2005 Tour Report

By Russell Dreher
Photo credits: John Rife, Kim Zagoren, Reenie Serbu, Barry Berman, Melissa Ritchie
Shawn Soulsby, Russell Dreher, Dennis Kathrein, Michelle Hinton
Melanie Browning, Antonio & Mary Baldez, Damien & Maggie Pickard

     It was a dark and stormy night...

     Ok, not really. It was mostly sunny and warm. Despite the great weather, the 2005 Dracula Tour was a huge success. With 69 (insert joke here, Radu) unsuspecting victims traveling to a place most of us only dream about, the only possible result was more fun than any of us had ever imagined. If you are reading this tour report and trying to decide if you should go on a future Dracula tour, ask yourself these questions:
          1) Do you have any interest in Vlad Tepes, Bram Stoker, Count Dracula, or Romania?
          2) Are you adventurous and do you like to have a lot of fun?
     If you answered yes to either question, sign up now before the next tour sells out, and then come back and finish reading this tour report! If you would rather be completely pampered and can't be bothered to see the rest of the world through your closed American eyes, then move on. Dollywood awaits your next visit.

Day One: The Adventure Begins
     A group of virtual strangers arrived at the airport, mostly anxious about the trip and eager to meet the people with whom we would be spending the next week with. It was immediately possible to recognize the other members of our group. For some reason, most of the people standing around the terminal were not wearing goth clothing, horror t-shirts, or carrying items such as coffin shaped purses. The stares from these non-believers indicated just how much we stood out from the regular crowd, and how much we fit in with each other.

     Our fearless and funny tour organizer, Charles, handed out the tickets and goodie bags. Inside were lots of cool horror magazines, promo items, Dracola, and Vampire energy drinks. Just what each of us would need to survive the long journey ahead, but at the same time, quite different than the supplies that Jonathan Harker must have taken on his trip.

     After the check in process (just how hard is it to get frisked by a cute security guard?) the best of friendships began to form. Even a few necks were bitten as Damien and Maggie showed off their fangs to the delight of our group and the horror of the other passengers awaiting their flights.

Day Two: Prague and Beyond
     We loaded into out next plane and left Prague for our 1 hour and 40 minute flight to Bucharest. Upon arrival, our two Romanian tour guides greeted us. Radu and Razvan were ready to guide us to the blue coaches that awaited our tired souls and bodies.

     As we rushed to the busses, Radu warned that we needed to hurry or we would be caught in Bucharest rush hour traffic. A 45-minute ride through the back roads of the city led us to the hotel Labada, on an island in Bucharest.

     Checked in and began to explore this beautiful old building that had been built in the 1600's. Having once been a convent, a prison, and even a leper colony, this hotel's history has created a haunting setting, both inside and outside, with rumors of haunts in the dark and moody halls and the even darker basement. A former executioner's galley is now a picturesque fountain area outside the lobby entrance. One of our travelers, Barry, found a deserted corridor below the basement, where he was 'visited' by a ghost adorned in an ancient war uniform.

     The sounds of wild dogs howling in the distance, and the one well placed dog skull on the walkway, added to the mood that we were now in the land of the children of the night.

     Our welcome orientation banquet dinner was served, and afterwards we did a round of introductions. Each person spoke of their interest in horror or vampires. After dinner, a trip to the bar followed the shower, where we began drinking Vampire wine and increasing the bond between new friends. In a mini-theater behind the bar, we screened a rare Dracula film. Some of us tried to watch the movie being shown in this theatre, but to no avail. Dark and comfortable only led to sleep. A few more drinks, an exploration of the grounds at night, including the courtyard where they used to hold the executions, and finally it was time for bed.

     Though most of us slept well, I did hear that at least one person on the trip reported being shaken awake during the middle of the night. When they looked around, no one was there. Who woke him and the identity of the mysterious uniformed stranger in the basement would remain an unsolved mystery, at least until we returned on our final night for another chance to explore this creepy hotel and crack open it's secrets.

