Appeared in the June 2013 issue as “Tales of Dracula”.
“Welcome to Bucharest! There’s no need to worry right now. However, tomorrow we’re going to Transylvania.” That’s how Nicolae Pǎduraru, former chair of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula greeted his American guests as they exited the terminal at Otopeni airport on their vampire tour of Romania. It was already dark when Josh, Carly, Allaina, and Kevin occupied their seats on the minibus that was going to take them—and me—across Dracula country. Our journey would travel between fact and fiction. The real Dracula was neither a count, nor a vampire, nor the ruler of Transylvania. Vlad III Dracula ruled the province of Wallachia in southern Romania in the 15th century, coming to acquire the nickname the impaler somewhere along the way. But, as Pǎduraru told his visitors in his introductory speech, “You are here thanks to an Irish writer, Bram Stoker, author of 18 novels and numerous short stories—mostly literary romance of doubtful taste—who is remembered for his Dracula, a novel published in 1897.” Stoker’s vampire count has since been embodied and adapted countless times in books, films, plays, ballet, advertisements, cartoons, computer games, and music, going on to become one of the most famous figures in the history of fiction. One of the side effects of Dracula’s success, however, is that a perfectly real province has been transformed into a mythical realm: for people around the world, Transylvania is now associated with vampires.
Since he never visited the place himself, Stoker described Transylvania the way he believed a vampire’s home should look. He found information about Romanian costumes, the Gypsy or Szekely communities that lived along the border and local food in books written by British officials who had visited Transylvania and had written with disdain about a “barbaric” land, “full of superstition”. That would determine how the world continues to perceive the region. Hollywood contributed a great deal to creating this vision. In 1931, America discovered Dracula and hundreds of films about him have been made ever since. “Many people first heard of Transylvania in Dracula films or books,” said Duncan Light, a British professor who came to Romania to study the Dracula tourism industry. “So they associated it with a remote, dark, and sinister place, alive with vampires.”
The expensive glasses and cutlery sparkling on our elegant table were in sharp contrast with the medieval walls of the chapel in which we were eating dinner. All of a sudden, delicate ambient music exploded in a crescendo of thunder and owl hooting. The dim red light was drowned by surreal smoke. It was then that Dracula appeared. “Welcome to my house!” he cried. Loudspeakers broke into a wild howl right next to my ear, while the vampire vanished into a vertical coffin. Every Tuesday and Friday, actor Petre Moraru recites his vampire monologue walking among the tables at Count Dracula Club in Bucharest. Every now and then, a pretty girl is dragged away and bitten on the neck. Foreign guests adore the show, the atmosphere, and the food. Romanians generally come here only if they accompany foreigners (like I did). Most of them are not amused. Paradoxically, although Dracula is a global hit, the count remained practically unknown in his own country until recently. Romanian villagers in remote areas have still not heard of him. Vampire literature was prohibited here as an example of Western decadence and Dracula was translated into Romanian only after the fall of communism in 1989. Unfortunately, since then, many Romanians have started to take Dracula far too seriously. While people around the world associate the name with the vampire, for Romanians, Dracula was their perfect medieval ruler, a man they call Vlad Ţepeş—or Vlad the Impaler.
The fact that Stoker located his vampire in Transylvania has irked many Romanians. Some believe that it is a conspiracy by neighbouring Hungary to defame them, especially since Bela Lugosi, the actor who played the vampire in the first Hollywood version of the story, was from that country. Duncan Light, the British professor researching the Dracula industry, told me that Stoker’s work-notes discovered in the mid-’70s show that the Irish writer initially had no idea about Vlad the Impaler or Transylvania, and was actually thinking about a certain Count Vampyr from Eastern Austria. Evidently, Stoker changed his mind after reading an article written in 1885 entitled Transylvanian Superstition, about a land where most species of demons, fairies, witches, and goblins found safe haven after the progress of science had banished them from other parts of Europe.
