“Why did you come to Romania?” a taxi driver in Bucharest
asks as we sit scrunched in his backseat. “We’re looking for Dracula,” I say,
aware of the ridiculousness of the statement. He only laughs. Outside the taxi
windows, the city hangs under a cloud of fog, one that doesn’t lift for most of
our trip. It’s the sort of fog that seems fake and makes all your photos look
like they’ve been clouded with a Instagram filter. Dracula isn’t
here in Bucharest under all the fog, though. He is elusive, even if you come
to the Eastern European country specifically in search of him.
Surprisingly, Romania is one of the only countries in the
world that doesn’t include vampires in their folklore.
They have something closer to zombies, apparently, but no vampires. It wasn’t
until Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula,
was released in 1897 that the mythical being infiltrated Romania (and it was
the film adaptations that cemented it). Stoker set the novel in Transylvania, a
region of Romania, and appropriated the character’s name from 15th
century ruler Vlad Tepes of the Dracul line, known to history as Vlad the Impaler.
So, any search for Dracula is, in some ways, fruitless, because you are searching
for a fiction.
So, why are we looking? It’s thanks to the recent DVD
release of Universal’s Dracula Untold,
a film that fuses the historical reign of Vlad Tepes with the tale of Dracula.
The movie wasn’t shot in Romania — it was filmed largely in Belfast, Ireland —
but many of the sites depicted in the movie are actual historical places. There
is a monastery called Snagov where Vlad may or may not have been buried, a castle
called Bran where he may have visited, and the ruins of his family’s palace in
Targoviste. As you travel through Romania, even in the city of Bucharest, it is
clear that Vlad may or may not have been almost everywhere, the single known portrait of him omnipresent.
Fact Vs. Fiction
Everyone disagrees on the lore. At Bran Castle, which is
sold to tourists as Dracula’s Castle (despite little evidence that Vlad Tepes
ever went there), the Vlad impersonator who gives us a tour touts claims of the
ruler’s infamously violent nature. The castle contains three rooms of torture
implements, including a massive impaling spike, and placards describe the many
ways in which Vlad horrifyingly inflicted pain on his subjects. But, a day
later, in Targoviste at the old court ruins, historian Vasile Lupasc refers to
Vlad Tepes as a national hero.
“If you are looking for a vampire, no,” Lupasc says. “But,
if you are looking for heroes, this is the place.” He adds, “Vlad is way more
interesting than Dracula the vampire.” The old court, which fell into ruin due to abandonment, was
built by Vlad the Impaler’s father, Vlad Dracul. There are documents that place
Vlad in the palace, but none that really account for his presence at Bran. “It
doesn’t look impressive like Bran,” Lupasc tells us, gesturing to the
crumbling stone walls. “But, the truth is here.”
Our journey begins — and, inevitably, ends — in Bucharest,
where there is another set of ruins in the old town area. The ruins are now a small
museum and you have to pay a photo fee if you want to take pictures inside. There is almost nothing about the Dracula legend, but it’s hard to resist
imposing cinematic associations on the snowy tombstones that line the walls,
many shaped as crosses. The city itself is both beautiful and dingy, with
ornate, Eastern European architecture peering through layers of grime and the
lingering fog. There are references to communism everywhere, including reminders of the
revolution of 1989, which lasted three days and ended swiftly with the execution
of leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.
The Palace of the Parliament is not far from the old town,
a storied structure that once housed the communist government. It’s only
slighter smaller than the Pentagon and extends far underground. Hidden in a
back section of the building is the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which
houses primarily Romanian artists. None of this has anything to do with Dracula
or Vlad, but it’s impossible not to consider the implications of power
over the course of the country’s history. According to Lupasc, Ceausescu
encouraged the laudation of Vlad Tepes and other Romanian heroes because he
wanted to be considered among them.
In Targoviste, only five minutes away from the old court
ruins, is the site of Ceausescu’s trial and execution by firing squad. The old
military compound was recently opened to the public as a museum, and in the
courtyard you can see two outlines where the dictator and his wife simultaneously
fell, as well as the bullet holes that still dot the wall behind. Our guides,
who were children during the revolution, recall hiding under kitchen tables as
bullets whizzed through the air before the execution upended
the communist state.
