A TALE OF TWO DRACULAS: 2ND WORLD DRACULA CONGRESS TOUR OF ROMANIA
Food: Everything we had during the conference and on the tour after was fresh - hey, real tomatoes that taste like tomatoes and there was plenty of it. Breakfasts were a treat with a cold buffet of assorted cheeses (goat and sheep, mainly), salamis, terrines, and eggs done various different ways. Outside the main tourist centres, milk disappeared, especially for tea and had to be requested. Tea likewise ceased being Lipton's Yellow Label (truly) and became herbal which was quite refreshing.
Beside restaurants, we found there were clubs and the ubiquitous "Non-stop" (i.e. 24-hour) shops, some of which have bureaux de change in them at better rates than the hotel. Non-stop was right, even at 9am it was pumping out Elvis Presley and the Beatles. We got a regular dose of Presley - Love Me Tender at breakfast in the hotel. Abba, either in cover versions or the real thing, was pretty popular, too. And at some restaurants we couldn't escape My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean played by a folk orchestra. Maybe they were trying to make us feel at home?
Hotels: All the ones we stayed in were very comfortable, though sometimes the plumbing was a bit eccentric but then I find American plumbing peculiar, too, until I get the hang of it. And you to have to master the double lock on the doors. If I have a criticism it is that some three star hotels lacked lifts or you had to climb several flights of stairs to reach them. This was not so good for the less mobile members of our group or those with heavy luggage. Another thing to note, especially if you are North American as Jane discovered, is that tipping is not part of the scene. Porters tended to vanish before you could get some money out. Jane liked to leave some lipstick and some money for the hotel maids but they didn't take them. Tipping of taxi drivers tends to mean rounding up the fare to the nearest 1000 lei. Personally I'd like to see it remain that way and not get corrupted by that awful American custom. Tipping can be such a hassle and confusing if you are not accustomed to it except in restaurants.
Currency: Currency was not the problem we were led to believe. True, you can only get lei once inside Romania but unlike five years ago, most shops prefer them to US dollars. Take US dollars with you but only because it is easier to convert them to the local currency than travellers cheques. Some bureaux de change will cash Australian dollars (not that I had any apart from my petrol money) and list the exchange rate for them. Credit cards are still not widely accepted outside a few big hotels and some clubs.
Roads: Everyone else has commented on them so I will, though I wasn't going to because there didn't seem to be anything to say about them. They are little different to just about any highway in New South Wales - the Monaro, the Sturt, the Illawarra - your basic two-lane black snake. Only one road came anywhere near the King's Highway in the Potholes-Joined-By-Tar Stakes. Naturally the mountain roads through the Carpathians and in the Arges Valley approaching the fortress at Poienari are narrow and windy, especially the latter, which is very like the roads I recall travelling on through the Swiss Alps as a child. There was nothing like the switchback down the escarpment you get on the Illawarra Highway (or the Clyde, or the Menai Pass, or the road from Springwood to the Hawkesbury).
Monday 29 May: We bade farewell to a number of folk such as Alan, John and Rita who had other commitments. However, we were joined by a family from Pittsburgh, a trio of Australians who had been touring Europe and some others. Korean TV and Discovery Channel travelled in separate cars, because of all their equipment, and followed the bus but Eleanor, Kate, Jane B., Aileen, joined by some Romanian press, travelled with us in the coach, a rather flash new Swedish (Scania) job with German number plates. Ingrid, Tony, about 15 TSD Canadian Chapter members of various nationalities, Julio and his Argentine lady friend who spoke little English, plus the press made up a party of about 30 lead by Nicky P and our trusty driver was a Transylvanian named Mihail.
At this point I feel a word should be said for Lonely Planet's Romania & Moldova by Nicola Williams. I was the only one with a copy. Most others had some other guide (Jane had Let's Go Eastern Europe which she pronounced less than useless). Whatever it was or wherever it was it was in the Lonely Planet guide. In fact, the catch-cry of the tour became "It's in the Lonely Planet" as it covered not only places and things but all the hotels we stayed at and all the restaurants, plus had a lot of the stories about them that Nicky told us so if we couldn't catch what he said because of the noisy crowd at the back of the bus, we could look up the Lonely Planet. I can't recommend it highly enough (and must have given them heaps of new sales by passing it around and pointing out their website where it can be ordered).
On the way down from Poiana Brasov we stopped at a bend so as to get a shot of Brasov far below. Elizabeth pointed out the hill beside the town where Vlad impaled about 40 merchants because they wouldn't obey his new tax laws (I hope Peter Costello doesn't get any ideas about enforcing the GST…). Can't say they weren't warned. He wrote to them several times and later in the tour we saw the actual letters. The area around Brasov grows potatoes, barley and so forth. Transylvania is known for its potatoes. Until the 1990s these farms were collectivised but they have since reverted to private ownership. They are in a transitional stage as mainly old people are left on the farms. Nicky thinks that they well may go back to large farms again. Some were a bit run down while others were large and well tended. The trees beside the roads are all white-washed to about a third of the way up the trunk. This is to prevent insects getting at them and, in winter, to keep rabbits from chewing them. Nicky also told us that bushfires never happened in the forests around Brasov as it was too humid. If a fire started it wouldn't get very far.
Then we headed up to Moldavia, following the curve of the Carpathians through Szekeler land (Count Dracula, you might recall, claimed to be of Szekeler descent). The Szekelers are variously said to be descendants of Attila's followers (a view Dracula shares), or of the Magyars who came in the early Middle Ages or of the Hungarians who settled from the 9th century onwards to help defend the Hungarian borders. We had morning tea (well coffee) at a hotel in Sfantu Gheorghe then continued through the spa of Tusnad to Gheorgheni (which has the longest and harshest winters and the shortest summers in the country being in a depression between the Gurghiu Mountains and the eastern Carpathians).
The houses are built close to the road, facing south to protect them from the winter winds, with a gateway that leads into a courtyard surrounded by barns for livestock and with a market garden so each house is pretty well self-sufficient. They are close to the road so they could easily get horses and drays and other loads in and out. The houses looked substantial though the sheds out back looked a bit ramshackle. Storks have a habit of building nests on top of telegraph poles so the locals have put frames on them to support their heavy nests. It is considered bad luck to kill or injure a stork. This area is know for its mineral waters, so much so that that is the only water there is. Horses drink it. When the farmers go outside the region, they have to take barrels of the local mineral water for the horses to drink because they won't drink anything else, or so Nicky tells us.
Houses are built of wood in Moldavia, stone in Transylvania. We saw lots of timber-yards as every town seemed to have them. I noticed what I took to be some elaborate outside dunnies in the yards of private houses but these turned out to be covered wells. Middle Moldavia is very poor because of the closure of the state-run mines, in fact, we passed through one derelict town. On the way we got our first look at the Bistrita River, here dammed into a storage lake but still set in very beautiful mountain scenery. It was getting late by the time we got to Durau in Moldavia so didn't go to the ruins of the Palace of Princes (the setting for Alexandre Dumas' The Pale Lady) as scheduled but went straight to the monastery, a complex of two wooden churches and quarters for about a dozen nuns with guest quarters beyond the wall.
