DracPack 2018 Group Photo.
When doing projects that I enjoy I tend to get a bit overly ambitious. Much like Mary Shelley's nameless protagonist, this thing grew from an idea I had into a freaking monster. I did not want to write a travel log that simply listed all the places we had been to, or talk about the history of these places, or even discuss how much we enjoyed the trip (even though I did do all the above to some extent). All of these things had already been done numerous times in years past. I needed to do something different.
This is, instead, more of a short story, based on the true events of our travels in Romania and modeled, somewhat, after Bram Stoker's Dracula. Those of you familiar with Stoker's book will see some parallels and even a few quotes from the book. And while it should be obvious to all, despite the bold claims that I make in the story, some of it is exaggerated and some of it is pure fiction.
Let me also point out that this is a story told from my (somewhat fictional) perspective. Clearly, I was not with everyone at all times, and so I can only talk about what I saw and heard. Because of this, some people are mentioned more than others and some people are barely mentioned at all.
So we have both a tour report and a scary story involving real people.
Dracula Tour 2018 By Russell Hamblet
To any and all who would dare to delve into the mysteries discussed in the following pages, I give you, the reader, fair warning that the story you are about to read is, to the best of my knowledge, all true and can be substantiated through numerous videos, photographs and eyewitness accounts. No doubt, as you peruse your way through this strange and frightening tale of the macabre, you will find yourself, at times, questioning the veracity the words set before you. But rest assured, I can provide undeniable evidence that the events described in my report actually took place as they are told, "however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight."
My tale then begins in late April of 2018. It was at this time when I was first contacted by an individual, unknown to me, who offered to fund an expedition of sorts into Eastern Europe on a fact-finding mission. Based on my experience as a well-traveled man who has done extensive research on the occult and the supernatural, I was apparently selected by my mysterious benefactor, whose true identity to this day remains firmly mired in the shadows, to embark upon a journey through the distant lands of Romania, and discover who, if any, of the seemingly innocuous members of a tour group were more than just fans of Dracula and gothic horror, but were, in fact, REAL VAMPIRES!
Certainly, without a preface, the vast majority of readers, while making your way through the following report, would scoff at several of the ideas suggested herein. "How can a vampire walk out in the daylight without bursting into flames?" you might ask. "How could a vampire enter a church, or be seen in a photograph, or cast a shadow?" To these questions, I would answer - have you never heard of a "day walker"? Much of what we today think we know about vampires, I am quite certain, is woefully inaccurate, Hollywood-style, misinformation. Even Bram Stoker suggested that Dracula could move about in the daylight unharmed. And if the true historical figure of Vlad the Impaler was actually a vampire (and depending on when he became a vampire), we know for a fact that he was often seen in the daylight - not to mention leading a Crusade and founding monasteries. I am convinced that many of the beliefs we have about vampires today are simply untrue - either that, or the modern-day vampire has learned to adapt and evolve, both physically and in method. Untold centuries have passed, during which time the vampire has had ample opportunity to develop strategies and devices, utilizing everything from technology to black magic and illusions to disguise their true nature. Thus, the difficulty of discovering and revealing which members of the tour group were true vampires was greatly compounded.
Having agreed upon the mission as proposed, despite the secretive shroud of ambiguity that obscured the identity of my employer(s), my first task was to recruit a couple of assistants to aid me in my endeavors. As with all other individuals referred to in this report, I shall, for fear of reprisal, identify them on a first name basis only or by no name at all. Sadly, even this precaution may not be enough to protect them from the nefarious creatures of the night. I now introduce into this tale, John and Michelle S_, longtime associates of mine who bravely agreed to accompany me on this dangerous journey. Likewise, well-versed in the studies of the supernatural, these two have worked alongside me in numerous campaigns for more than a quarter of a century and their greatly appreciated expertise has always proven invaluable.
With the team now assembled and our objectives clearly defined, we turned our attention to preparing ourselves for any eventuality, which included gathering any accoutrements necessary for identifying, warding off, and if need be, destroying any vampires. Further research into vampires, Dracula and Romanian history occupied much of the remainder of our time until the day finally arrived when, with great trepidation, we set out on our journey to Transylvania.
As you, the reader, will note, the vast majority of my report from here on out consists largely of entries in a travel log that I kept with me as we followed the clues which ultimately led my companions and I to the final conclusion. Alas, I fear, we only realized the true identity of one of the vampires in the midst of our tour group when it was too late for a final confrontation with the nosferatu or strigoi, as they are known in Romania. As a result, this undead abomination still, to this day, continues to stalk the streets at night, moving from city to city in search of new prey, while at the same time, eluding any and all who would hunt it down and drive a stake through its cold heart. But fear not, dear reader, for I can at least take some solace in the fact that by the end of this report, the vampire will be revealed!
New York City en route to Istanbul. Arrived at JFK airport with my two companions at 8:20 am. We appeared to be the first to arrive at the meeting place in front of the Turkish Airlines counters. While John watched over our luggage, Michelle and I went to purchase some breakfast at a nearby Dunkin Donuts. Upon our return a few minutes later, we found that John was already becoming acquainted with two more of our fellow travelers who had just arrived, a very charming couple by the name of Joey and Marlinda P_. Soon more and more of our fellow travelers arrived to join us, including our gregarious host, Charles aka Cryptmaster Chucky. I was immediately taken by how friendly and good-natured most members of our group appeared to be - though I tried to remain warry of the façade of a vampire and their legendary ability to charm its victims.
Prior to our arrival at the airport, we had already encountered a few other members of our group. The first such incident occurred on the evening before, soon after dusk and shortly after my arrival at the hotel in NYC where I met up with my companions, John and Michelle. By some uncanny fortune, we met Matt K_ and Wess L_ as we were boarding a shuttle headed back to the airport, en route to Manhattan to do some sightseeing. Having overheard a conversation between myself and my two associates concerning our trip to Transylvania, they inquired about our intended journey to this far away land. Was it mere coincidence then that we happened to encounter these two in such an unlikely manner? Or was there something more diabolical at play here that we were unaware of? Was it some unnatural sense of hearing that allowed them to pick up on our conversation? (Note: I later discovered Wess's hearing to be less than perfect, so at least in his case, this could be ruled out). Or had they already been made aware of our travel plans and were simply seeking out an opportunity to introduce themselves in order to draw us into their fiendish web?
Certainly, the two of them were very affable in a rather roguish sort of way, so once we had learned they would be accompanying us on our journey to Romania, we invited them to join us on our sightseeing excursion. But somewhere in a crowded subway station, as we were looking for a train to take us to Times' Square, we lost sight of them. Was this by accident, or did Matt and Wess have some ulterior agenda concerning the many lost souls who wandered the streets of NYC? Whatever the case, we went on to dine on pizza near Times' Square (Mem., get recipe for Mom), made a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, and, aside from a minor problem that John had at the ESB, we had a very enjoyable evening (Note to self: alcohol in flasks not allowed in the ESB). (Secondary note to self: public transportation in NYC not great. It took us more than two hours via subway, air train and shuttle to get back to the hotel and we did not arrive until after 12:30am).
The second incident where we encountered other members of our group prior to our arrival at the airport occurred this morning, once again as we were boarding the shuttle to the airport. This time, we met Tom K_ and Dana R_. Here again, an overheard conversation revealed, in a similar fashion to that of Matt and Wess, that they too would be accompanying us on our journey. Yet again, perhaps too much of a coincidence to be believed (or, more likely, something far more sinister)? Unlike Matt and Wess, who supposedly had rooms at the same hotel as us, but now were nowhere to be seen, Tom and Dana had driven up from New Jersey and had parked their car in the hotel parking lot (or so they claimed). A short while later, the five of us had arrived at the airport and were soon greeting our fellow travelers.
By 9:15 or so, all the members of our tour group had arrived and introduced themselves, save for a party of four, two of which would be getting married on Halloween night, who were running late due to a flight scheduling conflict. In addition to the marriage ceremony, we were informed there would also be a 20th anniversary vow renewal between Joey and Marlinda, as well as an official engagement between Kyle S_ and Natasha M_. Despite the serious danger we were about become embroiled in, it was difficult to not get caught up in the anxious excitement that now filled the air. Charles talked to us about the trip and about other similar trips he was organizing and gave us each a bag full of goodies (that included nametags which did not get much use, if any at all).
Having been on our feet for much of the previous day or so, my companions and I eventually grew tired and were anxious to get through security so we could sit down and rest, though, of course, we had no intention of showing any disrespect to the wedding party, whom we were told nothing about. So, rather than wait for them any longer, John, Michelle and I went ahead through the security and were quickly followed by Tom and Dana.
Once we had located our departure gate, we were able to rest there for a bit. It was at about that time when we learned we would be resting there for much longer than expected. Due to unusually foggy weather in the NYC area, our departure from JFK would be delayed for about an hour. While we were waiting, I was reminded, being very familiar with the work, that in Bram Stoker's Dracula, in the very first line of the book, Jonathan Harker likewise mentions that his train was also an hour late in arriving. I found this to be a disturbingly ominous portent for our future travels and I tried not to dwell upon it.
While we waited there at the airport, we engaged in some polite conversation with Matt and Wess, and I believe Matt may have inadvertently revealed more than he intended to when he showed us a picture on his phone of his "Halloween costume." The horrific image of a bat-like nosferatu was so startlingly realistic that I found it quite difficult to believe that it could be anything but the true form of an actual vampire! I tried to remain calm and not let the expression on my face betray the thoughts that ran wildly through my mind, while I made a mental note to keep a sharp eye on our two new acquaintances.
Once on the airplane, my original assigned seat was a window seat next to another member of our tour group, by the name of Morgan K_. Though at first, I thought it would give me the perfect opportunity to get to know yet another one of our traveling companions (and possible vampires). But, just before take-off, a flight attendant informed me that there were several empty seats at the rear of the plane, and I eventually felt I had to take advantage of the available seats, which would more easily allow me to stretch out and rest, as well as to gather my thoughts so far in my travel log.
Our airplane left JFK at approximately 1:20 pm. We are now somewhere over the North Atlantic and there is no turning back now. Due to the constantly changing time zones through which we are currently passing, it is pointless to make any notations on the actual time. But the lights have been turned down in most of the cabin and so I will do the same and try to get some sleep. We have a long journey ahead of us and I will need to stay as sharp as I can be.
Bucharest. Sleep did not come easily on the long flight, nor did it last for any length of time, but rather in short spurts. Disturbed as it was by haunted dreams and restless anxiety. It did not help that it became virtually impossible to find a comfortable position in the seats despite having the room to stretch out somewhat. Fortunately, the food was decent (though I was not compelled to ask anyone for any recipes).
We landed in Istanbul, shortly before sunrise and I was quite amazed at how stunningly gorgeous the city was, lit up at night and seen from above. I tried in vain to take a few pictures of the breath-taking view from my window, but failed in every attempt to capture anything worth saving.
While waiting at the airport during our layover, it was only at this time that my companions and I became aware of the four ladies, obviously Americans like the rest of us, who now were apparently a part of our tour group. Only gradually then, did we come to realize that this was the wedding party we had been waiting for at JFK airport and that the wedding was going to be slightly different from what we had been expecting - not that getting married on Halloween night was not already a bit unusual - though judging by this group of tourists, it was more common that I might have expected (or is this only a common practice among vampires?).
