2003 Tour Report

Notes from Transylvania
by Steve Cuden

Day One: Fly to Romania

Day Two: Bucharest
     We arrived late in the afternoon at Otopeni Airport in Bucharest, a bit worn from a long trip, but excited to be in Romania. Radu, our indispensable guide, and Stefan, the Baryshnikov of Romanian bus drivers, met our group, and escorted us to our coach. Most of us were immediately beset by enthusiastic luggage handling beggars. Wrestling my luggage back from the poor guy proved futile. All he wanted was ten bucks. I gave him my smile. I only hoped I wouldn't later find him inside my suitcase. "Ten dollars, or I stay with you! Forever!"

     We headed into downtown Bucharest to our first stop, the Hotel Bulevard. Along the way, Radu pointed out various buildings that were part of the old Communist regime. Bucharest reminds me of a tired, less elegant, shorter version of Paris. But it's obvious there's an energy and spirit here struggling to make Romania more on a par with the rest of Europe.

     We were quickly learning that Radu is an endless source of valuable information about everything in sight. I know everyone will agree that the tour was as great as it was, in very large part, due to Radu's boundless passion, energy, and knowledge.

     The Hotel Bulevard, though still graceful, has definitely seen a better day. Weirdly, the street it's on is so busy it almost feels like being in Manhattan ; only with smaller, dirtier cars.

     Okay, what's the deal with the elevators in Romania? I kept wondering when the twenty-five midget clowns would come tumbling out. I've been in bigger breadboxes.

     The rooms are spare and tidy, if a bit careworn. Everyone wondered how to flush the room toilet - turned out to be a rod hanging from an actual "water closet" up above the ceiling. And what in the name of Dracul is the bedspread made out of? Is it burlap? Hmmm...

     Some of us had met for the first time at JFK the night before, and even more of us were introduced during our layover in Vienna. But it was during our first night's dinner that we truly began bonding as a group. Our spirits were high as we were treated to a chicken dinner with two salads. This was also our first foray into experiencing the culinary peculiarities Romania has to offer.

     I had the pleasure of dining with Art, Rita, Tony, Tom, Beverly, Ray, and Linda. I soon discovered just how much Tony knows about Dracula - in all his incarnations (Prince, Count, and otherwise) - and how much Art knows about Frankenstein. Both are scholars. Here I thought I knew a few things about Vlad and Viktor, but now that Gothic horror experts surrounded me, I realized I had much to learn. The next days were going to be highly educational, not to mention fun.

     Exchanging money proved to be eye popping. $1.00 U.S. is equal to about 32,500 lei. $30.00 dollars turned you into an instant Romanian millionaire. Call Robin Leach!

     Art, Rita, and I ventured across the street to the local Pizza Hut (nothing like being in a strange land!) and bought 2 bottles of water. Cost: 44,000 lei. J.P. Morgan, get out of the way! Today Bucharest, tomorrow the world! I'm Mr. Moneybags! Oh, yeah, that's about $1.30.

     After our welcome dinner and orientation, some of our group's more intrepid souls set out for a late night on the town, visiting a local health club - the kind where the exercises are performed for you - or is that on you? Your humble reporter did not participate in the evening's alleged activities, and can only repeat what was stated the next day - that at least one member of the "exercisees" found themselves far more involved with the "exercisers" than they may have planned when they'd set out for the evening. No names will be mentioned here, or the fact that they happen to be British royalty...

Day Three: Snagov, Castle Bran, Horse-drawn cart ride, Brasov
     Last night at dinner, our tour-host Charles kept on saying that some of the rooms in the Hotel Bucharest are haunted. And whether it was the power of his suggestion or not - and I'm still hoping that's all it was - I believe I had an actual ghost in my room! In the middle of the night I awoke to see a greenish blob of light in the corner of my room, up in the crack between the top of the wall and the ceiling. I couldn't find any source for it - no reflections, nothing from the street, not a doggone thing - and when I turned on the lights, there was only a normal cornice. When I turned out the lights again the green light was gone. And then the fluorescent lights in my bathroom flickered intermittently; - while turned off! So much for anymore sleep! Damn you, Charles!!!

     Of note, out my hotel window, across the street, was the massive "Cercul Militar National" building. Wonder what may have gone on in there over the past 60 years...