It was very peaceful there at the foot of the Ceahlau Massif, surrounded by pine forest and with a stream rushing past the monastery. Carol, Stephanie, Katie and I went for a walk down the road where we got adopted by two dogs, the basic Romanian mutt type who frolicked around us and even escorted us back to the gates of the monastery. As we entered we heard the revving of a car engine and saw a nun draped full length across the bonnet of a car, glamour style. The car took off and chucked wheelies and donuts, roaring through the entrance archway with its frescoes, with the nun somehow remaining draped across it. We dined out on our story of rev-head Romanian nuns.
One of the churches was undergoing repairs but was still used for services as we could hear the nuns' singing through the speakers set outside as we passed. It had a small shop selling hand worked cloth crucifixes and the like. The other church had the cladding made of small wooden tiles so common in the country. These tiles protect the walls and are easily replaced when worn or damaged. The nuns' quarters were opposite and items of black clothing were strung out to dry along the veranda. Our quarters were comfortable even though our shower didn't have a curtain which meant water got on the floor and we didn't have curtains on the windows. It was here that I became the mistress of the Romanian double lock and was lock-girl for the rest of the trip for Jane and me.
Dinner was served in the refectory and included white wine made at the monastery and fresh salad picked from the veggie gardens we saw in the compound as well as fresh trout caught from the stream. There was no pork, thank goodness, but we had some tasty chicken livers as entrée. After dinner we gathered at a bonfire lit in the meadows behind the monastery to look at and hear the story of the 'Magic Mountain' (the Ceahlau Massif) which towered over us with grey stone bluffs. The story goes, according to Nicky P., that when the Romans conquered the area, a daughter of King Decebal fled there, disguised herself as a shepherdess and hid among the rocks on the Ceahlau. One day she saw the Roman legions marching up the valley (presumably where we were sitting, an eerie sensation) and called on her gods to save her. She was turned into a rock, the Dochia peak, and the sheep became lesser boulders. Nicky then told us another story as we sat under the stars around the bonfire. There were two star-crossed lovers and the fellow was killed but their love was so strong he returned from the grave, riding on a horse and would take her wherever she wanted through the skies, always returning at dawn. One day they flew so far that the sun came up and they fell to earth, turning to a large rock (another formation on top of the Ceahlau), and are now always together. He said that it was for that reason the mountain spells eternal friendship (or marriage, if appropriate) for those who climb it together.
Since we didn't have time to climb it, he said he would show us a rock nearby which would, if a pair touched it together, have the same effect but we must never tell anyone where it was. We dutifully followed him and he and Nancy Hill touched it (Nancy had endeared herself by becoming a founding member of a new organisation he had announced at the conference, The Magic Mountain Foundation which is a cultural organisation designed to compare folk traditions, poetry, music and so forth between Romania and other countries - hmm, I'm waiting for the Romanian sheep-shearing songs, heaven knows there were enough of the woolly critters on view wherever we went). Several of us touched it individually. Afterwards some went on to a bar but most of us went to bed.
Tuesday 30 May: Breakfast next morning was a bit damp as it was raining lightly, the only day it did rain. There was the usual cheese, sausage, mineral water and we discovered that once away from the more tourist-oriented places, that tea (ceai pronounced 'chy') means herbal tea and coffee is always served black and is of the Turkish type. Milk is for invalids (Nicky P. said that some years ago he had a tour and when they asked for milk, the waiter asked in his turn, "Why, are you sick?"). It seems to me that the Romans left more behind than their ruins and a good portion of their language. They, too, regarded milk as for invalids or infants, ate lots of goat and sheep cheese rather than cow cheese and had only herbal tea. The traditional shoes worn by the peasants are exactly the same as Roman carbatina. And part of the ceremony connected with the Magic Mountain Foundation involves climbing the mountain and breaking talismans in two with each person keeping one part so as to be able to call on the other. This was a Roman custom, too, where an amulet or tile or similar would be broken and half given to a foreigner who could then use it to claim guest-friendship on that Roman's family when next in Rome. I find it amusing that Romania which was only part of the Roman Empire for about 180 years has retained so much of Rome while Britain which was part of that Empire for 400 years retained so little. What there is in the language was re-imported via Norman French. Says a lot about the Poms, doesn't it?
We went to the ruins of the Princely Palace, a gate with the Moldavian coat of arms on it, some towers, part of a wall and cellars running the whole area. A church stands intact in the centre and is still in use. The story goes that the palace belonged to some princes in the 17th century who were fond of throwing lavish parties for all and sundry. In time their money ran out and it was proposed they sell the palace. A buyer was found but they refused as the place was well fortified. They repelled the buyer on the first go-round but he returned with cannon and eventually reduced it. One brother died in the fight, another was captured and the third committed suicide. It was overgrown but you could go anywhere even the cellars which were unlit and you had to grope your way about. No big-brotherish signs telling you not to. The Romanians assume you are a responsible adult and know the risks unlike here where they want to wrap you in cotton wool with a lot of petty regulations and notices. There were so many goats around we started on a riff of Goats of the Carpathians instead of Ghost of the Carpathians (a variant title of The Pale Lady).
We followed the Bistrita River, more or less the route Jonathan Harker & co took in pursuit of Dracula towards the novel's end. Then, at the request of Bob Lima, we took a detour into Bucovina to see Voronet, one of the famous painted monasteries of the region. It was raining pretty steadily but we all piled out and into the monastery to look at the frescoes on the outer walls, of which the Last Judgement is the most famous, still vibrant after nearly 400 years. The blue is particularly famous. We got yelled at by a nun when Nicky took us inside the chained off area and stood us on the steps right next to the fresco. The north facing wall is pitted with snow and other weather and the paintings faded. He explained that the paintings illustrated the church calendar for the illiterate. Outside, the square had stalls selling peasant blouses and embroidered cloth, all under plastic to keep them dry, plus the usual gypsy kids begging.
The houses in the region all had bands of decoration similar to the motifs found on peasant blouses painted on them and fine wooden or tin fretwork decoration on the eaves. Some had three vertical lines on the front wall. This meant that the original owners had served with Stephen the Great ( a cousin Vlad's) and they and their descendants were exempt from taxes. (We soon discovered that everything in Moldavia was down to Stephen the Great, sort of like John Hancock in Boston. "Who did so-and-so…built such-and-such…started this, set up that?" Answer: "Stephen the Great.".). We had afternoon tea in such a village.
We then climbed up the Carpathians along the Bargau Pass (Borgo Pass in Stoker's novel) towards Transylvania - and ran smack into fog as soon as we entered it! Everyone laughed at the appropriateness. Coming from Moldavia the pass isn't as dramatic as described in Stoker, being rather open with little forest. Nicky told us about an old woman whose farm we passed who used water, sort of like a scrying glass, to find lost children and things. Often these rather mystical stories he told were interrupted by his mobile phone which made an amusing contrast.