After a couple of hours, our group, along with a mass of people of both Turkish and Eastern European decent, as far as I could determine, were packed into a series of buses like sardines in a can and shuffled out to an awaiting Airbus 330. There we clambered on board the massive plane and took a one hour flight to Bucharest, during which time the poor flight attendants did their best to try and feed us and serve refreshments to us all like they were racing through an obstacle course that was hurtling through the sky at several hundred miles an hour (because, essentially, that is exactly what they were doing). I barely had time to shove a roll into my mouth before they were coming back around to take the rest of the food away from us. My seat, however, was once again a window seat next to Morgan, so this time I did take the opportunity to get to know her a bit.
After landing in Bucharest, we made our way to the baggage claim and upon securing our luggage, most of us began to file out through a checkpoint into the lobby of the airport. Awaiting us at the checkpoint, however, was a guard with a dog and I could not help but notice a few members of our group hesitating before approaching. Could it be, I wondered, they were concerned that the dog would be able to detect the presence of the undead? I made a mental note of this, but moments later, we had passed by the guard and his dog without incident.
We were met in the airport lobby by a gentleman named Dan who informed us we would be meeting our actual guide, Radu, later in the evening. But then came the bad news. The checked bags for two members of our group, Dana and Tearsa W_, failed to arrive in Bucharest. I know first hand how frustrating and stressful this can be, as it happened to me several years before when I took a trip to Egypt. My bag did not catch up to me until the third day! Fortunately, the two ladies handled the news well as they were assured their luggage would be delivered to them sometime tonight.
It was approximately 10:15 am when we left the airport and made our way through the streets of Bucharest. Because it was too early to check into our hotel rooms just yet, we were given a tour through the central, historical portion of the city, past many famous works of architecture including Romania's version of the Arcul de Triumf, the Athenaeum, the University of Bucharest, the National Museum of Art of Romania, the National Art Museum of Romania, the Romanian Peoples Salvation Cathedral, the Parliament of Romania (the enormous building built by the mad dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu) the Odean Theatre and "The Impaled Potato," a monument erected to commemorate the 1989 revolution that ousted Ceausescu (Thank you Tearsa for providing me with this long list of architectural wonders).
We were given the opportunity to exit the bus for a quick photo opp at the later location, as well as at a famous wall with relief carvings of military forces and a nearby market place where some of us purchased a few things. Tom took the opportunity here to purchase a bottle of tuica, the local drink made from plums (which, as we would soon discover, is only slightly less toxic than paint thinner).
We arrived at our hotel, the Novotel, at about noon and despite my recommendations to others that they try and stay awake as long as possible in order to get over the jet lag more quickly, I immediately went to my room, took a shower, and fell asleep on the bed. I simply could not have gone any longer and was in danger of drifting off to la-la land while standing in the lobby. Others, I am told, faired a bit better but rapidly faded towards the end of the evening.
I got up at about 3:15, and took a short walk down the street where I managed to find a sort-of sidewalk restaurant. Here, despite the fact that I had not said a single word, a kindly old man recognized me as an English-speaking foreigner and ordered a sandwich and a Coke for me. After munching it down I found a store next door that sold bottles and promptly purchased a large bottle of Jack Daniels. Score! Having now accomplished my two main objectives for the afternoon (food and booze), I was back at the hotel by 4:00 where I then began preparing for the evening gathering (i.e. let the drinking commence!).
Of course, I had not lost sight of my mission objectives, so at about 5:30 I returned to the hotel lobby where a few members of the tour group had begun to gather. I had a brief conversation with Marlinda before several other members of the tour group arrived, at which point, I deliberately moved about the gathering, taking down their names as I introduced myself to those I had not yet done so, so that I could begin the task of determining which among the group were real vampires.
In addition to those I have already mentioned, there was Tearsa's daughter Sydney W_, Pamela G_ and her daughter Kaitlyn, Scott M_ (though he more commonly used a second surname, P_, which I thought to be very suspicious), Sam W_ and his girlfriend Kelly M_, and, of course, the wedding party, Trudy B_, Rebecca Y_, Robin B_, and Zhane B_ (though I was still unclear at this point who was marrying who).
Finally, at about 6:00 pm, we were introduced to our tour guide Radu, a very loquacious and jovial sort of man, very knowledgeable about history and society. I was initially struck by the fact that his name was the same as that of one of Dracula's brothers but then considered the fact that it might actually be a fairly common name in Romania.
After further introductions, Radu led us from the hotel, through the darkened streets of the city, into a pedestrian-only section of historic buildings where he pointed out various features. Eventually, we found ourselves at a marvelous restaurant called the Caru' cu Bere, where we had dinner on the upper floor in a sort-of indoor balcony area. I sat with Morgan, Tearsa, Sidney, Tom and Dana, and we had some very interesting conversation (Note: I'm not sure if this means anything, but in his college days, Tom once dressed as Dr Frankenfurter for the Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Towards the end of the evening, only a handful of us stayed late at the restaurant. It was about 10:00 pm or so, when the last of us, John, Michelle, Scott and I, left the restaurant and went in search of a hookah bar we had seen earlier. We wandered about a bit, but never found the place. Instead, we settled for an outdoor café, with a rather persuasive hostess, called Sinners (the café, not the hostess), right across from a place labeled Dracula Medieval Feast. We had a few drinks and celebrated our first evening in Romania. It was sometime later, when we decided we had better make the attempt at returning to our hotel.
Despite the meandering path Radu took that led us to the restaurant, he had assured us it would be easy to find our way back to the hotel. So, we began strolling through the dimly lit and empty streets. While I typically have a good sense of direction and do well with maps, even I struggled a bit with the curving streets and odd intersections that threatened to disorient us and send us wandering off down some dark and perilous alleyway. Gradually, we began to question the path we had chosen to take, and the stress in our voices betrayed the concern in our thoughts as we debated on the proper route to follow. Shadows grew long as our footsteps echoed between the dark gray buildings and down the glistening streets. Goosebumps that formed on our skin were heightened by the quickening of our heartbeats. Not just once, but twice did we end up doubling back as we found we had wandered into an area that looked completely unfamiliar to us - areas where the darkness was so opaque that any number of unspeakable creatures might have lurked within.
Eventually though, we came upon a well-lit street that we recognized, much to our relief, and from there, we were able to make our way back to the hotel and to our rooms, thus bringing to a close our first day in Romania.
October 29th 2018.
Brasov. Following a very nice breakfast, the rest of the group was informed that, by that time, both pieces of missing luggage had made it to the hotel, making us, and in particular, Dana and Tearsa, very happy indeed. We left the hotel at about 8:30 am and began the journey north towards the town of Snagov.
Making the transition from city to country, one could almost sense a distinct change in culture from new world to old world, as if we had traveled back in time to a place where technology and innovation gave way to superstition and witchcraft. Our first destination for the day lay on the north side of Snagov and the nearby lake, Lacul Snagov. Here, our expert driver's skills were put on display as he guided the massive bus full of tourists through the narrow village streets and deftly backed the bus into a dirt and gravel parking lot barely large enough for our over-sized conveyance.
Upon exiting the bus, we were greeted by an ancient-appearing one-eyed man whose leathered and wrinkled face revealed years of hardship and toil (not to mention a questionable dental plan). As I gazed upon his somber countenance, though he spoke not a single word, I could almost read the doom-filled thoughts within his mind which said to me, "Beware traveler, for you have entered the land of Dracula."
Moments later, we were met by another villager who could have easily been the one-eyed man's sister, a rather severe old crone dressed in traditional old-world style attire, with the kind of face one would expect to find in a gypsy vardo and seated behind a crystal ball. She too remained as silent as the dead, only glaring at us with a stony expression as we walked by, as if to curse us with her evil eye.
Shaking off the chills that coursed through our bodies as best we could, we made our way over a long and narrow bridge (and past laborers who were still hard at work on constructing sections of the bridge), over a portion of the lake and onto the island where lay the Monastery of Snagov, which is said to be the burial place of Dracula (or at least, most of Dracula).
Before arriving at this place, Radu had warned us about a pack of dogs who lived on the island which would turn on you and bite you when you least expected it. Just past the bridge, as we approached the bell tower, I was somewhat alarmed to see a dog (perhaps one of the dogs we had been warned about) lying just to the side of the pathway. I was surprized to find that it was much smaller than I was expecting and very harmless in appearance. But looks can be deceiving. Other members of the group seemed to be (suspiciously?) unconcerned about the dog, but I was not about to take my eyes off of it.
However, moments later, as I was walking out from under the archway of the bell tower that we had just passed through, I saw what appeared to be the very same dog now lying on the opposite side of the bell tower! How could this be? I wondered. How could it have suddenly transported from one side of the bell tower to the other? It was not until later, when we spotted several of these dogs, all very similar in appearance, lying near each other between the monastery and the bell tower that I realized these were all dogs from the same batch of pups. Mystery solved. And, so far as I am aware, no one in our group was bitten by any of the dogs. Perhaps these were not the dogs we had been warned about.
The horses on the island, however, were another matter entirely. After touring the inside of the monastery, which I shall get to presently, we roamed around the grounds just beyond the monastery where lived these strange, miniature-sized horses (stunted perhaps by an ancient curse placed upon the island? - just speculating here). Although they too appeared to be quite harmless, I can report that at least one of them tried to bite, and then succeeded in kicking my associate Michelle in the rear with both hooves! Perhaps this was some kind of warning against meddling in areas where we were not welcome.
As for the monastery itself, although small in size, it was, nevertheless, very impressive, particularly the painted walls inside. Here, Radu spoke to us about the monastery's history and Dracula's grave, which most of us took pictures around. According to the most accepted story, Dracula's body was once buried here minus his head, which was taken by the Turks after Dracula's death. Now, neither his body nor his head can be found anywhere. Is it possible that the two have since been reunited and that Dracula once again walks the streets at night along with his progeny?
After talking to us about the monastery and letting us go to explore the island, I am told that Radu and the priest, who watched over the monastery, had a bit of a heated exchange. Radu later told us that this was not unusual and that it is merely the kind of relationship he has with the priest - nothing to be alarmed about. But I could not help but wonder if the priest somehow suspected the presence of vampires in our midst.
One last note about the island of the Snagov Monastery: almost hidden away on the northern edge of the island was a tall, rather ghoulish-looking statue of what appeared to be an angel holding a baby. Although it had obviously seen better days, as one of its wings had broken off, I found it to be rather disturbing, partly because of its unusual rendering, but also because of what it might be symbolizing. With its right hand held up, palm facing forward, was it trying to present the baby that it held in its left hand, or was it threatening to take the baby away?
We were back on the bus and headed away by 11:15, this time with an extra passenger. Having worked out an agreement with the priest from the monastery, we were now giving him a lift to a sort-of local convenience store (apparently Uber drivers are a bit hard to find in this area). While at the store several of us attempted to buy bottles of water. But Radu, quite in a panic it seemed, suddenly rushed into the store and put a stop to it, explaining that the water that several of us had grabbed had gas in it (i.e. was carbonated), even though it was not clearly labeled as such. Making sure we all now had non-carbonated water, we then completed our transactions and returned to the bus. I mention this seemingly unimportant incident because there may have been more to it than there might appear. Could it be that the priest had intentionally lured us to the store where he had already previously blessed some of the water, thus making it holy water? And could it be that Radu had suddenly realized the priest's duplicity just in the nick of time, thereby preventing the vampires among us from drinking the holy water? This was something to consider.