Day Three: Crazy Monks and the People's Palace
     After just a few hours of sleep, our wake up call roused us all out of bed. Time enough to shower, eat, pack, and have our belongings on the coach. We are headed to Snagov Monastery to see the tomb of Vlad Tepes, but we cannot arrive until 10:30. Radu has told us that the crazy monk that runs the place has a two hour blessing scheduled first. So we get a historic tour of Bucharest, a city of about 3 million people.

     There, we find a place to exchange some money, and the rate is better than at the airport. Dracula built Bucharest on a swamp, as a way to protect the border. During WWI the Germans destroyed much of it, and the French helped in the rebuilding efforts. Thus, it has its own unique style in the rebuilt areas. During WWII the city was often bombed because of the oil fields north of the city. Parts of the city were again rebuilt. Finally in the 1970's a 7.6 earthquake destroyed the southern part of the city and Nicolae Ceausescu rebuilt this area in his own way. Ceausescu also built the People's Palace, where we stopped to view what may be the world's largest building. This monstrosity has 4700 known rooms. Recently, they wanted to build a swimming pool and gym for the government employees who work there. The original architect told them that it already had one, and it was discovered that it had been boarded up and that no one knew about it anymore.

     Our coaches then headed out to the country to Snagov. Some local boys rowed us in rickety old boats across the river to the island where Vlad Dracula is buried.

     When he was ready, the crazy monk who runs the place admitted us to the gorgeous monastery to see the tomb.

     While we avoided the island's free range chickens (and the avian flu, hopefully), we explored the monastery and listened to Radu tell us the history of Vlad Tepes. Some of our party explored the island a little further and discovered a statue on the other end of a woman or angel holding a child.

     We posed at the large cross on the entrance of the island before rowing across the river. The local boys rowing the boats took tips, but hid them in the bottom of the boat so that neither the monk nor the other boys waiting on the docks could see how much money they were earning.

     A quick stop for snacks and it was off to Bran Castle. Bran was a fun place to tour, but as Radu had warned us, it was a bit commercialized compared to Snagov. After the more rustic and untouched feeling that Snagov invoked, Bran may seem as more of a Westernized tourist attraction where they know how to make as much money as possible. It is still an important visit.

     Bran is the castle most often used in the movies as Dracula's castle, notably Francis Ford Coppola's film and the 'In Search of Dracula'; film narrated by Christopher Lee. However, Vlad Tepes only lived in Bran for 6 months when he was being held in a cell there. Below Bran, there is a shopping area where you can find many souvenirs, wine, and cheese. We managed to pick up a couple of giant balls of smoked cheese that were absolutely delicious. These who rode on the bus with us snacked on them for several days to come. Other stocked up on t-shirts, sweaters and other treasures and souvenirs.

     From Bran we headed off into the mountains to a restaurant for an authentic Romanian dinner. The path into the mountains held some surprises along the way, thanks to Charles and our tour guides. However, you will have to go on the trip to find out what they were. Arriving at dinner, we were handed Plum brandy on our way in the door. These shots could warm the most frozen of our crowd, but proved to be too strong for some. A tray of appetizers, meats, cheeses, and cooked strips sat on the table. Our vegans in the group were treated to delicious soy shnitzels. The wine began to flow, and the hearty meal raised everyone's spirits, not to mention the music and wild dancing that followed. Just as things hit a fevered pitch, it was time to go.

     A drive to our hotel brought us to the Aro Hotel. Check in, shower, and hit the town (or, for those less adventurous, hit the hay). Those who went out started the night at Club Harley, and the heartiest of souls then progressed on to a much wilder time at Club Salsa! (blackmail photos are available upon request. Just kidding, Gary and Tony). When sleep finally claimed the last of the party crowd, it was well deserved but short-lived.

     Thanks to daylight savings time and a misinformed hotel clerk, everyone woke an hour earlier than they had requested. Shawn and Mary, who were the first to be called at 5 am, tried to reason with the clerk and explain that they were calling at the wrong time. No luck, the woman began to lecture them on a global time change and insisted she was correct. Thus, the rest of us were awake at 6 instead of seven. At least breakfast was ready.