Our destination was the Hotel Castle Dracula, a tourist hotel built in 1983 (but not called Castle Dracula then because of Ceausescu) in more or less in castle form in the pass, overlooking some open hilly country with some pine forests and the old Borgo Pass road down further in the valley. You get a hint of what you are in for as you drive up to the entrance as it is flanked by banners with "Dracula-land" written on them. The rooms were very nice and comfortable. The lobby had two portraits, one of Elizabeth Miller who is Baroness of the House of Dracula and was done in antique style with her in 16th century dress. The other was of Alexandru Misiuga, a Baron of the House of Dracula, done in similar antique style. The "Baron", a former mayor of Bistrita, owns the Castle Dracula Hotel and the Golden Crown Hotel in Bitstrita and makes folk masks (devils, etc.) as a hobby. Writes poetry, too. The Castle Dracula features a dungeon with a coffin and cloak on the lid and a bar in a tower overlooking the countryside, known as the Moon Tower. The hotel will also stamp your passport with its logo.
I went outside to look at the souvenir shop for more Dracula kitsch and was hailed by Kate of the Guardian. She, Aileen and Paul were sitting in a horse-drawn vehicle and asked me to join them for a ride. We set off up the road, getting up quite a brisk canter on the level parts. The vehicle, one of those Ceausescu decided the ordinary people should use instead of cars in the 1970s, is owned by an Englishman living in a nearby village, Julian who told us lots of stories about the area. The horses had red tassels on their foreheads. This was not just a sort of blinker as I supposed but to protect them from the 'evil eye'. The road we travelled on was put through by the Germans during World War 2. It was a great trip, up the mountain, if a little brisk on account of a chilly wind blowing.
When I got back it was time to get ready for the 'masked ball'. Jane had brought a costume, based on one of her vampire characters, consisting of a full skirt, peasant blouse, cummerbund, feathered hat, fangs and false nails. I wore my scarlet Vivian Chan Shaw. Dinner, fortunately, wasn't. There was a cold collation for us to nibble at while a party of Goths from London ate in the restaurant and were to join us later. The Discovery Channel came and went, much to Jane's disappointment as she was hoping to be filmed and to promote her websites, or at least her business partner hoped so. But the Koreans were there filming everyone. I escaped to the terrace and stood in the cold, crisp mountain air, under a full moon looking across at the darkened countryside dotted with clumps of forest, and a mist building up in the valley below. Here was the real Transylvania, the real Carpathians. It was magic.
Late in the evening there was a ceremony to induct Carol (Senf) into the TSD which involved wine and a mysterious rite carried on in another room. Also "ambassadors of the TSD" were created, Stephanie (Tampa, Florida) and Anne Fraser (Toronto) who wasn't there so Jane accepted the pendant and scroll on her behalf. Then there was another bonfire out in the hotel grounds. They had the dickens of a time getting it to burn properly, dousing it with litres and litres of kero before it finally took. Nicky P. decided I was cold and draped me with his black, scarlet-lined vampire cloak. We were told we had to jump the bonfire (hello, Beltane) and that in times past farmers used to drive their cattle between the bonfires for good luck (hello, Parilia - what was I saying about Roman influences?). Oh, right, and me in a long tulip skirt. I handed the cape back to Nicky, hoisted the skirt up over my knees and jumped over the lower part but then Nicky told us we'd wimped out and should jump across the middle. Well, I never back away from a dare, so hoisted the skirt even higher and leaped across the middle. Everyone cheered but my curtsey was spoiled by my loss of balance and I sat down cross-legged and stared back. Nicky came and gave me the cloak, telling me I was "favoured of the Count tonight". Whatever that meant, hopefully not what one would imagine - Type A at midnight.
Wednesday 31 May: We set off at around 10.30am. The souvenir shop was closed but Elizabeth had managed to get a statuette which had a standard Vlad the Impaler face on one side and a Dracula face on the other. We followed the old Borgo Pass road down and this is much more like Stoker, winding, with wayside shrines and dense pine forest towering over the road. We stopped to take some photos of one of the family graveyards (each house has its own cemetery as they are all so remote). This village, in a small vale, is a no-go zone. Supposedly bad things happen to those going into it who aren't born there. While we were looking at it, a horse and dray came past and the driver called out, "Heil Hitler" while we smiled and waved at him. Much puzzlement on our part until we looked back at the bus and saw its German signage and decoration. Either he was being sarcastic or he hadn't caught up with the news, that Germans don't greet each other that way anymore. The old Borgo Pass road runs along a Roman road.
We reached Bistrita near lunch time and were introduced to a local TSD member, Luci, who undertook to show us the city, beginning with the 14th century evangelical church whose 76.5 metre tall spire dominates the town (something Jonathan Harker failed to notice or record in his diary).We went inside and looked at the pews decorated with the devices of the various guilds which owned them. Opposite it was an arcade of about 13 buildings, built between 1480 and 1550 so people could walk between them, doing shopping, without getting wet. Then we went into the shopping area and looked at a number of glass and ceramic shops (I bought a small china rabbit). The funny thing is that the behaviour of the landlord and his wife in the novel has led anyone who reads it plus endless film-makers to imagine Bistrita to be this Mickey Mouse sort of place full of rhubarbing, superstitious clods when in fact it is a large, sophisticated city where you couldn't really imagine anyone carrying on like that. We then returned to the Golden Crown Hotel for lunch. It was at this point Paul left us. He had to be in Sofia, Bulgaria to give a talk the next day. Unfortunately, he discovered that the train to Bucharest from Bistrita wouldn't leave until 7pm that night and he still had to get a train to Sofia. So he borrowed some money from Elizabeth (he had had a lot of his own money stolen at a club in Poiana Brasov) after finding a taxi driver who would drive him to Bucharest (after going home and swapping his cab for his own Mercedes sports car).
Lunch was in the Jonathan Harker Room, decorated with stuffed animals (deer, partridge, squirrels, and foxes), a poster of Bram Stoker, a rather comical painting of Jonathan Harker (so that's what Romanians think Englishmen are like!), several paintings of Dracula and so forth. A fun room. The food was supposed to be what Harker had but wasn't at all. Their excuse was that he probably had more than the "robber steak" and Golden Mediasch wine. Well, actually , no. Harker states quite categorically that was all he had. As for the robber steak, they served up pork when in actual fact Harker describes it has "bits of bacon, onion and beef, seasoned with red pepper, and strung on sticks and roasted over the fire" which I'd have infinitely preferred. The Koreans came over and asked me to tell the camera what I thought of the Jonathan Harker meal. So I pointed out that the robber steak wasn't a slab of pork but a sort of yakitori. However, apart from the pork, I did enjoy the meal. It was another four courser beginning with lovely fresh salad, moving to a nice home-made soup, then the main course then coffee and there was also a dessert but Nicky whisked us out as we were running late.
For the record, here's what Jonathan Harker did eat while on his way to Castle Dracula. In Klausenburg (i.e. Cluj-Napoca,), he had "paprika hendl", a chicken dish for dinner, or rather supper. We know the feeling, our meals by this time had slipped back so we were eating lunch around 3pm and dinner around 10-11pm. The next morning he had mamaliga and aubergine stuffed with mince for breakfast before leaving for Bistrita. There, as we have seen, he had 'robber steak' and Golden Mediasch. At Castle Dracula he was served a chicken salad and wine.