Once more on the bus, we were soon headed north again towards the Carpathian Mountains. A short while later, we stopped for lunch at place completely unexpected. Although it had been transformed into a restaurant and made to look as though it had been originally intended as such, to my eyes it was unmistakably the sight of a crashed extraterrestrial flying saucer! Now serving pizza and burgers, there could be little question as to its alien origins. Clearly, the fixtures and gadgetry inside the restrooms were of alien technology and designed for alien anatomy! They even displayed several of the alien corpses inside the restaurant, and though they attempted to make the stuffed aliens appear terrestrially manufactured, they failed in their efforts to deceive me. The food there was not great either.
Following lunch, our bus entered the Carpathian Mountains at around 1:00 pm or so, and soon after, the region of Romania known as Transylvania. Along the way, Radu spoke to us about a number of topics including wolves, bears and cemeteries, the later of which we saw several as we made our way further into the mountains.
A short while later, we arrived at Bran Castle, which is (incorrectly, for the most part) often associated with Dracula. Although some people will sight three different points in history where Dracula may have entered Bran Castle, both willingly and unwillingly, there are many others who will tell you he never set foot in the castle. We are not likely to ever know the truth for certain. Nevertheless, Bran Castle owes much of its fame, rightly or not, to Dracula.
Unfortunately, not everything went as planned or hoped for at the castle. Our two soon-to-be newlyweds, Robin and Rebecca, had hired a photographer to take wedding pictures at the castle, but those who watched over the castle would not let them enter in the traditional attire of bride and groom (we assumed because weddings at the castle, we were told, are normally quite expensive. But then, of course, we might also keep in mind that Romania is not exactly leading the way for the rights of gays and lesbians, either). So, some sort of compromise had to be reached.
As for the rest of us, I believe I can speak for the remainder of the group and say that we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Bran Castle (not to imply that Robin and Rebecca did not also get some enjoyment out of the visit). It was a fascinating journey back in time to the architecture of the 14th century (though the interior furnishings only date back to the mid-20th century and the time of Queen Mary of Romania). It was, of course, fairly crowded with people, being a particularly busy time of the year for those tourists, I suppose, who are interested in Dracula. Moving from room to room and up and down the narrow stairwells, it was easy to get lost in imagining what it might have been like to have lived there at one time or another.
The only reference, however, that I saw to Dracula, was a room where a famous painting (or rather a copy thereof) of Vlad the Impaler hung on a wall. Imagine my utter horror and surprise then, as I gazed upon this depiction of the Crown Prince of Wallachia, and saw a man step in front of the picture that looked identical to Vlad Tepes himself! (Minus the enormous mustache). Could it be that the Dark Prince (or perhaps one of his descendants) had returned to revisit the castle where Vlad the Impaler once might have been held a prisoner? The more I observed the man, the more certain I became of it. I quickly snapped a picture with my phone, hoping his likeness could actually be captured in this manner, as photographic proof of his existence. I was relieved moments later, to discover that indeed, I had managed to record his image within my phone!
A short while later, I conferred with my two associates, John and Michelle, for they too had witnessed the apparent doppelganger of Vlad the Impaler roaming about the castle, though strangely enough, no one else seemed to take notice. How curious it is that the untrained eye can be so oblivious to that which is hidden in plain sight. We realized however, that with so many people standing nearby, we could make no move against a creature so powerful - too many innocent lives at risk. No, though it pained me to realize this, now was not the time to attack. This time I feared, the master of all vampires would get away with his daring return to a castle long associated with his infamy, perhaps unaware that he had come so close to being revealed.
As the sinking feeling began to settle in, of being unable to rid the world of a great evil, we came upon a signature book in the courtyard of the castle. Here, John, Michelle and I each signed the book. I took the opportunity to let Dracula know that I was on to him, and signed the book, "I will hunt you down, Dracula! - Your Archenemy, Russell!" Then we made our way to the souvenir shop and bought a few things.
Once we were done with Bran Castle, we slowly made our way back to where the bus was parked, taking many pictures along the way and browsing through the souvenir flea market at the base of the castle. We were on the road again soon after 5:00 pm and now headed northeast to our final destination for the day - Brasov.
Along the way, however, a strange thing happened. At about dusk, as our bus came to a stop, apparently due to traffic, those of us in the back of the bus heard a commotion coming from those near the front of the bus. Our attention was then drawn to something occurring just outside and to the left of the bus, and it soon became quite obvious what all of the ruckus was about. While Wess recorded the incident on his phone, two wild dogs began to copulate in full view of the passengers on the bus, sending our fellow tourists into a frenzy of hoots, howls and laughter, almost as if they were on the verge of being overcome with bloodlust, which is a known condition experienced by vampires when exposed to sensations of animalistic behavior. For a brief period, I became concerned for the safety of my associates and I, and felt compelled to reach into my bag to gather the various objects and substances I had sequestered there to protect us from vampires. Fortunately, though, the period soon passed without further incident and I was relieved to find that I had not yet needed to reveal the specialized arsenal at our disposal and therefore our true purpose.
We finally arrived at our hotel in Brasov, the Hotel Coroana Brasovului, at around 6:15 pm. After checking into my room, I quickly returned to the lobby and waited just outside the hotel for any of the others to show up. Being in the extreme rear of the bus, I managed to miss most of what Radu had told the group about Brasov, and so was not clear on what our options were for this evening's dinner and entertainment. (As it turns out, I missed out on the opportunity to visit the German quarter, where several members of the group, including John, Michelle, Matt, Wess, Joey and Marlinda eventually found themselves and had a great time - or so I'm told. By the end of the night, the six of them had made it to a bar called the Bibliotheque, where, according to them, they were served flaming - literally burning - tuica and the best cappuccino in the world).
While other members of the group headed to the German quarter, I fell in with another group that included Scott, Morgan, Sam and Kelly. We chose to dine at a restaurant just across the street from the hotel, where Sam was served a portion of raw pork sausage. Though he said it was delicious, he wisely had them cook it before eating it (which made me inclined to remove him from the list of possible vampires). Afterwards, we returned to the hotel and had drinks outdoor, there at the English Pub. Sometime later, as my group began to disband for the night, I ran into Tom who, earlier in the day, had promised to share some of his tuica with me. So, he and I sat in the lobby and talked for some time before calling it a night (around 2:00 am I believe). (Admittedly, this was one night where I could have done without the tuica, as I had begun my celebrating much earlier in the day. From what I gather though, I was probably not the only one to have had too much to drink this night).
Bistrita. Following breakfast, we took a walk through Brasov's German quarter where Radu showed us several interesting features including sections of the old city walls such as Catherine's Gate; a famous portrait on a sign depicting Vlad the Impaler's first love, Katharina, where now is located a boutique hotel named after her; Strada Sforii or Rope Street where, according to legend, lovers who kiss there remain eternally in love (several of the group's couples took this as an opportunity to do some kissing, and as a result lost sight of Radu who seemed to have suddenly vanished into thin air); and (once we had relocated Radu) the famous Black Church, so named because of a fire that ravaged a portion of it in 1689, during the Great Turkish War.
It was about 11:45 am, when we finished our walk and were picked up by our bus. We then left Brasov and headed to the city of Sighisoara, the birth place of Dracula. Upon arriving in Sighisoara, later in the afternoon, our bus took us directly to the old town at the center of the city where we boarded smaller buses that took us up the hill on the original cobblestone road, through the portcullis-guarded gatehouse, and into the main square. From there, Radu led us by foot towards the old bell tower and the bright yellow house nearby where Dracula is said to have been born. After telling us a few things about the bell tower and Dracula's birthplace, he left us to explore the bell tower and have lunch on our own. The bell tower was an interesting place to explore with numerous displays of weapons, armor and other artifacts, very creaky wooden floors, and, at the very top, a great view of the surrounding city (though I detected a particularly pungent odor in the air, most likely from bird poop that had been collecting there for who knows how long and left behind by the dozens of birds that roosted at the tower's rooftop).
After exploring the bell tower, I led John and Michelle to the opposite side of the Evangelical Church next to the bell tower, where I showed them a carved bust of Dracula that not even Radu had mentioned to the group (I was only aware of it thanks to a guide book and Google Earth). Many of us then headed over to Dracula's house, which was now a restaurant and souvenir shop. Although Radu did not recommend the food there, I think most of us found the food to be at least fair if not good. And, I think most of us did not want to pass up the opportunity to have lunch where Dracula was born. After lunch, some of us paid the 5 lieu it took to go into the second floor, where they claimed we could enter the very room where Dracula was born - a pretty bold statement, I might add, considering the house may not have had a second floor at the time of Dracula's birth. (Keep in mind however, that this is not an indisputable fact. Like much of what many claim to know about Vlad the Impaler and the period in which he lived, there are many very reputable people who would argue both sides of this and other debates, such as whether or not he ever set foot in Bran Castle. I, myself, am not an expert in Romanian history, nor do I have access to a time machine. So, it would make little sense for me to claim to know the absolute truth in these matters).
On the second floor, there were two rooms we were allowed to enter, both dimly lit and dressed up like a Halloween haunted house. The first of these rooms contained a man in a coffin who laid very still until we approached, and then tried to scare us by lurching forward and yelling out something akin to, "Boo!" Frankly, I saw it coming the whole way and was actually more startled by the fake rubber spider that suddenly descended upon me as I entered the stairwell. Still, it was all in good fun and I tipped the guy a couple more lieu for his hard work of lying in a coffin all day. Nonetheless, I was more interested in what might be found in the rooms that we were not allowed to enter. What secrets might be hidden away in those areas? Probably just dusty furniture and dirty laundry. But I could not help but wonder.
Following lunch, we met up with Radu again in the town square at about 4:00 pm, or slightly thereafter (some of us were a bit late to the rendezvous mostly due to the fact that because dinning in Romania, as is the case with many European countries, is typically a notoriously slow process by American standards). Once we had all gathered in the square, Radu directed us to the west where we came upon a set of covered stairs (172 of them!) called Scara acoperita, which ascended a hill to a very large Lutheran church known officially as Biserica Evanghelica Din Deal, but is perhaps more commonly known simply as the Church on the Hill.
The vast majority of us climbed the steps (though I am told that not all of us made the attempt), and by the time we reached the top, where everyone was breathing heavily and gasping for air, I thought it was very telling who was going to be struggling in a few days when we would climb the nearly 1500 steps to the ruins of Dracula's real castle. I was suddenly feeling pretty good about myself then, as I was the first to reach the top and was not breathing anywhere near as heavily as most of my fellow travelers, many of whom were a decade or more younger than me. Not bad for a man in his mid-fifties and a survivor of a heart attack. In fact, I was feeling so cocky at the time that I began to seriously consider challenging the rest of the group to a race up the 1500 steps to Dracula's castle!
When we reached the top of the stairs, a man with a guitar and seated on a stool, clearly recognized us as Americans and entertained us by playing songs like AC/DC's Thunderstruck and Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. We got a kick out of this, but soon we were moving again and making our way around the large church.
