This weekend, dear Reader, William and I are off to Romania to explore the notorious Transylvania region. I know, I know; already images of Dracula and dark impenetrable forests are creeping into your mind…. I’d be lying if I said my penchant for vampire lore didn’t pique my interest in the area too. In fact, Stoker’s description of the Carpathian mountains left me breathless back in middle school:
“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool…”
Amazing! But those who travel here in search of Dracula will inevitably be disappointed (more about that later), it is her wild beauty that makes Romania most compelling. This morning William and I decide to bypass Bucharest, the capital city, after hearing its post-communist aesthetic leaves something to be desired. Happy to head straight for the countryside, we nestle into the seats of our rental car, cue up Google Maps, and hit the road.
Sounds of the Countryside
The drive to Brașov is a little over two hours. Our Ford Fiesta zips along as the sights and sounds of the city fall behind us, the landscape quickly shifting from industrial to agricultural. Unlike Naples, driving in Romania is a relaxing affair. Billy and I have the road almost entirely to ourselves save a few passing cars and the occasional horse-drawn carriage transporting potatoes or lettuce. We pass a bag of trail mix back and forth while I search for tunes.
The radio offers a bizarre mix of Romanian dance music, a surprising amount of reggae, and an eclectic blend of American songs from the 80s and 90s – everything from Bananarama to Michael Bolton (I’m talking lots and lots of Michael Bolton, dear Reader). Outside of our windows, mountain ranges and intricately decorated wooden homes with well-tended gardens come into view. The woodwork is similar to those of the homes I saw in Irkutsk. Love me, Love me… say that you love me… Fool me, fool me… The Cardigans sing in the background.
When Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” comes on I pause and laugh nervously. “Isn’t this the song from Free Willy?”
“Yeah,” Billy says, “and wasn’t Michael Jackson’s shirt blowing around all crazy in the music video?”
“It’s kinda… inspirational,” I venture carefully, almost defensively.
“I actually like this song,” he admits.
I crank it up. A moment later it occurs to me that I’m driving through Transylvania with my husband blaring the Free Willy soundtrack. It’s funny how life turns out, isn’t it? A smile spreads across my lips.
In Defense of Vlad
Billy and I make a detour to the town of Bran to see Bran Castle, allegedly the home of “Dracula” or rather, Vlad Țepeș, a Wallachian ruler believed to be the inspiration for Stoker’s infamous tale. In truth, our pal Vlad never lived in the castle but why ruin it for the tourists? We drive into Bran, a town set in the middle of open pastures, and follow the curve of the road past a few small restaurants and a market selling souvenirs. As we round the bend, Bran Castle comes into view. Perched atop a hill where the ground gives way to steep drops on three sides, it certainly matches the description of Dracula’s castle in Stoker’s story.
Initially, I’m disappointed; it looks small (for a castle). William and I park the car and make our way up the hill. The air is crisp, the sun blocked by a heavy cover of cloud and mist. Well, the vibe is certainly spooky enough… Once inside the castle, I am pleasantly surprised. It’s drafty but there is an interesting contrast of stone and dark wood that lends a homey feel. The more I explore, the more I appreciate the castle’s beauty. After all, Romania has a “frontier” vibe so it’s only natural it wouldn’t have the opulence of say, the Vatican or Versailles. The maze of rooms and secret passages continue to impress me. The interior courtyard with covered walkways is charming and I make a nod of approval when we come across small window seats, perfect for reading or daydreaming.
I can’t help but wonder what Vlad Țepeș would think of this current rumor about him being a vampire. In reality, the people of Romania consider him to be one of their greatest leaders. Not only did he oppose the Ottomans (dang, they were always invading!), he also put the crackdown on the boyars (or nobles) when they overtaxed the peasants. He was a real man of the people, Vlad. A Romanian Robin Hood of sorts….
The Torture Exhibit
BUT! Vlad sure did impale some people. And not through the chest or stomach either – from the rear end, through the gut, and out of the mouth. Gah! Which brings us to the torture room…
First, we enter a small room with three torture devices – forgive me, interrogation devices. The chair and compression vault are nasty indeed but again, I feel let down that there isn’t more to see. That is, until the docent directs me through a small door I had overlooked. Oh what torturous treasures lie beyond! Knee breakers, nipple pinchers, and even a full rack. The instruments themselves are unsettling enough, but the illustrations of them in use are especially impactful. I bend to read the information card next to the pillory, a heavy iron mask used to publicly shame women who were accused of dressing “too conspicuously.” The disappearance of the pillory should make one wonder if in the meantime the common ethic has not disappeared. I furrow my brow. Hmm. Sounds a bit judgey for a museum info card. A few others were written in the same snarky fashion – someone clearly had fun preparing this exhibit.
A short drive brings us to our lodgings in Brașov. William and I have just enough time to walk around the historical center before getting a delicious dinner of traditional Romanian food. He opts for a beef stroganoff while I indulge in a tasty chicken pie with vegetables. We head to bed early because, little did you know, dear Reader, tomorrow we have a big day ahead of us….