     After a breakfast buffet of meat, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bread, and cereal, we boarded our coach for our first full day on the road...

     It's a relatively short ride from Bucharest into the middle of the countryside to visit Snagov Island. Stefan maneuvered our massive bus like Tony Hawk on a skateboard. In his hands, the lumbering Mercedes Benz coach feels more like a 450 SEL. Masterful! Makes me ashamed to complain about tight parking spaces...

(Map Route Courtesy Radu and Art Belefant)

     Actually getting to Snagov Island proved novel. After driving down a long country road, past numerous small country houses - cottages, really - we stopped at the top of a dirt path leading down to a crude wooden dock on a fresh water lake. There, about a quarter of a mile across the water, we could make out the stout brick spires of Snagov Island's monastery nestled among the trees. Now, all we had to do was get across that water.

     Three wiry young men in a small wooden rowboat met us at the dock. We were rowed across five at a time. It took a little while to get nearly 40 of our group to the island, but the trip was unforgettable for each of us... especially since our young "captain" spoke no English. No matter - he pointed out the sights anyway. Most impressive was the gigantic Ceaucescu Palace off to our starboard side. It had been built many years ago by Romania's decadent former Communist dictator. Apparently, this is where Michael Jackson holed up when he was shooting his "HIStory" video a few years back. I'm greatly impressed by the serene beauty of this place.

     Snagov itself is charming. Normal weathering and various earthquakes surely must have taken a toll on the brick buildings over the last five hundred years, but the exteriors are so neat and clean that I assume they've been renovated in the not too distant past. The multi-spired main chapel is unlike any church I've ever seen, and manages to evoke feelings of an eerie peacefulness.

     Though the exteriors seem newer, the main chapel's interior does not. With numerous scaffolds erected inside, renovations are underway here, too. The fascinating frescoes covering the walls are all originals dating back to the 14th century. The two main rooms inside the chapel felt much smaller than what I was expecting upon approaching the building, and I'm not sure what caused this optical illusion.

     Radu imparted some of Vlad Dracula's history to us. To many Romanians, Vlad is still a hero, having defended Romania from invading Turks. However, many natives also believe he was a "strigoi" - a vampire. Okay, all those in favor of Vlad being a strigoi, raise your hands...

     Snagov is where Dracula and many other Romanian leaders were known to have sought protection when things turned ugly for them. Over the years, various Romanian royals have stored their gold and valuables here. Most importantly, this is where Vlad Dracula is acknowledged to have been buried. His grave is located under the main altar, and has been turned into something of a shrine by those who live, work, and pray at the monastery. Only a priest and a nun live there now, but over time Snagov has been not only a monastery, but also a fortress, a prison, and a royal vault. Centuries ago, the entire island had been walled off. But all that remains now are the striking buildings set on truly tranquil grounds.

     As several of us waited by the dock (guarded by a huge steel cross) for the boat to take us back to the mainland, a local "wild and crazy guy" rowed up holding a madly squawking bird (we think it was a cormorant) that he was trying to sell us. He spoke not a word of English, not that it stopped him from babbling on like a lunatic. Ultimately, our resident PETA representative, Sheila, decided to negotiate with the guy (more than a few feathers flew between them, I can tell you that), and she bought the bird for around 500,000 lei (about sixteen dollars). She wanted to set it free! But when the guy let the bird go, it dived to the bottom of the water. Sheila thought it was dead. More flying feathers! We later learned diving is exactly what that bird does. Perhaps many assorted Sheilas before ours (and many yet to come) have bought that very same bird. Here's the headline, folks: "Bird Snags Fowl From Loon." Stop the presses...

     Our next stop, Castle Bran, is truly an imposing sight. It's a scenic castle seemingly built right out of the craggy tor it sits upon, and has the appropriately creepy look that we imagine Dracula's castle should have. It's been preserved in the most pristine manner, and is wonderfully spooky to see. Many scholars believe Bram Stoker patterned Dracula's fictional castle on Castle Bran, so it's no wonder Francis Ford Coppola used it as the setting for the opening scenes of his film, "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

     As we approached, the wind howled as if straight out of hell, and the cold cut like a saber. Walking up the steep path to Castle Bran was bracing. But once inside we were able to catch our breaths. Here is where our beloved Vlad Tepes was imprisoned for a period of time. The small room in which he was held captive was open to the public for the first time, and we all took pictures as resident prisoners.