As we did so, however, the atmosphere around us began to change, and became perceptively gloomier and more somber. Now at the highest point of the city, the sky grew dim and cloudy, while the trees around us appeared jagged and twisted, many of them barren of leaves with the changing of the season. Suddenly, from all around us, came the raucous din of dozens of crows, which flew in great flocks and circled overhead, as their cacophony of cawing now filled the air. It was a strange and eerie sight to behold and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. Here, on the eve of Halloween, as we approached a graveyard just a short distance from where Dracula was born, and as the sun was beginning to set low on the horizon, we could all sense it. It was as if we were on the precipice of something dire and unforgiving, like an ancient evil about to rise from its tomb.
As Radu led us into the graveyard, telling us about its history, we were struck by its contrasting features - among them, the uneven ground, and the varying dates on the tombstones that ranged from so old you could not read them to less than a year in age. Most of the graves had been reused again and again, with as many as seven or eight names listed on the tombstones, one on top of the other (and presumably the remains of those individuals below in a likewise manner). The pathway wound its way through the crowded graveyard, around the many graves and trees, gradually descending as it curved around in a clockwise fashion, all the while the crows, with their constant chatter, keeping a continuing vigil from high above.
Eventually, the pathway led us to stairs and more pathways which took us back into the old town, where we took some time to rest and gather ourselves before descending the cobblestone road back to the bus. By this point, a fog had begun to settle in over the town below, further heightening the atmosphere of mystery and suspense. As we made our way back to the bus, a few of us could not help but notice how some of the crows flying overhead, had now taken on the appearance of bats.
It was about 5:00 pm or so when our bus began the long drive to our final destination for the day - the city of Bistrita. While on this leg of our journey, which was supposed to take about 3 hours or so, we were kept entertained and preoccupied with a couple of horror movies that were shown on the video monitors in the bus. At some point however, in what appeared to be a small town that we passed through along the way, our journey was interrupted and brought to a complete stand still. Flashing red and blue lights and the occasional siren, both preceding and during the stop, clearly indicated a serious automobile accident had occurred just ahead of us. As a result, we were delayed for almost an hour while we waited for the police and paramedics to tend to the injured and clear the way. This was followed soon after by a light rain that passed through the area as we were taking a short break in our travels.
Due to the unfortunate accident, it was very late in the evening, around 10:00 pm, when we arrived at our hotel in Bistrita, the Hotel Coroana De Aur (aka the Golden Crown). Nevertheless, as soon as we had gotten our rooms there, we were directed into a special room called the Jonathan Harker Salon, which was obviously named after the fictional character in Bram Stoker's Dracula and for which both the city and the hotel owes some of its fame. It was in this dining room, that I might add appeared to be appropriately furnished and decorated, where we were served our dinner, which started off with a somewhat bazar plate of appetizers that consisted of red onions, salami, raw bacon and an odd tasting cheese ball with a smiley face on it. Most of us, I believe, ate very little of the appetizers. Fortunately, the hotel's specialty, robber steak, also made famous by the book Dracula, was much more appetizing than the appetizers, and consisted of bacon, onion, beef and red pepper on a stick - basically a shish-ka-bob. This was then followed by a desert that was intentionally set on fire right there in front of us.
Afterwards, having previously discussed the idea with John, I checked my phone (and Google maps) for a nearby bar where we could have a drink or two, and managed to locate a place a couple of blocks away called the Moonlight Club, which, according to the site, claimed to be open until 2 am. There were not a lot of options available (and I was later told that Radu had mentioned to some of us that we would not find much in the way of nightlife in Bistrita). But following the long bus ride, we were anxious to do something more before turning in for the night. So, I took the initiative this time, and went around to each of our tables and invited everyone to come along. Unfortunately, some of us had apparently already left the room (Sorry, Scott), and some of us declined the invitation.
So, as it was, a short while later, using the map on my phone, I was soon guiding Matt, Wess, John, Michelle, Tom, Dana, Sam and Kelly through the streets (some of them fairly dark and narrow), past a cemetery and up to what turned out to be a kind of hole-in-the-wall pool hall/bowling alley. It was about ten minutes to midnight when we walked into the place and it was empty. We tried to get a couple of pool tables, but the lone employee there informed us he was about to close. So, this turned out to be a bust. We then asked him if he could direct us to a bar that was open. He gave us directions to a place he called "Anytime" and pointed to a spot on my map. I could not follow his directions, but I could follow a map to where he was pointing.
So, off we went, once again, with me leading the way. This time the walk was considerably longer and there were times when my companions began to wonder where I was leading them. But I honestly don't think they cared too much. For some reason, most of them trusted me to lead them on (and even said so). In the meantime, it was actually an enjoyable walk with good company, laughing and joking all the while, as we made our way through the dimly lit streets - a bunch of noisy Americans, in an otherwise silent and deserted central part of town. We made our way past a very large cathedral and past several businesses long closed for the day. And as we were getting close to the spot on my map where the man had indicated, I began to wonder if we would actually find the bar we had been told about.
Then, by pure chance, we came across a small bar not listed on my map, I believe was called Erm's Pub. Inside, we could see a few men playing a soccer video game on a large TV screen. I pointed it out as a possibility. But Dana was not about to wait for any response from the rest of the group, as she opened the door, in a bit of a hurry I might add, and immediately headed for the ladies room walking right past the three men who barely caught a glimpse of her. Apparently, she had urgent business to attend to. So, the rest of us followed her in.
When I saw the look on one of the men's face, I noted an expression of concern. I was, therefore, mildly relived when he told us that, although he would be closing the place soon, he would at least serve us one drink before sending us on our way. But the bartender, whom we shall hereafter remember as Mr. Wolf, was drinking with a couple of friends of his own. And as long as he kept drinking, we were allowed to do the same. Before long, one drink had turned into quite a few drinks.
At some point during our visit, the bartender began talking to us, perhaps to simply practice his English a bit, and we told him about our trip and our purpose, and how a bunch of Americans ended up being in such an unlikely place at such an unlikely time. By the end of the night, we were buying shots of Jägermeister for not only ourselves but for the bartender and his friends as well. Needless, to say, we all had a very good time.
Before we turned to leave his bar however (and I'm pretty confident this actually happened, though my memory of the night is a bit foggy - so, perhaps it was just a dream I had later on), Mr. Wolf seemed to recall something and took on a very serious expression. Then he leaned close to us and in a low voice said, "Tomorrow, you all plan to go to the Hotel Castle Dracula, yes?" And before waiting for a response, he added, "Must you go?" We looked at him with puzzled expressions. "Do you know what day it is?" he then continued. "It is well past midnight. Today is Halloween. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway? Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?"
We stared at him for a moment or two, completely enthralled by his apparent warning of impending doom. Then someone, probably Wess, broke the silence with a half-hearted laugh, and the rest of us joined in with some nervous laughter of our own and a few sarcastic remarks. Though I am sure Mr. Wolf's intentions were good, we tried to assure him we would be alright. We then thanked him for his hospitality and headed back out into the streets.
It was only as we were on our way back to the hotel, when it suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Wolf's final words were almost exact quotes from Bram Stoker's Dracula - words spoken to Jonathan Harker just before he set out through the Borgo Pass on his way to Dracula's Castle. A cold shiver passed through me as I came to this realization. And then it dawned on me that, with all of the excitement and the pleasant distractions of the journey so far, I had begun to lose sight of my true objectives. I knew I had to refocus my mind and seriously redirect my efforts on the task for which I had come to this strange and mysterious land.
(A short distance further, however, we came upon a statue of a man with unusually long and creepy fingers. So, naturally we had to stop and take several pictures of us standing around - or sitting on - the statue. And before I knew it, my mission objectives had once again taken a back seat).
It was, without a doubt, very late by the time I had led the group back to the hotel. Still, there were several of us, who were not yet ready to call it a night. So, those of us who interested, met up in a sort-of lounge area just outside some of the rooms and had a few more drinks, while we tried (unsuccessfully for the most part, I'm sure) to remain as quiet as possible. Fortunately, by the time we finally returned to our rooms, we were able to take some comfort in the fact that we were not going to be leaving the hotel in the morning anywhere near as early as we had been on previous mornings.
October 31st 2018.
The Borgo Pass. Okay. So, I almost missed breakfast this morning. So much for the thought of being able to sleep in today. I slept as late as I could, but I knew I had to have a decent breakfast today or it was going to be a rough day. But by the time I got my slightly hung-over ass to the hotel dining room where breakfast was being served breakfast was gone! There was no more food and all the pans and trays were nowhere to be found. Only a tablecloth littered with crumbs still remained. Fortunately, Radu was still there and he was kind enough to have the hotel staff bring me a plate of food. Phew! Though there was nothing special about this breakfast compared to any of the others we had had, this one was particularly satisfying.
It was about noon when we began piling on to the bus. Michelle was a bit late in arriving as she had gone in search of an ATM for more money and had gotten a bit lost on her way back. Nothing like the thought of being left behind in a foreign country by your tour group, to get a sense of panic and the old adrenaline flowing.
We were on the road by 12:15 and headed for the Borgo Pass. It was along this road, I believe, more than any other part of Romania, where we really got a sense of the Old World. Here, in this remote section of Transylvania, which literally means "beyond the enchanted forest," and which has been described as "the last truly medieval landscape in Europe," it felt as if we had wandered back in time 100 years or so. Quaint farmhouses, often accompanied by their distinctive hay mounds and long wooden fences, dotted the rolling hills, separated by dirt roads, lush pastures and wildflower meadows, where shepherds tended to their flocks and the occasional stray dog wandered by.
Along the way, Radu talked to us on several topics including curses and superstitions, which were truly subjects often considered by the villagers in their everyday lives. And to prove his point, he drew our attention to a few horse-drawn wagons as we passed them by and talked about the red or yellow tassels that the horses were wearing which were meant to protect them from evil influences. To the people of Transylvania, these things are no laughing matter.
Now, as I sit in the back of the bus, trying to update my travel log despite the bumpy ride, I think about what Radu has been telling us, and I am reminded of what Mr. Wolf tried to warn us about last night. Regardless of the danger, I am, once again, firmly resolved to seek out the answers that I was sent here to find - and my associates and I have a plan for doing just that.
October 31st 2018.
Hotel Castle Dracula. It was later in the afternoon when our bus arrived in the area of the hotel. We actually drove past it so we could get a nice view of the hotel and its surroundings from a distance. This included the Monastery of Piatra Fantanele, which towered above the hotel on a nearby hill, but which was currently undergoing some renovations. There we stopped for a bit so we could take a few pictures.
While we were admiring the view, Wess found a long wooden pole with a pointy end (most likely an unused fence post), and posed with it for several pictures as if it had been a stake driven through his chest. Was he mocking the vampires who were present at the time? Or was he a vampire attempting to cast any suspicion away from him by making light of the situation and literally poking fun at himself? Whatever the case, Radu was more interested in demonstrating first hand for Wess how impaling was actually done during Dracula's time. But, for some reason, Wess politely declined the offer.