I thought about the Romanian responses to the count as we strolled through Târgoviște, Vlad’s first capital city, where he is said to have committed many atrocities. Both Turkish chronicles and Slav manuscripts describe him as a psychopathic tyrant who went as far as cutting off mothers’ breasts and filling the cavities with the heads of their babies, before impaling the women. We strolled around a small park full of ruins surrounding the citadel, with wide chambers and crumbling ceilings. The only structure in Târgoviște built by Vlad that has remained intact is the Twilight Tower, which provides a complete panorama of the whole complex. One thing is clear: this is Ţepeş’ kingdom—and there’s no trace of Dracula the vampire here. This is a vision of history that many Romanians prefer. “In order to counterbalance the Western Dracula mythology, Romania should initiate a propaganda campaign and show the world the deeds and life of the real Vlad Ţepeş,” historian Radu Vergatti told me.
But for visitors, Romania’s schizophrenic reaction towards Dracula—a mixture of dignified rejection and opportunistic temptation—is hard to understand. “For us Westerners, Dracula is fiction, a mere game,” Charlotte Simsen, the former chair of the Quincy P. Morris Dracula Society in the US, told me. “Actually, we are not very interested in your Vlad Ţepeş. It is not us who make the connection between the historical character and the vampire count; it is you who keep telling us about Ţepeş when we come to visit the places mentioned in Bram Stoker’s novel.”
Stoker had decided to name his character Dracula after reading An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova written in 1820 by William Wilkinson, a former British consul to Bucharest. One sentence captured his imagination: “In the Wallachian language, Dracula means devil.” Wilkinson had included in his book a few vague mentions about a lord named Dracula, who had fought against the Turks in the 15th century. There was no mention of the real Vlad or his passion for impaling his enemies. Nor do any of these facts appear anywhere in Stoker’s novel. The Irish author just borrowed the name.
Although obscure articles published in the ’60s had pointed out the connection between the fictional count and the historic figure of the prince, the two figures came to be fused in 1972, with the publication of In Search of Dracula, a bestseller by Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, two historians who argued that Bram Stoker had based his vampire on Vlad, speculation that soon became the accepted wisdom. For Romanians, Dracula’s story begins in 1408, when emperor Sigismund summoned several vassal princes to Nuremberg, where he made them Knights of the Order of the Dragon. Among them was Vlad II, who, proud of his new title, called himself “Dracul”, a term derived from the Latin draco or dragon. The nickname was used by his son, Vlad Dracula, as a surname, because Dracula means “the son of the Dragon”. Though Ottoman chroniclers in the late 15th century named him “Kaziklubey” (the Impaler) and Romanian historians also used this name, there is no proof Vlad ever called himself that. Semantics has played a role in the matter: The word “dracul” has lost the original sense of “dragon” and in modern Romanian, it means “devil”. The fact that Stoker named his vampire “Dracula” reinforced Romanians’ preference for the Vlad’s other name: Ţepeş or the Impaler. We were told many more stories about Ţepeş after we visited the Poienari fortress at sunset, when the mist descending from the mountains met the fog rising from the valleys, filling the Anges gorge. In 1462, Prince Vlad was besieged in this castle by the Ottomans. He sent for help from the village of Aref, across the hill. The Arefeans came at night and managed to take the prince all the way to Transylvania, across the high Carpathians. Vlad rewarded them with 16 mountains for pasture.
We spent the night in Aref. Around a bonfire, farmers told us the tales they knew about Vlad. Vlad Dracula was born in Sighişoara, in central Romania, in 1431. He was five when he moved to Târgoviște, as his father became the ruler of Wallachia. When he was aged around 11, he and his younger brother Radu were sent as hostages to the Ottoman Sultan Murad II as a guarantee that his father, Vlad Dracul, would be loyal to the Turks. At 17, after his father was murdered and his elder brother Mircea buried alive, the sultan sent him back to Wallachia as ruling prince. In just two months, he lost power and spent the next eight years in exile plotting to recover his throne. In 1456, Vlad Dracula returned for the second time as ruler of Wallachia, this time for six years. His next spell of exile lasted 12 years. He regained his Wallachian throne in 1476, but was killed in battle two months later. Vlad’s story became a myth in the 19th century, when modern Romania was in the making. His rough justice seemed exemplary to a society that strived—and still does—to settle down. A whole literature that glorified Ţepeş and his deeds was produced. Vlad’s myth was strengthened in the ’70s, during Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign. The medieval prince was praised in schoolbooks, statues of him were raised, restoration works started at his castle on the Arges river, books and articles on him were published. “In such a context, after the success of Florescu and McNally’s book, Dracula became a story that Romanians had to confront,” Pǎduraru explained. The first reaction of the Ministry of Tourism officials was: let’s show them who Ţepeş really was; and tours concentrated on the history of the prince. Disappointed, foreigners who came to the country in search of Dracula reacted as expected: we’re not interested in your petty lord, we want our vampire.
