While Bran Castle has little to do with either Vlad Tepes or Stoker’s Dracula, there is an authentic and much less visited Dracula’s castle not far from Bran. High atop the mountain pass in Poenari, the first thing visitors see when approaching the remains of this fortress, the authentic Castle Dracula, are two impaled bodies. Not real ones, obviously, just the Romanian equivalent of a Disney-fied impaling. It’s almost as if you expect them to start moving and singing (High Hopes? Hanging Tough? Always Look On the Bright Side of Life? Okay, I’m done.) as you cross the narrow footbridge that leads to the entry to the fortress. But alas, they sit there, high atop their impalement spikes, casting shadows on the interactive torture equipment below while the Romanian flag flies in the background.
It was here, at Castle Dracula, that Vlad earned his nickname, “The Impaler.” With a desire to break the power of the local nobility and seeking revenge for their murder of his brother, Dracula’s men surprised the nobility of nearby Tirgoviste on Easter morning, 1457. As the locals left church celebrations, Vlad’s men captured them, impaling the older men and conscripting the younger ones into labor. Over the months that followed, many of those who had been captured died while working to construct the fortress atop the Poenari mountain pass for Vlad. The horrific impalements that accompanied this construction cemented Vlad Tepes’s name and reputation forever.
Today, other than the grisly welcome to the castle grounds, there isn’t much to see. There are gift shops selling Dracula trinkets (Vampire mugs! More plastic teeth!) and a Dracula Hotel near the entry road, but it appears that the long switchbacking trek up the mountainside to the fortress keeps all but the most dedicated Dracula hunters at bay.
Sighisoara is easier to access. Tucked into the hills of Northern Transylvania, this small Saxon town of 28,000 people is also the birthplace of Vlad Tepes. Visiting Sighisoara with its cobble-stoned streets and massive medieval walls is like a trip back in time. There are few restaurants here, and only a handful of hotels. Many people come here to see the 14th Century Clocktower, from which seven wooden figures still emerge from the belfrey. From the top of the Clocktower you can look out and see miles of rolling Transylvanian countryside, or you can look down at the Piata Mezeului’s cobblestone streets and see tourists gathering outside house #6 – the birthplace of Vlad Tepes.
Now, what might one find inside the birthplace of a national hero and cult tourist figure? Maybe a recreation of a 15th century Romanian home? Artifacts from a medieval life? Another series of panels explaining the myth v. reality of Dracula? Nope. A restaurant and bar, aptly named Casa Dracula.
But wait, there’s more. The alleged birth chamber of Vlad Tepes still exists, and for a couple bucks, you can go in to see it. So we threw down a handful of lei and headed up the stairs for the bedroom. I’m not sure what told me that this wasn’t going to be a carefully-crafted historical recreation of Vlad’s childhood. Perhaps it was the dimmed and flashing lights, or the ghoulish haunted house music (perhaps purchased from the stalls outside of Bran Castle?), or the fake spider webs and plastic bugs on the walls alongside the
staircase.Once opened, the small door at the top of the stairs takes you into a small room about the size of a room you would expect a Fifteenth century Romanian family with means to have. In the middle of the room was a coffin, leaning at an angle so you could see the body laying inside. The eerie music continued to play. I knew how this story was going to end. The man in the coffin was going to pop up to scare us. This wasn’t my first rodeo. My problem is that when I’m scared, I scream like an old lady, and no one needs that. We slowly made our way across the floor toward the open coffin. The room closed in. “He’s going to spring up at you, he’s going to spring up at you, he’s going…”
He sprang. I screamed. Somewhere, patrons in a Romanian restaurant lost their appetites.
After a good laugh, the man in the coffin asked in broken English us for a tip.
And so that was it. That is what had become of the birthplace of one of Romania’s greatest heroes. Would anyone come to see the birthplace of Vlad Tepes? Perhaps not. But it was clear that people were coming to Sighisoara for a Dracula fix. Despite middling reviews, the restaurant downstairs was packed. It was the only restaurant in Romania where Jess and I were unable to get a seat. The birthplace of Romania’s national hero had become a Dracula tourist trap. Vlad was probably turning over in his coff – er, grave.
So the birthplace of Vlad Tepes had been overwhelmed by commercialism, but what about his final resting spot? Just north of Bucharest sits Snagov Lake, a weekend getaway for well-to-do urbanites and the alleged site of Vlad Tepes’s body – at least most of it.
Terror and impalement do not a good long term strategy make. Eventually, Vlad’s bloody methods and the politics of the day caught up with him. A Romanian rival joined with the Turks to take out their common enemy. After his assassination, Dracula’s head was carried on a pike back to Turkey as proof to the Ottoman sultan that the great Impaler was dead. Legend has it that a group of monks from Snagov monastery found Dracula’s headless body in a nearby marsh and took it back to the remote monastery, located on an island in the Lake, for burial.
