By Kathleen M. Fegan
Photo credits: Kathleen Fegan, Laurie Sherman, Karen Simone, Sarah B. and "Photo" Joe Schifferdecker
"I have crossed oceans of time to find you..."
~ Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula.
t was with these words etched in our minds that my two friends and I searched for a tour of the land that was best known for Dracula. We couldn't believe our luck when we found the Dracula tour offered by "Tours of Terror" and immediately signed up for it. We were so excited to go to Romania that little did we know that we were about to embark upon a journey that would forever change our lives.
hen the day arrived that we were to depart for our trip we could barely contain the excitement that had built up for months. At the airport, we were given our plane tickets, some gifts (including copies of the genre magazine Gothic Beauty) and after a stop in Switzerland, we landed in Bucharest. Since we had already met our charming host Charles, we felt secure that we would be escorted to our first hotel without a hitch. Upon arrival, we were greeted by our Romanian tour guide, Radu, and our able driver, Stephan. We quickly loaded up and were on our way in a luxury coach.
adu gave us a history of Bucharest, along with insightful musings on the city and it's turbulent past as we drove through it. As we arrived for the first evening, we got to briefly know our traveling companions whom we would later be formerly introduced to at our welcoming banquet. Since it was already evening we hurried to dress for dinner. The Boulevard Hotel is enchanting, with a spiral staircase and gothic design. At dinner that evening we all introduced ourselves, with some prodding from Charles, and tasted our first Romanian meal. After dinner some people decided to go out and explore the city, some went gambling at a local casino, others of us stayed in and wandered around our hotel. The hotel itself boasts some incredible architecture and more than a ghost or two. Since we were dead to the world we decided to call it a fairly early evening and get some rest
he following morning we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel and began our journey further into the land. Our first stop for the day was to be the isle of Snagov, home of theSnagov Monastery, which are the burial grounds for Vlad himself. The monastery is only accessible by boat, which was handled by Tatiana, a very able bodied woman. We were all a bit nervous entering the tiny dingy knowing there was a very real possibility of one -- if not more of us -- finding our way out of the boat and into the lake. Happily, no one did meet the water and we all made it to the island.
he island is populated by a flock of turkeys that didn't seem to mind the invasion. The monastery itself is small but gorgeous. We were given the history of the place and the legend of Vlad's remains. Since the actual monastery is being renovated we weren't able to take great pictures of the paintings that decorated the walls but we did get some good photographs of Vlad's grave . . . including some shots of one brave individual who laid on his grave. After some time wondering around the island we were escorted back to the dingy to be deposited safe and sound on the other side of the lake.
rom there we drove to Bran Castle. During the drive we were amused with tales of the country as well as movies. Charles handed out imported Dracula candy, which many of us didn't eat because we wanted to keep them as souvenirs. Throughout the bus rides Charles would hand out a treat a day, including glow in the dark vampire fangs, promo postcards from the film "13 Ghosts," collectible temporary tattoos and other goodies. The countryside from Snagov to Bran is breathtaking and even more so when the history of the land is known. One can almost see the Turks lurking in the trees pushing the Ottoman Empire forward.
pon our arrival at Bran Castle we were happy to see the first of two Gypsy bazaars for shopping purposes. There is a small climb to the castle of which upon completing we all went into the castle itself. The castle really belonged to the brother of Vlad, but held significance for us since this is where Vlad was imprisoned by his brother Radu for a period of 6 months or so. During his imprisonment Vlad perfected his lust for impalement on the unfortunate small animals
that wondered into his cell. As we toured the castle we got the feeling that the history of Bran was one of great cruelty and deception. The castle also holds the significant position as being the passage point into Transylvania. After many of us had used up an entire roll of film in the castle, including several shots of the cell where Vlad lived, and the hidden staircase, we continued out of the castle into the courtyard. We were all very surprised that it had begun to snow. The day changed as rapidly as the governments of Romania do. We walked down the hill toward the bazaar. It was during this point we noticed that we were being filmed! Our tour was being shadowed by a British TV film crew who were doing a special for Discovery TV's Travel Channel. We had all been told of the filming but up to this point the crew had remained in the background. It wasn't long before we adopted cameraman Malcolm as "one of our own." We proceeded into the bazaar to do some of shopping for gifts, gloves, sweaters, dolls and wine.
