Coming to Transylvania, I expected ‘Dracula’ to be everywhere. As I start to plan my last days in the region, I realise it isn’t the case at all. Here and there you see some souvenir of Vlad Ţepeş (Vlad the Impaler), but it’s minor, hidden at the back of the shop or the stall. No bats, no blood, no brooding castles, just jolly Romania putting on its best show of history and folk customs and traditional crafts.
With the rumoured Dracula theme park still not built, Romania it appears would rather attract people by agritourism and general folkiness. So there’s pride in the ceramics and the lace and the Saxon buildings and old villages. But no Dracula.
I have followed much of the ‘Dracula Route’ so far. The other morning I took the bus to Bran. The bus was busy, full of young people on their way to school or work, and old ladies coming back from market in Braşov although it was still really early. They got on and off at all the villages, but there were some backpackers and other tourists on the bus too – by far the cheaper way of getting to Bran compared to the tours.
Bran Castle looks the part, clinging to the top of a small hill with dark forests on the hills all around. So it looks like what we might imagine Dracula’s castle to be. In fact, of course, it’s unlikely to have had anything much to do with Vlad at all, and was refitted by the 20th century (British) Queen Marie of Romania as a royal residence, all bright whitewashed walls and rustic furnishings, with photos of Marie and her daughter Ileana in peasant garb. No cobwebs then, or bats, or hunchbacked butlers, I’m afraid, although there was a secret passage behind a bookcase.
Even outside, the prominence given to rural over vampiric continued, with a whole collection of old village houses in the grounds to show traditional life in the surrounding area. So I searched the craft fair for signs of Vlad. There was a postcard here and a gory mug there, but nothing much, nothing much at all. But then in an indoor craft market I saw a queue right at the back, and the sound of recorded ‘mwah ha ha ha’s. Finally I’d found Dracula Corner, a little themed visitor attraction, hidden away, staffed by one of the kids on the bus who’d changed from his trendy jeans into medieval costume complete with black eyeliner and a bleeding scar on his chin. At last, Dracula was, er, alive and well in Transylvania.
I got the bus back to Braşov sitting next to a young girl holding a bucket stained with blackberry juice which she had just sold to the tourists in Bran. I had rushed on to the fortified Saxon church in Prejmer, which I mentioned before, and managed to get back despite not having a clue where the bus or maxitaxi stopped. I used my few words of Romanian – ‘Autobus aici?’ pointing, and got villagers to show me the time of the next one on my watch. In the end a maxitaxi swung by and we headed back for my last night in Braşov. Near Prejmer, apparently, there was a 160m long cave, said to be filled with bats. It seemed clear why these stories of dangers in the woods arose, long before Bram Stoker. Wolves, bears, rabid bats; Turks to the south; Mongols, Tartars and Slav horsemen from the great Russian plains to the east. No wonder all the fortifications and nightmares.
The next day I headed to Sighişoara with a modern nightmare – 300 football fans, mostly young men, drunk at 9am. It was exciting hearing their chants in dark tunnels echo down the train, not so exciting when they forced an emergency stop.
Sighişoara is the birthplace of Vlad Ţepeş, the next stop on the Dracula route therefore and somewhere I really expected to see the touristy side. It is another even more beautiful Unesco-listed fortified Saxon town, Schäßburg in German. Even here, although there were Vlad images around about, the Dragon was more common. Vlad’s father, Prince Vlad Dracul (‘the dragon’, hence Draculea for his son) was initiated into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Empire, so his hometown has images of the Dragon, and St George too in many places.
I did find the torture museum, a little nook of blood and gore, but still not ghoulish enough. So it had to be lunch at Casa Dracula, the restaurant in the building that is his suppsed birthplace. A lovely old tavern, with traditional Romanian food, with barely a nod to vampires, beyond ‘Dracula Tomato Soup’. But I was determined to have my fix, so deep-fried breaded brains it was.
And delicious the brains were too, calf’s I assume. I had them with a light salad and rice, not fava beans, and Silva beer, not a fine Chianti, but at least I could feel a little spooky for a change in Transylvania.