Trav­el­ing in Drac­ula Coun­try

The ac­tual route taken by Jonathan Harker can still be fol­lowed to­day.

Reader's Digest International - - Contents - BY LUKE SPENCER FROM ATLASOBSURA.COM

NIGHT­TIME IN TRAN­SYL­VA­NIA is as at­mo­spher­i­cally spooky as you could hope it would be. Dur­ing the win­ter, a low-ly­ing mist cov­ers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the sil­hou­et­ted tur­rets and spires of me­dieval cas­tles and for­ti­fied churches. The towns are filled with gothic and baroque build­ings marked by peel­ing paint and crum­bling fa­cades. easy to see why Bram Stoker chose this part of Ro­ma­nia to be a set­ting for his most chill­ing cre­ation, Drac­ula. The first sec­tion of Stoker’s gothic hor­ror mas­ter­piece takes the form of a travel jour­nal by a young Eng­lish so­lic­i­tor, Jonathan Harker, who is trav­el­ing across Europe to help con­duct a land pur­chase on be­half of a noble client. Harker keeps a de­tailed diary of his jour­ney from Mu­nich to Tran­syl­va­nia, where he plans to meet the mys­te­ri­ous Count Drac­ula in his cas­tle.

My plan was to fol­low in the foot­steps of the fic­tional Harker, tak­ing the same train routes—where pos­si­ble stay­ing in the same cities, towns and ho­tels—and end­ing my jour­ney at the home of Vlad the Im­paler, the re­al­life in­spi­ra­tion for Drac­ula. Partly en­cir­cled by the Carpathian moun­tains, Tran­syl­va­nia is still largely un­ex­plored, de­spite its beauty and wealth of fas­ci­nat­ing, cen­turies-old sites. What bet­ter way to see Tran­syl­va­nia?

WHEN DRAC­ULA WAS PUB­LISHED in 1897, Harker’s jour­ney by steam train from Mu­nich to Vi­enna took over 10 hours. To­day it can be reached in just un­der four, cour­tesy of the high­speed rail. I set off on my jour­ney in Jan­uary of last year. With more time at my dis­posal than Stoker’s young pro­tag­o­nist, I stopped in Vi­enna to visit a macabre land­mark.

Deep un­der­neath St. Stephen’s Cathe­dral, nearly 700 years old, are cat­a­combs filled with the bones of over 11,000 vic­tims of the bubonic plague. Walk­ing through the cold depths sur­rounded by skele­tons is eerie enough. That is un­til you reach the crypt. For here, in rows of sealed urns, rests the hearts and vis­cera of 72 mem­bers of the Haps­burg royal fam­ily. It seemed a suit­ably gothic be­gin­ning to my jour­ney.

From Vi­enna I booked a place on the evening train to Bu­dapest, the snow fall­ing as we headed east. On the four-hour jour­ney I thought of Harker’s diary en­try: “The im­pres­sion I had was that we were leav­ing the West and en­ter­ing the East; the most Western of splen­did bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the tra­di­tions of Turk­ish rule.”

Stoker never ac­tu­ally set foot in RoIt’s

ma­nia. The Tran­syl­va­nia that pro­vides such an omi­nous back­drop in Drac­ula was al­most en­tirely imag­ined. The Dublin-born Stoker stud­ied the re­gion and its folk­lore at the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don. He re­searched Tran­syl­va­nian su­per­sti­tions sur­round­ing the Strigoi, the trou­bled souls of the dead. To these he mar­ried an ac­tual his­tor­i­cal fig­ure, that of Vlad the Im­paler.

Vlad III was the ruler of Wal­lachia (now part of Ro­ma­nia) at var­i­ous times be­tween 1448 and 1476. He was born in Tran­syl­va­nia to the House of Drac­ulesti, and de­fended his coun­try against in­vad­ing Turks. He was given the chill­ing nick­name of Tepes, Ro­ma­nian for Im­paler, for mer­ci­lessly im­pal­ing his en­e­mies, and rais­ing them aloft for all to see.

In re­al­ity, Vlad was not much worse than many other feu­dal rulers in Europe. In Ro­ma­nia, he was even cel­e­brated for de­fend­ing the area’s Chris­tian way of life against the in­vad­ing Turks. Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Ben­jamin Hugo Le­blanc, his reign brought pros­per­ity: “crime and cor­rup­tion ceased, com­merce and cul­ture thrived, and many Ro­ma­ni­ans to­day view Vlad Tepes as a hero for his in­sis­tence on hon­esty and order.”

For Bram Stoker, Vlad Tepes of the House of Drac­ulesti, son of Vlad Dracul, pro­vided a suit­able char­ac­ter on which to hang his re­search on vampire leg­ends. It also helped that in mod­ern Ro­ma­nian, “Drac­ula” means the son of the devil.

MY FIRST STOP on the vampire trail was meant to be the Ho­tel Royale, where Harker stayed the night in the old city of Klausen­burg. To­day it’s known as Cluj-Napoca, a bustling univer­sity town lo­cated roughly half­way be­tween Bu­dapest and Bucharest.