Following the picture-taking bus stop, we then completed the drive to Hotel Castle Dracula, and, while leaving our luggage near the entrance, went inside to find our rooms. Passing through a large set of iron bound wooden doors and into a central courtyard, we were then led into the keep-like structure through more heavy wooden doors, up some stairs, through an ante-chamber and into the hotel lobby, all the while observing the numerous paintings of vampires and other Dracula-related artifacts. Upon being given the keys to our rooms (actual skeleton keys as opposed to magnetic cards), we had located our rooms and most of us made our way to the restaurant there in the hotel.
The restaurant was unique in many ways starting with the menus, which resembled massive tomes full of ancient and forbidden lore. There was quite a lot to choose from and the food was good, or so I am told by most of my fellow travelers, as I chose to keep my lunch rather simple with a plate of spaghetti. No one was bold enough, or hungry enough, though, to sample the rooster testicles (served fried or sautéed). Even the place mats caught the attention of most of us, which, among other things, had written on them in English, "You can go anywhere in the castle except for the places with locked doors of course, you wouldn't want to enter." This is not quite a direct quote from the book, Dracula, but it is very close (perhaps it had been translated into the native tongue and then back into English - thus accounting for the minor differences).
After lunch, I was eager to explore about the hotel (I had heard rumors that there are a number of secret passages to be found if one looked carefully enough). So off I went, doing my best to remain undetected by the hotel staff, who almost certainly, are enslaved servants that have been charmed by the vampire that lords over the place.
Most members of the staff, by the way, seem pleasant enough, though occasionally they appear distracted or even inattentive - no doubt as a result of being so heavily manipulated by their master. One among them, however, a woman of stern countenance and overbearing demeanor, appears to be the hotel's steward in charge of the staff whenever the master is away or asleep in its coffin. She, in particular, I hoped to avoid.
My searches began in the courtyard and eventually into the various hallways, where my perseverance and a perceptive eye led me to a number of secret passages and chambers. The first such discovery I came upon led me into a dingy and cobweb-lined passageway that almost immediately descended down a set of stairs and into darkness. As I peered into this corridor that surely led into the dungeons, I detected a series of noises that caused me to reconsider my intended course. There was the faint sound of scratches, like talons scraping hard stone, followed by a growling sound (or was it groaning). Whatever it was, I was likely ill-prepared at the time for an encounter with any creature capable of creating these noises. So, I retreated and continued my searches elsewhere.
Soon afterwards, after ascending a little-used stairwell that appeared to lead to a tower room, I came upon a door with a glass window in it. Immediately behind this door, could clearly be seen a brick and mortar wall that prevented any further movement either in or out of the chamber that lay beyond. Was it intended to keep others from entering? Or was it intended to seal something inside? I listened carefully at the door and the brick wall behind it for a bit, trying to determine its purpose, and was able to note the faint sound of movement beyond the wall, accompanied by heavy breathing or perhaps sobbing. Whatever poor soul might be held captive within this chamber, there was little, I regret to say, that I could do for it. It was only after I had descended the same stairs and turned back to look, when I noted something I had previously dismissed as inconsequential. There was little mistaking now, however, what was clearly dried blood dripping down several of the steps, as if from the victim of a vampire that had been dragged or carried up the stairs to the now sealed-off chamber.
Further explorations in other areas, led me to a chamber in the dungeon where I happened to come upon Joey, who apparently was busy searching the hotel as well (or so he claimed). Together, he and I investigated the chamber, which was lined with medieval weapons and large portraits of female vampires - no doubt the brides of the vampire master. He soon retreated back to the upper portion of the hotel, leaving me behind to continue my searches alone.
It was at this time when I finally came upon the secret passageway that led to the vampire's lair! Using my phone to light the way into this dark passage, I looked around and found a wall switch. Upon striking this switch, I was amazed at the light that suddenly emanated from the floor and bathed the passageway in a blood red luminescence. Concerned now that the light might soon alert the vampire or his servants of my presence, I moved quickly down the passageway and descended a set of stairs further into the dungeon. Here, the ceiling of the brick-lined passageway was much lower, forcing me to stoop as I made my way further inside. Once past the claustrophobic entranceway and making a sharp turn to the right, I suddenly found myself standing in a small chamber, its walls lined with murals of macabre scenes that included vampires. And slightly off to the right, there it lay, the coffin of the vampire and its place of rest!
Having now discovered the lair of the vampire, I, once again, made a hasty retreat, knowing full well I was not yet prepared to face the vampire, and quite likely its servants. But I did not stop my explorations of the hotel. And indeed, there were other discoveries to be made, though none that could compare with that of the vampire's lair.
Once I felt confident I had thoroughly searched the hotel and had found all that was worth finding, I then decided to take a look about the grounds surrounding the hotel. Sitting upon a low hill, the hotel and its grounds afforded a pleasant view of the nearby countryside and its rolling hills, punctuated by the occasional homestead and rural business. In addition, there was the previously mentioned monastery, a very modest ski lift, and a small cemetery now decorated with flowers for the upcoming Romanian Day of the Dead. And finally, standing in front of the hotel, stood a statue of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.
While exploring the grounds, I came upon a sort of picnic area, where, though I did not realize it at the time, the bonfire would later be lit. It was in this area, where I discovered the tracks of large wolves, forever imbedded in the cement of a pathway through the picnic area, thus indicating the presence of Dracula's so-called "children of the night."
Having now familiarized myself with the hotel's environs, I joined a number of fellow travelers at a nearby market just down the hill from the hotel, where a few village traders peddled their wares in an effort to earn a meager living under the shadow of the vampire lord. There, several of us purchased a number of goods at bargain prices, many of them apparently hand-crafted by Chinese immigrants so proud of their heritage they still continue to put the name of their homeland on their merchandise.
It was at this market place where I once again caught up with my two associates, John and Michelle. They too were buying up a sampling of the villagers' wares, perhaps allowing the peasant merchants, on this very profitable day, the luxury of feeding their children and elders a loaf of bread along with their evening's gruel. Having now placed a few coins into the tattered pockets of the shop clerk, we returned to the hotel where I was eager to guide my associates to the vampire's lair.
Though it had been my earlier intention, upon my return to this chamber, to come prepared to drive a stake into the vampire's chest, should we find it lying in the coffin, I had, in the intervening time, changed my mind and decided upon a different course of action. It had occurred to me that destroying the vampire lord of this hotel prior to the night's masquerade ball would be premature, as it would likely ruin any chances of unveiling the vampire among us, if indeed there was one, since it would then take the appropriate measures to remain undiscovered. Therefore, I realized, we would need to wait for the vampire among us to reveal itself before taking any action against the one whose lair I had already found, or risk putting our primary mission in jeopardy. Our goal at this time, therefore, would be to simply investigate and document what I had discovered, should things go badly for us and there be a need for others to follow up on our investigations.
After discussing these plans with John and Michelle, I then led them into the dungeon and to the secret passageway. By this time it had already become apparent that some of the vampire's servants had, in the meantime, passed through the dungeon, as a portion of it was now gated shut and locked. But this did not deter us from entering the secret passageway. Once again, I found myself creeping silently through the corridor illuminated with its crimson glow, and further on until we came to the vampire's lair. We then examined the room more carefully than I had done previously, though none of us dared to open the coffin, afraid of what we might find within. Having now determined the area to be relatively safe, bearing of course whatever lay within the coffin, John and I retreated back upstairs to stand lookout for any of the vampire's slaves, as Michelle took a video recording of the room with her phone. While we were waiting there, the lights began to flicker, then suddenly went out altogether. At the same time we heard a squeal and, for a brief moment, I felt sure that Michelle had been taken from us! Now plunged into darkness, I could feel a cold breeze pass us by and my heart skipped a beat. But moments later, though it felt like much longer, the blood-red lights came back on and, to our great relief, Michelle emerged from the vampire lair seemingly unharmed.
Following our hair-raising explorations in the dungeon, we realized it was time we each returned to our rooms and get dressed for the night's festivities. Our plan for the masquerade ball, of course, was to disguise ourselves as vampires, hoping that by doing so we might lure the real vampires there into letting down their guard and revealing their true forms. It took some time to don our costumes, for we felt it was important to put a great deal of effort in making ourselves appear as authentic as possible. All the members of our tour group, in fact, changed into our outfits much earlier than the other party guests because we were told by Radu that we would begin the first of the group's ceremonies well before the masquerade ball officially began.
It was about 6:00 pm or so when we began gathering in the hotel lobby, where several members of the group were taking pictures. Some of the group's costumes were quite good, though I was a little surprised at how few of them had dressed as vampires. Perhaps they were intentionally trying to steer others away from drawing any conclusions. I will, however, save any further comments on the costumes for later, as we did not see all of them until later in the evening. A few of us, in fact, were late in arriving for the first ceremony.
When it was time, we were led into a part of the hotel that had been roped off up to this point (I would have explored it nonetheless if it were not for the fact that its entrance lay directly in front of the reception desk and was therefore under constant guard by the vampire's servants). We were then led up some stairs into a room furnished with a billiards table and several tables and chairs. From there we continued further up into a salon with a bar off to one side. It was in this chamber where both of the wedding ceremonies would be held, the first of which was the 20th anniversary vow renewal between Joey and Marlinda.
(I will take a moment here to ask the question why the hotel staff did not make better use of this area? Surely you would think that the staff of the Hotel Castle Dracula might have opened up the bar and the billiard room to, oh I don't know, perhaps the Dracula Tour guests on Halloween night. I mean, what else were they saving it for? And there can be no doubt, particularly with this group, that the bar would have made some money. Oh well, as you the reader will soon discover, those of us who wanted to party managed to do alright anyway).
Marlinda, I must say, dressed in a black gown and a rather macabre headdress, was quite the striking dark bride and a very convincing vampire, while Joey, looking very handsome and dressed in the more traditional garb of a groom, was playing the part, I can only assume, as Marlinda's victim (?). The ceremony, which was led by a Romanian priest, and translated by Radu, was very nice and very touching, particularly when Marlinda, and then Joey, read their vows. As Joey struggled through his vows (though we are told he did better this time than he did twenty years ago), there were few among us, I would guess, who did not feel a tear welling up their eyes (or maybe I'm just a softy). When the ceremony was over, we all congratulated the happy couple and shared a glass of champagne. Afterwards, I joined John and Michelle in their room while we had another drink or two and put some final touches on our costumes.
A short while later, we were all back in the same salon, this time for the royal wedding ceremony of Robin and Rebecca. Here, and at the masquerade ball, Robin wore a black suit with a hint of red, while Rebecca, dressed as Akasha, the Queen of the Damned, wore a gown of burgundy and gold with matching gold jewelry. Both also had a set of silvery fangs to flash at their victims as they smiled and hissed. Unlike the previous ceremony, this one was a more traditional (for Romanians, that is) orthodox ceremony, as the priest and his assistant, chanted throughout while simultaneously lighting and swinging about an incense censer. Radu translated only a small part of this ceremony. And while Robin and Rebecca did not read any vows, keeping their part to a simple, "I do," it was also a very nice ceremony. (Interestingly enough, incense burning at ceremonies such as this is intended as a part of a ritual cleansing and purification process. The fact that it was used here, was helpful in determining who among us were vampires).
Following another round of champagne and more congratulations, it was now time for us to attend the bonfire. We were then led outside where we joined other guests at the hotel, as well as others who had come for the festivities. There was also a local television news crew present that was filming and conducting interviews. Apparently, we are somehow making news here.