     Radu led us up a secret passageway that was discovered inside a wall. The stairs took us from relatively modest downstairs quarters to slightly more elaborate ones upstairs, including roped-off areas with large bearskin rugs on the floor.

     After exploring the castle and its courtyard, we headed back down the hill to a small bazaar that's been set up just for people like us - tourists! But what bargains! "Tchotchke" heaven at cut-rate prices! I bought an antique-model knife for just eleven bucks, and a cool puzzle box (that everyone except me tried to open on the bus - merci beaucoup, Charles...). Sweaters were just twenty bucks, t-shirts were four or five (haggling was the order of the day), postcards were twenty-five cents, and so on. Everyone happily bought souvenirs. At last, I knew I'd had enough Bran when my stomach started rumbling...

     Radu explained that during Dracula's time, Transylvania was essentially the dividing line between east and the west. Asian influences were felt immediately east of here.

     We headed by bus further up into the mountains between Bran and Brasov, into the dark of night, and toward one of the coolest experiences (literally and figuratively) we would have on the entire trip. Charles had warned us a surprise was coming - and was it ever. Stefan stopped the bus on a two-lane, snow-covered, mountain pass. Awaiting us were half a dozen horse-drawn, open-air carts. Not carriages, oh no, these were the very same crude wooden carts we saw the locals using to haul hay and other farm items.

     Radu told us we were going to take a "ten minute" cart ride to our restaurant. Twenty-five minutes later we arrived as blocks of ice. We were learning that Romanian time is calculated on a similar exchange rate as the dollar is to the lei.

     But what an unbelievable, incredible, amazing ride it was - in the pitch black of night, set against snowy roads, wooded mountains, and a sea of stars above. All that was missing was a full moon and howling wolves and we would've been right back in the mid-nineteenth century on our way to meet the Count himself. The ride was beyond exhilarating. Between the boat ride to Snagov, Castle Bran, and then this cart ride, all of my expectations for the entire trip were exceeded - and we were still only starting! I had the privilege of sitting next to the great Ms. Mary W. during the cart ride, and I enjoyed her company immensely. This was only the second time a group on the Dracula Tour had the privilege of experiencing the moonlit horse and buggy adventure.

     At last, we arrived at the Craisa Muntilor restaurant in what barely even seemed a town. In fact, I don't remember seeing a town. Just a number of huts and homes along our path to it. We were far up a mountain in the middle of nowhere - and loving it!

     Entering the charming Alpine-style restaurant, we were each handed a shot glass of delicious, warm, plum brandy, which helped to get our frozen blood flowing again. Dinner was an assortment of meats (lamb, beef, sausage, raw salted bacon), cheeses (including a Romanian cheese aged for many months in pine trees - a truly unique taste), and polenta (a kind of corn meal) served on wooden platters. Radu told us that this was very common fare for Romanians. Of course, we would discover in all our subsequent meals that Romanians enjoy lots of meat with their meat and cheese, and then more cheese with their meat. But this meal was both tasty and welcome in such a unique setting.

     By this point, we were truly bonding as a group. This bunch hadn't stopped laughing from the minute we hit the ground. The energy feels bright, comfortable, and genuine. I was pleasantly surprised and wholly delighted by being with these folks. After dinner, we headed for Brasov and the Aro Hotel. And except for those who went out with Radu for another evening of further debauchery in the local clubs, we crashed for the night.

Day Four: Brasov, Biertan Citadel, bistrita
     The Aro Hotel, under renovation, is much more modern than the Bulevard. Even still, I found the Romanian plumbing more than a little amusing. The funky showerheads are strange enough, but what's up with the shower curtains - or lack thereof? Mine came down to three inches above the tub. What's the point? At least I'm still laughing.

     We had a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, including freshly cooked eggs; and the now ubiquitous meat and cheese platter. After breakfast, I walked over to Star, a local department store, to buy a hair dryer. I had a fine time pantomiming "hair dryer" to the sales staff. But they got it - and I bought one. Who says a mime is a terrible thing to waste?