Our next stop was Sigishoara. Nicky told us that now we were leaving the world of the fictional Count Dracula and entering that of the historical Vlad the Impaler. Again the careful distinction. I had decided that morning that I wouldn't wear any of my vampire/Dracula T-shirts from then on, so fell back on my Samurai T-shirt. Our route took us past Medias (namesake of the wine Harker has in Bistrita) and the unfortunate Copsa Mica, once home to the Carbosin carbon plant which blackened and killed off vegetation over a 6km radius. The plant was shut down in 1993 because of international pressure but the people still have a higher incidence of lung disease. We saw the derelict, blackened plant as we passed the railway station. A chemical factory continued its tradition by belching out grey clouds, however. Nothing was said about this scenic wonder. My information comes from Lonely Planet.
Sigishoara is another of the seven Saxon towns (its German name is Schässburg) and the old part is a walled area up on a hill. We had to leave the bus behind and walk up a fairly steep cobbled road and go in under a big gateway. This took us to a wide open cobbled square with narrow streets leading off and a church in one corner. All the houses were painted different colours - blue, green, yellow, buff, and apparently were always painted the colour they were. On one side, near the church, is the house where Vlad III (the Impaler) was born. It belonged to his father, Vlad II, who was then military governor of Transylvania. There is a plaque on the wall saying it was his house. It is now a restaurant with a bar in the cellar. The restaurant was closed for renovations but Professor Jean Marigny discovered the owner spoke French and persuaded him to open it up early for us as a "preview" the next morning (it was due to open officially at 11am). Next to it is a museum of arms which had a lot of weaponry and armour from the 15th century and copies of documents signed by Vlad III.
In the square and off it were stalls selling handicrafts and paintings, some of the inevitable Vlad. A shop sold some rather nice wooden plaques of him and sturdy cotton bags with long handles with his portrait on them. I bought a wooden plaque which appealed because the portrait of Vlad on it did not look like a deer in headlights, instead had rather crafty look. I also bought one of the cotton tote bags and a bumper sticker that said 'I © Dracula'.
We were called away from our shopping to a mock witch trial. It began with costumed actors gathering as a town crier called a court to order. They then headed off, followed by the mob (us) to a house in the bell tower where a dishevelled woman was dragged out pleading and crying. Brought before the judge who sat at a table in the courtyard, her accuser, a man in a nice embroidered jacket and hat, stated his case. She wailed her innocence. Then another man stepped forward and made a statement. The first man responded, then the other man and he got into a fierce argument (reminding one that Romanians consider themselves a Latin people) which ended when the second man took the woman by her hand, claiming her for his bride, which was the only way a witch could be exonerated (without going through the trial by ducking - yes, that old Catch 22 where if you float you are guilty, if you drown you are innocent). At this the first man, who had accused her so that he could his hands on her land, flung his hat down in disgust and stalked off.
Postponing a walking tour of the place until the next day, we went back to the coach to find out hotels. On the road to Medias Nicky pointed out a roofed turret which, according to legend has a Turkish warrior and his elephant killed while approaching the town buried there. There is supposed to be a little tube you can see into the tomb. Nicky added that an archaeologist decided to dig it up to discover if this was true. They found nothing under it but within a short while, people started coming back to look in the little tube. Belief is hard to shake.
Thursday 1 June: Back to Sigishoara where the bus waited below the citadel for the rest of the party to arrive by taxi from the other hotel. Naturally we wouldn't stay without hitching at this point and a number of us trotted across the road to a department store. I was looking for more film but was not very hopeful of finding it anywhere in the country as my camera is an Advantix. The department store was very like Youngs or Mates in Canberra ca. 1970 - long counters and wooden floors with a miscellany of goods but not a lot of them.
Back up the cobbled slope and to the walled mediaeval city. I went straight to the Belltower as it had postcards, something there'd been a distinct shortage of so far. I also got a 'kitchen witch' done up as a Hollywood-style vampire. The arms museum was closed but Vlad's birthplace was open and we were given a guided tour by the proud owner. He must have been over the moon to have got so much free publicity for his restaurant as we trailed in our wake Discovery Channel, Korean TV and assorted newspaper journalists.
We were taken to the first floor which is where the family would have, lived 500 years ago. The top floor would have been for servants and the basement for storage. It was all white-washed walls with dark wooden beams, doors and narrow staircases. The walls were quite thick and near the windows facing on to the square they had discovered some more frescoes during the recent renovations. These were on display. I certainly noted the existing fresco of Vlad's old man (same big eyes, arching eyebrows and moustache but a rounder face and body) while Elizabeth had to be pried away from the new ones. The chairs and tables were all in keeping with the mediaeval look and it had all been beautifully done.
Outside in the corridor there was a large bust of Vlad III near a window and a whole bunch of us, including Elizabeth posed outrageously next to it, draped around it or leaning on it while photos were taken. I think I was in there somewhere having been called over. As we were about to leave, the owner came up and gave us each a small plaster bust of the Impaler, which was a nice gesture, and after thanking him (by now I'd added multumesc - 'thank you' to my stock of half a dozen Romanian words I'd picked up on the fly), we left.
Onwards to Sibiu (Hermannstadt - in Stoker's Dracula, the Count was supposed to have attended the "Scholomance" near Lake Hermannstadt. Its other claim to fame was that Vlad III's son, Mihnea, is buried in a church there.) By now we were getting rather punchy from every night a different hotel, every day on the bus and off the bus and on the bus and off the bus and trips of hundreds of kilometres. I started referring to "Uncle Vlad" and calling his grandfather, Mircea the Old "Goong-goong" (Cantonese for 'grand-dad').
Sibiu is another mediaeval town, with the old part up in a citadel. Before going on a walking tour, we had time to look at the shops including some interesting book shops around a big plaza. There was an international theatre festival in the town and lots of posters up about the plays, which included one about Dracula. Our walk took us up some steps to a typical mediaeval street with houses packed close together. Nicky showed us how they had pulleys attached to the eaves for hoisting bales for storage under the roofs. The roofs were all steep and made of red tile and had openings in them to admit air. In most places, Nicky reminded us, these openings (like small windows) are square, but in Sibiu they are oval so they look like eyes. They are nicknamed "the eyes of the Mayor", the idea being that the Mayor has such care of his people that he looks out for them through these roof 'eyes'.
We crossed the Iron Bridge (1859) known as the 'Liar's Bridge" because of the tricky merchants' deals conducted nearby and all the lovers' swearing eternal devotion on it, climbed some more and came to the evangelical church, built between 1300 and 1520, where Mihnea is buried and went inside and looked at the tombstones which were set in the walls, going back centuries. They had been moved there (the bones were still under the flagstones) to preserve them as many had got quite worn from being walked on. On Mihnea's you could just make out something which may be the Order of the Dragon insignia, which, if it is, suggests that it continued to be used by the family. Once outside we were shown the archway where Mihnea was killed. This archway is part of a 13th century staircase passage leading to the lower town. The story goes that Mihnea took a fancy to the bride of the captain of the guard, exercised his right to the first night, which annoyed the captain, and apparently he must have hung on to her because he was walking back from church with her, reached the passageway where the captain was lurking and was stabbed. Here we had a graphic demonstration. Someone should have told Mihnea that when you are in exile, it is so not a good idea to antagonise the captain of your guard. Well, what can you expect of a bloke whose name is pronounced the same way as the son of Godzilla's?