Day Four: Sighisora and the Jonathan Harker Salon

     Despite the early rise, we were still all too excited by our surroundings and the wonderful people to let much get us down. Off we drove to the beautiful town of Sighisora, which, in addition to being the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, also boasts an older section of town that remains true to its original architecture. It is, in fact, the best preserved walled city in Europe, if not the world.

     The house that Vlad was born in still stands in this location and is now a restaurant. Practically untouched over the years, you feel as if you are stepping back in time when you enter the gates to this part of the town. A tour of the small local torture chamber and two museums gave everyone plenty of historical context for the town, and some outstanding views from the top of the Clock Tower.

     Lunch brought about it's own interesting twist, as soup and an entrée took almost two hours to order and eat. The Romanian pace of life is certainly different than ours. Some of our party missed the staged witch trial that was held in the city square due to this overly extended meal, but the chance to relax with friends over some food and wine was worth the wait. The Romanians know how to make good soup. During the witch trial, the actors (at least we think they were actors) decided that one of our tour members might take the place of the witch on trial. They grabbed Nadine to bring to the executioner, but justice prevailed and she was released back to us!

     A bit of shopping in town tuned up some nice finds. Tour-member Paul found the souvenir of souvenirs; a huge bust of Vlad.

     It was now time to climb the long flight of stairs to the church and cemetery at the top of the hill.

     Stopping is not allowed on the stairs, or... according to legend... you will lose your soul to the haunted staircase.

     At the top of the hill we had a chance to wander through a spooky graveyard and look at many headstones, both old and new. On the way down we passed an antique horse-drawn hearse.

     Many of our group took photos atop the tombs while others did tombstone rubbings. There were truly great photo opportunities at every turn.

     We watched some classic horror films on the trip to Bistrita, and the Coroana De Aur Hotel was our next stop. This houses the Crown Restaurant, thye site of where Jonathan Harker stopped for dinner on the way to Dracula's Castle in Bram Stoker's novel. We were told what time to meet for dinner. Upon reentering the lobby, we found the lights out and candles everywhere to create a great atmosphere.

     Waiters dressed as vampires led the group into the Jonathan Harker Salon two at a time. Inside were two vampiresses dressed in red, with flaming urns in front of them, surrounded by shots of Plum brandy, "tzuica" in Romanian.

     A meal matching the one that Jonathan Harker ate, including the famous "robber steak" was enjoyed by all, as was plenty of Vampire wine, and just a bit of absinth to stoke the fires that flowed that night. Thanks to the suppliers of the absinth who had the foresight in Prague to pick it up. You know who you are!

     After dinner, a round of touching toasts were given by each member of the trip, including one that was both unforgettable and unrepeatable! Ahh, the things you can do with garlic. One slightly tamer one that can be recapped was:

     Friends may come, and friends may go,
     And friends may peter out you know.
     But we'll be friends through thick and thin,
     Peter out, Or peter in.

     Many of us toasted Rob and Angie, the couple who were to be wed the very next night, and we sang happy birthday to Linda. What a celebration!

     We then took part in a spirited Monster Memorabilia Auction that led into some party games that we played until the wee hours of the morning. Though the staff must have wanted us to leave much sooner, they nicely put up with our antics until sometime around 4 in the morning. The next day led to a round of hearty hangovers and Radu speaking less than any of us had ever heard him speak. And even that was only in a whisper. At least we slept in late.

Day Five: The High Holy Day...
     Halloween in the Burgo Pass at the Hotel Castle Dracula

     We set off in search of the Burgo Pass, the location of Dracula's Castle in Bram Stoker's novel. The leisurely drive started with a post office stop and continued up through the Carpathian Mountains, accompanied by on-coach viewing of the Klaus Kinski version of "Nosferatu," which contains scenes of the same scenery we were passing. The view was so breathtaking and the road so twisty that we barely took the time to look at the movie. Upon arrival at the hotel, we were greeted by a snarling (but actually friendly dog), a touch that seemed perfect to the locale.

