Credit: Group Photo by Gail Guza
e gathered at JFK Airport from around the country not knowing one another or what would await us in the mysterious land of Transylvania. Armed with our goodie bags from Charles, we quickly became friendly. From New York, we traveled together to London where we took a connecting flight to Bucharest, Romania. Leaving the foggy streets of London and heading for the wilderness of Romania, it seemed as though we were traveling in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker on his expedition into the unknown.
pon arriving in Romania, we were greeted at the airport terminal by Radu, a local expert on all things Transylvanian. En route to the hotel, Radu gave us a lesson in Romanian history and pointed out noteworthy remnants of the communist era along the way. Our first night in Romania was spent having our welcome dinner at the hotel and getting to know one another. A visit to the local currency exchange taught us that American currency is definitely stronger in Romania -- three Lei to every dollar was pretty good. We also got a glimpse of some roaming dogs, which are notorious in Romania, although some members swore they were (the size of) werewolves . . .
he following morning we packed our bags, enjoyed breakfast and boarded the tour coach for some unbelievable sightseeing. Our first stop was Lake Snagov, which is truly off the beaten path. At the end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, we reached a dock at the lake's edge. In the middle of the water stands an island monastery accessible only by boat. After calling for the monk who oversees the monastery, we boarded his boat in small groups to reach the final resting place of Vlad Dracula's remains. Once on the island, we entered the chapel where Dracula's headless body was believed to be discovered. In the center of an ornately painted chapel lay a concrete tomb with an engraving of Dracula's face and a fresh bouquet of flowers. It was strange to be standing in such a remote and peaceful location, while at the same time looking at the spot where one of the most violent men in history may have been laid to rest. The photo opportunities were unbelievable, and a review of some video footage revealed strange orbs whizzing past Dracula's plot.
aking our way off the island, we were back on the coach for the trek to Bran Castle. Built in 1377 to protect the entrance to Transylvania at the Bran Pass, Dracula was rumored to be held prisoner here for a short time while in the custody of rival warlords. The castle was later inhabited by Queen Marie of Romania, who transformed the castle into a beautiful home full of light and fine furnishings. The walk to the castle required us to pass through a village bazaar where all sorts of trinkets were being sold by locals and then up a winding roadway to the castle door. As we explored the castle, the route led us up narrow stairs, through secret passageways and across outdoor parapets which provided stunning views of the castle's architecture. We even saw the gilded box which held the heart of Queen Marie after her death.
Credit: Bran Castle (photo by Kathy Novak)
ur last stop of the day was in Brasov -- a medieval town which manages to incorporate modern amenities while retaining its historic charm. After unpacking, we walked down the street to the main concourse where small shops and restaurants were tucked among ancient buildings. The town square boasted views of the Black Church, which earned its name after a devastating fire in 1689. Looking up, we swore we were in California because nestled into the mountainside was a huge Hollywood-style "BRASOV" sign. Apparently, it was a gift from Hollywood in exchange for help from local Romanians. It is told that the town square is the location where half the children from Hamelin reemerged after being led away by the Pied Piper.
Credit: Overlooking Brasov (photo by Kathy Novak)
he following morning, we took a tour of Brasov including Rope Street, which is only four feet wide and among the narrowest in Europe. We also passed by a home reported to have been inhabited by one of Dracula's mistresses. After visiting the local farmer's market, where large ornate gingerbread cookies seemed to be a local favorite, we hopped back on the coach for our ride to the Golden Crown Hotel in Bistrita.
odeled after the Golden Crown in Bram Stoker's novel, the hotel offered a "Jonathan Harker Room" where we were treated to a fantastic pre-Halloween gala dinner. As we entered the ballroom, a ghoulish waitress served blood red Tuica - an extremely potent form of plum brandy - and a staple among Romanian libations. The room was draped with coffin lining and frightening taxidermy specimens clung to the walls. Dinner consisted of a Dracula-themed meat and cheese platter, chicken, and flaming crepes for dessert. Everyone had a good time and it was fun to see how the Romanians interpreted the American idea of Halloween. However, their pumpkin carving skills could use a little practice!
alloween morning! After breakfast, we boarded the coach and left Bistrita for the trip to the Borgo Pass, which is the location of Dracula's castle in Stoker's novel. Driving through the Carpathian Mountains, we saw small towns, gypsy villages and herds of sheep grazing among pear-shaped haystacks. Dracula's Castle Hotel was quite a place. Located on a hilltop in the Borgo Pass, the hotel was designed to replicate Dracula's castle, complete with stone balconies and winding passages. Finding the way to your room through the twisting halls was entertaining and true to the novel. We lunched at the hotel restaurant where the menu was fashioned into what looked like an enormous novel.
he hotel is located at the foot of a ski slope and riding the lift to the top afforded us with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, which included a beautiful monastery, small multicolored cottages and tons of haystacks. After taking in the vista with the sun setting beyond the mountains, we explored the fields and small souvenir bazaar just outside the hotel. Adding to the scenery, a black cat sat on top of a wooden crate and watched as we meandered along the dirt road.Credit: Dracula's Castle at sunset (photo by Randy Traini)
As darkness fell, the hotel's facade began to glow red and the staff quietly lined the balconies and ledges with jack-o-lanterns and church candles.
Credit: Costumed for the Halloween masquerade ball (photo by Randy Traini)
I made my way to the hotel pub for something warm while still in disbelief that I was spending Halloween in Transylvania.
alloween night in Transylvania was amazing. We dressed in our costumes (vampires being among the most popular) and made our way to the hotel courtyard for some photos.