e hopped back onto the bus and proceeded to our next destination. An impromptu and unscheduled stop took place, as we were loaded into several horse-drawn carriages. It was like a scene out of a Hammer horror film, a delightful surprise. These carts can be seen throughout the country and it was very interesting to take a horse ride through the mountains to a quaint restaurant for lunch.
e arrived in Brasov later that evening. Charles informed us that we were going to go on an excursion of the city that night including a visit to an open cemetery if one could be found. After freshening up we met up with the group and headed out for a nighttime view of the city. Unfortunately, thecemetery was locked, but we proceeded up to the two towers that in times past were used to guard the city. The towers themselves are called the White and Black towers respectively. After hiking up a little hill to the first tower we were met by some soldiers. After some negotiations with our determined guide Radu, one of the "guardians" actually
escorted us further up the hill to the next tower for a great photo opportunity. This was an unexpected delight as the city at night is beautiful with a view that can transport you back one hundred years. From there we went back into the city walking past a small stream where witches were drowned in days gone by. Some of us retired to the hotel while others decided to go find a bar and to paint the town (bloody) red.
he next morning we had breakfast and were rounded up to take a tour of Brasov's town square, including a look into the Black Church. The church had been severely burned onthe outside turning the stones black but not destroying it. The church now displays a large collection of Persian rugs that would be the envy of any collector. We visited the catacombs in the back, while our friendly television crew interviewed several members of the group outside.
fter the church we all shopped for a while in the town square before heading off for our next destination, Sighisoara, which is the birthplace of Price Vlad.
in Sighisoara marked a definite turning point in the trip. Up until now the areas we had visited were fascinating but none would stand out as much as Sighisoara would. The old part of the city is just a few steps up from one of the main squares. The town tosses you back into a time that has been forgotten. The first destination was Clock Tower, next to the torture chamber. There were many gravesites around the chamber and several trees. It doesn't take too much imagination to know that these were the very trees that witches were hanged from. The torture chamber included a rack (another unforgettable photo opportunity) as well as many instruments of torture. From there we passed the place where Vlad Dracula first made his appearance on Earth. Further along up the cobble street was the tavern where we were to have lunch.
n honor of our visit, a mock witch trial was staged outside the tavern. It was an abomination being reenacted before our very eyes. The fake whipping that
the accused "witch" received was almost too realistic. A performance was being held about events that took the lives of over 7 millionEuropean women during the Inquisition. These women were nothing more herbalists, midwives, widows, old, or held title that the church wanted to acquire. It's a dark period in all of our history that should never be forgotten or repeated. After the trial, which - whew - ends happily, we went into the tavern for a meal. We descended to the grotto and had a full lunch.
we began our ascent up to the graveyard. To get to the ancient burial grounds, you walk up several flights of the haunted, covered stairs. The legend of the Scara stairs is that if you stop for more than twenty seconds on any given stair you will lose your soul to the stairwell. The graveyard is something out of a movie. There are headstones that are so old the dates have been eroded and headstones so ornate it's not something one would see on a daily basis. As the sun set, most of us left the graveyard... but a few lingered. Charles had distributed glow sticks for us so we wouldn't get lost, and some of us had little flashlights as the skies darkened. We were taking pictures on and of the graves. It's here that we got some of our most interesting photos. There was no fog that evening but our pictures clearly show mist and figures. Are they ghosts, unexplained images or a Kodak screw up?
e all left and returned to the bus, or at least we thought we all did. Somehow a few of us took a wrong turn and couldn't find their way out of the maze that is this cemetery. We could have been evil and kept them inside a little longer to prolong the "scare" factor, but we got them out fairly quickly. We may remember the "wrong" route on purpose next year, and get the whole group lost in this graveyard!
oday was a full day, indeed, and now it was time to travel to Borgo Pass. The sights in Sighisoara left many of us with feelings about past events and in awe at the quiet peace the cemetery provided.
