Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356

Romania: Search For Dracula

Vlad the Impaler

“We Are in Transylvania and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways and there shall be to you many strange things.” Dracula to Jonathan Harker at his castle on the Borgo Pass.

Almost a century has passed since Stoker penned his dark gothic novel about an ancient Rumanian Knight who sacrificed his soul for immortality. Taking “Dracula,” from the Rumanian “Dracul” or “Dragon,” Stoker described a creature of the night who alternately assumed the shape of a wolf, bat or mist. Having forsaken God, Dracula shrank from daylight, mirrors and the cross, but what makes Bram Stoker’s creation a monster for 2011, is his insatiable appetite.

A century before AIDS made us fear our own blood, Dracula’s bite would turn his victims into vampires. Little wonder that this literary classic has served as the basis for hundreds of articles, movies, novels and most recently a Showtime mini-series. If it is true that strong fictional characters come to life, then surely Dracula lives and seeking a vampire in the Transylvanian Alps (even under the guise of skiing in Romania) defined “foolish” as surely as “Dracula” served as a synonym for “horror”.

Stoker described how the Count spawned a violent storm to hide his arrival in England and now, in late February an enormous snowstorm has buried Bucharest’s International Airport. Stranded in Zurich’s Flughafen AG, I listen to a Swiss Air spokesman announce the cancellation of the connection to Bucharest. “All flights have been cancelled but we are hoping conditions improve by tomorrow morning.” He attempted to reassure the anxious passengers.

The biggest storm in half a century? A week ago Romania was suffering a catastrophic drought. Now, Bucharest’s Henri Coandă International Airport’s wheezing front-end loaders and squads of laborers pushing plywood shovels, could not keep up with the inch an hour torrent. A coincidence?

A day later my flight taxied to a stop on the tarmac outside of Henri Coandă’s main terminal. While waiting for the flight attendant to lower the rear stairs, I asked if the crew planned on spending the night.

“In Bucharest?” She revealed a faint fear. “No…we never stay. Never! As soon as we refuel, we will fly back to Zurich.” Then lowering her voice she inquired, “You do know about the hotels? The pipes are frozen and they have no water. And Gypsies and packs of dogs rule the streets!” She shuddered. The Swiss are precise, almost to a fault, and I at first dismissed her fears. Then, the jet way fell away with a mechanical whine.

Romania greeted me with the wild snarl of fighting dogs. At the edge of the runway, in the smoldering airport dump, two dozen mongrels fought over scraps from partially eaten, in-flight dinners. Descending the rear stairs into the blowing snow and frozen tarmac, I remembered that wolves had stalked Jonathan Harker during his wild carriage journey to Dracula’s Castle.

And, like Harker, I feared the language. Based on classic Latin with traces of Magyar, Slavic, German, Turkish and Greek, for centuries spoken Romanian and Transylvania’s sickle shaped Carpathian Mountains had offered equally daunting barriers.

When I finally cleared customs and pushed my baggage cart into the airport lobby, I was corned by a pack of two legged wolves. Attracted by my red ski jacket and mound of luggage, half a dozen wolf men in black and brown suits tugged at my arm and shouted, “Mister, Mister, Taxi to Bucharest!” Or, “Mister, I change money!” while other predators with missing teeth and hard eyes stared at my bags. Hemmed in by black marketers, and mute in Rumanian I took a firm grip on my camera bag and insisted loudly, “Nyet! No….”

My contact, Augustine Morar had promised to meet me at Henri Coandă International. I was certain the record snowfall and two day delay forced a change in Augustine’s plans and considered my next move–rent a car, risk the crowded buses, or trust myself to one of the wolfish taxi drivers? At the last minute, a tall, elegant man parted the crowd and extended his hand. “Andrew Slough?” he welcomed me to Romania in an accent that summoned the ghost of Bela Legosi.

Fluent in both English and French, Augustine offered a commanding presence. Dismissing the black market rabble with a single imperious phrase, he ordered a porter to load my gear into his van.

With degrees in electrical engineering, mathematics and physics and a background in broadcasting–prior to the Romanian Revolution, Augustine had managed a television station in his hometown of Tîrgu Mures. He had also studied at Gainesville, Florida where he refined his impeccable English. He had recently launched AMI Communications in Transylvania and was in the process of developing a satellite super station with a broadcast footprint stretching from London to Moscow. Augustine was a Transylvanian patriot, a native son who believed in the future of what he proudly referred to as the “Switzerland of Central Europe.”