There was a very swift change of tone, and tours began to concentrate on Romanian superstition and lore that was in any way connected to Stoker’s novel. But after three or four days of such trips, tourists and guides alike inevitably ended by being really scared. In the end, tours combined the historic and the fictional Dracula. Today, there are more than 30 companies that organise vampire-oriented tours in Romania, most of which sell a mix of the two Draculas—the historic character and the literary one.
We crossed into Transylvania via the spectacular Rucar-Bran Pass. On the way, we stopped at “King’s Stone” fortress in Bran, where Vlad was imprisoned after losing his throne for the second time. We joined the throngs of visitors who are convinced that the Spartan castle was Dracula’s home. I got out of there half-amused, half-disgusted. The guide had told us preposterous stories about Ţepeş, Dracula, and Stoker. At the exit, I was confronted by an army of vendors offering kitschy souvenirs at prices aimed at foreign buyers. But since I was in Bran anyway, I couldn’t miss a visit to the Museum of Horror: an amazing shack of ghosts that included a restaurant, especially designed for American and Japanese tourists. It recently added a 3D cinema, presenting horror movies.
By the time we got to Sighişoara, it was twilight. As we were rather thirsty, we went straight to Alchemy Bar, opened in the cellar of the house in which Vlad the Impaler was born. Here, you can sample age old concoctions such as Four Boards, Paracelsus, Cognac of the Big Bear, or the count’s favourite wines (New Moon, Full Moon, Moon Sonata). Sighişoara is a town where I’d love to live. The citadel has pretty much remained unchanged since the times when Vlad was strolling around on its cobbled streets. Located on the Târnava Mare River, the town was built by Saxons between the 12th and 17th centuries. Eleven towers guard Sighişoara’s walls, including the Tower of Tailors and the Tower of Shoemakers.
In 2001, Dan Matei Agaton, the Minister of Tourism, suggested that a Dracula Theme Park should be built in Sighişoara. “Hundreds of movies, over 1,000 books, thousands of articles, about 45,000 Dracula associations or fun clubs: It is absurd for a myth that can be used in so many ways abroad to be ignored in its own country,” he argued. Even though the idea was floated at a time when tourism was at its all-time low, the project met with huge opposition. Several other locations were suggested, but they were rejected too. Dracula Park is a quintessence of Romania’s mixed feelings towards Dracula: opportunism and violent rejection. Our next halt was Bistriţa, to eat a Bram Stoker-inspired meal. In Dracula, a young English solicitor named Jonathan Harker takes a train from London to “the post town of Bistritz” on his way to Dracula Castle in Borgo Pass, Northern Transylvania, to finalise a property deal with Count Dracula. There, Harker dined on “Robber’s Steak” and drank “Golden Mediasch” wine at the Golden Krone Inn. A hotel of that name has since been built for tourists, and we dined on the same dishes and wines, before following Harker to Borgo Pass. Around me I could see foreign tourists happy to have finally arrived at Dracula’s castle. However, I was pretty disappointed. Built in the 1980s, the castle looked more like a communist block of flats dreaming of one day becoming a castle. But it wasn’t a complete washout. It was really nice to sip my morning coffee on the terrace, watching the valleys and forests all around. Sometimes, the fog got so thick, I got the feeling I was floating high up in the clouds.
We then left for Marotinu de Sus, where, several years ago, some villagers had been sentenced to prison for desecrating graves. They had been described by media as vampire slayers. However, after all the problems they had encountered with the authorities, they did not even want to talk to us. We left meekly. Then the car broke down and night caught us asking for shelter in a decaying shack, in the remote village of Oltenia. At first, the old woman who owned the place refused to open her door. She thought the strigoi, the Romanian vampire, was calling her. As she told us later, she was convinced that her dead husband had turned into a strigoi and was tormenting her at night. She had exhumed him several times and pierced his chest with a stake, but with no results. How could I have not believed her? I was only four when the people in my village had dug up the grave of a strigoi. I was there in the cemetery that night. Indeed my obsession with vampires goes back to my childhood.