While at the bonfire, we were served shots of a blood-red liqueur and entertained (?) by some traditional musicians. A few of us were also given large skewers of meat and vegetables (more robbers steak?) to cook over the bonfire, but I soon discovered that the bonfire was far too hot to stand near it long enough to cook the meat. So, most of those who did so propped the meat up near the ground and let them cook while standing at a distance. I am told that the only one among our group who actually managed to eat any of the shish-ka-bobs was Kaitlyn, which made me wonder if she had actually fully cooked the meat or if she preferred it slightly raw.
After a bit, the party outside began to break up and we were directed back to the hotel. There, we were led inside through another set of doors and directly into a large dinning room with several long tables. Near the doors we had just entered, a space was left open to be later used as a dance floor. For the next few hours then, we ate, drank, partied, mingled and danced.
In addition to the costumes I have already mentioned, other notable ones included Matt's bat-like vampire disguise, which, despite my previous concerns, turned out to be a very realistic rubber mask (I saw him take it off and on a few times and even helped him put it on once or twice). Wess also wore a rubber mask, that of a very unsettling and creepy old man. Tom and Dana both had on some very nice outfits, with Tom wearing the elaborate robes of a priest and Dana wearing a gown and jewelry right out of the fifteenth century (and looking very much like the Countess of Blood herself, Erzsebet Bathory). Scott was dressed as Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (an interesting choice); Morgan was a doll-like flesh golem, I'm guessing; Kyle was dressed as Michael Myers from Halloween; Sam and Kelly were dressed in very gothic-style attire; Tearsa was a pirate; Sydney was a very convincing Columbia from the Rocky Horror Picture Show; Trudy was a golden Statue of Liberty; and Zhane was a werewolf. One other note I will add, concerning the costumes: during the entire evening, through all the food and drink we consumed, not once did Marlinda ever appear to remove her fangs as John, Michelle and I had to. Were they in fact, real fangs that she could extend at will?
As the masquerade ball continued on, I gradually became aware that the clock would soon strike midnight, and I was reminded of what Mr. wolf had said to us last night: "…when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway." So, throughout the party, and ever more so as the time grew late, I watched and observed, trying to decide who among us might be a threat to the others. I had some suspicions about a few and others I had dismissed, but still I could not be certain.
And then suddenly it seemed, the time had come and still I had no definitive answers. Radu then gathered us all and asked us to follow him. Where was he leading us? I wondered. To my surprise, he took us towards the dungeon and onwards to the secret passageway leading to the vampire's lair! Had Radu known all along about the vampire's lair? Were other members of the tour group also aware of the vampire's lair? As my associates and I moved with the crowd, I could not help but feel we were being led into a trap! But strangely, I felt compelled to continue on in silence and without protest. I had to know the truth about what we were soon to witness. And I had to confront the evil head on. Now was the time, and there could be no turning back! So, I steeled my nerves and mentally prepared myself for the confrontation that was likely about to take place.
Sure enough, Radu led us into the secret passageway, with its crimson light issuing from the floor, and into the lair of the vampire. There we crowded around the coffin, and observed with great anticipation. Radu was about to open the coffin and reveal to us the vampire - so that we might kill it? Or so that it might feast upon an unprepared and unsuspecting crowd of innocents? I could not be certain of which. As we readied ourselves though, I stood at the back off the room and placed my hands on the wooden stake and mallet I had cleverly concealed under my coat.
But just as Radu and one of the hotel staff members was about to throw open the coffin's lid, the lights suddenly went out again. Someone screamed. We heard the sound of the coffin's lid being tossed aside. People suddenly pressed back against me and I was prevented from moving forward as something quickly moved through the crowd. A cold wave passed us by and swiftly fled from the room through the exit and up the stairs! When the lights came on, the coffin was empty!
Had the vampire just escaped? Or was this some kind of ruse to try and throw us off? Was the vampire still among us? Still in this very room? Once again, I could not be certain. But it appeared that for the time being, the vampire had eluded us.
Since it now appeared as though the danger had passed, the mood in the room lightened up and my fellow travelers began to make jokes and laugh. Several of them even took turns posing for pictures inside the coffin. Here again, I must say, Marlinda played a most convincing vampire rising from the coffin, as though from great experience, while Matt appeared to be quite at home lying in the coffin with his vampire mask on. Even Radu took a turn, although, unlike everyone else, he grabbed the young female hotel staff member to accompany him inside the coffin. Despite how close we or the vampire might have come to a fatal confrontation, the tour members did not seam to be aware of it, and actually appeared to have a good time.
So, following our visit to the vampire lair, we all returned to the dungeon chamber that was decorated with medieval weapons and the paintings of female vampires. There, we spent some time posing for more pictures. Gradually, even I got caught up in the jovial atmosphere and soon forgot about the dire circumstances of the night. Following all the picture-taking in the dungeon, several members of the group wanted to get out of their costumes and then meet up again somewhere for more drinks. Having fully explored the hotel earlier, I came up with the perfect place where we could gather, where there were several tables and chairs and where we could easily talk amongst ourselves without any concern of disturbing the rest of the other hotel guests. I told everyone to meet me just outside the dining hall.
A short while later, those of us who were interested gradually gathered at the designated location and from there I guided them to a nearby set of stairs which led us up to a large patio balcony just above the dinning hall. There, we continued the party with whatever alcohol we had left on us. John had even raided the minibar in his room, though, as it turned out, we still had plenty to drink without this.
As we sat there, enjoying each other's company and having such a good time, I became lost in thought for a brief period and found it to be ironic that, while we were celebrating a Halloween party at the Hotel Castle Dracula, just a short distance away on a nearby hill and in perfect view of where we were sitting, there stood a brightly illuminated, ninety-foot cross that towered over the monastery as though it was meant to keep a vigil in the night and ward off the evil that lurked within the hotel. It felt as if it was waging a silent and unseen war against the vampire lord and its progeny while protecting those villagers who live nearby.
Eventually though, the party finally came to an end and we returned to our rooms. I have since then been updating my journal and it is now well past 3 am. Unfortunately, my room has been uncomfortably warm tonight, so I will need to leave my window open if I am to get much sleep.
November 1st 2018.
Sibiu. When I awoke this morning, with my window still open, I found laying beside me a few leaves and bits of debris from outside. I then had the distinct impression that I had been visited sometime during the night. I seemed to recall a female form standing before me, laying beside me. And a face…a beautiful face…with fangs! I had forgotten to hang the cloves of garlic in my bag around my window! I checked my neck in the mirror for any signs of a vampire bite, but found nothing. Was it just a dream? Or had I actually been visited? Perhaps the vampire seductress had been interrupted or called away before she could sink her fangs into me and infect me with her poison. I might never know for certain. Whatever the case, this was something I felt I needed to keep to myself for the time being so as not to unnecessarily alarm my fellow travelers. Nevertheless, I made sure not to miss breakfast this morning, despite any lack of sleep, and was hoping I might get some rest during the bus ride later on.
Back on the bus, I did manage to get some sleep as we made our way back to Bistrita. We stopped again briefly at the Golden Crown hotel where we had spent the night two nights ago. Some of us bought some snacks and drinks for the road and we were soon back on the coach. Our next stop then was in the city of Targu Mures, where we split up into smaller groups for about an hour and went to find lunch on our own along a street with several restaurants. From there, it was back to the city of Sighisoara, where we returned to the old town at the center of the city. This time we walked up the old cobblestone road to the town square, past the house of Dracula's birth and up to the old bell tower.
Just as we got there, we heard the sound of a drum being struck in a slow beat, followed by a man claiming that a witch had been discovered. This was, I quickly realized, the beginning of a mock witch trial that several of the town's thespians put on for our amusement, all of which was captured on video by Scott (and eventually posted on YouTube). We followed the man with the drum, the accuser of the witch, and several girls, all of whom appeared to be in favor of finding the accused guilty of witchcraft, through a gate beneath the bell tower and to a building where the accused was being held. Soon, the accused girl, bound at the hands with a rope, was led out to the gate by a guard with a pole axe. We, along with the accuser and the girls, fell in behind and followed the procession through the gate and to a building near the back side of the Evangelical church. From this small building, a judge in black robes and a white wig emerged and a table was set up. It was here that the actual mock trial took place, once again translated by Radu.
The girl who played the accused was quite convincing in her portrayal, and it was hard not to feel sorry for her even though we knew the trial was not real. Things got really interesting, however, when Dana, Zhane and Marlinda were also briefly accused of being witches. Naturally, the men in our group, for the most part, agreed that they too were witches. But the judge was unconvinced and eventually declared them to be innocent. As for the girl who was originally accused, she was eventually let off the hook and released when the drummer offered to marry her and therefore became responsible for her. Thus ended the witch trial. No doubt, there were a few of us who were a bit disappointed that we didn't get to see anyone actually burn.
Following this, we were soon back on the road, this time headed to the city of Sibiu. Here again I was able to get some more rest along the way. It was near evening when we arrived at our hotel in Sibiu, the Continental Forum, which turned out to be a very fine hotel with some very nice rooms (although, curiously enough, the bathrooms had no doors, which may have been a bit awkward for people like Matt and Wess who shared a room). After checking into our rooms, most of us walked down the street a short ways and found a restaurant with several tables outside that we could push together and therefore sit together. Eventually we had Matt, Wess, Joey, Marlinda, Tom, Dana, Morgan, Scott, John, Michelle, Kelly, Kaitlyn and I, all seated at the same long table.
Sam, I learned, did not join us as he had not been feeling well all day. Radu suggested he had simply drank too much the night before, but we thought this to be unlikely as he did not drink all that much (It was not until the following day that an alternate explanation for Sam's illness occurred to me). We did see Sam briefly though, as he stopped by for a bit.
As we were waiting for our food to arrive (the 13 of us, interestingly enough), the discussion at the table eventually got around to what we would be doing tomorrow, our final full day in Romania. Many members of the group had some concerns about the almost 1500 steps it would take to reach the top of Poenari Castle, Dracula's real castle, though they were all determined to get there no matter how long it took. I recalled the 172 steps we had climbed two days ago and once again was feeling a bit cocky. So, I issued a challenge to all in a race to the top. No one took me up on the offer though, at least not yet.
Since we had such a large group at our table, it took some time to get our food. After dinner, most of us returned to the hotel. I have since caught up on my journal. It is now 11:15 pm and for once, it appears I might be able to make it to bed relatively early. (I have since learned that Tom, Matt and Wess had a few drinks at the hotel bar. But that was about the extent of our partying on this night).
November 2nd 2018.
Bucharest. Having gotten a good night's rest for a change, I was feeling pretty energized when I got up this morning. We left the hotel at about 8:30 am, this time by foot rather than by bus. After leaving our luggage on the bus, Radu took us on a walking tour of the central part of Sibiu. Passing through the Piata Mare (or Great Square), where the world famous Christmas Market is held, we then made our way to what is known as Liar's Bridge, so nick-named because of a misspelling of its original name, Liegenbrucker. According to folklore, if you tell a lie while standing on the bridge, the bridge will collapse. This, of course, has been proven false many, many times I am sure.