Credit: Mugging for the press on Halloween night (photo by Randy Traini)
As we exited the castle, we were greeted by local media who were quickly snapping photos of the visiting Americans -- who made local news the next morning! Walking into the grounds we arrived at an enormous bonfire that must have been at least 12 feet high. Each guest was handed a skewer (a stake?) loaded with beef and onions to roast in the flames while musicians played regional music on accordions. Of course, there was more plum brandy just in case the raging flames of the bonfire weren't enough to fight the chill. Standing next to the fire with stars in the Transylvanian sky as folk music played in the background felt like a classic Halloween.
Credit: Happy Hour outdoors Halloween Night before the big party (photo by Gail Guza)
fter the bonfire, our group gathered in a private banquet hall in the hotel where we enjoyed a formal dinner while cobwebs hung from the chandeliers and a DJ played some familiar music on the dance floor.
Credit: Dancing at the Monster Mash Masquerade Ball (photo by Randy Traini)
Then we were taken in small groups into the hotel's dungeon to view Dracula's crypt. Once inside, we caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a restless spirit escaping from the coffin. He was, however, kind enough to let us use his casket for some photos.
Credit: Inside the coffin (photo by Randy Traini)
Credit: Amused at someone inside the coffin (photo by Randy Traini)
he following day we headed to Sighisoara, which was by far the most "Transylvania-like" part of the trip. Sighisoara is a fully intact medieval village complete with a real torture chamber and the location where Dracula's father was born. As we toured the place where prisoners were held, Radu showed us markings on the brick walls where captives scratched their last words. It was truly chilling. Next, we wandered along the twisting streets of the village lined with pastel-colored houses. We even saw a wedding processional in which a local couple marched through the streets with their guests, as more accordion music announced their arrival. Climbing to the top of the clock tower was worth the hike because it provided an uninterrupted view of the entire town.
t one corner of the village high on a hill lay the Evangelical Bergfreidhof cemetery which is known as the "haunted graveyard," and which even the scariest monster movie couldn't duplicate. Reaching the cemetery required walking up an ancient covered stairway with over 170 steps. The cemetery had literally thousands of graves dating from ancient times to the modern day. Headstones lined the rolling hills and steep inclines of the land. We arrived at dusk just as the fog was rolling in and dogs were beginning to howl in the distance. Some graves even had their lids askew... perhaps not everyone was as happy to be there.
fter leaving Sighisoara, we visited Biertan, which is another preserved medieval village. Along the way, we stopped at a modern cemetery to observe locals placing lit candles on the graves of loved ones in honor of the Day of the Dead. In the same town, we passed by the home of Hermann Oberth, who is credited for helping to create the modern rocket engine. A sinister missile is proudly displayed on the front lawn as a tribute.
ur next destination was Hermannstadt in Sibiu. In this historic town, we visited the square where Hermann of Hamelin led the remaining children stolen by the Pied Piper. We also walked across the "Bridge of Liars" and ultimately visited the crypt where Dracula's son, Mircea the Evil, was entombed -- as well as the abnormally tall man who inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.
fter a whirlwind tour of Hermannstadt, we returned to the coach for the much- anticipated trek to Poienari Fortress on the outskirts of Transylvania in Wallachia. Dracula forced his slaves to rebuild the fortress from ruins, which wasn't an easy task considering you must climb over 1,400 steps to reach the fortress. The long and winding climb to the top was well worth the effort. Looking out from the crumbling towers, it was easy to imagine Dracula keeping watch for intruders below.
Credit: Atop the Fortress Ruins (photo by Gail Guza)
he fortress lies at the start of the Transfagarasan Highway, which has been used in many movies. The day we visited Nicholas Cage was there filming the third Ghost Rider movie. That in itself is a scary thought. Nestled below the highway and the fortress lies the Arges River Valley. It is said that Dracula's wife threw herself from the fortress into the river below.
n route to the hotel, we stopped at Cozia Monastery, a small orthodox site that houses the remains of Mircea cel Batran, who was Dracula's grandfather. Outside the crypt was a luminary building where hundreds of prayer candles stood burning in pools of dark water.
ur final stop brought us back to Bucharest where we spent the evening at the Count Dracula Club restaurant. This place was hysterical. The outside of the building had torches burning with blue flames and what appeared to be blood dripping down the facade. Upon entering, we were surrounded by replica scenery from Francis Ford Coppola's interpretation of Dracula, along with snippets of the movie playing in the background. Our main course looked like a grizzly shank of flesh, but was actually sesame encrusted chicken with beet and cheese filling. It was really good! The highlight of the evening came when Dracula himself appeared and performed a scene from the film by kneeling in front of a fellow traveler beseeching, "Mina, Mina!" We barely made it out alive with Dracula following us into the street and passionately necking one of our group members.
Credit: Janice Gets Bitten & Smitten by the Count (photo by Kathy Novak)
ur final morning in Romania was spent exploring the old city of Bucharest. We were fortunate to have behind-the-scenes access to Dracula's Old Court, which is still an active archaeological site. Walking through the dark stone hallways of the palace remains was fantastic, especially since it wasn't open to the public.
Credit: Ghostbride Kathy (photo by Kathy Novak)
ad to leave, we bid Radu farewell and boarded the plane in Bucharest for the return journey to New York via London. As we left Transylvania, I wondered if I might return and was proud to have made such an adventurous journey. Most people don't know where Transylvania is or whether it is real, but we had plenty of photos and souvenirs to prove that the "land beyond the forest" truly exists in a remote and mysterious corner of the world.
Copyright © International Tours & Events LLC. All rights reserved