There is a small footbridge that provides access to the island monastery. It took us a while to find our way through the woods and cluster of small neighborhoods near the lake. We came upon a sign for Snagov Monastery and parked in a lot next to an abandoned car on blocks. We were the only ones there – well, except for the old Romanian man who was lying in wait for us. He limped toward us, shirtless, rumpled, and smiling. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but he gestured to the car and flashed a small wad of lei. He wanted us to pay for parking. Paying for event parking is a great Norcini family tradition – I had to respect the man’s entrepreneurial spirit. I handed him 5 lei, and we headed for the monastery.
Unlike other Vlad sites, the island monastery was free of tourists, trinkets, and, remarkably, any representation of Dracula the character. Near the back wall of the small chapel is a sign with the image of Vlad Tepes on it. While many consider this his grave, no one knows for certain. Monastery sites were excavated in the early thirties, and one of the graves contained a headless body wearing clothing that was the color of the Order of the Dragon. Combine that with the fact that Dracula’s family money paid for the construction of much of the monastery in the 14th and 15th centuries, and you have a strong case for this being Dracula’s body. While requests to exhume the remains for further testing have been submitted, the government, so far, hasn’t bitten (ha! Bitten!).
Our visit was quiet, peaceful, the way a visit to a remote island monastery should be. But, I was on the hunt for Dracula, and before we left Romania, I needed one more fix of Dracula kitsch.
The street along the Dambovita River on the outskirts of the Bucharest’s historic quarter is lined with crumbling and graffittied buildings. It is in this part of Romania’s capital, the city started by Vlad Tepes himself, that I am on a quest to find my last Dracula site in Romania, The Count Dracula Club. The Count Dracula Club, the worst and possibly most campy commercialized appropriation of the Dracula legend, seems a fitting end to our journey for all things Dracula. Honestly, I can hardly contain my excitement, an excitement that’s been building since I first stumbled upon mention of this place nearly a week ago. A quick check on Trip Advisor confirmed that this would be an experience of complete nonsense. Reviews called it a “disappointing” experience with “horrible food” a culinary adventure that was summed up by one patron as “No… Just no.” Nonetheless, a candlelit dinner of meet shaped like rats, in a place decorated like a crypt and matredeed by a Romanian man who does blood-colored shots of Romanian plum wine with patrons, was too tempting to pass up, no matter what the reviews said.
Jess, kind enough to entertain my quest for one-star glory in a city filled with countless high-quality restaurants, had difficulty keeping up with me as my pace quickened. I watched the building numbers drop: 24 – 20 – 16 – 12… and then, 8. We had arrived. But what stared back at us was not the stone building with rose-colored windows and fake blood dripping from the frame, but a dark and tagged building draped with a white banner proclaiming in bold red letters, “De Inchiriat” – “For Rent.” Remnants of the fake blood that had escaped the landlord’s quick cleanup job could still be seen in the crevasses of the stone around the window frames. The Count Dracula Club was dead.
I wondered for a second about the fate of the restauranteur and amateur Dracula impersonator. I was worried about the applicability of his skillset to a new job in rapidly changing Bucharest? What would happen if he attempted to bite colleagues, or invited his boss over for a dinner of roast rat and blood liqueur? Would he wear the cape? Seems only appropriate, otherwise the other steps seem just weird without the context a cape and some makeup provide. Wherever you are, whatever you do, good Dracula sir, I appreciate your attempt to capitalize on the complexity of the Romanian relationship with your namesake. No matter what the Trip Advisor reviewers say.
So, does the closing of the Count Dracula Club in Bucharest reflect the changing tide of tourism in Romania? Has history defeated campy commercialization? Apparently not.
“We want to develop a Dracula theme park, based on the Dracula Park idea launched 15 years ago. That had a false start, but people have evolved and things have changed in the mean time”, Simona Man, head of the National Tourism Agency, announced in January of 2016. It turns out that, despite their desire for quality cuisine over mince rat dinners, tourists continue to flock to Romania for Dracula. Consequently, the idea of Dracula Park, complete with its Den of Torture, Lake Dracula, and Institute of Vampirology is back in conversation.
It’s also been announced that Dracula Park may go by a different name, Vlad Tepes Park (doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but who am I to judge?). Perhaps it’s just a way to separate this renewed attempt at theme park creation from the failed attempt in the early 2000s. Or, maybe it’s recognition that Romanians still have a long way to go to understand their complicated history with Dracula.
Light, Duncan. “The Dracula Dilemma: Tourism, Identity and the State in Romania” Routeledge, London and New York, 2012.