The most interesting feature of this part of the city, however, may be the distinctive attic ventilation openings in many of the buildings, which very closely resemble cats' eyes staring out at you. Although they may have been built in this way to symbolically keep a vigil over the city and ward off evil, one is actually more likely to get the creepy feeling that the city is instead spying on you. Either way, it is because of this feature that Sibiu is sometimes referred to as the City with Eyes.
Our walking tour then concluded with a visit to the Evangelical Church in Huet Square. Inside the church is the tomb of Valentini Frank who is believed by some to be one of Mary Shelley's inspirations for her book, Frankenstein. Mary (whose last name was Godwin at the time) had apparently become acquainted with a man from Sibiu and who may have told Mary about Frank, who had conducted some bizarre experiments and/or had a son born with acromegaly, otherwise known as giantism. This is only one theory, however, as a more commonly known theory for Mary's inspiration might be Castle Frankenstein in Germany, which she and Percy Shelley passed nearby in the year 1814, and where a man named Johann Konrad Dippel was born, who had also conducted bizarre experiments. For all we know though, Mary's inspiration may have been a combination of these two sources, as well as discussions between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, her father's work (who was also a famous author) and a number of scientific breakthroughs that were happening at the time.
Following the tour of Sibiu, some of us stopped at a store to get some snacks, before walking back to the hotel to check out. However, before leaving my room, I needed to make one last bathroom break. As a result, it was I who was a bit late in arriving at the bus this time. Everyone was apparently waiting on the bus as I was checking out, and Radu came inside to find me. I told him on the way out that, "I got stuck on the toilet." Radu's expression became quite serious and concerned when he heard this and inquired further, apparently wanting to know how I managed to extricate myself after falling into the toilet! I then had to explain to him that it was merely an expression and that I was not literally "stuck on the toilet."
While on the bus ride south, back through the Carpathian Mountains, Radu talked to us on a few topics including the history of Romania, the evil eye and superstitions. Towards the end of the pass through the mountains, we arrived at our next stop, the Monastery of Cozia, which was erected by Mircea the Elder in 1388 and contains the tombs of Mircea I of Wallachia (grandfather of Vlad the Impaler) and a much later 20th century descendant, Prince Carol Hohenzollern.
The monastery is regarded as one of the most valuable monuments of national medieval art and architecture, and as we were gathered on the veranda, Radu talked to us about some of the remarkably well-preserved frescoes there, making a few jokes as he did so. Moments later, Radu was being chastised by one of the priests because some of us were laughing too loudly at Radu's jokes.
Shortly before our arrival at the monastery, I thought of an alternate explanation for Sam's illness, as he was still not feeling well at the time. And it was while we were at the monastery when I finally got the chance to ask him whether or not he had noticed any marks on his neck - or elsewhere - that might resemble the puncture wounds of a vampire's bite. Why this had not occurred to me yesterday I do not know and I was angry with myself for not having thought of it sooner. Perhaps, the vampire who had visited me in the night also visited Sam, but with more success. Sam, however, told me he did not find any unusual marks on him. But I am not so convinced he was not drained of any blood. It is possible that he and Kelly simply missed any wounds that may have been on him, and that these wounds had healed extraordinarily fast. If so, it appears I may have missed an opportunity to record some evidence of our suspected vampire.
Before leaving the monastery, (I was elsewhere at the time), according to John a few members of the tour group stopped at a fountain where a number of cups were placed at the edge so that they might take a drink. Wess was among those members, but unlike the others, he appeared to take a drink from the water with a cup and then pour the remaining water back into the fountain, causing another man nearby to contort his face into an expression of horror. Had the fountain been blessed and was this holy water? Did Wess only realize this fact just as he put the cup to his lips, and then pour the water back in disgust? Did Wess somehow defile the holy water by doing so? These were all questions I very much wanted the answers to. Unfortunately, by the time I heard about this, it was too late to find those answers.
This, however, was not the last time we did something at the monastery to offend someone. Following the water fountain incident, some of the tour members went inside a devotional chamber where many votive candles were lit and placed in a long trough-like container filled with water and set all along the walls about waist high. While there, a few of the tour members took pictures of the votive candles and were immediately berated for having done so by an upset man speaking Romanian.
So, first there was the loud laughing, followed by the water fountain incident, and now this. I'm pretty sure there were several people at the monastery who were not unhappy to see the Americans hop back on the bus and drive away.
Soon, we were leaving the Carpathian Mountains behind and heading towards the town of Ramnicu Valcea. Passing through that town, we turned east and north east towards Curtea de Arges. Shortly before arriving in the town, as we were passing by numerous homesteads scattered about the rolling hills and along the forest's edge, I caught a glimpse of a deer bounding its way through an open grassy area and into the woods. I don't believe anyone else on the bus saw it, but when I did I was at the same time thrilled and intrigued as I was reminded of the abundance of wildlife in these lands, both benign and malevolent.
After passing through Curtea de Arges, we turned north and headed right back into the Carpathian Mountains, this time from the south. Along the way, we saw many more of the distinctive, towering hay mounds with long wooden poles sticking straight up out of the tops. We had seen countless numbers of these, in fact, as we traveled through Romania. But a few I saw at this point, in particular, caught my attention, for at the top of the vertical poles were lashed horizontally, short wooden sticks, thus forming a cross, and upon these crosses were placed colorful shirts in a sort of scarecrow fashion…or perhaps more accurately, very reminiscent of an impaled man mounted high in the air for all the world to see. Either that, or someone went to a lot of trouble to dry out their wet laundry.
The further north we traveled, the more signs we saw along the way that seemed to indicate we were approaching the final stronghold of Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) during his second and most successful reign as Viovode (warlord) of Wallachia. The skies grew gray as we drove past the occasional cemetery, creating an eerie and foreboding atmosphere. Then we saw actual signs with Dracula's name on them, and finally, undeniable proof that the people of Romania see Dracula as a hero and a savior - a large statue of the Prince of Wallachia.
A short while later, the coach came to a stop in front of a hotel/restaurant with a sign that read, Cabana La Cetate. Looking from there out across the road and up on a hill we could see the ruins of Cetatea Poenari, also known as Dracula's Castle. Slightly in front of and below it, was draped an enormous flag of Romania. Thanks to Google Earth and other such web sites, the setting already seemed very familiar to me despite never having been there before. As I gazed up at the ruins, I recalled the challenge I had made the previous night about racing up the stairs and to the top.
Radu had told us days before that there had been bear sightings recently in the area and as a result, the tourists had to be escorted to the castle by guards. I was hoping this would not be the case for us because it would mean having to travel up the stairs in a group at an agonizingly slow pace for me. Then, while we were still in the bus on the way to the castle, Radu told us that some people have made it to the castle in as little as 27 minutes, which is pretty good, while 45 minutes is about average. I was glad to hear this, as it was a clear indication we would not need to be escorted. But now that we were about to make the ascent, I did have some concern that I would not be able to live up to my challenge. Nevertheless, I was determined to make it a fair race should anyone decide to accept the challenge.
One last bathroom break before setting out, and then, as a group, we began the walk from the restaurant over to the stairs a couple hundred yards away. My strategy was simple - I didn't need to go faster than everyone else - I just needed to keep going when others took a break. I let Marlinda and Joey lead the way when we got to the stairs. Though I forgot to check the time when we started, I later learned from Marlinda it was 2:11 pm. The first third or so was definitely the steepest and toughest part. And it was not long before Marlinda and Joey stopped to take a break. As planned, I passed them by and, for a long while, did not look back. It was certainly a struggle, both mentally and physically. But I just kept telling myself "Don't stop, Don't stop." Gradually, I could hear the voices behind me grow more and more distant. But occasionally, I could still hear the sound of footsteps behind me. Eventually, I turned to look and was a bit surprised to find Kaitlyn right behind me.
Throughout the trip, Kaitlyn had always been one of the quieter members of the group, rarely if ever drawing attention to herself. But when I saw her just then, I recalled that she had sat right next to me at dinner the night before when I issued the challenge. She never said anything about it, at least not to me. But was it possible she intended to take up my challenge? She and Sydney were easily the youngest members of the group, so I realized I could be in for a fight to the finish. Nevertheless, I was glad to see that, apparently, the race was on!
I really dug in at this point, determined to not let her pass me up. It was tough to be sure, but eventually my perseverance appeared to pay off when I noticed Kaitlyn take a break behind me and I somehow managed to press on. For most of the rest of the way, I managed to hang on to my lead. Occasionally I would take a break and let Kaitlyn catch up to me a bit, but whenever she got close and stopped to take a break, I would take off again. In this way, I managed to stay ahead of her until we had almost reached the top of the hill.
Then I rounded a bend, and there it was - Dracula's Castle just a short distance away. Despite my determination to be the first to reach the castle, I certainly did not fail to take in our surroundings as we made the ascent. The stairs and the pathway were entirely covered by forest, though because of the grayish skies and the barren trees, there was an almost somber mood. The ground all around us was covered in fallen leaves and a predominance of the subdued browns, reds and yellows of autumn. Occasionally I spotted a small dog that had followed us up the hill and was running up and down as if it was nothing and I was reminded to be on the lookout for bears. What stood out the most, however, as we drew near, was the giant flag of Romania, with its vivid blue, yellow and red hanging just below the entrance to the castle.
It was at this point that I stopped to take a few pictures. And it was at this point when Kaitlyn finally passed me by. But she too occasionally stopped to take pictures. Gradually we made our way across the bridge and up the final stairs to the castle. Near the castle was a platform with an executioner's block and axe, a gallows and noose, and a pillory. Just beyond that were two mannequins hung up on long wooden stakes as though they had been impaled by the lord of the castle. Both of us stopped every now and then to take pictures of the castle and the surroundings. And it was while Kaitlyn had stopped one last time to take a picture, that I took the advantage and passed her by, making my way up the final few stairs with her right behind me.
I touched the first wall of the castle, declaring myself the winner and checked the time. It was 2:35 pm. It wasn't until a bit later that I realized Kaitlyn and I had made the ascent in 24 minutes! I'm sure we could have made it in 20 minutes had we really tried and not stopped to take pictures (though we probably would have been very out of breath at the top). So, I felt we could be pretty proud of our times.
We waited there at the entrance to the castle for quite a while it seemed for the next members of our group, Marlinda, Joey and Dana, to arrive. For most members of the group, it took about 45 minutes or more to reach the top. The last members of our group took a little over an hour to finally make it. Nevertheless, everyone who made it all the way up to the castle, which was 22 out of 23 members of our group, had the right to take some pride in having climbed the 1,480 steps, as I'm sure it was much more difficult for others than it was for Kaitlyn and I. From what I am told, had it not been for Radu pushing the stragglers at the rear (and tricking them into thinking they were closer to the top than they actually were), they might not have made it. And in the end, they were glad that Radu had pushed them, because the view from the top was well worth it - not to mention the castle itself. When I told Radu that Kaitlyn and I made it in 24 minutes, he said, "Yeah, that's about average." What?! Are you freakin' kidding me?! That is not what he told us on the bus. Clearly Radu was trying to burst my bubble and make it sound as if it was nothing to be proud of.
It wasn't until others began to arrive that we finally went inside the castle, which in all fairness, was more a fortress than it was a castle - and not a particularly impressive one at that. In fact, at its height, it was a pretty small fortress, and at this time, much of it was in ruins. Still, a lot of work had been done in recent years to try and preserve what remained of the place, such as covering the tops of the walls with a layer of stone and cement to protect the original bricks and mortar that lay beneath.