     We checked in, made our way through winding flights of stairs, and discovered that loud construction directly under some of the rooms would prevent those people from taking a nap before the night's festivities. A quick word from Radu to the woman at the main desk brought a promise that the construction would come to an end. Luckily it did so that we could regain a bit of strength for the fete ahead.

     In the meantime, many of our merry band of travelers headed out to check the shopping at the local bazaar and to climb up to the local monastery. We were their best customers, getting great deals on every souvenit in sight.

     A local woman asked us if we wanted to view the church. When we said yes, she hurried down the hill to get the key to unlock if for us. Inside, a beautiful wooden chandelier awaited us, so the short hike had been well worth the effort. Outside, the views were just as stunning. The hills and the slopes nearby brought to mind the Alps, and not a foggy night with Dracula biting necks. But that would come later. After returning to the Hotel Castle Dracula, a few of us climbed the castle tower to the bar for a quick drink and still another amazing view of the mountains. Some of us napped while others began to prepare their make-up and costumes. Unbeknownst to us, Charles, Radu and Razvan were busy decorating our Halloween banquet hall with cobwebs, vintage horror film posters and spiders hanging everywhere. We're pretty sure the spiders & webs weren't real.

     At 6:30, the spooks, vampires, and even a couple of already-bitten tourists gathered in the reception area anxious for the evening's entertainment to begin. Some Romanian locals had already come out to see us, and they stood by with their cameras ready. Romanian national television was there to film our exploits. The excitement was building as each person walked into the lobby doors in their finest Halloween garb.

     The night held many surprises and brought a blood tear to the eye of more than one vampire amongst us.

     Group photos, an outdoor trek to a bonfire led by gypsy musicians and a man dressed in black carrying a torch, cooking meat and onions in the bonfire, more Plum brandy, a vampire wedding unlike anything we had ever experienced (congrats Rob and Angie!), absinth, dinner, Vampire wine by the bottle, and, of course, the secret mysterious trip to the dungeon of the castle; all added to the amazing adventures of the night. Decadence and partying were the rule of the evening. Not only did Rob and Angie get married tonight, but Damien and Maggie celebrated their 5th anniversary, and some others relationships may have started here.

     Non-stop dancing, Eileen as belly dancer 'Cleo', more Vampire wine, Charles as a demented clown leading everyone on of the dance floor, and even a small photo shoot in the nearby graveyard created the most memorable Halloween any of us could imagine.

     A multi-tiered wedding cake was rolled out late in the evening, covered in sparklers. Instead of 'The Bride Cuts The Cake', we sang 'The Bride Bites The Groom'. All of this was being filmed by the Romanian news, and locals with their cameras, who couldn't quite get enough of the spectacle we made of ourselves. They posed their more daring children with vampires and other monsters before disappearing into the night.

     Very late in the evening, when most of the vampires had retired to their coffins, the music changed over to darker selections, then some Romanian rock, and by the end the party consisted mostly the hotel staff having a great time and entertaining the few remaining members of our party who had not headed off to bed. The hotel’s baker had blood dripping down his chin from the glass he had just eaten, but the staff told us not to worry. Apparently he does this all the time.

     All I know is that I crawled back to my crypt just before the sun rose and the clock said 6:09 am. A full 12 hours of partying had passed and it had been wonderful. I know I will remember this Halloween forever and it will be difficult... if not impossible... to top.

Day Six: Recovery on All Souls Day
     Even the children of the night need some time to recover after a twelve hour Halloween bash. Luckily we were able to sleep in late. Before checking out, I rolled out of bed and looked around at the disaster of a room.

     Makeup, powder and clothing were strewn about. In fact, by my bed lay my costume from the night before and I discovered that the three hours I had slept were on top of some clean clothing that I had set on my bed the evening before. Oops. I had two hours to shower, eat, clean the room, pack and leave, all of which I managed to do through somewhat bleary, but very fulfilled eyes.

