Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Vampires 101: Transylvania

The guy sitting in front of me was a talker. He wasn't the chatty bore you're probably picturing, droning on for hours about his grandkids and the weather. This guy was the life of the fucking party, like Roberto Benigni on amphetamines and an accent like Bela Lugosi. He ran his mouth to anyone who'd listen for several hours on the flight into Bucharest, whether they were interested or not.

The Carpathian Mountains at sunset.
Having seen the HOSTEL movies more than a few times (don't judge me) my mind was wandering into all sorts of dark places. But I've made it this far in life without starring in any torture porn, so I figured I could last a few more days. I tried to have faith that the other fliers weren't speaking openly of performing vivisections on American tourists, confident their red-faced visitors spoke no language other than English. Which, of course, we didn't.

It was curiously frustrating to hear such manic glee and not have any idea about what they were talking about. It all sounded violently fun.  It was the Battle of Gettysburg of conversations. While none of it was in English, the ringmaster did speak two words I understood: "Count Dracula."

In the middle of a string on sentences so prolific they would have caused a lesser man to asphyxiate, he made a joke about Bram Stoker's famous vampire that got a few giggles from his seat mates. Having not even arrived in Romania yet, I was still a little nervous about the country's attitude toward vampires, werewolves and all that Dracula business. The inspiration for the character is one of their national heroes; how would I feel if the rest of the planet was only familiar with Abraham Lincoln because of his passion for vampire hunting?

The view from Peleș Castle.
As it turns out, they're cool with Dracula ... to a point.

Bucharest was the first stop on my two-week honeymoon, and the new Mrs. Cousin Barnabas and I weren't off the plane more than a few minutes before we saw the first Dracula souvenirs. In the lobby of the airport were a few vendors (as well as some of the most literate collection of  airport paperbacks you'll ever see; it was Tolstoy instead of Dan Brown) who had lots of items for sale bearing the image of Vlad Tepes, "the Impaler." Gabriel, the man who'd take us on a tour of Transylvania the following day, said Romania is happy to provide tourists with whatever they want, including pimping out a national hero in the name of rebuilding its post-communist economy.

Everyone who mentioned Vlad did so with pride. Vlad Tepes held the borders and kept his people free from the Turks, who spent a few centuries treating the rest of Eastern Europe with less courtesy than the Rolling Stones used to treat hotel rooms. Yeah, Vlad might have created a few "forests" of corpses thanks to his habit of impaling those who displeased him, but what's a little homicidal mania in the name of national defense?

Brasov's "Hollywood" sign.
What I didn't realize until much later is that there were two very different kinds of souvenirs. The first were Vlad Tepes tokens, such as figurines, post cards and shot glasses showing the image of King Vlad III. The second was run-of-the-mill vampire merchandise that wasn't even good enough to be sold at Hot Topic.  

The funny thing? I saw nothing that combined the two concepts. Vlad was mostly sacred. You can buy your vampire coffee mugs and t-shirts, but don't expect them to tart up a national hero in fangs and a cape just because you like horror movies.

Among our day-long tour of Transylvania were stops at the beautiful Peleș Castle, Biserica Neagră (or "Black Church") and Pelişor Castle. We arrived at the latter to find it closed for maintenance, but were at least able to get a look at its art nouveau design. It was one of the more recent constructs on the tour, built about 100 years ago by Queen Maria and  King Ferdinand of Romania.

Even though we didn't get a peek inside any of its 160 rooms, Peleș was much more impressive. Not only is the structure beautiful by anybody's definition, the view of the Carpathian Mountains is stunning . The "Black Church" had an interesting history (it acquired its name thanks to layers of soot that once coated its walls following a fire) but the surrounding courtyard of Brasov was more interesting to me. I wish we'd had more time to tour the area, but daylight was wasting and we had a final stop to make before sunset: Bran Castle.

Bran Castle.
Billed as "Dracula's Castle," Bran has little to do with the actual Vlad the Impaler, who used the location for military planning. As the ruler of Wallachia, he had little use for a fortress so far removed from the country's capitol in Bucharest, but he is believed to have visited the site frequently for military counsel (and his grandfather once owned the property.)