ith the oldest city of Eastern Europe behind us, it was time to begin the Jonathan Harker part of the trip. We ascended up Borgo Pass, which is where Bram Stoker places Dracula's castle. Stoker's description of the Carpathian Mountains was accurate, however, it is not actually were Dracula lived. After riding a while we stopped at the Golden Crown Restaurant for dinner. This is where Jonathan Harker stopped for food on his way to visit Count Dracula in the novel. After numerous toasts (yes, Charles will make you toast as well if you go on the trip!), we had supper. It was during these toasts that we acknowledged our driver, Stephan, for his
ability to move a huge passenger bus along narrow roads with as little effort as he would a Fiat. We really got to know everyone at this dinner event.
fter a long and delightful dinner we proceeded up to "the pass," home to Hotel Castle Dracula. On the coach we watched "Nosferatu" with Klaus Kinski. We arrived late in the evening to a picturesque view of Borgo Pass. There was thick fog and snow everywhere. It was too breathtaking to be real - it actually looked like a film studio had arrived before us to set up a movie shoot. Since we had arrived very late we all checked in rather quickly and most of us settled in for the night. My traveling
companions and I weren't yet ready for sleep so we proceeded to explore the hotel. We found ourselves in the lobby with three locals who were watching the hotel for the evening. Though none of them spoke English it was apparent that they wanted us to join them for some Vodka. We declined and after a little more exploration and a lot more picture taking, we retired to the sound of wolves outside our windows.
he next morning we woke up to a fantasy view of the pass covered in snow. We discovered that this was
only the second time that the tour experienced snow atop the mountains. We went outside of the hotel to play in the snow, and to shop in the second Gypsy bazaar. After purchases of many Vlad dolls and other souvenirs, we went back into the hotel for lunch and to begin our transformation for the evening. We had just begun the process of getting ready when we got a knock on our door. It was the British TVcrew, ready to capture us before and after. They asked us several questions about why we were on the trip, how we were enjoying it and what we thought of the history of Vlad. They taped us putting on our make-up, and getting ready for the Halloween ball. Finally, it was time to party.
e met downstairs
below the lobby all decked out in our finest offerings.
t was time for the ritual "group photo session."
here were Fairies, Jack the Rippers, Ghouls, Goths, Vampire Vikings, Hippie Vampires, Peasants from days gone by, Monks, a Greaser Zombie, a Xena warrior princess, and lions, tigers and bears, oh my! No, not the last few, but you get the picture. We went out to a huge bonfire and roasted steak on a stake, pardon the pun. A band of Romanian musicians entertained us, and we even danced around the bonfire. There was snow on the ground, and a chill in the air, but nobody felt anything but the warmth of the bonfire, and the
warm feelings of everyone there. Our hosts even poured us wine and shots throughout the bonfire party. But this was just the evening's appetizer.
e made our way into the dining room, which Charles (with help from Radu and one of our tour-members, Sarah), had creatively decorated with cobwebs, Vampire posters and Halloween goodies. The camera crew had been there with Charles to see the room's transformation from a normal restaurant to a haunted Halloween hall of horror.
o add a little fun to the décor, the walls were adorned with skull-faced lollipops and the tables with candy bones. We had a huge multi-course meal, listening to a DJ playing selections from "Rocky Horror Show," " Phantom of the Opera" and other Halloween hits, from Sinatra's "Witchcraft" to Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" to songs by Elvira. We proceeded to dance the night away, as the music segued into tunes that made our bodies sway and shimmy. The good times and good spirits were flowing freely. At around midnight, we were whisked away for a quick visit to the secret dungeon that contains the castle's coffin (and some sinister secrets that can't be revealed herein), and we returned to the ballroom where we partied like it was 1799. There are no words to describe having a gala Halloween Ball in Transylvania other than... incredible. No other Halloween that any of us ever do will exceed the excitement or intensity of this one. Not now, not ever.
wards were presented for scariest and sexiest costumes, as well as best transformation and best overall costume.
e were allowed to sleep in a bit, though sleep is about the last thing you do on this tour. We left Borgo Pass sleepy, hung over but very happy.
next destination was the city of Sibiu. Along the way to the city we were asked if we wanted to take a detour to one of the most gothic monasteries in Romania. No prior tour had made this side trip.Of course the answer was yes, so we stopped at Biertan Monastery. Like most places in Romania the monastery's past is one seeped in savagery and blood, today however it sits serenely quiet, a betrayal of its history. From there it was onward to Sibiu, the place that held the tombs of Vlad's only legitimate son and a link to Frankenstein. Yes, Virginia, there may or may not be a Santa Claus, but there is a Frankenstein! It was during the ride into Sibiu that Charles amused us with a penny auction for all sorts of bizarre and rare items of terror.