“You will forgive me!” He asked as the van labored over the potholed road, “But I am unsure what you wish to accomplish in Romania.” Augustine’s confusion was understandable. Back in the United States, Bram Stoker’s description of wind swept citadels clinging to the Carpathian Mountains rocky precipices spawned images of deep snow and ski lifts running above ancient ruins. I saw Romania’s ancient castles and hunch back, fly eating bellmen, who called the hotel manager “Master.” And I conjured thick mists, bats and black wolves silhouetted against the rising moon. Now, I braced myself against the roads deep chuckholes that marked the road and replied, “I have two purposes. Number one is to ski.”

“This can easily be arranged…. the resorts of Sinaia and Poina Brasov are but a few hours from Bucharest.” He glanced across at me. “And number two?” he inquired.

“To seek Dracula.” I watched for his reaction.

He watched the road and, without looking at me, continued in his haunting accent, “As you might imagine, Dracula presents special problems. Bram Stoker’s novel has never been translated into Romanian. There is some question if Stoker ever visited Romania.”

“But Romania was the birthplace of both the Count and his myth.”

“Of a sort,” Augustine nodded. “Vlad Tepes, or “Dracula” as he is known in the west, was a Prince of Wallachia–in fact a national hero who helped defend the state against the Ottoman Empire.”

Staring into the wild storm while conjuring the ancient citadels and ruined castle that remain strategically scattered across the country side, it is clear why Bram Stoker found his inspiration for a Vampire in Romania.”

The howling wind outside the van was dragging skeins of snow across the road. Drifts were building and the headlights barely penetrated the whirling flakes. The van slewed toward the shoulder. Augustine down shifted into third gear and continued; “Scholars believe Stoker took the name “Dracula” from Vlad Dracul the father of Vlad Tepes.” The Van was nearly in the bank when the tires caught and it floundered left, back toward the center of the road. Augustine appeared nonplussed by the promise of digging the van out in a raging blizzard. “The prince quickly earned a reputation as “Vlad the Impaler,” Woodcuts depict how he ordered sharpened stakes through his prisoner’s stomachs before they were hoisted into the air.

He squinted into the raging storm for the edge of the road. “After one battle, Vlad ordered hundreds of soldiers impaled around his tent. While their dying shrieks filled the air, he feasted–certain that their spirits would enter the food and make him stronger.”

Our world had closed down to a column of light filled with streaking white flakes. “Another legend recounts how Ambassadors from the Turkish Sultan refused to remove their turbans in Vlad’s presence. “It symbolizes respect for our Sultan,” they proudly told the young King.”

“Angered by their disobedience, Vlad reminded them ‘I am the king of this land, and if you cannot take them off for me, then you will never take them off!’ With that he ordered the turbans nailed to their heads. Two miraculously survived to recount the horror. It is no surprise that Vlad Dracul’s name inspired fear in the Ottoman Empire and helped Wallachia to remain independent. For many he is a hero, not a monster.” Augustine glanced across at me.

“To trace Bram Stoker’s fictional Dracula, it will be necessary to visit a ruined castle on the Pasu Tihuta. To discover Vlad the Impaler we must search for the Seven Citadels. Unfortunately, the journey is quite long and will leave you little time to ski.”

“Perhaps we can ski tomorrow and then continue on,” I ventured.

“That might be possible. But we must see.” he agreed. And with the storm raging around us we continued north toward Sinaia and the Transylvanian Alps. We had traveled thirty miles when the van suddenly sputtered and quit in the middle of the unplowed road.

Augustine tried the starter. Nothing. Snowdrifts snaked across the road. Augustine tried the starter again. Nothing. In the distance, through the fogged windshield a single, incandescent light wavered like a beacon. We had passed a dark wagon full of gypsies and I pictured myself waiting in the dark, next to the road, for a wagon filled with the brightly dressed men and women. Augustine insisted hitch hiking was out of the question. “You must remember Andrew many people make less than three dollars a month. Your skis, computer and cameras are the equivalent of ten years hard work.”

At the moment when it seemed we’d have to sleep in the van, Augustine said, “A mechanic told me it might be water in the gas. I have purchased a special chemical.” After a lengthy search through Bucharest, Augustine found two pints of STP Gas Treatment. He now poured half of one into the tank and tried the starter. The lights dimmed dramatically but the engine caught. The effect was miraculous–if short lived. Four miles later, the van quit again and our progress continued in this stop start fashion past the brightly lit Ploiesti oil fields, dark horse drawn wagons, small villages and groups of people walking steadfastly through blowing snow on the road’s shadowy shoulder. A tiny bit of gas treatment gained us a few more miles and four hours later we drained the last of the elixir from the last magic bottle and staggered to a stop outside Sinaia’s Montana Hotel. “We need a room,” I told the Clerk.

