogs bark at each other until they lost their voices. In the coolness of dawn I tried to run but the hoarse dog outside every house ran at me, barking madly until it reached the gate. Unnerved after two blocks, and having woken the entire neighbourhood, I ran back to the safety of my hot, hotel room. I sought relief in the lobby but found it and the restaurant roped off. A sign warned guests of a security alarm detecting movement and I recalled Jonathan Harker finding he’d been locked in his bedroom that night at Count Dracula’s castle.
After breakfast we crossed the Fagaras mountains on the winding Transfagarasan highway of Top Gear fame. It’s usually closed from October to June due to weather, so we considered ourselves lucky. The 12-passenger van and its conservative driver, however, didn’t provide the same the thrill that Jeremy Clarkson and his crew likely experienced in their Aston Martin, Lamborghini and Ferrari. Perhaps I should have chosen the Doing Romania with a wealthy GT car-owner tour instead.
Stopping at the massive Vidraru dam and lake, I climbed a look-out tower for a better photo and on my return found the van had disappeared. Had the driver read my thoughts? I hunted for a sports car driver to call on for a lift. With no success and no phone, I could only hope the expeditioners missed me. I waited.
The photo had turned out well so I took another….and I waited.
Thankfully, someone noticed my absence and they returned so I made it to Sibiu, another of the seven walled towns and once Vlad Dracula’s home. It is one of Forbes Magazine’s 10 most idyllic places to live. I’ll reserve judgement until I know the night-time, dog-barking situation.
We visited Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, a beautiful Gothic castle started in 1446. Legend tells us that Vlad III was held prisoner here and his father was killed here. It’s one of the largest castles in the world and features in countless films and television shows.
Romanians are keen to showcase the gruesome brutality of the middle ages and so we visited a torture museum. The realistic displays came complete with screams from the victims and although most of the Dracula-lovers relished in the experience, I left early, not able to stomach it.
Finally, a Vlad Dracula expedition is only complete after seeing his birthplace in Sighisoara, and his final resting place in Comana monastery on an island in Snagov Lake.
In the room where Vlad was born, in the walled Saxon town of Sighisoara, we had a private, final dinner together. In this atmospheric, candle-lit, blood-red room, we held hands before the meal and I wondered if a Ouija board would appear. Many of the Dracula-lovers believed in the occult and shared accounts of their experiences with the “other side”. I had nothing to share; contacting spirits isn’t my thing, and they don’t contact me. I like it that way.
It was fitting to end our trek where the real Vlad Dracula’s life began. This medieval ruler, with a thirst for blood had, in 1897, inspired the birth of Count Dracula, the vampire, whose horrific actions have intrigued and attracted readers since. Vampires, now ubiquitous in modern literature, are the subject of an entire genre of films and TV shows devoted to their activities. As a Dracula- and Romania-ignorant traveler for all these years, I had certainly learned a lot.