Romanians were barred by Ceausescu from reading the novel, so it first appeared in that country in 1993. Prior to that, there was plenty of confusion as to who the fanged guy in the tuxedo was. Hollywood’s Dracula and history’s Drakula are bats of an entirely different feather. Just for the record, recent evidence has convinced some scholars that Bram Stoker was gay, based in part on effusive “love” letters he wrote to Walt Whitman, and his apparently loveless marriage to the former girlfriend of Oscar Wilde…need we say more?
I don’t know what sort of omen it is to cut myself shaving the morning we are scheduled to visit “Dracula’s” castle, but I decide it portends great things.
Most Romanians are pretty ambivalent about Dracula. They think it’s a little weird that this fictional vampire shares the same name as their famous historical leader. On the whole they don’t grasp what the big deal is. They aren’t ambivalent, however, about the proposed Draculaland amusement park that developers would like to build in their country. Every one we spoke to was extremely opposed to it. Most people would rather tourists visit Romania for different reasons. The proposed Draculaland would feature rides and attractions based on the foreign Hollywood concept of the King of Vampires. Romanians have worked hard to stall and cancel the building of the park for years, but developers keep trying again in different locations. The current proposal is to build it in the Lake Snagov area, but this is sure to be voted down because the area is home to many wealthy residents. Lake Snagov, however, does appeal to Dracula fans, because it is the burial ground of Vlad Drakula.
Meeting us at the gate of the modern and convenient Otopeni International Airport is our guide, Cristian, who will be our constant companion for the next few days. A veritable font of national knowledge, Cristi takes us to a car and we begin our quest for the Count. This is the first, though certainly not the last evidence that Romanian drivers clearly make up their own rules of the road. With a general scarcity of lanes or posted speed limits, everybody looks for the hole in traffic so they can pass the slower cars. They frequently play “chicken” with oncoming traffic, and even the trolleys. To park you jump the curb and find room on the sidewalks. Probably the last thing to worry about in Romania is a bite on the neck, instead I am quite certain we will perish from the freestyle driving.
When leaving the airport, a left turn on the main road leads into capital city, Bucharest. A right turn takes you through an amazingly fertile agricultural zone and eventually into the Carpathian mountains and the northern part of Romania and Transylvania.
For my money, always turn right. This area of the country gives the hackneyed travelspeak adjective “breathtaking” a shot of adrenaline. When we weren’t looking, in a brief nod of our fatigued and jet-lagged heads, we passed from verdant fields of potatoes and corn into the instantly black forests of the Carpathians. The effect is jarring, not only for the stark differences, but in the impression that with 100 kilometers, we had somehow traveled backward in time as well. Wooden horse-drawn carriages sporting towering stacks of hay vie for highway space with cars driven at the speed of sound. Here, livestock wanders unfenced, ragtag gypsy enclaves billow smoke from tin roofs, and villages appear suddenly as if from a children’s pop-up book as we round a bend. No roof or wall of the village homes could be drawn with a straight line. Every room has its own peaked roofline like the readout on a lie detector test. This is definitely Dracula country.
Stopping at a forested mountain town for lunch at Cabana Schiorilor, I indulge in a local specialty, bear steak, while my partner opts for trout. His lunch is amazingly fresh and light compared to my heavy and gravy-soaked (though more tender than predicted) plate. I can’t help but point out, over and over, that my lunch could easily eat his lunch for lunch (vampire hunters are carnivorous)! Also at this meal, we make acquaintance with Palinca, the double-distilled plum brandy Romanians start and finish meals with. It is so strong and high in alcohol content that it makes our lips tingle on contact and delivers a buzz faster than intravenous morphine. The one Romanian language word we master is “Noroc” meaning “Cheers!”
We continue on to Sinaia, a ski resort about 100 kilometers from Bucharest, and the area where we find Peles Castle. With no discernable link to Dracula it seems an odd stop, but my research into probably a dozen Drac Tours all have Peles Castle on the itinerary—it being one of the most renowned Eastern European castles. Since there are so few actual Dracula connections in Transylvanian locales, this castle and some other national treasures fill in the gaps on multiday tours. In all my journeys I have yet to visit Ireland or Scotland or any place that is home to castles, so it is here that I lose my castle virginity. It almost hurts how ornate and filled is every surface of every room in this former summer palace—if this were dessert I would have a mouth full of cavities. It’s a castle, it’s gothic (mixed with baroque and German Renaissance styles, plus a little French Rococo thrown in for spice) but it definitely isn’t Dracula’s haunts…for that we must press onward.
We are bound for Poiana Brasov, another ski resort area where we will overnight for the next few evenings. This hub village serves as a central point putting most of the widely spread Dracula sites within a few hours’ drive in any direction. The Carpathians are second only to the Swiss Alps as a ski destination for enthusiasts from all over Europe, and in the summer months, the steep green mountainsides could easily be mistaken for Switzerland. On our way up the switchback roads, we stop in at Centrul de Echitatie, a horse farm which offers amazing picnic forest rides to castle sites, including a moonlight wagon trip to “Dracula’s” castle, as well as accommodation in private chalet style cabins for less than $15 per person.