     Radu took us on a wonderful walking tour of the center of Brasov. Brasov was the most populous city in central Europe in the 15th century. Pop. 500,000. It was considered the crossroads between Mongolia and Europe because it was the first Christian city heading west from Mongolia, and the last going east toward Mongolia. Many buildings, most of which are still homes, offices, and stores; have been in existence since Dracula's time. Truly beautiful architecture that looks just like what we would mostly find "faked" in touristy areas of America. Only here it's the real deal. I suppose I need to get out of my Disney mind-set. We walked along a bustling pedestrian shopping mall with modern shops set into the old buildings. Kind of incongruous, but interesting, too.

     In the town center's plaza, we stood near the old city hall, made famous in a woodcut of Dracula (where he enjoys a meal before a bunch of his enemies who he's had impaled). Charming fellow that Vlad. Radu told us that beneath the city are cavernous holding areas that were designed hundreds of years ago to store food by keeping it cool. Most of these have now been turned into restaurants and shops.

     We continued our walk, heading for the Black Church, which Radu explained was originally Catholic, but for hundreds of years now has been German Protestant. It's called "Black" because it had been burned during a major fire hundreds of years ago, and still shows some charring. The locals call it "The Virgin Mary Church." Its gloriously ornate architecture is remarkable. How they built these things way back then always mystifies me.

     We walked up another ancient street past the old synagogue (a small Jewish population survived World War 2 in Brasov), and then further up to the famous original gate to the city. It's now a beautiful ochre colored building with spires that reminded me of a small version of Sleeping Beauty's castle. There's that Disney thing again. It's a small world, after all...

     Next, we headed for Sighisoara. The drive between Brasov and Sighisoara was filled with eye-candy vistas of rolling green hills, farmland (they grow lots of cabbage), and rugged mountains rising over gracefully flowing valleys. We passed many farmers on carts and horses hauling produce carts that were very similar to the ones we rode on the night before. We were fortunate to be in Romania at the change of seasons. The fall colors dappled the hills, leaving the densely forested mountain passes covered in an amber-reddish hue. Along the way we watched classic vampire videos courtesy of Charles and Tony.

     We stopped at the remarkable Biertan Citadel (a citadel is essentially a fortified church). Three separate layers of stone walls protect the church, complete with ports in the walls used to fire weapons out of. Attacking this place must've been tough to do. The view from the citadel, which is on high ground looking down upon a small town and undulating farmland neatly contoured into the hills, is unlike anything I've ever seen in America. Toto, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

     We drove on to Sighisoara where we had a lunch of beef soup and turkey at the Hotel Rex. We were supposed to tour Sighisoara today, but apparently some high-level government meeting was taking place in town, so we rearranged our itinerary.

     After lunch, we drove to Bistrita where we checked into the Corone De Aur Hotel. This is the exact place Bram Stoker wrote that Jonathan Harker ate a meal while on the road to Count Dracula's Castle. Inside the hotel is the Jonathan Harker Salon, where we all subsequently gathered for a night-before-Halloween meal. The room was set up for maximum spooky effect, dark and mysterious, lit only by candles. A lovely staff of female devils served us shot glasses of warm plum brandy as they greeted us.

     Dinner was shish-kabobs, followed by a round of toasts by everyone, mostly toasting our having made it to Romania safely, and also wishing Ralph and Candy well on the night before their nuptials.

     Once again, the most prominent feature of this group was laughter. It was non-stop and heartfelt. It's amazing how many people on this trip share the same feelings and sensibilities.

     After our banquet feast, Charles conducted his annual "Penny Auction." I didn't see very many items going for a penny, but everyone had a good time as many of us bid on videos, books on tape, magazines, dolls, and other horror related items.      Those who stayed up into the wee hours of the morning partied on in the Harker Salon. We played a round of macabre musical chairs, and also played the "napkin" game, where teams had to put "body parts", as called out by Charles, onto a napkin that, during each round, ever decreases in size.

Day Five: Borgo Pass, Castel Dracula, A Wedding, Halloween
     Happy Halloween day!