ibiu is a charming little city with a colorful past. Come to think of it, I doubt there is any place in Romania that doesn't have a colorful past. Since we were so exhausted from the night before many of us simply decided to refrain from exploring the city and went to our rooms for much needed sleep. In the morning we all gathered to see the town. Radu took us on a walking tour showing us some of the most beautiful buildings ever built. The charm of Sibiu is overwhelming based in part that it's the place where the Pied
Piper was supposed to have brought all of the children he took for a walk. Another tour first, we walked over "Liar's Bridge," the bridge where politicians speak and where married men promise their mistress' the moon and stars; leaving little doubt as to why the bridge is so named. Onward we went to the church that houses the tomb of Vlad's son and an inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The tombs are awesome, with gothic carvings and writings. Some of our tour members did some "rubbings." Be aware that if you happen to lean up against one of the tombs there is a chance you'll come away with a tomb print on your coat, as such was the case this time. It's kind of creepy to be told you have the imprint of a tomb down your backside.
rom Sibiu we loaded ourselves into the bus and began our journey to the place
that I most wanted to visit, Tirgoviste, the princely court of Dracula. The site is situated on top of a mountain that leads into a deep gorge. As you drive up to the site you can see the building perched up high. At the base we all took on the daunting task of climbing the 1500 stairs to the top. There is no other way to get into the fortress except to walk up. After the hike we arrived to the most intense view ever. There, in front of us, was the place that Dracula had chosen to build his court. Here is where his wife was "kept," and kept is an accurate word since the poor woman probably didn't see a day of happiness after her marriage to Vlad.
he ruins were everything you would expect and much more. The calm quiet of the place is now peaceful, but you could imagine how it could drive you insane if you had to live there for any given period of time. Vlad's reigning cruelty was ever evident from the dungeon that sat predominately at one side of the fortress. We spent an extremely long and satisfying time in the ruins, wandering around and taking it all in. We reluctantly departed to return to our bus.
ur next stop was back in Bucharest where we would spend our final evening in Romania. Along the way we made another impromptu stop at an open graveyard for some more pictures of us around the graves. If you didn't guess, our group had this thing for graveyards. After a drive where we watched (Francis Ford Coppola's) "Bram Stoker's Dracula," we arrived back in
Bucharest returning to the original hotel we stayed at during our first night.
e had time to change and freshen up for our farewell gala feast in Club Dracula. The dinner and show were incredible, giving us all a great way to end an even more incredible journey. We almost lost one of our tourmembers, Karen, to a very pale and very theatrical Count, but she survived safe and sound!
e spent the last few hours in Romania taking pictures of each other and enjoying the company of many new friends. None of us wanted it to end, but, as with all good things, this too was quickly drawing to its conclusion.
e all got up that early morning and departed for the airport. The entire group had settled down and became very quiet, due in part to the early hour, but mostly because we would all miss our traveling companions and the country we were about to leave behind.
his Dracula Tour of Romania is a life altering experience. One gets to see a country that has come through strife and grief to become one of the most fascinating places on the planet. The people of Romania carry their past etched in their faces; the rebellions, the conflicts, the growing pains, the pride, the savagery and the determination to make their home one that will be awe inspiring to all those who visit it with the right mindset. At the same time, one also gets to visit a mysterious, almost mystical land with legends and lore of interest to any die-hard vampire aficionado, or anyone even the slightest vamp-curious.
n a final note, we'd like to thank Charles, without whose humor, charm, wit and hard work, the tour would not be what it is. Thanks to Danny for helping with the planning and for organizing all the great sites in the first place. Thanks to Radu, whose knowledge of history combined with his humor and pride of his country makes the narrative so spellbinding. Thanks to the dark & quiet Stephan, our driver whose capabilities behind the wheel make it possible for all of us to relax, sit back and enjoy the view throughout the journey. Most of all, thanks to all the fellow travelers who shared in this once-in-a-lifetime experience for the ages. Everyone should make the pilgrimage.
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