Hearing my English, he announced a room with two beds would cost twelve dollars for the night. Augustine was incensed. Twelve dollars amounted to a week’s pay. “That is an impossible amount,” he objected.

“That is the price. If you don’t want the room, then find a cheaper hotel.”

“Augustine, I can afford twelve dollars. The Van is stuck for the night. We’ll take the room.”

“We have two prices,” he tried to apologize. “One is for Romanians, the other for foreigners. It is that way with everything–food, hotels, ski lifts and rentals. A Romanian engineer makes four dollars per month, even our middle class cannot possibly pay for such luxuries.” Descending to the disco in the Montana’s basement, I found locals spinning to a thunderous Turkish Hit Parade. Clouds of cigarette smoke, good wine, a pulsing light show and darkly exotic women and men filled the room. The sounds, colors and music evoked Romania’s wild heart and thus it was well past two in the morning when I navigated through the empty halls back to the room.

First light showed blue skies and fresh snow blanketing the royal villas on the hills above the city. Built around a 17th century monastery, and known as the “Pearl of the Carpathians” Sinaia served as a summer resort for Romania’s royal family. Today Sinaia’s hauntingly beautiful Peles Castle displays a rare mix of 19th century Renaissance, Rococo and Baroque styles. If you could ignore the additional Turkish, Greek and Latin influences, the Gypsy children begging on the corners or the friendly alcoholics guarding cars for fifty lei (eight cents) with three, forty person trams and seven double chairs, set in the shadow of the 8300 foot Mount Omul, Sinaia might be compared to a western ski resort.

Because time was precious, we shouldered our skis and climbed to the base tram where a line wound down a long stair way and out the station door. Pushing his way through a crowd around the ticket booth, Augustine shook his head. “The wait is two hours!” He noted with disgust. “We must drive to the upper station!” Replacing the gas filter fixed Augustine’s van and by following a precipitous, icy road past groups of skiers hiking uphill, we made it to the upper tram.

Sinaia’s second tram rises to the Bucegi Plateau that opens onto a series of south facing bowls and north facing glades. The majority of runs are intermediate and above treeline. Grooming is minimal by Western standards, but that morning, conditions ranged from soft bumps to untracked powder. At Sinaia, skiers must first wait in line to buy a ticket for each ride then wait in line for a double chair. During holidays these waits can last hours but that morning, they amounted to ten minutes and I traversed onto one of the untracked faces, unweighted, settled and started linking turns downhill.

It is possible to ski 4650 vertical feet back to Sinaia. If the aging lifts do not compare to Wasatch trams or Rocky Mountain quads, neither do the castles, monasteries or Romanian people.

Orbiting on the chair until early afternoon, I skied a dozen runs in untracked powder. To the north, Poina Brasov Ski Area marked the beginning of Transylvania. The sun was dipping toward the horizon when Augustine reminded me that Dracula might still be discovered in the Transylvanian Alps. We must start before dark if we hoped to arrive before midnight. I reluctantly skied the forested north faces down to the van where a ragged Gypsy boy approached me.

“You have so much and I have nothing,” he beseeched me in Romanian.

I attempted to give the boy a hundred Lei (20 cents).

“That is too much.” Augustine advised me.

And though I felt a little as if I’d over tipped to earn a waiter’s respect, the boy’s accusation haunted me as we drove back to Sinaia and turned north toward Castle Bran. Passing through Azuga, I noticed a group of children huddled on a corner. Turning to stare at me, one boy smiled. His mouth was filled with a set of plastic vampire teeth.

We arrived that evening in the 13th century city of Brasov. It was dark when we finally stopped in front the Castle Bran. Built on a rocky perch above a narrow pass in 1377, and used to defend the border with Wallachia, Bran Castle is reputed to have once hosted Vlad the Impaler. Local historians, however, insist that despite the castle’s narrow halls and secret passages, no documents exist to link the Prince to the Bran.

And yet from a distance at night, the Castle’s lighted tower projected the silhouette of a bat. When I complimented Cornel Talos, the manager of the Bran, on his sophisticated use of advertising, he looked at me oddly and confessed he had never seen the tower’s lighted bat.