     After breakfast, we drove one hour from Bistrita up the Borgo Pass to Piatra Fintinele, which is the area Stoker described as the location of Dracula's Castle. There we found our hotel for the night, the Hotel Castel Dracula! The surrounding countryside here is absolutely stunning, with rambling mountains and valleys and a full color change underway in every direction. Fortuitously (or was Vlad with us?), we arrived at the most perfect time - the day was cold and blustery, with gloomy, foggy, mystically eerie skies. It's as if the heavens had planned for our arrival. Charles, do you have some sort of a special deal going with the weather Gods, or what?

     The hotel is a creepy old castle, with a faux stone edifice, and a cobblestone courtyard. The rooms are small but comfortable, and mine had a spectacular view of the valley below. We now knew what it was like to stay in an actual castle. It was still early in the day and many of us went out to buy souvenirs at a couple of gift shacks set up in front of the castle. More trinkets to bring home!

     A short while later, mid-afternoon, we all boarded the bus to drive two minutes to the base of a steep dirt road that led up to a hillside monastery. This would be where two members of our tour, Ralph and Candy, would be married. We joyfully trudged up the hill to attend the wedding. This was truly something special, and we were all a part of it. Ralph was decked out in full Dracula regalia: fangs, tails and all. Candy looked resplendent in a shimmering off-white bridal gown . They'd make damn snappy figurines atop a devil's food wedding cake!

     The priest who would perform the ceremony met us outside. The church is small and cozy, but has a nice, warm energy.

     Inside were a gaggle of nuns who prayed aloud during the Romanian orthodox "good luck" wedding ceremony, which Radu translated for us. The whole thing was surreal, and yet another highlight of the trip. Because Ralph and Candy are not orthodox, the priest couldn't "officially" marry them. But the ritual ceremony blessed them nonetheless, bestowing upon them good luck in their marriage.

     The view from the monastery, looking back across the valley at our hotel, was awe inspiring, the gloomy skies making it all the more supernaturally romantic. Curiously, as we emerged from the monastery, the clouds parted over the Hotel Castel Dracula. The sun streaked down around the hotel, almost as if the heavens were shining their approval!

     Then we walked back down the hill to the hotel, where, with a few hours until Halloween night, we began preparing ourselves for the costume party.

     Shortly before 7 P.M., ghoulish apparitions of all ilk began drifting into the lobby, where the staff was seen to laugh nervously and then flee. We met in the lower lobby for the official group photo, and then proceeded to the castle's cobblestone courtyard, for more picture taking. Then we headed outside to an area below the hotel, on a grassy hillside, where a bonfire had been prepared. Plum brandy was handed out freely to everyone, and although for a brief time the night was just the right mixture of cold and dank, the fire soon warmed the cockles of our hearts. At least my cockle got plenty toasty, anyway. As Charles distributed sparklers, the staff handed out wooden stakes with hearty hunks of steak skewered on them. We bayed at the heavens as we danced around the fire, roasting our chars of beef. Howwwlllllllll...

     Once the fire dwindled down, we headed inside, into a large room in the hotel's basement, which had been spookily decorated to perfection by Charles, Radu, and one of tour members, Tom. The table had been set, the children of the night were all in place, and the party began, with a DJ spinning monster related songs. We even found ourselves before the cameras of a Romanian TV News crew who surely must have been doing a story on "those freaky Americans up in the Borgo Pass."

     After we ate and danced for awhile, Charles announced that we'd be going in groups of twelve down to "the dungeon" for a special surprise. Down steep, dark stairs we were led, into a small, dim chamber, occupied only by a wooden coffin in middle of the room. Radu told a tale about the Count, and we were in for a few real shocks. We took turns lying down inside the coffin to have our pictures taken.

     No doubt, everyone had a blast - even when gate crashers tried to mess things up. Nobody's gonna get past our own bouncers Scott and Jeff when they don't want to let 'em pass. The music and dancing continued until 4 a.m., when the creatures of the night sneaked back to their rooms before the sun arose.