We went back for a late lunch at the Hotel Imparatul Romanilor (The Roman Emperor), a colourful old hotel which was founded in the 16th century as a restaurant called La Sultanul Turcilor but is now rather reminiscent of a late 19th century grand hotel, at least the dining room is, with its elaborate sliding glass ceiling. Very nice as usual, and a speciality of the region, but somehow the main dish was pork again. Really don't know why as I know from looking at menus in the restaurants in and around Poiana Brasov that chicken features as much in regional dishes.
Back on the bus and long the Olt Valley, following the old Roman road. As we were running behind we skipped the visit to Cozia Monastery where Mircea the Old is buried. The Olt Valley is very beautiful and we made a toilet stop by a very pretty part (the toilets were your basic 'Man Fridays', i.e. two foot-prints on either side of a hole) with the river winding between pine clad bluffs and the sun catching it just so. By now we had left Transylvania and were in Wallachia.
Instead, we went straight to Poienari and drove along a road that wound around the spectacular gorge of the Arges River. We glimpsed the ruined fortress clinging to the pine clad cliff above us, glowing honey-gold in the late sun. Up and up we climbed in the bus until we were nearly level with it but across the valley. It was very like the Alps near the Simplon Pass and even had a tunnel through which we went. Naturally we stopped for a photo opportunity. This fortress guarded the approach to the Arges Valley and was where, in 1462, Vlad withdrew, when pursued by Turkish forces under his brother Radu. Legend has it that a Wallachian in the Turkish army sent an arrow with a message warning the castle inhabitants that the army was upon them (like they wouldn't have noticed, just by looking out the window?). The arrow extinguished the candle in the bedroom where Vlad's wife was sitting. She read the message and without any further ado, she flung herself in despair from the tower into the river.
At this point, Ingrid interrupted Nicky's narrative to remark, in her delightful Polish accent, "But she had a pretty good husband. I don't see why she had to be so negative about it!" The bus roared. We then drove back down the mount to a nearby dam where we were deposited while the bus driver took the bus to turn it around. We looked at the lake thus formed and were appalled at the amount of rubbish floating at the water edges.
The bus soon returned and without further ado we were bundled on board again and set of for Aref village, which is on a narrow side road off the main road. It was twilight when we arrived and quite cold. The village headmaster met us, along with quite a few villagers, and suggested we go into the Arts Centre (basically your village hall). The villagers of Aref claim descent from those peasants who helped Vlad escape from Poienari in 1462 by showing him a way over the mountains and employing such trickery as shoeing the horses backwards so as to confuse their pursuers. (Nicky said that 'next time' he'd take us across the mountains following that route. He also said that the costumes the villagers wore were the same type as Vlad would have seen.). When Vlad asked them what reward they wanted - there was gold and jewels in the baggage - they said they wanted land. So he called for the skins of some rabbits killed earlier and wrote out deeds, granting them 16 mountains, which they still have. A later document which exists confirms this land grant. The people of Aref maintain an oral tradition recounting this and other stories about Vlad and perform them along with local folk dances and songs to people on Dracula tours. It must be a lucrative business because on the way in we noticed a number of the older, smaller farm-houses had new, modern houses being built beside them.
Once we were in the hall and seated on plastic assembly hall type chairs, they brought round the tuica and pastries (and kept bringing them around). First order of business was to make Elizabeth a "Daughter of Aref". Elizabeth had been to the village many times and had shown long term interest in it and love of the people, so they had a short ceremony and gave her a diploma. Then the headmaster explained that as they were endeavouring to pass on their songs and dances to the children, the children would perform for us that night. A group of children in local costume came out and sang and danced, accompanied by the adults singing or humming, sometimes with a fish-scale between their teeth which produced a curious whistling sound. One little girl who sang solo while miming sewing, had a beautiful clear voice. And there was some humour in the little boy who forgot his cue and was unceremoniously pushed on his way, or the other who moved out of turn and was yanked back in line. All the while they were watched over by a woman who was obviously their music mistress. Music mistresses must be cloned because they look the same the world over.
Then the adults, also in costume sang and danced. Next an old woman, with one of those hand-spindles, came out and spun as she narrated the story about Vlad's escape, while Nicky translated and a woman brought round some popcorn. The evening ended with that 'kissing dance' in which we all got up to dance, well lubricated by the tuica. It was a great evening, a lot of fun, if exhausting.
It was now quite late and we got on the bus and went to Curtea de Arges (a former capital in the time of Vlad's grandfather, Mircea the Old) to our hotel, the Posada. There we had a very late dinner, at around midnight. Jean Marigny was almost the victim of the foreign currency scam Lonely Planet warns you about when he went out for a walk later. He was approached by a fellow wanting to change lei into US dollars (illegal outside a bureau de change) and Jean opened his wallet just as two 'policemen' arrived. However, when they saw he had only francs, they said, "Vive la France" and scarpered.
Friday 2 June: Thirteen of us had put our hands up to climb the 1500 steps to the Poienari fortress so we were up early and in the bus back to the Arges River. I went up with Carol as we both have a tendency to acrophobia. The first flights of the steps were fairly steep and we had to pause every now and then, but it levelled out a fairly gentle climb, winding back and forth across the face of the hill. It wasn't too bad a climb as the way was covered by trees so you didn't have a great drop to look at. After we'd been climbing for what seemed like ages, I looked up and saw the fortress just in front of us. We crossed a wooden bridge, climbed some more stairs, then another wooden bridge (which did have a yawning drop either side - Carol gave up at this point), then up some winding wooden stairs and I was in the fortress.
I went almost immediately into the remains of a tower (which turned out to be the one Vlad's wife was supposed to have jumped from. Later, Katie and I had a somewhat macabre conversation as to how exactly she managed it, as she would have had to have hurled herself out to reach the river). The view was stunning across the gorge and down into the river. No wonder journalists have referred to it as the real Castle Dracula, even though Stoker could not have known of its existence and it is hundreds of miles south of the Borgo pass in Wallachia and not Transylvania. Like the castle in Stoker's novel, it is surrounded by a 1000 foot drop covered with pine trees. Like the fictitious castle you suddenly come upon it after travelling for ages and have to cross to it over a bridge.
It is largely a ruin. There are two roofless round towers whose walls at most come no higher than my head plus one square tower which is a bit more substantial. Speculation exists as to whether it was a guardhouse or a prison. It was several storeys high and you can still see part of the beams that supported the floors. I kept being drawn back to it and kept thinking of the words of the old Japanese song Kojo no tsuki ("Moon Over a Ruined Castle") which tells of a castle where in spring the lord and his court sat viewing cherry blossoms from a high tower and passing around the sake cup but with the autumn mists the enemy armies came, amidst the crying of many wild geese, the changeless light glinting on swords and in the end all is left is a ruined castle with only the light remaining the same. The castle had been damaged not so much by enemy action or neglect as earthquakes, the worst of which had sent a third of it into the river about 100 years ago. Some attempt had been made to restore it and this work was the red bricks that made up the upper walls. The original stonework was grey.
We were reluctant to go back down and sat enjoying the view, the sunshine, the clear mountain air and the atmosphere. Elizabeth declared that as we had had to put up with the bus stopping because people wanted to take pictures of cows or daisies we were entitled to stay a while. "Now it's our turn." Not everyone at the conference or even on the tour shared an interest in dear old Vlad. Some considered him a bit of a bore, just another bloodthirsty mediaeval warlord and thought there was too much concentration on him. I rather thought they'd missed the point and wondered why they had come on such a tour.
