Dracula (Part Two – Transylvania)

The fictional Dracula is a composite character drawn from diverse sources. One part Jack the Ripper, two parts Romanian folklore, but the name Bram Stoker borrowed for his creation belongs to a barbaric and very real individual.

Vlad Tepes was the son of a warlord known as The Dragon, Dracul in the local vernacular. The ‘a’ ending denotes ‘son of’ and hence, Dracula, Son of the Dragon. The Impaler suffix came later, synonymous with Vlad’s favoured method of execution. Those who displeased him such as thieves, the disabled, the workshy, or particularly the Turks were bound to a cross, legs prised apart and a sharpened stake hammered where the sun don’t shine. Vlad was tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Surprisingly, in Romania, Vlad is celebrated as a patriot, a leader who restored order in lawless times.

I headed out from the charmless concrete centre of Bucharest. The initial view from the train window was bleak, endless dormitory towns of drab utilitarian housing amid battered industry and smoking chimneys. It made the North London line look leafy. Eventually, Tyrolean prettiness replaced suburbia and we threaded through a narrow pass in the Carpathian Mountains and into the fields of Transylvania.

Transylvania’s number one tourist attraction is Dracula’s Castle at Bran. It’s called Dracula’s Castle purely on its looks. In reality, Vlad didn’t live there at all, although he may once have attacked it. Filtered through Hollywood eyes, it has the trappings of the gothic imagination, all hidden doors and secret stairs. Low beams and my clumsy nature resulted in several painful head-smacks. Outside was a ‘tourist market’ full of overpriced tack. I bought a small painted box with a blue handle. I pulled it back and a green wooden serpent sprang out to bite. For teeth, read a sharp tack. It caught me unawares and the point speared my finger. I yelped and dropped it. A spot of blood pooled around the knuckle. I stemmed the bleeding and decided I’d had enough of Bran, taking the evening bus through the hills to Sighisoara.

My finger was throbbing as I watched the England vs Portugal game. I slept badly that night, my dreams populated with hissing serpents, missed penalties and the undead apparition of Darius Vassell.

Sighisoara sits on a bluff enclosing narrow cobbled streets too tight for cars. A mustard coloured building attracted photographers. This was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Currently, it houses a restaurant with typical Romanian service. I sat there for ten minutes while the waiter finished his paper. Finally he wandered past. I asked for a coffee. He looked at me with incredulity and returned with a Fanta.

In Ceaucescu’s era, agriculture drove the town’s economy, now it is tourism. Pastel painted houses leaned in drunken directions, many with chipped plaster and dark green shutters. Sighisoara was a 16th century town but with useful modern additions. How do you measure the change since the 1989 revolution? Pizzerias and internet caf’s.

A bust of Vlad sat atop a stone pedestal. His eyes were mean and cold. His hair unkempt and in need of a trim. Laid around the base were a collection of offerings; ground saltpetre overlaid with flowers. The petals were bound tightly in cotton and the stems handbroken and twined into a circle. Shockingly, in the middle lay a dead sparrow, its tiny feet pointing upwards. A trickle of blood was congealing besides it. I couldn’t begin to guess the significance, but it made me shudder. I later saw two goths and silently blamed them.

I found sleep difficult, my finger ached and my knuckle had grown to twice its normal size. My dreams were a confusing mix of serpents kisses and bad refereeing.

I left Sighisoara and bussed north to Bistrita along bumpy roads. I was heading away from the historical context and back into the imagination of Bram Stoker. Like Jonathan Harker in the novel, “it was on the dark side of twilight when I got to Bistrita.”

“Dracula directed me to go to the Golden Crown Hotel, which I found, to my great delight, to be thoroughly old fashioned.” Well, the Lonely Planet guidebook suggested the same and old fashioned it is not.

The hotel was built during the eighties. Nearly 100 years after the events described in the book. Stoker never visited Romania, but the book is a fine example of diligent research, descriptions of real towns overlaid with Romanian mythology and his own imagination. I ate dinner in the Jonathan Harker suite, drinking Golden Mediasch as the man himself did.

The hotel doesn’t play up to the Dracula connections as much as it once did. Staff used to jump out of chests to frighten guests, until a Canadian guy died of a heart attack and the practice was abruptly stopped.

Jonathan only managed two glasses of Golden Mediasch, the lightweight. I finished the bottle off surrounded by stuffed bats and red velvet drapes. The waitress pulled a rope and the drapes opened to reveal a widescreen television. I sat back and watched Euro 2004.

I’m not sure if it was the alcohol or the change of scenery or the Greece vs France game, but I felt much healthier. My finger was returning to its usual size and my dreams were unmemorable. I read about Bistrita from Dracula, “the women looked pretty, except when you got near them.” I laughed and thought of Stoker writing his book back in Britain. The women looked fine to me.