Washington’s International Paper
By Jonathan Siskin
CNS Whether fact or fiction, or somewhere in between, the image of Dracula continues to capture the fancy of millions of believers and non-believers worldwide. The most notorious vampire of all time was, in real life, a Romanian prince by the name of Vlad Tepes. He became known as Count Dracula when he took the name of his father, Vlad Dracul (dracul means “devil” in Romanian). The young Dracula grew up to become one of the most cruel tyrants in history. However, he is still regarded by some Romanians as a national hero for his valiant battles against the invading Ottoman Turks during the 15th century.
Tepes, who lived from 1430 to 1476, acquired the vampire label centuries after his death with the 1897 publication of the famed novel, “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. Setting the novel in Romania’s Transylvania region, Stoker based his main character, Dracula, on the life of Tepes. With the popularization of Dracula through a succession of Hollywood movies and other recent novels, such as “Interview With the Vampire,” the legendary vampirism attributed to Dracula became common knowledge.
While Vlad Tepes may never have actually drank blood, his blood-thirsty appetite cannot be denied. As the ruling Prince of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462, he became infamous for his torture methods. Vlad’s favorite means of execution was to impale his victims on wooden stakes and watch them slowly bleed to death. Dubbed “Vlad the Impaler,” he would occasionally add insult to injury by hacking off a limb or two during the torture process.
With its dimly lit corridors, stained carpets, cracked plaster and pervasive musty odor, the Bucaresti Hotel in downtown Bucharest exuded the kind of dingy ambience ideal for a Dracula Congress. Built during Romania’s Communist era, it was obvious that capitalist efficiency was still sorely lacking among the hotel staff. Uneaten room-service food and other assorted refuse remained uncollected for days in the hallways.
It was not hard to get spooked at the Bucaresti. One night while fumbling in the darkness for my room key, I suddenly became aware of the heavy footsteps and horrific stench of some plodding creature stalking me through the shadows. Fighting back panic, I at last got inside my room, slamming the door shut just before the crunching sound of claws came crashing by.
We departed Bucharest after two days for a five-day bus tour through Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains. Heading deep into the heart of “vampire country,” we were on our way to visit several Dracula-related landmarks and sites. Among the highlights of the trip were Vlad Tepes’ birthplace in the medieval town of Sighisoara (pronounced SIG-EE-SCHWORE-UH),an exploration of the haunting Bran Castle, where Dracula once lived, and an overnight stay at a hotel known as CastleDracula. Some of the most memorable moments of the trip occurred during brief stops at remote peasant villages in Transylvania’s mountain-ringed valleys. People would come out of their houses and eagerly mingle with our group. While we could only communicate with gestures, their warm and hospitable nature was apparent at all times.
The way of life here seemed little changed from what it must have been like during Dracula’s heyday 500 years ago. The primary mode of transportation is ox cart, and families live off the land, tending their vegetable gardens and herding cattle and sheep. Superstitions supposedly still run rampant in this part of Transylvania – fences are hung with trinkets to keep the wild boars away.
A simple metal plaque, on the side of a two-story building, near the main square in the town of Sighisoara, marks the place where Vlad Tepes was born and raised. Today, the building is a restaurant where a favorite item on the menu is Dracula goulash (seasoned with plenty of garlic). In keeping with Vlad’s reputation, there is a Devil’s Valley and a Devil’s Stream in the vicinity.
The best preserved of all Romania’s medieval towns, Sighisoara’s walled city contains distinctive arched bridges, an imposing clock tower and Gothic-style buildings. Meandering up and down the winding streets over 15th century pavement stones, we arrived at the main square where witch trials and executions took place during the Middle Ages. Here we witnessed the reenactment of a witch trial complete with blood-spattered witch, judges and hooded executioner.
Witch trials took place primarily during the 16th and 17th centuries (the last trial was in 1753). The dreaded “water test” determined whether someone was actually a witch. The suspect, her hands tied together, was plunged into a nearby pond. If she remained floating on the surface of the water, it was evidence of her pact with the devil while sinking to the bottom was proof of innocence. Those who floated were immediately taken by the executioner to the town square and burned at the stake.
Another eerie reminder of the Dracula era is Bran Castle, dominating the surrounding countryside from its strategic perch, high on a rocky promontory. Within the castle walls where Vlad Tepes once lived it is not difficult to imagine Dracula’s shadow lurking in the secret passageways or near the mysterious window designed to reflect the sunsets. Located approximately 20 miles from the city of Brasov, the citadel was originally built in 1377 and served as a fortified barrier against the invading Turks during Vlad Tepes’ reign.
Our group also spent one night at the Castle Dracula Hotel, situated in Borgo Pass, which links the regions of Transylvania and Moldavia. Set amid a majestic, bucolic landscape at an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, the hotel was built in the early 1980s, based on descriptions of a similar castle in the Bram Stoker novel.
Nowadays, the surrounding area is especially popular during the winter months when the snow-covered hills offer some of Romania’s best skiing. Dracula’s ghost is apparently quite fond of apres-ski activities as it is frequently sighted lounging near the fireplace, sipping a Bloody Mary.
It is said that the air around here is so ionized that you can fall asleep while walking; also, the buds of the local fir trees supposedly can be turned into a syrup that can cure lung diseases. Such are some of the beliefs and superstitions that thrive in the heart of Dracula country.
Throughout the tour, some of the female members attending the congress wore the “Dracula” look, sporting dark lipstick and red-and-black outfits complete with flowing capes. These women weren’t averse to “vamping it up” on occasion as they cavorted down the aisle of the bus sipping Transylvanian plum brandy.
In homage to Vlad Tepes, Dracula and various vampires real and imagined, every night during the tour there were optional howling sessions held in rural Transylvanian graveyards. Lasting well into the wee hours, these howlings were led by a scruffy, bearded New York screenwriter, in black leather cape and hood, who developed a bit of a cult following during the tour. Calling himself “Ian the Impaler,” he claimed to have recently completed a screenplay, based on the life and times of Vlad Tepes, that would soon be a major Hollywood production starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Vlad.