The original heart and soul of Romania was eclipsed by Communism and a subsequent materialistic movement. But in the 21st century it has been born anew as a predominantly Christian, although economically depressed country. Communism is not the only threat Romania has had to deal with in its torrid history of invasions. During the 15th century the Ottomans of Turkey were determined to sweep their way through Europe to expand the grand Ottoman Empire that had already spread from east to west. Armed Ottoman soldiers were slaughtering any opposition along the way, including Crusaders who tried to stop them. Call it a twist of fate, but it was Count Dracul (Dracula) that saved the day!
Count Dracul was a real person and lived in a real castle near Transylvania. But unlike the stories they tell at the movies the famous Bran castle was not his ghoulish habitat. Vlad Tepes was a count who lived in Wallachia, one of the three regions of Romania. He was knighted as Count Dracul under the Order of the Dragons, a cult that was somehow connected to the knights Templar. His mission was to put a stop to the Ottomans. He did, by opposing them and making the famous avenues of impaled human beings. Thousands of victims were mounted on poles and set on either side of the road to the city. It was an imposing anti-Ottoman device that let off a bad stench - a stern warning not to mess with him. He became known as “Vlad the impaler”; the saviour of Romania.
What has Dracula of Hollywood got to do with Romania?
If it were not for the vampire legends that surround Vlad Tepes (the inspiration for Dracula) tourism would not be booming in modern-day Transylvania. There would be no hotels filled with eager tourists sipping Dracula cocktails and visiting his home town Sighisoara and the famous Bran castle. The curio shops would only be selling boring arts and crafts instead of plastic bats, funky false teeth and kitschy key rings. Communism had taken its toll on Romania but Dracul has once again saved the day. It was originally the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker who introduced us to Dracula, a vampire that sucked its way to Hollywood fame and fortune.
Bram created a cocktail of characters, gloomy castles, mountainous landscapes and blood sucking bats to prey off innocent virgins. He set the scene in Romania and the action is said to have taken place in the province of Transylvania. The ghastly suggestion manifests in our imagination and becomes a terrifying thing. We have visions of the living dead flitting around in the form of blood sucking bats and then morphing into seductive ladies and gentlemen of the night. Their bloody feasting habits send shivers down your spine whenever you hear about Transylvania.
Some facts lurk around Dracula's fiction
Bram Stoker had an easier time researching his material about vampires thanks to the gory stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu who created a lady vampire he called Carmilla.She was the prototype for Dracula. We have Viv Dillinger to thank for his cunning detective work to find out how the vampirian cult took shape hundreds of years ago. There is some truth about drinking human blood as an anti-ageing medicine. Even to this day the Gypsies in Romania are viewed with suspicion. It is because the originally came from the East and had associations with entities called opires that were known as the living dead.
Go and see the real Transylvania, a province of Romania!
That is why we paid a visit to Romania. Like all bedazzled Dracula fans we had to come to this place and satisfy our curiosity sooner or later. We were pleasantly surprised to see a country of great scenic beauty with fairy tale medieval towns in perfect condition. In every town a central area for summer concerts had been rigged up and free classical as well as pop performances were given. There were market stalls on the cobbled streets and pavement cafes. So unlike what one would expect from a post-communist country. We arrived in Bucharest and enjoyed a lively performance of classical music. The shows were part of the George Enesco music festival.
After this we wandered around the city for the rest of the evening and watched another open air concert at the other end of the boulevard. A grungy pop concert added to the expression of the total freedom in Romania today. Just like the anti-abortion protest across the road, the voluptuous sculptures in the park and the sex boutiques there is no restriction or little red books around anymore.
The national economy however is sadly run down and money as well as employment is hard to come by. The poignant account by the Info Barrel author known as "Savaswriter" gives a blow-by-blow account of how the 1989 revolution affected the everyday people of Romania. As our guide Silviu said: “we are not proud of our history and we can’t change it.”
Our travel plans were in the capable hands of a tour company who provided an exclusive package that included our guide Silviu, a charming young man who drove us around in a company car. He shared many stories with us about the old days of communism and the antics of Ceausescu the dictator. He drove us past his monumental building projects. Seven square kilometres of the historic part of the city were demolished to make way for the lavish houses of parliament and the grand boulevard with 42 fountains. He showed us the building where Ceausescu was finally captured but rescued by a helicopter. Eventually communism came to an end when he and Elena his free-spending wife were dispensed with. (They were not impaled.)
Escape to the countryside; sleep in a small Transylvanian village
We were taken to see the Curtea de Arges Monastery and had a good look at how Orthodox Christians went about their acts of devotion. Huge volumes of hand painted icons of Virgin Mary as well as church candles were on sale outside. Then as promised, we headed towards the Carpathian mountain range. But first we sampled some Dracula-inspired cuisine in the valley below. My Dracula cocktail was a frothed up blend of milk with orange and grapefruit juice. I felt a shish kebab would have been far more appropriate!
The restaurant area provided a good view of the original high mountain fort that was used by Vlad Dracul the Impaler to defend the mountain pass between his state of Wallachia and Transylvania. It was a dim silhouette of old ruins and there were no roads to it because the terrain was too steep.