     The next day on the bus, Charles announced the winners of the costume contest as judged by Charles, Radu, and Stefan. Scott was chosen for "Scariest Costume" because he was undoubtedly our scariest tour member (but surely one of our most lovable). "Least Scary Costume" was an added category created especially for Art, who portrayed one of the most comical Counts in Vampire history. "Sexiest Costume" was won by Phyllis for what Charles called her "Queen Tut" outfit (with special mentions for Mary, Mary Kay, Trish, Michelle, Linda, Melissa, D., Sheila, and both Rita's. Hmmm, seemimgly all the ghoulish gals on the trip!). I was awarded "Best Transformation" for my werewolf creation (a really hairy experience). "Best Makeup" went Tony's Frankenstein monster (a scar is born). Kurt scored "Most Creative and Funniest" and was also "Best Overall" for his unique "Phantom Coachman." Congratulations one and all!

Day Six: Sightsoara, Sibiu
     Understandably, we got going a little late this morning, but once underway everyone chatted about how great the Halloween party was, and how fabulous the whole trip has been. And though we've been watching all sorts of Dracula movies on the bus during our long hauls (Murnau's "Nosferatu," Lugosi's "Dracula," Kinski's "Nosferatu," Horror Trailers, "House of Dark Shadows," etc... many from the collection of Tony S.), I was proud that we screened my movie, "Lucky" today. It was a little weird seeing it play on a moving bus, but I think more than a few people liked it. Of course, they were a truly captive audience, so I hope it wasn't too painful for those who didn't find it to their liking. "Lucky" is the reason I found myself on this trip - having won the tour by virtue of the movie winning "Best Feature" at the 2002 New York City Horror Film Festival. What a cool prize! My profound thanks to Michael Hein and his incredible staff at the New York City Horror Film Festival!

     We spent the afternoon in Sighisoara. Built in the 14th century, this is the best-preserved, walled fortress city in Europe. We walked up steep, winding, cobblestone streets to get into the city center, past ancient stone buildings. It seemed like we were walking back in time.

     Some of the locals staged an old fashioned (as opposed to a new fashioned?) witch trial for our benefit. This was very amusing, despite being presented entirely in Romanian. But the actors looked authentic enough, and numerous other tourists and locals gathered to watch the trial's conclusion. Turned out that the witch was saved by virtue of being married off - spoken for by her betrothed. Aha! So, that's how you prevent a woman from becoming a witch?! Hmm... Kind of a strange, and dangerous, - option, don't you think...?

     We were all given passes to three small museums within the city. We went up inside the huge clock tower, which is full of historical artifacts from Sighisoara. The tower also provided spectacular 360-degree views of the city and surrounding area. Very cool. Then we visited the armory museum, where various pieces of armor and weapons are on display. Finally, we visited the town's torture chamber. This small stone cell gave me the willies. How absolutely horrible it must have been to be cooped up in here. Awaiting the torturer, a victim's feelings of hopelessness and despair must've been overwhelming. On this tour, the hits just keep on coming...

     Then we were given some free time to wander the old city. It was fun to discover statues of Dracula, churches off the beaten path, and numerous old buildings everywhere.

     We eventually all gathered together and headed up the "haunted staircase," a steep, covered stairway that leads to the town's cemetery; a beautiful old graveyard set into a slope. Very peaceful, with amazing views of the valley below. And it goes on forever. Just when you think you're at the end of the cemetery, you'd look down the hill to see even more headstones. As this was All Saints Day, many graves were covered in remembrance candles lit by family members. It was quite moving to see so many people memorializing their loved ones like that. By then it was late afternoon, but we all managed to get out of there before the sun completely set.

     We drove into Sibiu, where we checked into the Hotel Imperatul Romanilor, and were given the night on our own to find dinner and to rest. A number of us wound up eating in the hotel's restaurant, while others visited eateries around the local area. A few found an Internet café to check their emails.

     Down the avenue from the hotel was a town park, inhabited by hundreds of bats. On any other trip, with any other travelers, under any other circumstances, a park filled with bats would bring on an outcry of fear or disgust or disdain. Here, there was a decree of glee!

Day Seven: Sibiu, Cozia Monastery, Poenari Castle, Bucharest
     Radu led us on a walking tour of Sibiu, another beautifully preserved older city. These buildings date back to the 17th century (relatively modern compared to Sighisoara). Radu pointed out holes built into the roofs of the buildings around us, and explained that just like in Brasov, where they dug underground caverns to store food, here the people created these "cat's eyes" openings in the roofs to keep things cool for storing food.