Before we knew it, our tour had come to an end. During their short time in the country, the American tourists in search of Dracula had fallen in love with Romania. They were always carefree, taking picture after picture of green leaves and grey buildings, amazed to see how cheap everything was, delighted by every cat, dog, or pig they set eyes on. I’d like to think they also changed a little during the days we spent together, that their individual natures were enhanced. Not all the places we visited were connected to Dracula. But Nicolae Pǎduraru was an expert in getting people in touch with the spirit of places, able to tell a story about every hamlet, every mountaintop, every glass of wine, knowing when to scare and when to amuse, when to comfort with small talk and when to introduce serious matters. “Imagine,” he said just before we said good-bye. “Imagine that it rains cats and dogs. On a deserted street two men resentfully walk side by side, avoiding each other’s sight, their eyes filled with hatred: Count Dracula and Prince Vlad. They march together through the rain just because an unseen hand is holding above them both an umbrella”. Whose is it? I exclaimed to myself. Isn’t it ours?
Transylvania is a historic region that once encompassed parts of Romania and Hungary. The region is now in entirely in Romania, in the centre of the country, bounded on the east and south by the Carpathian Mountains. The empire of Transylvania no longer officially exists, but the area is still known by that name owing to the lore of Bram Stoker’sDracula. Bucharest, the Romanian capital is in the south of the country, around 75 km from the Bulgarian border. The author’s journey starts in Bucharest, heading north for 80 km past Târgoviște, then to Bran 112 km away, Sighişoara (140 km from Bran), Bistriţa another 180 km beyond, and finally Borgo Pass 60 km away in the north of Romania, about 150 km from the Ukraine border.
There are no direct flights from India to Romania. A minimum of one stop is required, usually in a European country, which varies across different carriers. The entire journey takes between 12 to 20 hours, depending on the length of the layover.
Indian travellers to Romania require a visa. A short-stay tourist visa costs around ₹4,357, and requires a confirmed itinerary and proof of financial means. Allow a couple of weeks for visa processing. The Romanian consulate offices in India are in Mumbai (022-22021141) and New Delhi (011-26140447).
Weather in Romania can be rather unpredictable, with sudden temperature changes. It’s a good idea to pack a variety of clothes for both sunny and chilly weather. If you are travelling during winter, pack very warm clothes. If you have your eyes set on Bucharest, travel in the spring (February-April) or fall (September-November). Winters are very cold and summers hot. In Transylvania, May-September is the peak season for tourism and hiking.
The Royal Court, Târgoviște The museum complex includes the Royal Residence, the Great Royal Church, the Small Royal Church, and the Chindia Tower.
Bran Castle Details can be found at www.bran-castle.com
House of Terror 502a Principala street, Bran Castle.
Alchemy Bar Sighisoara, in the house where Vlad Dracula was born.
Golden Crown 4 Petru Rares Square, Bistrita, www.hotelcoroanadeaur.ro
Hotel Castle Dracula 427363 Piatra fantanele, in Borgo Pass; www.hotelcasteldracula.ro.
“Curtea Veche” (Old Court)
Folklore and Ethnographic Institute, 25 Tache Ionescu Street, Bucharest.
Official Travel and Tourism Information www.romaniatourism.com
Appeared in the June 2013 issue as “Tales of Dracula”.
Although it is a bit pricey, Bucharest is a hub for high quality handicrafts including traditional lace, wood carving, jewellery, and pottery. The Romanian Village Museum has a crafts store, where hand-decorated Easter eggs, and genuine folk costume articles are sold. The Romanian Peasant Museum is also a good place to visit especially before a major holiday; take a look at the fairs organised in the museum’s garden, where craftspeople and farmers from all over the country come to sell their goods. Sample Romanian cuisine—traditional cakes, jams, and of course, wine and palinca, the fruit brandy that is a Hungarian favourite. Visit Bucharest’s Carturesti Library and browse books on art and architecture (in English), while sipping a cup of tea in a bohemian setting. The Lipscani district is where antique shops, junk and secondhand stores are located. Set some time aside to explore and get lost in the old streets. More than the objects on sale, the medieval atmosphere in these places is compelling. –Alexandra Popescu