At the top of the Carpathian mountain range we had lunch in the icy snow at an altitude of over 2000 metres. We had a good view over the valley – even better than that of a vampire. We could see the landscape by day and enjoy the transition from snow at lunchtime to the warm sunny valley below for afternoon tea. (A pint of Ursus: the local beer.) That night we slept in a little room in Sibiel, deep in the heart of Transylvania. Nothing happened. No bats. Our charming hosts had provided a very potent home-brew and after generous quantities of this and a substantial supper we could have slept through anything. I had not come equipped with garlic, but my breath from dinner the previous night would have knocked out any intruders.
Dracula’s legacy at the village well
I loved the farming area that surrounded the guest house, especially the fruit trees, the animals and the flowers - so unlike Bram Stoker and the dark dank castles. Before this trip we had visited the Romanian consul in South Africa and he put us straight about the Dracula legends before he handed us our visas. He told us that Count Vlad Dracul was highly respected for many reasons. Vlad also dealt severely with any criminal and took a stand for justice for all. In the picture of the mountain pass below you can see the original fort that Vlad built. This was his control centre.
At the water wells a silver cup was provided so that anybody could have a drink of water. But if the cup was stolen the thief was executed. You could say the only good criminal is a dead criminal! I was delighted to find an original well. The silver drinking cup (a steel mug) had been provided but it was chained to the well - just to make sure that it remained in Romania.
Dracul was born in Sighisoara. Not the bat, stupid!
Sighisoara is a beautifully preserved medieval town, complete with cobbled streets, a town square and ample fortification. We entered the town through the main gate and headed for the restaurant where Vlad Dracul the Impaler was born in 1431. No vampire wine thanks, but where is the tomato soup? I settled for a boring salad with vegetables as there was no other gluten-free option and I am not a flesh eater, let alone a blood sucker.
A unique solution for couples wishing to divorce each other
The little town of Biertan features three concentric walls of fortification around the church. They were built in order to protect the holy treasures as well as the town and country folk that could lock themselves inside and close the gates if they were under attack. Today tourists wander around and take photographs. They are entertained by the story of the little room that saves marriages. It was the tradition in this town to lock up a man and his wife in this room for as long as one month if they wanted to divorce each other. Some say it took longer but all agreed that over 90% of the marriages were saved in this way. Just think, without television, smart phones and nothing to read but the Holy Bible you too, could save a marriage!
For the rest of the afternoon we were driven around the countryside and visited more medieval towns and cities. Sibiu is a Unesco World Heritage site and a lot of restoration work is being done thanks to international sponsorship. The Bridge of Lies is associated with infidelity as this is where promises were made by men to eager young maidens but never fulfilled.
Apart from the black church and the black tower, the city of Brasov is well known for having the narrowest street in Europe. As you can see, fat people are not welcome here. But there is plenty of GMO corn to eat here and polenta is a popular dish. Unfortunately only GMO corn is available for farmers who rent fields to grow crops under specified Monsanto conditions.
From the air you can see how the farm houses face the road and the rented land stretches out behind them. There are still a number of original Roma gypsies living in the towns and countryside. They have a darker complexion and live as they did traditionally, making a living with metal crafts and growing vegetables. They keep to themselves and try to avoid further persecution because of their reputation for dabbling with the living dead, soothsayers and thieves. However, we saw streets filled with students of all ages going back to college. They were all carrying bunches of flowers as it was the first day of the new learning season. Lucky teachers
Bran Castle is an unlikely habitat for vampires – the rooms are too small!
The citadel of Bran was developed by the people at their own expense in 1377. The castle is now a national monument. It was restored in 1920 and used by the royal family as a summer residence for many years before becoming the hottest item on the Romanian tour itinerary. It is here that some of the scenes from the cavalcade of Dracula movies were filmed. Looking over the valley between the Bucegi and Piatra Mountains at sunset from the balcony of Villa Bran, our home for the night is still a suitably eerie experience. The mist rolls in, the wind howls and we follow the scent of French fries, onion rings and a steaming stew all the way down to the dining room.
At the crack of dawn we salute the statue of Vlad the Impaler astride his horse and snoop around the Bran castle. It is surrounded by a beautiful garden and after climbing up a lot of steep steps we entered the castle. We did not see any coffins filled with Transylvanian earth in the hallway. The stairs were narrow, the ceilings were low. There is no way a bat could navigate around these tight corners. The place had a friendly happy atmosphere and was filled with tourists and shutter bugs that had only period furniture and an exhibition of the history of smoking to see and to photograph.
In the courtyard below there was a small wishing well and an interesting antique scale. This large device was one used to weigh people being suspected of witchcraft. They had to stand on one of the swinging platforms and if they were lighter than a specified weight they were accused of being ghosts and they were taken away and drowned. (They were not fed to the bats and yes, nobody suffered from anorexia because they preferred to gain weight.)
Peles castle is one of the most beautiful castles in Eastern Europe
Peles castle is a 19th century masterpiece of neo-Renaissance nostalgia and no expenses were spared in its construction. 160 rooms decorated with ebony, leather, walnut and mother of pearl. Even the outer courtyard walls are decorated with elaborate hand painted pictures. The sumptuous gilded interior was home to generations of royalty who lived here and lavishly entertained their guests. They lived the high life at whose expense? It is easy to understand why communism gained a foot hold in this country but two wrongs don’t make a right.
Romania is a great destination for tourists who can help to support its struggling economy. You can enjoy the movie now. My husband Jim will tell you all about Transylvania and Dracula as you relax in your armchair. Don’t forget the garlic and the wooden stake - there is no guarantee that vampires are a just a legend.