The Ho­tel Royale doesn’t ex­ist to­day, and maybe it never did. But nes­tled near the train sta­tion is the Ho­tel Tran­sil­va­nia, which in the 1800s went by an­other name, the Queen of Eng­land—per­haps a re­gal-sound­ing in­spi­ra­tion for a Ho­tel Royale.

Harker’s diary reads: “I stopped for the night at the Ho­tel Royale. I had for din­ner a chicken done up with red pep­per, which was very good .... The waiter said it was called ‘pa­prika hendl,’ and that I should be able to get it any­where along the Carpathi­ans.”

These days, the Ho­tel Tran­sil­va­nia isn’t shy about draw­ing on its pos­si­ble legacy. The own­ers have a num­ber of plans in de­vel­op­ment to em­pha­size the con­nec­tion to Stoker and his

FOR BRAM STOKER, VLAD THE IM­PALER PRO­VIDED A SUIT­ABLE CHAR­AC­TER ON WHICH TO HANG HIS RE­SEARCH ON VAMPIRE LEG­ENDS.

mas­ter­work: a suite and a restau­rant that serves dishes from the era. Per­haps soon it will be as easy to find that pa­prika-spiced chicken as Harker’s waiter promised.

FROM CLUJ-NAPOCA, Harker headed fur­ther east in the di­rec­tion of Bistriz, to­day known as Bistrit¸a. Nearly 120 years af­ter Drac­ula was pub­lished, I did the same.

To Vic­to­rian read­ers, the depths of Tran­syl­va­nia would have sounded as re­mote and mys­te­ri­ous as to seem pos­si­bly made up. As I headed deeper into the Carpathian moun­tains, there was a def­i­nite sense of en­ter­ing a still wild and sealed-off part of Europe. The trains are as un­punc­tual as Harker de­scribed, and some are el­derly relics from the Cold War.

Be­fore I set off, a Ro­ma­nian friend in New York gave me the fol­low­ing ad­vice: Be­ware of stray dogs (they bite) and of peo­ple in gen­eral. Don’t trust any­one, au­thor­i­ties or the train em­ploy­ees. I no­ticed that on the longer train jour­neys through Ro­ma­nia many peo­ple in the sleeper cars would lock them­selves in with bi­cy­cle locks. My car­riage was empty apart from a woman in a black cloak who dec­o­rated our com­part­ment with re­li­gious icons and spent the hours with her rosary beads.

The train jour­ney passed with­out in­ci­dent, how­ever, and the snow-cov­ered scenery looked nearly iden­ti­cal to what Bram Stoker imag­ined: “All day long we seemed to daw­dle through a coun­try that was full of beauty of ev­ery kind. Some­times we saw lit­tle towns or cas­tles on the top of steep hills, such as we see in old missals; some­times we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony mar­gin on each side of them to be sub­ject to great floods ... Count Drac­ula had di­rected me to go to the Golden Krone Ho­tel.”

Bistri¸ta is a small town in north­ern Tran­syl­va­nia, built around a river and sur­rounded by moun­tain vil­lages. There is in­deed a ho­tel called the Coroana de Aur (Ro­ma­nian for Golden Crown), but this one was built in 1974, dur­ing the dark days of Ro­ma­nian Com­mu­nism. Inside, you can dine at a restau­rant called Salon Jonathan Harker, but I wouldn’t rec­om­mend it.

It was upon ar­riv­ing in Bistri¸ta that Jonathan Harker has his first con­tact with his mys­te­ri­ous client, in the form of a note left at the ho­tel.

“My friend, welcome to the Carpathi­ans. I am anx­iously ex­pect­ing you. Sleep well tonight. Your friend, Drac­ula”

HARKER WAS TO TRAVEL on the fi­nal stage of his jour­ney by coach, through the Borgo Pass in the moun­tains. For the first time he no­tices that vil­lagers start cross­ing them­selves when­ever he men­tions his mis­sion.

If the lo­cals in the novel are ter­ri­fied at any men­tion of Drac­ula, there is a ho­tel in the moun­tains that de­lights in it. Sit­u­ated in the Tihu¸ta Pass in the Bârga˘ului Moun­tains, the Ho­tel Cas­tel

Drac­ula claims to be lo­cated in the ap­prox­i­mate spot of the book’s cas­tle. But while Stoker’s Cas­tle Drac­ula was “… a vast ruined cas­tle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light,” the Ho­tel Cas­tel Drac­ula was de­signed in a hulk­ing con­crete style some three decades ago, for tourists.

The ho­tel is vampire-themed, with a grave­yard (not real), a bar in a tower, and Drac­ula’s “tomb” in the base­ment. While the over­all ef­fect is more theme park than Vic­to­rian, the ho­tel does high­light an in­ter­est­ing as­pect of Ro­ma­nian his­tory.

It was opened in 1983 to lure Drac­ula tourists. Even though Ro­ma­nia was one of the most closed-off coun­tries be­hind the Iron Cur­tain, the Ho­tel Cas­tel Drac­ula was re­port­edly sup­ported by Com­mu­nist leader Ni­co­lae Ceaus¸escu him­self. Ro­ma­ni­ans were no stranger to his fol­lies; this was a man who bull­dozed a huge sec­tion of the cap­i­tal Bucharest to build the vast Par­lia­ment Palace, still one of the largest build­ings in the world.