Into The Woods
Our search for Dracula takes us through the Carpathian
Mountains, where you can find busy ski resorts, and into the town
of Brasov. The city was once a German Saxon village and together with the mountains, is part of the region of
Transylvania, which literally translates to “beyond the woods.” The vibe is
different from Bucharest: the houses smaller, the roads narrower. Some of the
towns we drive through feel very depressed, and everyone quiets as we pass
decrepit agrarian areas.
Our first stop is in Snagov, where the fog hangs heaviest and
there is an old monastery on an island in the middle of a lake. Now, in winter,
the lake is frozen, and old men fish in the ice, riding bicycles to the center
of the frozen water. Monks live here still, and there are dozens of
dogs that run wild around the small monastery. (In Romania, wild dogs are
everywhere, many of them sadly homeless.)
The monastery site dates back to the 11th
century, but the current building was built by Vlad’s grandfather. It raises
even more questions about the ruler. It is, apparently, hotly debated where
Vlad Tepes died, and how, when, and where he was buried. In one version, Vlad
was beheaded, his head put in a honey jar and sent to the sultan in Istanbul,
who shoved it on a spike in retribution for the many Ottoman Turks he impaled.
In another story, Vlad faked his own death, and the whereabouts of his body
remain unknown. In yet another, he was buried here at Snagov.
The center point of our journey into Transylvania is Bran Castle. The version of history that our Vlad impersonator offers — in his dramatic, accented manner — is just as muddled as Hollywood's. It mirrors the overarching desire for a vampire narrative we all seem to share. In Dracula Untold, Vlad Tepes (played by Luke Evans) becomes a vampire in order to defeat the Turks. The film compounds known history with legend as Universal reboots the film franchise. Lupasc later says it’s his favorite version of Dracula, because it actually includes the history of Romania, even as it is occasionally muddled by a Hollywood action narrative.
Our guides, who run a tour company called Beyond Dracula,
say that most of their visitors aren’t so interested in vampires. Some ask to
visit Bran Castle, which is fairly small and underwhelming despite
its position at the top of a hill; others eschew it completely. There is a high
demand for eco and nature tourism in the country (of note: 60% of Europe’s
bears live in Romania), and there is an 8,000-year-old Neolithic settlement in
Northwestern Romania. Cities like Brasov reflect a far different part of
history than the places we visit investigating Dracula. The bartender at the
Radisson Blu’s hotel bar in Bucharest claims that only 3 or 4% of travelers he
meets are interested in Dracula. Yet, Bran Castle is the number one tourist
site in the country, and even our bartender visited as a child. “I’m Romanian,
after all,” he says.
The souvenirs, like those in the Empire State Building or in
shops around Hollywood, play into the tourist obsession with Dracula. The
stands near Bran Castle hawk Dracula swords, cheap shot glasses, crosses,
rubber fangs, and, rather bizarrely, a lot of Frozen merchandise. The gift shop at the old court ruins even sells
real bats encased in plastic (an item for which I promptly paid $30 and bestowed
the name 'Vlad').
Beneath The Fog
If Romania didn’t originally claim Dracula, it seems that
it does now, if only hesitantly. The legend certainly draws people in, and there is a
great mystique to visiting a place that is referred to as Dracula’s castle. Even the
word “Transylvania” invokes a sense of mystery and terror. Driving through the
mountains, the black outlines of trees echoing through the fog, it is almost impossible
not to feel drawn into it all. The aesthetics of Dracula, constructed in
our collective cultural consciousness, are real, even if he is not.
We found many versions of Dracula on our five-day journey
through Romania. His story is convoluted, multi-layered, and mostly
false. In the beginning, I said I doubted that I’d ever come back to Romania,
that this was a once in a lifetime trip. But, wandering the foggy streets of
Bucharest, driving through the mountains of Transylvania, and slipping on the
ice-covered sidewalks of Brasov, I became certain that I would return
eventually — in search of something other than a vampire.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF EMILY ZEMLER.