Strange…. and yet no more unsettling than the grizzled man who snagged my sleeve outside the castle. Opening his palm to reveal a cameo of Vlad the Impaler, he inquired in heavily accented English, “You search for Dracula?”

“We must hurry,” Augustine said and from Bran we turned north to the massive Citadel in Fagaras. Over the next four days we explored Sibui with its strong Germanic architecture and prosperous downtown. We searched for ancient fortress walls in Medias and made small talk with Gypsy girls, who chorused, “BON BON! BON BON!” (GIVE US CANDY!) During the Romanian equivalent of Mother’s Day we found ourselves in a Sighisoara restaurant where Vlad the Impaler reputedly lived for a few months as an infant. Augustine had heard of a fresco in a private dining room and, not to be denied, opened the door and pushed me in with fifty couples that were drinking, eating and dancing. As the crowd grew silent, Augustine pointed to Vlad’s cold visage in the corner above the tables.

“You must take a photo,” he said. In fact I took four photos, but strangely, nothing later appeared on the developed film.

From Sighisoara we continued north to Augustine’s home in the university town of Tîrgu Mures where he introduced me to his girlfriend Maria and his family. “I am not an expert on Bistrita,” he confessed at dinner that night “But I have heard there are ruins on the Tihuta Pass, where Bram Stoker claimed Dracula’s Castle was located.”

By that time we had come too far to turn back and following a three-hour drive, we parked in front of Bistrita’s Golden Crown Hotel. Pointing to a trail of fresh blood splattered across the hotel’s white marble steps, Augustine said, “It appears as if we’ve come to the right place.”

Perhaps a guest had slipped on the ice and hit his head on the curb. Scalp cuts are prolific bleeders. Or perhaps someone had opened his hand while slicing garlic. Or perhaps there had been a fight or an automobile accident that opened a major vein. We followed the blood up the stairs and across the lobby. “And this blood on the floor,” Augustine inquired of the receptionist, “Did you see who was cut?”

“Blood?” she said with some confusion. When we turned around to show her, a woman in a white smock was mopping the white marble.

The Hotel Manager suggested if we wished to find Dracula, we should speak with Alexander Misiuga. Though his card claimed, “Writer and Humorist,” Mr. Misiuga once served as Head of Tourism for Bistrita. After reading Dracula and noting the interest of western tourists, he eventually persuaded the federal government to build the Golden Crown Hotel and Hotel Dracula on the pass. Augustine told him we had come to find Dracula’s Castle.

“Yes, I understand, but it is little more than a few stone ruins, and there is no evidence that even these can be attributed to Vlad the Impaler,” Misiuga confessed.

We had drawn a blank. Tantalizing bits and pieces had lured us across Romania, but here in Bistrita, it appeared as if Dracula had finally eluded us. “There is one very special thing few people have seen, ” Alexander continued, as we stood outside the hotel. “In the Crown’s basement, there is a painting of Dracula’s Daughter.”

Augustine confessed he hadn’t known the Count had a daughter.

“Oh, yes,” Misiuga insisted, leading us to a dark storage room where artist Michael Lassel had painted a surrealistic landscape filled with werewolves, castles and bats–a wild nightmare in which Misiuga’s face shone as the face of Dracula.

A day later I stood on the storm swept summit of Poina Brasov’s Mount Postavaru. With two major trams, a creaking open gondola, various short drag lifts and two dozen runs which snake down open bowls, deep gulleys and dark forests this Transylvanian ski resort could easily be transplanted to Western Europe.

Poina Brasov has an excellent restaurant called the “Outlaws Hut” which is decorated with animal skins, shocks of corn and dried flowers. The food runs to flaming chickens and wild boar served up with wild violin and accordion music. Poina Brasov’s Hotel Alpin, Ciucas and Bradul are fairly modern and the swimming pools are clean. There are two nightclubs, which offer semi-nude Revues of exquisite Russian dancers. Then too, when the storms sweep off the Mediterranean, the skiing runs to knee-deep powder and rites of passage through dark glades.

It was shortly after noon on my last day in Romania when I sought shelter from a white out in the trees next to “Wolf Run” where the wind’s howl faded and the massive evergreens defined a hundred undiscovered paths. If experience warned it was foolish to ski alone, out of bounds in Romania, experience also made me wonder why I had the woods to myself. More ominous, while these woods were indeed lovely, dark and deep, were they also haunted by Count Dracula?