     Legend has it that Sibiu is the place to which the Pied Piper, called Hermann, allegedly led the children of Hamlin - via an underground passageway. They then established the town. That's why the Germans call this town "Hermannstadt."

     We continued our walk to the Liar's Bridge, where it is permitted to tell a lie. This is only a short distance from a huge cathedral where Mihnea (one of Vlad Dracula's sons) is entombed. Also entombed there are members of a family called Frankenstein, which may be the same family who inspired Mary Shelley in the telling of her famous tale.

     Back on the bus again, we traveled through the Transylvanian Alps, which were majestically covered by snow. We wound our way through the Old River Gorge, snaking through the mountains, where Mother Nature puts on quite a vivid show of color this time of year.

     We stopped briefly at the Cozia Monastery, which was founded by Mircea The Great, Vlad Dracula's grandfather, who ruled until 1418. This was the first time the tour has made such a stop. The monastery appears to have been exceptionally well maintained. Black cassocked Monks were everywhere, keeping order. This is definitely another world - and yet it was so crowded it seemed very much like a tourist trap. All kinds of people used a single cup to drink water from a "wishing well" fountain that was filled with money. Presumably this is considered holy water. I call it, "Holy mackerel, don't drink that water!"

     Outside the monastery, we walked to a honey stand, where many from our group bought jars of honey, and/or various products made of honey.

     Then we drove on up to our last major stop - Poenari Castle. Up is the operative word. This incredibly magical place (also known as Arefu) was built by Vlad Dracula as an unattackable fortress. It is set high on a very steep ridge for maximum defensibility. All that remains of the castle are its foundations, which appear to have been slightly shored up for interested tourists like us to visit.

     The only way to get to Poenari is to negotiate a precipitous climb up some 1500 steps. This took the better part of an hour, and was more exerting than I first imagined it would be. Apparently, this used to be no more than a very tricky walking trail, but it proved so difficult to navigate that the stairway was put in for visitors to use. But getting up there was worth every bit of effort. Unbelievable views of the valley below. The remnants of the castle are as ghostly as they are beautiful. Almost everyone from the group made it to the top, and I know that each of us who did was so very glad for having taken the trek. The last ones up, including Rita, got rounds of applause, while the first ones up got prizes.

     We had our group pictures taken by a friendly Romanian tourist who happened to be up there at the same time. So cool to have that memory in pictures. So very cool.

     It's hard to understand how anyone survived up here - especially in the 15th century. It's such a burden to get up that hill. Yet Vlad must have felt quite secure that no one would easily get him.

     It took us another half hour or so to walk back down. At the base of the mountain, the group rested at a snack shack before getting back on our bus to head for Bucharest.

     After checking back into the Hotel Bulevard for another night of ghosts and poor plumbing, we all walked to the "Count Dracula Club," where we enjoyed a lovely last dinner together of chicken shish-kabobs, wine and polenta. We were even graced by an energetic visit from Count Dracula himself, who seemed worked up about something or other. Had to be indigestion...

     A bit of sadness hung in the air because our incredible journey was almost over. But most of us felt a sense of joy and fulfillment. We have been especially graced to have had such a fine, fun time. This is one of the greatest groups of people I've ever been around. The hallmark of this trip: wall-to-wall, non-stop laughter! That's what I'll most remember about our group. I couldn't have asked for a better time! Thank you all! And many, many thanks to Charles for putting on such an outstanding week. And just as many thanks to Radu and Stefan for leading the charge and imparting so much excellent information and good times upon us.

     None of us will ever forget this trip of a lifetime!

Day Eight: Buchrest & Back
     The hotel arranged an early breakfast, before we headed to the airport. We're on our way home. And we're starting to miss Romania - and each other - already...

One Week Later: North America
     And now it seems that the tour continues on. Here's the amazing thing: Trish has started two fabulous DracTour group sites on the web (anyone reading this is welcome to join the list online by sending a blank email to: Dractour2003-subscribe@yahoogroups.com). Pictures are beginning to be circulated. Stories are being swapped. Everyone misses the group.

     It seems real friendships have been made - hopefully for life...

     Turns out Dracula ain't all bad after all...

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