Eventually we did make our way down in dribs and drabs, passing the nice army bloke in grey cammos who guarded the gate leading to the dam about two thirds of the way down, who smiled and said hello when I said hello. At the bottom we found a fellow selling some good postcards of the fortress that gave some idea of the heights. Earlier we had found a little old guy up at the fortress who rather belatedly collected our entrance fees and gave us tickets who also sold postcards but not so well reproduced as these. At the bottom was a heap of school kids, making us glad we'd gone up earlier. They began their climb, leaving all their rubbish around or tossed it in the river. This was a big problem. There are no bins in these public places and the kids and the adults don't seem to have much concept of "Keep Romania Beautiful" - the rubbish could have been collected in a bag and taken with them when they left. They are sorely in need of a "Put It In a Bin" campaign.
Back to the Posada to collect the rest of our party and we had a quick look around a big square which had a statue of Mircea the Old dominating it before being bundled back in the bus. As we drove through Curtea de Arges we were told the story of Manole who was asked by his king, Neagoe Basarab (reigned 1512-1521) to build the most beautiful church in the world. Manole tried to comply but each time something went wrong and Neagoe got somewhat irate. Finally, Manole made a vow to sacrifice the first living thing that came to the building site. Unfortunately, this proved to be his pregnant wife who wanted to bring him his lunch and insisted on coming despite people's best efforts to dissuade her. She was buried in the walls and the church proceeded as planned and indeed was very lovely. A little later Neagoe asked him if he could build a church even more beautiful than the one he had just completed. Manole thought about it and said yes. Whereupon Neagoe removed the scaffolding where he was working intending to kill him so he could not create a more beautiful church as he didn't want another rivalling the one he had. Manole managed to make wings from the tiles and where he landed a spring appeared called Manole's well. We glimpsed the church, a chocolate box confection, as we passed.
We were heading for Targoviste, the capital of Wallachia in Vlad's day through some more pretty countryside. It was here we encountered the smart cows. They were taken from the villages to pasture but in the evening they found their own way home and we'd see them wandering along the streets until they came to their own house where they'd let themselves into the backyard and byre if the gate had been left open. If not, they'd bellow until the gate was unlocked and everyone would know who'd been a dill and locked the cow out.
On arrival we had lunch at the restaurant in the Hotel Valahia. The hotel faced a square and opposite was a craft shop some of us went into. I bought a costume doll and a wooden bust of Vlad. This was on a nice terrace so we could eat out doors. It was here that Jane discovered, in amongst her fresh salad, a cockroach. Ingrid was outraged and suggested she complain and get some sort of compensation. "Worth at least a bottle of wine," Jane mused, since the meal was already paid for. She called Nicky over and explained the problem. A pause, then he said in his charming Romanian accent, "If you were in Morocco this would be a great delicacy." With that he went back to his table leaving us all a bit gob-smacked. Ingrid and I visited the ladies on the way out. I don't know how she fared (there were only two cubicles) but mine was occupied and when I tried the door a very flustered hotel maid came barrelling out. When I went in, I could see why. I'd caught her having a shifty smoko as the place was a fug of cigarette smoke and there were butts all over the floor.
On to the ruins of the Princely Court where Vlad had held court. We first went to the Princely Church and were shown some tombs of the princes which had been set in the floor but moved because they had been looted in times past. Then we went to the palace ruins, mainly brick cellars built in the 16th century over an older structure. An archaeologist guided us, speaking through an interpreter as the indefatigable Nicky had been whisked away for an interview in another subterranean area (the Turkish baths, I think) by the Discovery Channel. There was a panel of documents and pictures along a wall which looked interesting but as the light didn't work it was difficult to see. Next we were shown part of the wall and the parkland beyond where the princes went hunting, and also a walled off area where a princess had her garden. You could trace out easily where rooms and towers must have been in the complex. It must have been vast in its heyday (14th century to 18th century).
On the other side is the Sunset Tower or Chindiei Tower, built in Vlad's time as a watchtower and restored and given an extra storey in the 19th century. Jane B. of the Mail on Sunday got on everyone's wick by repeatedly asking whether Vlad watched impalements from the tower and was told that if she meant the forest of stakes, that was beyond the walls on the other side. Inside the tower is an exhibition about Vlad. Part of it deals with his life and achievements - battles, impalements and founding churches (he seemed to have had two bob each way). There are copies of letters he wrote to various towns such as Brasov and other documents. The useful thing is that the originals of all these documents are scattered in various museums around the country but here they are all together. This part also included reproductions of various paintings or woodcuts of him - there was a nice one of him and Stephen the Great in battle together. Another part dealt with the 'vilification' of him and included, besides the infamous 15th century German pamphlets, Stoker's novel and the whole Dracula phenomenon (a French translation of McNally & Florescu's In Search of Dracula, various movie posters, etc.) From the top of the tower, you have a good view of the surrounding countryside which is very flat.
After that we made our way back to the bus, stopping at the shop at the entrance to buy some postcards and some small Vlad buttons. Then it was on the bus and back into the Carpathians for the last time to the royal resort of Sinaia, following the beautiful Prahova valley. Our hotel was the International, a modern hotel among some splendid 19th century ones. Dinner was late as usual and enlivened by an interminable fashion show. The dining room was packed with tourists (out of town Romanians, mainly) and there was a live band. Mid-way through dinner, a woman who looked like a commissar arrived clutching some cassette tapes and commandeered the stage. She put the tapes on - pounding, techno-style stuff that soon got monotonous, and one by one these girls in her creations walked in among the diners, twirled around in front of the stage and left to change into yet other garments. I thought the materials were interesting and some of the designs but they were translucent and you could see the girls' nipples which is so not a good look. After about 10 or 15 minutes of this, there was a break, then the girls came back in sort of gypsy-Middle Eastern outfits and did a sort of gypsy-Middle Eastern dance. That was that, I thought (I rather liked this bit as the music had a good beat and was catchy). But now, the girls came back in yet more outfits, most of which were terrible, didn't hang on them properly and so on. All the while the woman looked on them grim faced (both Ingrid and Jane thought she looked like a madam and these were her 'girls' which put both of them off). Finally, we had enough of the monotonous music and fled to bed.
Saturday 3 June: Early next morning we visited the palace of Peles, built by King Carol I between 1873 and 1914. King Carol was a German and brought armour, stained glass windows and other treasures from his castles in Germany and collected beautiful objects from elsewhere to adorn it. Its style is German Renaissance, mostly, with a touch of Italian and English Renaissance. It has a lovely setting (the king thought so too, even though his advisers said the site was full of mineral springs. He had them drained so he could build there.) The terrace overlooks a pretty alpine meadow and behind tower the mountains. The palace looks like a fairy-tale castle with its turrets and towers. However, it was the first European palace to have electricity and central heating. The guides will point out other mod cons such as 19th century vacuum cleaner arrangement. In that it reminded me of the Mathews-Lockwood mansion in Norwood, Connecticut.