     As we loaded onto the coaches, it was time for Radu and Razvan to pass out the cameras and costume items that people had forgotten at the party the night before. Everyone recovered their belongings, and then it was time to try and recall the events of the evening. For example, how did Tony get those scrapes and cuts (or were they bites) on his face and arms? The world may never know. Tony was the littler of our two 'Vlads'.

     Costume prizes were announced on the bus. 'Sexiest' went to Maggie and Damien for their scorching vampire outfits. One look at them and you wanted to be bitten. 'Funniest' to Gary for his vampire pimp outfit (interesting how many women gravitated to him that night, unlike other nights). 'Best Transformation' to Paul for his spot on and startling rendition of Vlad Tepes. 'Scariest' went to Carrie dressed as the queen of scares, Linda Blair, from 'The Exorcist'. And finally, 'Best Overall Costume' went to Michelle for her very scary Human Living Dead Doll outfit.

     All were awarded DVDs and $100 prizes. Many others were just as creative, just as scary and just as sexy.

     This afternoon we were headed to a forted church and citadel, which we would tour briefly. This well-preserved citadel proved to be at the top of a small hill overlooking the countryside below. When someone noted the smell of pot in the air, Radu told us that this was in fact the chief area of Romania where it was grown. Below the citadel, we had lunch/dinner (or as Radu calls it Linner) at a medieval restaurant that used armor as a part of its décor. Radu decided to borrow some of it, and was soon running around the restaurant wearing a helmet and carrying a sword. This was the first time the Drac Tour group had ever stopped for a meal at this themed restaurant, but we understand it will be added to all future itineraries.

     On our way to Sibiu, we stopped at a cemetery to experience the Romanian All Souls Day traditions. Graves were covered in candles and flowers as relatives paid homage to their ancestors.

     After some great photo opportunities, and some gypsy children asking us for money (some of us gave them trick or treat candies), we piled back into the coaches and headed out on the road again. On board, we played games of Monster Word Scramble (congratulations to Melissa), and we even shared some ghost stories on the way.

     In Sibiu, we checked into the Imparatul Romanilor Hotel. The hotel itself was quite gorgeous with a number of interesting paintings on the wall. Each room at the hotel was different in size, layout, and design. The hotel's restaurant turned out to be quite good, and a good chance for people who missed pasta and chicken to order some off the menu and get their fill. Those brave souls who still had not partied themselves out, hit the town. The local walking mall in front of the hotel looked a bit like a war zone due to extensive construction, but we made our way around it. Many of us were looking forward to a chance to do some shopping in this town the next morning. The city of Sibiu is under construction after being selected Culture Capitol of Europe for the year 2007.

     While it was a quiet night in Sibiu, we did out best to liven things up. Two parties hit the town. There were bistros, internet cafes, a nearby 'bat' park and many nighttime activities to choose from. One group of us visited a local gentleman's club, and the other ended up at an 'English Pub'. Those at the English Pub did a number of rounds of shots, all of which the staff insisted on setting on fire and having us drink through straws. When we finally closed down the English pub, we went in search of yet another bar, and found one about to close at 3:30 in the morning. They offered to stay open for us one half hour, until 4 am. At about 4:40 we were actually headed out the door and home to bed. Yet another night with very little sleep. But what good is traveling to another country if you sleep through the whole trip? Besides, vampires are at their best during the moonlit hours!

Day Seven: The Pilgrimage to Poenari
     Awakening early, we left our coffins and headed down to the hotel for breakfast. The breakfast here had one fantastic twist; the large ornate roof overhead kept rolling open and closed to regulate the temperature in the room and allow some natural light in. None of us who had eaten in the hotel's restaurant the night before had any idea that the roof could roll back, and it was a welcome treat to the start of the day.