“Wolf Run” summoned the ancient Count. Bram Stoker wrote that the vampire traveled as a wolf. Squeezing between two evergreens, I glimpsed movement in the trees. For a second I saw a caped Rumanian Count standing in the shadows, and turned to stare over my right shoulder. My shoulders and knees followed my head, my tips dug in and I went flying.

I landed hard, my backpack and camera absorbing the impact. Powder filled my goggles and ears and I experienced a profound dread. Face down in the snow, I pushed on my poles, floundered to my knees and scanned the dark shadows. Nothing. No sounds or footprints disturbed the dark glade’s untracked snow. A thick fog swirled through the trees and, whether it was the cold finally penetrating layers of polypro that made me shiver, I still cannot say.

During a thousand miles and ten day road trip from Bucharest, to the Castle Bran to the Tihuta Pass, I discovered Dracula’s likeness in gilded statues and faded frescoes. I sensed him in the sound of footsteps in secret passages and high in the Seven Citadel’s locked towers. He appeared in the exotic customs of Romania’s Gypsies, in the face of a drunken mad man and in the wet shine of fresh blood spilled across white marble steps at the Golden Crown.

Bidding Augustine goodbye as I boarded the flight back to Zurich, the incident in Bistrita began to make sense. Returning to the street from Alexander Misiuga’s storeroom, I turned a corner into the glittering eyes of a mad man. There was a disturbing quality about his face. Psychopath or idiot, when I returned his look, he smiled a wide, saliva filled grin that proudly displayed his remaining two teeth. Glistening in the late afternoon sun, his beautiful canines were fangs.

“A picture!” I whispered to Augustine as the man turned and scuttled down the hall. In the six seconds it took me to cover thirty feet, he disappeared. I searched the Golden Crown’s halls, lobby and street in front but he was gone. Though no one had seen him, they thought they knew who he was.

“He is a harmless old drunk,” a waitress told Augustine. “He sleeps by day and drinks all night.”

Try the Hotel Alpina in Poina Brasov.
If you’re a quick study and can dance Turkish Swing, you’ll do well in the basement discos of the Piatra Mare and Ciucas Hotels in Poiana Brasov and the Montana in Sinaia. Coming off the mountain, skiers run a gauntlet of the creative panhandlers, colorful gypsies while the floor shows in Poina Brasov’s Teleferic, Capra Neagra and Favorit and the gambling Casino in Sinaia supply late night exotic apre ski distractions.

Don’t miss the Castle Peles in Sinaia, the Citadel in Fagaras, Sibiu’s commercial downtown, Brasov medieval center, the entire town of Sighisoara and the windswept stone castles guarding the important trade routes now major roads.

Romanian mountain restaurants are worlds apart from the classic US fare. Try the meat Goulash at Gheorghe and Viorica Mocano’s Cota 1500 Restaurant found midmountain above Sinaia.

At Poiana Brasov’s “Coliba Haiducilor” or the “Outlaw” dinner begins with small sausages called “mititei” served around a bonfire. Then the party moves inside for weeping violins and wild accordions, flaming chickens, skewered boar, pickled vegetables, cold Azuga beer and a fine cabernet from Dealu Mare. Also try PB’s “Sura Dacilor” or “Dacians’ Shed.” Homemade wine is integral to local hospitality, as is “tuica” a fruit brandy commonly distilled from plums but often made from cherries. Coffee comes in either “nes” (instant) or a syrupy Turkish brew that takes two sugars to cut its bitter taste.

Swimming pools can be found both at the Montana in Sinaia and Alpin in Poiana Brasov. For the lowest rent try the Villa Bonanza for $5.00 per night in Poina Brasov. Best souvenirs are hand made lace blouses, woven table cloths and wood carvings and can be found in Brasov’s pedestrian only medieval downtown.

The base elevation at Sinaia is 2805 the summit is 6600 while Poina Brasov base is 3346 and the summit is 5822. Secret powder can be found left of Wolf Run in Poina Brasov. Sunny bowls drop from the Bucegi Plateau above Sinaia but trail maps typically list numbers instead of names.

Bucharest’s Henri Coandă International Airport’s is serviced by: Swiss Air and Tarom: The Romanian National Airline offers flights from within Europe to Bucharest other airlines include Air France, Lufhansa, Iberia, Alatalia and others.

For Information, brochures and other operators,
Romanian National Tourist Office

355 Lexington Avenue, 8th Floor

New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 545-8484


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