I tried to imagine what it was like living there during the time of Dracula, and even though we are told that nothing remains of some of the structures, I still have a difficult time trying to imagine more than a handful of men and animals living in such a small space, keeping in mind they also had to have room for supplies and such. Granted, any attempt at attacking the castle would have been a real bitch, considering the sheer cliffs all around it. Just climbing up to the castle bearing the heavy load of armor and weapons would have tough enough. And according to reports, Dracula had modernized the walls, designing them, with great success, to withstand cannons.
A siege, on the other hand, eventually would have been more successful, despite Dracula's efforts to ensure the castle was well-stocked with food. Unless the inhabitants of the fortress had a secret tunnel through which food and water could be obtained, as is thought by some, Dracula and his men could not have lasted for much more than a few weeks. So, a few weeks after his brother, Radu the Handsome, who worked for the sultan Mehmed of the Turkish Empire, came after him in 1462, Dracula, now losing any hope that King Mathias of Hungary would come to his aid, was forced to sneak out of the castle late one night and head north. According to folklore, Dracula's unnamed wife, fearing she would be captured by the Turks, had already chosen to take her own life by flinging herself from the castle walls into the river below. The river then became known as "the River of the Princess."
After spending some time exploring the castle and admiring the view in all directions, which was fantastic, particularly towards the river valley to the north, I sat down for a bit, put my headphones on and listened to some music. Over the course of many trips to far-away lands, it has become a sort of customary ritual with me, at some point (or points) during the trip, to sit down, tune out the rest of the world, and just reflect on the awesome surroundings while listening to a favorite song or two. Having done this, it was time for more pictures. Eventually, the group began to make their way back down. But, as is often the case with such places, I lingered around in the castle for just a bit longer. As it turned out, I was the first one to enter the castle, and the last one to leave.
I soon caught up with some of the others though who were taking turns posing with their heads and hands locked up in the pillory or grasping the executioner's axe, and, of course, I had to stop and help them with this. Then it was back down the hill we went. By the time I reached the bottom, my knees were about to give out. Meanwhile, during all this time, Kaitlyn had probably climbed and descended almost double what the rest of us did, as she had doubled back twice to go and help her mom up and down the hill! What I would give to be that young and healthy again.
Having now made it to the bottom, we then walked back to the restaurant and had a late lunch. It was at this point for most of us I think, when it really began to sink in that our trip was almost over (particularly for Marlinda and Joey who had been thinking all this time that we had one more day in Romania). And to be sure, most, if not all of us, were saddened by the fact that we had just one night left before leaving in the morning.
There was, of course, the added burden for me that I still had not found any definitive proof of the existence of a vampire among us, though I do have certain suspicions about some of us. Most of my thoughts on this, however, I have yet to record in my journal. But, rest assured, I have every intention of resolving this glaring omission shortly.
It was about 5:20 pm when we hopped on the coach and left Dracula's castle behind. And it was a long drive back to Bucharest. So, some of it was spent napping, or watching a movie on the bus's video screens, or just talking to some of the new friends we had made along the way on this extraordinary journey. Upon arriving in Bucharest, we went immediately to a restaurant called the Hanu Lui Manuc. It was a bit more crowded and noisy than I would have liked, and we were seated right next to the band. So we did not get much of an opportunity to have any real conversations. As a result, I was unable to make any further progress on my mission objectives. In fact, I left the restaurant a little early to have a nice stroll around the square outside the restaurant. Eventually, all the other members of the tour group began to file out of the restaurant and I was both glad and sad that we were now headed back to the hotel where we first stayed in Romania, the Novotel. I considered going out for a drink or two. But I realized I still had work to do elsewhere before leaving Romania.
So, here I am, sitting in my hotel room, writing up the last field report in my journal. It is time now that I record some of the observations I have made along the way and perhaps come to some conclusions, though there may be more to follow.
I have eliminated entirely from my list of possible vampires a few of the tour members, so I will start with the most obvious, gradually working my way towards the opposite extreme and the most likely vampires. Keep in mind, however, that even the most knowledgeable vampire hunter can be fooled by a highly experienced strigoi. So, nothing I say can or should be taken as absolute fact.
Beginning with Robin and Rebecca (as it can be easily observed in the recordings of their wedding), they were repeatedly sprinkled with holy water and each of them were also seen kissing a silver cross. In my opinion, no true vampire could do such things without some visible signs of discomfort or stigmata. By association then, we can also eliminate their friends Trudy and Zhane. Scott can also be eliminated for the same reason as he carried with him a cross while he portrayed a vampire hunter at the masquerade ball.
Next, there is Sam and Kelly. Though it is possible that Sam was actually suffering from ingesting garlic during his brief illness, I believe, instead, that he was actually the victim of a vampire bite (also, Sam did not want to eat the sausage with the raw pork in it - something a vampire would not be concerned about). Therefore, he himself is not likely to be a vampire, and by association, neither is Kelly.
I, of course, am not a vampire and neither are my two associates, John and Michelle (though I thought the three of us had some pretty good vampire costumes). So, of the 23 members of the group, I have now eliminated 10, leaving 13 possibilities. Some of the 13 remaining were more active with the group outside of the scheduled tour activities than others were. And while there is the chance that this makes them more likely to be vampires, as they would have had more time to hunt down and feed on their victims, it also means I have little if any other evidence against them. In addition, my instincts tell me (though they can be wrong), that a vampire on a Dracula tour could not help but be very socially involved (not that there is anything wrong with doing otherwise). Based on this, I could then also eliminate Kyle, Natasha, Pam and (by association) Kaitlyn.
At this point, I am now left with those who may or may not have actively displayed any signs or behavior indicating vampire-like tendencies. To my knowledge, Morgan did not, so she appears unlikely to be a vampire. The remaining 8 though, are difficult to eliminate entirely. Tom and Dana, for example, while not displaying any overtly vampire-like tendencies, were very charming and sociable. The same could be said about Matt and Wess. Tearsa, then, while she and Sydney did not socialize as much with the rest of the group, apparently has a great affinity for bats and has a history (as I once overheard her say) of working with corpses (in embalming). Joey then, also deals with cadavers (in forensics) and is married to Marlinda, who was easily one of, if not the most convincing vampire at the masquerade ball. Both of them are also very charming and sociable (though apparently, Marlinda has a strange obsession with shoes. I'm not sure what to make of this).
Of course, everyone on this trip has some kind of interest in gothic horror or vampires or, at least, is traveling with someone who is. So this must also be kept in mind. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, I still have no real proof that anyone here is a vampire. Perhaps with some further research upon my return home, I can dig up something, though this seems unlikely. It is now 11:15 pm and we will be leaving early in the morning. So it's off to bed I go.
November 3rd 2018.
New York City. I got up at about 6:00 am and we left the hotel at about 7:30. From there we drove directly to the airport, said our goodbyes to Radu and our coach driver, and made our way to check-in for our flight.
For the remainder of our trip, there is little else of interest to report. We all flew back to Istanbul, and then on to New York City. The journey home is always less enjoyable than the one that takes you away. We all managed to get back safely. Gradually, we all began to separate and go our own ways. I, of course, continued on with my associates, John and Michelle as we were staying in the same hotel that we stayed at when we first arrived in NYC.
Joey and Marlinda are staying at a hotel very near to us, and Matt and Wess did not need to go to their hotel until later. So, John, Michelle and I walked to the nearby hotel and had dinner with the four of them. It was one more chance to spend some time and reminisce about our awesome trip to Romania with our recently acquired friends. When it was over, we all hugged and said our goodbyes, vowing to make every effort to one day get back together again.
Now, back at the hotel, it is good to sit back and relax with no early morning agenda ahead of us. We do hope to do some more sightseeing in NYC, however, before heading to the airport in the afternoon tomorrow - perhaps tour the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center Memorial, neither of which I have ever been to.
December 12th 2018.
Fort Worth, Texas. It has been more than a month now since my return home, and as promised I have done the research with some astounding and quite unexpected results! But first, I will record a few final words concerning our trip to Romania.
On November 4th, as it turned out, we never got the opportunity to do any more sightseeing, because on that morning, as we were about to make our plans for the day, we discovered that the New York City Marathon was that day! Of course, we realized this would make it impossible to move around in the city. So, we opted instead to simply walk over to the hotel where Joey and Marlinda were staying and have a long lunch with them - one more visit with the two of them before going to the airport and then back to our homes.
Since then, I have uncovered some very interesting tidbits of information which I shall now impart to you, the reader. As previously mentioned, I was never actually informed just who it was who employed my services, and I am still unaware of this person's identity. However, I now have some suspicions. At the conclusion of the trip to Romania, I did as instructed by my mysterious benefactor: soon after my return home, I submitted my report, via email to the web address provided. I can only assume my employer was pleased with the report, for I never heard back again from this person, whether it be a compliment or a complaint. But curiosity got the best of me and I was compelled to look further into this mystery.
Do not ask me how I learned these things, for I dare not divulge my contacts and sources. But interestingly enough, the name of our tour guide in Romania, Radu C_, came up. While I cannot be certain it was he who actually employed my services, I began to wonder what kind of motives he might have for hiring me to investigate this tour for any evidence of real vampires - particularly since he had been guiding this tour for many, many years himself. Could it be that he wanted to know whether or not a person knowledgeable about such things would be able to discover a real vampire hidden within the tour group? If so, why?
I then began taking a closer look at Radu. I recalled a few of the things he said while on the trip, that, in retrospect, now stand out. For example, as we were walking towards Bran Castle I remember him saying at some point, "Go on up. I will catch you from behind." At the time, this sounded perhaps to be a fairly harmless phrase for someone whose first language was not English. But in retrospect, I began to wonder. And then of course, at the mock witch trial, many of us heard him say, "Of course she's a witch! She's a woman!" Again, this appeared to be just some harmless fun. But could it be that Radu was also remembering things and reenacting things that he had witnessed a very, very long time ago?
I shall now cut to the chase, as I would only be endangering the lives of those who assisted me unnecessarily if I went into too much detail. What I eventually discovered was that C_ is only the most recent sir name by which Radu has used, stolen apparently from an infant that had died just three days old, many decades ago! Prior to that, Radu had used many names in a similar fashion. I was able to trace a line of inheritance from one mysterious and seemingly unrelated individual to the next for many generations. According to my research, Radu is more than 200 years old! As further proof, I have discovered records for the marriage between Radu and the first of his two wives which dates to 1844 as well as records for her birth eighteen years before. There are, in fact, many bits of similar evidence which clearly support my hypothesis, but which I shall not go into at this time. However, perhaps the one most compelling piece of evidence I discovered in my research is a photograph (which I will include in my final report), taken in 1920, showing, without question, Radu standing in front of Bran Castle, and proving beyond a doubt that Radu is a vampire!
Alas, it is true! Despite any doubts or reservations you might have, I have the unequivocal evidence to show beyond question that Radu is, in fact, a nosferatu. So, to any and all who might be considering a future visit to Transylvania on the Dracula Tour, realize that you would do so at great risk to your lives and the lives of those you love!
You have been warned!
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