The castle is very fragile and not built for the hordes of tourists thundering through it so we had to put carpet slippers over our shoes (yes, they did fit over sneakers) and certain parts such as staircases were off limits. Every available space on the floors, walls, even ceiling (they had a sliding glass ceiling in the main reception room like the one in the Hotel Imparatul Romanilor) was occupied by some work of art or decoration. There was a lot of walnut elaborately carved, German style and allegorical paintings representing figures from the works of Carol's queen who wrote under the pen name of Carmen Silva, a name I recall from my childhood in England as a writer of fairy tales. My two favourite rooms were the impressive armoury, one of the largest collections in Europe which not only had lots of German arms and armour including barding for horses, but also Turkish, Indian and Japanese weapons; and the elegant little theatre.
Nearby is Pelisor, another royal residence, this time for Carol's successor, King Ferdinand and his queen, Marie which is also open to the public, and a hunting lodge used by King Carol before Peles was built, and later by Ceausescu, which is not. We then boarded the bus for the trip down the mountain past the railway station and on to the plains heading towards Snagov, 38km north of Bucharest. We had another late lunch at an outdoors restaurant on the banks of Lake Snagov. The food was very nice (and, hey, no pork) and it was a perfect day, warm and sunny in a lovely setting. After lunch we took a motor launch to the monastery which is on an island in the middle of the lake. I sat in the stern outside enjoying the warm sun sparkling off the water. Very relaxing watching people swimming, sun-bathing and water-skiing, while a Romanian TV crew interviewed Nicky next to me. Around the edge of the lake is dense forest through which you can glimpse villas, originally belonging to communist party bigwigs, including Ceausescu.
The monastery was under repairs and covered in scaffolding. The current structure was built in the 16th century. An earlier church built of stone in 1453 later fell into the lake. Vlad fortified the place, added a bell tower, prison and a bridge to the mainland. The ruins of walls, presumably of the fortifications or maybe the prison, can still be seen. There is one priest and a nun to take care of the place. The priest came out to show us round. Bob immediately wanted to know if there was a depiction of the Last Judgement among the frescoes - he asked that at the Princely Church in Targoviste, too. The priest said there wasn't. He led us up to the altar area and some of us, me included, had to step carefully around Vlad's tomb, a simple slab set out with a low fence and a photo of the well-known Ambras Castle portrait.
He began by saying, with Nicky as an interpreter, that the monastery was known as the Vlad Tepes Monastery because he had added to the work begun by his predecessors and built much of it. He went on to say that his tomb where he was buried with his wife was over on one side of the church but had been moved to its current location. It had been opened and a ring, and clothing had been found in it. He then spoke of the printing press that had operated at the monastery during the 17th century, producing books in Romanian, Arabic, Slavonic and Greek. During this, Nicky had been turning puce. When the priest had finished, Nicky whisked us outside round the back of the church, once we said our thanks and goodbyes to the priest.
Near a drinking well, also attributed to Vlad, Nicky began, "With all due respect to the holy father, he hasn't been here that long and doesn't know the history as well as the old priest. It's nonsense to say this monastery is known as Vlad Tepes Monastery. He had very little to do with the building of it. As for saying he and his wife had been buried here…Only he was buried here and in the front of the church, not on the side." One thing did emerge and that was the priest was proud of the church's connections with Vlad and had no doubt he had been buried there (there is some doubt). We looked at the well, hauled up the bucket and were photographed drinking from it, looked at the bell tower and then we went back. Elizabeth was interviewed in English by the Romanian TV crew in front of the well.
On to Bucharest which, given its, setting and climate, could best be described as Leeton or Narrandera in that it is on a flat plain, surrounded by a fruit and vegetable growing area and is very hot. There the resemblance ends because it is a large city with a lot of 19th century style French architecture, even its own Champs Elysée and Arc de Triomphe, lots of bridges over the river, fountains, parks and the like. It also has a few Stalinist treasures such as the Press House and that monument to crassness and his own ego, Ceausescu's House of the People. It has to be seen to be believed. Not until you are staring up at it from the square in front can you get an idea of what a mishmash of styles and how humungously huge it is - metre long door handles, what is this man's problem? Across the plaza is a bank of government buildings, and on the other side an enormous fountain. His best gift to the city, however, is the Metro, the underground railway.
On our way in we had pointed out to us where the student protesters during the 1989 revolution gathered - and were shot, and their memorial, and other events of that hectic year. But the city looks bright and dynamic with smartly dressed young things with the ubiquitous mobile phone glued to their ears, internet cafes, etc. People are openly critical of the Big C and his works but there is a bit of a backlash, caused by the economic problems, where some see him as being not so bad because he brought stability.
Our hotel was the Hotel Bulevard, a grand 19th century affair with Louis XV style bedrooms, very lavish. There was a wedding celebration going on in the main dining room when we arrived and was still going on when we came back from our farewell dinner at the Count Dracula Club, which was within walking distance of the hotel. This place was atmospherically decked out in spiders and cobwebs with candles on the table. There were prints of old London on the ground floor where the main restaurant was. On the wall beside the stairs leading to the cellar were posters and stills from various Hammer films including Vampire Lovers (when Ingrid said, "That's me," they refused to believe her which was really silly as she hasn't changed that much). Below things were red lit and there were skulls and chains and the odd dining table, plus drawings illustrating scenes from Dracula, based on the Coppola film (not my idea of Dracula at all but still a fun place).
The food was nice and pork free. After we'd been there some time there was a roaring of wind and the sound of a carriage and horses arriving. Then the Count arrived (traditional 19th century evening dress, cape and rather handsome) and declaimed something (from the novel, I think) in the room next door, disappeared, then reappeared, declaimed some more and did this a few times. On the third go-round, he came into our room. Those on Ingrid's table pointed at her and yelled, "She's Countess Dracula!" Whereupon she rose and flung herself into his arms. He bore her off and there was a shriek from downstairs and she returned alone.
Final good-byes were said, mainly to Mihail our highly skilled driver, and those who were leaving early Sunday morning. Quite a few were getting a flight at around 4.15pm Monday, the same as me, but not necessarily British Airways.
Sunday 4 June: Some people went on an optional extra tour to a church Vlad had built at Targsor where he may have been buried. Jane and I opted to go to the Princely Court and the National History Museum. First, however, Jane had to change some money into lei which meant finding a bureau de change that was open. Talk about "I went to Bucharest but it was shut". Kids were playing football with a dog in an area that was packed with cars on Monday. Eventually, she found one and I waited outside. In the short time she was inside, I was offered some reading matter by some American Jehovah's Witnesses, then was inundated by a protest march chanting and shouting, escorted by police. Their noise set off a car alarm in the vehicle in front of me. It was voting day - they go to the polls on Sundays, which I wish we did.
We found the Princely Court after a helpful woman, seeing us studying the map in Lonely Planet, asked us where we wanted to go and showed us. It was open and a young woman, who apologised for her poor English, took us through it. Like the Princely Court at Targoviste, it is mainly 16th century cellars, the same brick built round arched vaults. There is part of an older wall, all that remains of the structure built by Vlad. There is also a terrace and other areas being excavated. It was once very big, covering most of that part of the city. It is in what's known as the old city where artisans and traders settled in the 14th century. The palace was the official residence of the princes until the end of the 18th century. It was badly damaged by earthquakes and fires and what was left was auctioned off to the merchants. The cellars house an exhibit describing the history of the place with old paintings and documents. The museum office sells a very interesting pamphlet on Vlad which brings together some unusual as well as the better known portraits of him and the places associated with him.