There were no traces of Drac­ula in Pi­a­tra Fân­tânele, the vil­lage where the ho­tel is lo­cated, so I headed south to find Bran Cas­tle, near Bras¸ov.

BRAN CAS­TLE, while hav­ing lit­tle to do with ei­ther Count Drac­ula or Vlad Tepes, has be­come known as “Drac­ula’s cas­tle” mostly on looks alone. It is an im­pos­ing fortress built on a moun­tain­side di­vid­ing Tran­syl­va­nia from Wal­lachia. The cas­tle shad­ows the small vil­lage be­low, where mar­ket ven­dors sell wooden crosses and plas­tic fangs, and clos­eted with thick forests and swirling mists, it re­tains a def­i­nite aura of mys­tery and spook­i­ness.

As the young Eng­lish so­lic­i­tor made his way into the moun­tains, each vil­lager he passed would point two fin­gers at him—a charm or guard against the evil eye—upon learn­ing of his des­ti­na­tion. Board­ing a rick­ety decades­old bus in Bras¸ov for Bran cas­tle, I was pleased to see that the front win­dow was cov­ered with half a dozen, eye­shaped re­li­gious icons hang­ing from red rib­bons.

Vis­it­ing dur­ing the quiet win­ter months, I was re­minded of the scene where the in­creas­ingly ner­vous Jonathan Harker first en­coun­ters Count Drac­ula: “The in­stant that I had stepped over the thresh­old, he moved im­pul­sively for­ward, and hold­ing out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an ef­fect which was not less­ened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a liv­ing man.”

Inside, Bran Cas­tle con­tains nar­row wind­ing stair­ways, se­cret pas­sage­ways, and a tor­ture cham­ber. Be­neath its tur­rets there’s a fair amount of 20th­cen­tury fur­ni­ture, dat­ing to the cas­tle’s days as a royal sum­mer res­i­dence in the 1920s and ’30s. The coun­try’s Com­mu­nist au­thor­i­ties turned it into a mu­seum in 1956.

From his ex­ten­sive re­search, it is likely that Bram Stoker would have read of Bran Cas­tle, but Vlad the Im­paler barely set foot in it, if at all.

Founded by Teu­tonic knights in the 13th cen­tury, nearby Bras¸ov is a beau­ti­ful city, sur­rounded by the South­ern Carpathian moun­tains, thick forests and for­ti­fied churches. Many of its streets are lined with faded Re­nais­sance and Baroque era build­ings. Once painted in vi­brant pas­tels of pink, yel­low and teal, to­day they are gen­tly crum­bling, af­ter more than 40 years of ne­glect dur­ing the Com­mu­nist era.

I HEADED FUR­THER NORTH to the me­dieval city of Sighisoara, the home of Vlad the Im­paler and a fine ex­am­ple of a for­ti­fied me­dieval town. Climb­ing the steep cob­bled streets and en­ter­ing the city gates is like step­ping back in time to the 1500s. In­deed, so much of Sighisoara has re­mained un­touched that its his­toric cen­ter was des­ig­nated a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

Af­ter climb­ing the 176 steps of a steep cov­ered stair­case, I came to an early 14th-cen­tury basil­ica, known as the Church on the Hill. It has one of the most haunted-look­ing church­yards I’ve ever seen. Shrouded in mists, with the ever-present howl­ing of dogs in the sur­round­ing for­est, the tum­bled down grave­stones and mau­soleums could cer­tainly be home to the un­dead.

Wan­der­ing around the citadel square, where witch tri­als and public ex­e­cu­tions were car­ried out, I came across an ochre-col­ored home, with a wrought-iron dragon hang­ing above the en­trance. A plaque noted that Vlad Dracul had lived there be­tween 1431 and 1435. His son, Vlad Tepes, was born there.

The me­dieval house is also a well ap­pointed bar, where I tried the Carpathian fruit brandy Pálinka. On the bar is a pot of lard, a dab of which is used to coat the tongue be­fore sip­ping the fiery spirit. Af­ter vis­it­ing the bar, you can en­ter the first home of Vlad the Im­paler, suit­ably draped in red vel­vet cur­tains and lit by can­de­labras, with a chill­ing oil paint­ing of Vlad en­joy­ing his break­fast in front of a for­est of im­paled pris­on­ers.

AL­THOUGH BRAM STOKER never saw Tran­syl­va­nia for him­self, I was sur­prised by how evoca­tively he cap­tured the be­guil­ing land­scape. In a coun­try where me­dieval fortresses are seem­ingly al­ways emerg­ing from the fog, Jonathan Harker’s jour­nal proved to be as ac­cu­rate a guide book as a Vic­to­rian Lonely Planet.

The for­ti­fied me­dieval town of Sighisoara is a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

Haunted-look­ing church­yard at an early 14th-cen­tury basil­ica in Sighisoara

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