     We headed out for a tour of the town. One highlight was the Liar's Bridge, so named because the legend says if you tell a lie while standing on it, it will collapse. Politicians have used it over the years as a place to give speeches, and it has never collapsed. Maybe the legend isn't true.

     Near the bridge stands a church built in 1300. Inside the church is the largest organ in Romania, with over 6000 pipes.

     In the back part of the church, however, are the real items we have come to see. Inside this crypt is the tomb of Prince Mihnea the Bad, one of the sons of Vlad Dracula. He was murdered just outside the church. The second tomb of interest belongs to Valentini Frank, a scientist and physician rumored to have conducted questionable experiments during his life. One of Mary Shelly’s lovers was from Sibiu, and that he told her about Frank, thus helping to inspire the Frankenstein story.

     Finally, Radu pointed out a tomb with a laughing skull on it. The inscription on it reads, 'Today me, tomorrow you'. Derrick, Charles, Jessica & John posed at this tomb with, appropriately enough, the magazine 'City Slab.'

     Finally, we have some time for shopping in Sibiu. Some of the shops along the street hold real treasures at inexpensive prices. A few Romanian-made Dracula dolls are snatched up by our group, as these have been very hard to find on this trip. Charles swears that on past trips they were available at every marketplace, but not this year. Also in abundance in Sibiu are hand-decorated eggs for only about $2.50 each. These are a real deal over the price in the USA for the same items if you could find them stateside.

     Onto the bus and off we go. Charles commented that it is difficult to have the high point of the trip, Halloween, fall in the middle of the tour, but that it's the best way to work out all of the routing. He tells us that is always worried that the next couple of days of the trip might be a little less exciting, but not to us. Today would be another high point of the trip, the climb up to Poenari Castle, the place where Vlad once lived and where his first wife threw herself off the cliff to her death.

     While the 1500 steps up to the castle seemed daunting, they were not as difficult to climb as it seemed they might be. I believe that everyone from our group who tried the climb made it to the top, and it was more than worth the effort.

     Grey clouds were rolling in as we climbed and a light mist was falling, which only created a suitable atmosphere for the event. Near the castle, two wooden bridges with old loose boards were the only way to gain access. Once there, Poenari was breathtaking. The most adventurous of the group actually climbed on top of the remains of the walls of the castle and peered over the edge into the abyss to see where Vlad's wife had killed herself.

     The surrounding views of the landscape, mountains, valleys, rivers, etc. are really beyond description. One can stand in the middle of the castle and picture an entire vampire movie taking place in this setting without any difficulty. Not to mention the actual bloodshed that occurred here during Vlad's reign.

     We posed for many pictures atop this mountain. We were so taken by the beauty and the mystique of the area that we didn't want to leave, and the sun had fallen by the time we made it back down the hill. Thus, the last few steps grew more and more treacherous with each passing moment and the oncoming darkness. We loved every step.

     All returned safely to the bus, and it was time for one last leg of the journey, the trip back to Bucharest. There we would spend one more night at the haunted hotel Labada and make a trip to Club Dracula in the city for dinner. A surprise visit by a certain Count during dinner was a delightful end note to a trip that had been full of twists and turns along the way.

     By one am, everyone had returned to the hotel in good spirits, and ready for our last few moments in Romania. Really, all that was left was to spend the final night in the hotel bar, drinking more vampire wine and chatting with newfound friends.

Day Eight: The Journey Home
     At about 4 in the morning, we climbed into the coaches one last time and headed to the airport. A number of us had stayed up all night. Why waste the time when we can sleep on the plane? A quick flight brought us back to Prague, where we again had a layover. This really was our last chance to be together as a group, and we spent it reminiscing of what we had done and what we had to do. Some sought out food while others stocked up on the Green Fairy, planning the best ways to make it into the US with their new purchases. We boarded the final leg of the trip and away we flew. None of us were ready to be home or to let our new friends go, but we all knew that reality and work faced us in the coming days.

     wMany thanks to Charles, Radu, Razvan, and all of Romania for making this such an amazing trip!

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