The National History Museum is in the old post office building (think GPO in Martin Place). It records the history of Romania from the Palaeolithic to the 19th century in rooms in chronological order, supplemented by a coins room and a room full of gold and jewellery of all ages. The most interesting parts for me were the rooms dealing with the peoples who were there before the Roman conquest who had a flourishing civilisation and who traded with the Greeks who had colonies among them; and also the parts dealing with Roman Dacia. There was a room devoted to Vlad but it didn't have anything we hadn't already seen, except that the documents on display were original not reproductions. Another high point was the full size plaster reproductions of the panels on Trajan's Column set out at eye level so you could see all the detail. If you want to study Trajan's Column go to Bucharest, not Rome because you can't see the panels as well on the original. (In ancient times you could because it was surrounded by galleries).
There is a lot of misinformation (not to mention non-information) about the country. In this Romania has a similar problem to Australia: there is a lot of wrong or misleading information about them and both countries are known for something that is a cliché, a stereotype and not typical of the whole. This is where Nicky and his tour group, Company of the Mysterious Journeys, and his other endeavours such as the Transylvanian Society of Dracula and the new Magic Mountain Foundation come in.
He wants to bring Romania to the world which is one reason we had such a hectic tour, cramming so much and such long distances in so many days, for this was not your standard Dracula tour but a combination of several of them. Here he had academics and interested others from a number of countries, plus he'd invited the media. Anyone who had any connection with the travel industry, even just a website, could be sure of his undivided attention. He wanted to show us as much of Romania as he could fit in; show and tell us for he is a fund of wonderful stories and information about every place we passed through or visited. His information is sound because he has close links with the Romanian Academy and the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest. It was as if he was saying, "You have come here for Dracula but I will show you there is so much more to Romania, even more than Vlad the Impaler, who is not to be confused with the vampire Count.. We have many beautiful places, many lovely old buildings, we are many nationalities, we still have our stories and legends despite modern technology - internet cafés and mobile phones. We have ruined castles, beautiful frescoed monasteries like nowhere else and haunted, romantic sites and we are a vibrant and dynamic people despite our unfortunate recent history."
Tuesday 6 June: Now in London, I decided to pick up the Dracula trail again with a trip to Hampstead, where I grew up. I continued up past the tube station, past Whitestone Pond, along Hampstead Road, past Jack Straw's Castle and the Spaniards Inn, both mentioned in the novel, on the way to Highgate. I found the cemetery just as it started to rain. I was in two minds about buying a ticket to go into the western part (the eastern part can only be accessed with a guided tour. It's the one with the big tombs and the trouble with Satanists doing weird things.). I am not convinced it is the cemetery called "Kingstead" in the novel. I tend to agree with Haining, Tremayne and others that the real Kingstead is the one near Hendon, between Kingston and Hampstead. I went in any way and wandered about the charmingly overgrown place. Most graves seem to go no further back then about 1880. Karl Marx, George Eliot, Sir Ralph Richardson, among others, are buried there. At least I found their graves.
Thursday 8 June: Picked up the Dracula trail again with a trip to Whitby. I took the Yorkshire Coastliner bus from York which went via the north Yorkshire moors. I sat on the top deck and the moors were stunning, very dramatic, gorse covered fields and sudden drops and sheep clinging to the steep hillsides. At the Tourist Information Centre, I bought some postcards and a "Whitby Dracula Trail" walking guide. Very handy as I didn't bring the novel with me.
Whitby is a mass of Victorian terrace houses marching down the sides of two steep cliffs. On one is St Mary's Churchyard where Mina and Lucy liked to sit, looking out to sea or down the coast to Kettleness. It is also where Mina sees Dracula sitting on their favourite seat as the sun reflects into his eyes making them shine red. Nearby is the ruins of the Abbey. Contrary to the guide, I began with St Mary's, walking up the 199 steps Mina runs up when Lucy goes sleep walking and ends up on their seat in the churchyard with "something long and dark" bending over her. After Poienari's 1500 steps, 199 was nothing. I walked around the churchyard, reading some of the tombstone - even found a Swales, but a woman. There is no seat where the novel has Mina and Lucy sit, though you can guess where it might have been. There are good views of the neighbouring cliffs and bays but I didn't linger too long as there was a strong cold wind. I then walked over to the impressive Abbey ruins and wandered through them before going back down the stairs. I detoured up Henrietta Street, cobbled and lined with old, probably 18th century houses, B&Bs, and shops. this was where Dracula in dog form ran after jumping off the ship. It is also supposed to have been haunted by the thost-dog (related to the Yorkshire barguest).
Then I went down to Tate Hill Pier, a long stone jetty running into the harbour, except the tide was out, so it stood surrounded by sand. On one side was some rocks and beyond that the breakwater with the lighthouse on it. It was here, Dracula's ship the Demeter crashed, this being based on a real shipwreck that occurred in the same place involving a Russian schooner, the Dimitry, in 1885. I sat and looked at the harbour, the town and the sea for quite a while. Whitby is a very restful place.
Then I walked back through the narrow cobbled streets (probably 18th century and with ties to Captain Cook. There were a lot of 'Endeavour' or 'Cook' things. I might as well have been back in Sydney.), over the bridge and tried to find the Bram Stoker memorial seat which is the start of the walking tour. I walked along the waterfront on the other side of the harbour, past the fish market (this part is much the same as it was in Cook's time) and past the 'Dracula Experience' a rather tacky or tatty looking haunted house type place. It sold some Dracula in Whitby type souvenirs, thus linking it with the Tihuta Pass and Hotel Castle Dracula. I went up the steps to the opposite cliff where Mina looked back to see Dracula on their seat. There is a flagpole with a model of the Endeavour on top and a statue of Captain Cook, and behind it, the Royal Hotel which has a portrait of Stoker in it. Below is a bandstand though I don't know if it is the one Stoker might have seen. I cam back down and walked back along the waterfront.
I climbed up a narrow passageway and some steps from the waterfront and found myself in The Crescent, a short street of solid Victorian houses where Mina and Lucy stayed. After more to-ing and fro-ing, I found a row of benches on top of a sort of overgrown wall, one of which looked slightly different. It seemed to match the description of the seat as Victorian wood and metal and the Crescent was behind it and it did command a fine view of East Cliff, St Mary's, the Harbour and other salient points from the novel. There was also an indentation where a plaque had obviously been. (Elizabeth told me later, via email, that it periodically gets nicked, is restored, then nicked again). The seat was set up the Scarborough Borough Council and the Dracula Society in 1980.
I sat there enjoying the view when presently a woman and her little boy came along. "Is this the…" she mused. "Bram Stoker seat? Yes, I think so. See, there was a plaque but it's gone now.," I replied. After a bit longer I moved and they sat there instead to be "suitably inspired". When they left, I asked them if it had worked. "Oh, yes, my little boy has written his first ghost story." Not long after I moved as it was getting cold and late and I caught the bus back to York.
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