Bran's status as "Dracula's Castle" says a lot about Romania. Vampires were little-known in the nation until the fall of communism in 1989. The rest of the world has equated Romania and Transylvania with vampires for more than a century, but the phenomenon was a fairly recent surprise to the people who actually live there. Dracula and all other stories about vampires were banned for years as examples of the “decadent” West.

But that doesn't mean Romania is without its monsters. "The only blood suckers in Romania are in government," Gabriel told us, but said the Strigoi played a role in Bram Stoker's interpretation of the vampire legend. In fact, many of the characteristics of what we think of as vampires (graveyards, stakes through the heart, etc.) come from the legend of the Strigoi, which were evil spirits that refused to rest. The stake was intended to pin the deceased to its grave, keeping it from venturing our at night and causing trouble. 

I don't know when Bran was first marketed as "Dracula's Castle," but you can bet things started to get a little nuts once dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu took a dirt nap in 1989. Bran Castle looks every bit the part of Dracula's Castle, and is now decorated inside with placards of Vlad Tepes (and his vague connection to the property) and original props from the 1992 film, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. As we reached the top of the stairs leading to the castle's entrance, we heard the sound of a very loud raven call. It was so note-perfect that we wondered if it hadn't been staged (it had not.)

The sun was beginning to set as we neared the top of the castle, and the enormous building cast a deep shadow across the town beneath it. While the castle was tastefully decorated inside, the courtyard at the foot of the hill was a glorified flea market, full of the same kind of junk you'd see at an American equivalent. If you go, take some time to look around the town, but don't waste your time browsing at the flea market.

The Romania National Tourism Office isn't doing the country any favors. It has little standing on the world stage as a tourist attraction, and has managed to earn an unfair reputation as a "dump." While that's bad news for Romania, it's good news for tourists. The people are extraordinarily friendly, there are tons of historic landmarks to visit, your money will go far and you won't have to fight mobs of tourists at every corner. Downtown Bucharest is like Bourbon Street in New Orleans (minus most of the sleaze) and the food is terrific.

Bran Castle.
If you go, you will NOT want to drive. The English language hasn't developed the words to describe the chaotic, terrifying traffic of Bucharest (even "chaotic" and "terrifying" aren't strong enough.) Imagine MAD MAX if everyone was dressed in pea coats and scarves.  When it comes to the right of way, Might Makes Right, and you'd better watch your ass. It's best to have an experienced driver, and the cab rides are alarmingly inexpensive. If you get a dishonest cabbie who rips you off, you won't pay more than $15-20 for a trip, even from the airport. As we left Bucharest we almost missed our train out of the country. Our cab driver threaded the iron needle of Romania traffic and got us to the station on time ... for $5. And then he tried to refuse a $10 tip. So Yay! Romania!

This isn't meant to take the place of a professional travel advisory, and I'm sure I've made a few factual errors here and there. I'm no expert on Romania, but I enjoyed the three days my wife and I spent wandering around the country. While my experiences were anecdotal, I think the country is a fine spot for a vacation, even if you don't have an especially adventurous spirit.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't share one more photo with you. On our cab ride to the airport in Budapest, I noticed a familiar name on the driver's radio. As it turns out, there's a station in Hungary called Petofi Radio. Rather than playing a bunch of Edwardian chamber music, though, it plays modern pop hits ... I like to imagine Count Andres Petofi sitting behind the mic in a Hungarian radio station, pumping out songs like CALL ME MAYBE and LA VIDA LOCA. I'd call that just desserts.


Mrs. Cousin Barnabas said...

We actually heard "Call Me Maybe" more in Eastern Europe than I have heard it here in the US. I'm not sure we ever got into a taxi that didn't play it.

retzev said...


And congrats to you both! Many years!

Zahir Blue said...

I remember when a hair stylist opened up next to this place where I worked. The guy came over to say hi to his neighbors. Chatted with me. He jokingly said he was born in Dracula's capital city, and his jaw dropped when I said "Oh? Târgoviște?" pronouncing it more or less correctly no less! LOL! He later told my boss I was a genuius! :P

Cousin Barnabas said...

We picked up a few words here and there, but it always seemed to get the knack for simple phrases about five minutes before we left the country :)

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