As an Australian-born child of Macedonian migrants it would be natural to assume that I have cultural ties to two countries; my ancestral land and my birth land. Yet even though my parents entertained me with tales of the “Old Country” I have never had much interest in visiting the land my ancestors called home. This is because at a young age I developed a kinship with another country. Fuelled on a steady diet of Count Dracula movies, the place I desperately wanted to visit was Transylvania. After decades of studying the myths and legends of the vampire, my desire only grew so I decided to celebrate my fortieth birthday by travelling into the heart of Romania with my bemused partner.
After a gruelling journey involving three planes and over thirty hours in non-stop transit I finally land in my beloved Romania. The excitement staves off the exhaustion as I eagerly rush to meet my first Romanian – the guy from the car hire firm. With guide books in hand and virtually no Romanian language skills, we jump in the car. Driving on the right hand side of the road, and the left hand side of the car, appears to be no major drawback for my partner, but the giant potholes, daredevil drivers and equally daredevil horse and cart riders are just some of the harrowing terrors we face on the drive. It all adds to the mystery of the country which, having never been to Europe is almost overwhelming in its unfamiliarity.
As I settle into the journey I look out the window to observe a country that has haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember. The image of a gypsy careening at breakneck speed down the road in a horse drawn cart is so archetypal and so Romanian that I laugh out loud. Yet that image is strikingly juxtaposed with the sight of pristine green valleys vying with hideous concrete monstrosities for dominance over the landscape. The gypsies evoke the wild lands that Bram Stoker wrote about, but the communist love of concrete and uniformity has certainly stained the land. This is the reality of modern day Romania. It is a country haunted by a brutal past yet vibrant with future promise. It is also a land that retains a powerful link with its dark, vampiric heritage.
The first Vlad Tepes site we visit is The Princely Court in Targoviste. These are the first human-made ancient structures that I have ever seen. I am stunned at the constructions that have lasted over five hundred years. The archaic murals painted in the church are awe inspiring. I am so caught up in the magnificent history of the ruins that it takes me a while to comprehend that I am standing in one of Vlad’s ruling courts. The realisation that I am in a place where the real Prince Tepes once walked completely overwhelms me. His feet had once touched this earth, his hands had once touched these buildings. I am finally in the presence of the man who inspired Bram Stoker to name his infamous vampire after him, for Tepes was also known as Vlad Dracula. After so many years of dreaming, I am finally in the presence of Dracula. I am humbled.
Our next stop is Citadel Poienari, the real Castle Dracula. This is the castle where Vlad Tepes actually lived. To reach the top we must climb nearly 1500 steps, all of them uphill. For me, the climb is long and arduous. The only distraction is the surrounding forest. Ancient trees effortlessly climb the heights I seek, their tall gangly limbs swaying in the eerie breeze. Animals scurry in the bush and a field mouse runs across my path while a skink suns itself on a rock. This is the land Bram Stoker wrote about, wild, untamed and filled with life. I can almost hear the sombre howl of the wolves that still run free in these forests. After an eternity of huffing and puffing I finally come face to face with Vlad Tepes’ castle. Again I am awed by the sight. This is the castle that has haunted my dreams since childhood. I cannot believe that I am here. Once more I allow my imagination to run wild with images of Tepes ruling his kingdom from on high. Outstanding panoramic views of the countryside dominate the scene. Down below is the village of Arefu where the descendants of Vlad Tepes still live. As I imagine talking to these descendants around a bonfire, I realise that I have connected deeply with the Tepes sites but not with the Romanian people. Hopefully this will happen in Sighisoara, the birth place of Vlad Tepes.
On the road to Sighisoara we stop to pay homage to a statue of Vlad Tepes. As I turn to go back to the car, I fall and badly sprain my left ankle. As I lie there looking up at him, my blood dripping into the land, I know that I am paying due homage to the vampire prince. A scrape of flesh and a touch of blood will be left in the Romanian soil to form a blood tie with this ancient land. As my partner helps me hobble to our car I have plenty of time to ponder the severity of my injury. The drive to Sighisoara is long and slow. We choose the Transfagarasan road where snow capped mountains and majestic forests compete with the sheer curvy majesty of concrete construction that is this road. My stress levels rise as the snow creeps closer to the car. It feels like a scene from The Shining. Just as we ponder whether to put chains on the tyres, the road stops, blocked by an avalanche of snow. This path to Sighisoara is cut-off. We have to turn around and try another route which will take us four to five hours to traverse. By now I am worried about my ankle and my enthusiasm to meet people is severely dampened. All I want is a good night’s sleep and a few painkillers.
But as we finally reach the fairytale spires and cobblestone streets that is Sighisoara, my spirit is awakened. Leaning heavily on my partner and limping noticeably, I eagerly explore the craft market. Painted vampire masques and Dracula mementos vie with beautifully embroidered handicrafts and traditional souvenirs for table space. I stop and admire a delicate piece of embroidered lace, but before I can pick up the fabric, the black clad old woman running the stall waves her hands frantically, stopping me from touching the cloth. She gestures in sign language, pointing at my foot. I mime falling over and hurting my ankle. She laughs and pats my arm, gesturing for me to peruse her wares. As I wander away from the stall, I look back and see the woman pick up the only piece I had handled and make a complicated sign over it before placing it back. I recognise immediately what she is doing, she is warding off the evil eye. Even though my injury is only temporary, the old woman is taking no chances. If I am carrying a curse, she is prepared. It is a superstition I remember from my childhood.
As I take a good look at the villagers I see glimpses of my own aunts and uncles, my grandparents and parents. I see a resemblance to my own Slavic relatives; a connection I did not feel till now. It is both physical and mythic. I see a tabby cat that looks just like the one down the road back home, complete with feline aristocratic attitude. Slowly, unbelievably, I begin to feel at home. The bond I had so longed for is appropriately forged here. In the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, I finally connect to my ancestral roots. In the process I also connect with the Romanian people, so similar to my own family. It has taken a fall and an injury to bond with these people, but it is a price well worth paying. I enjoy a drink and a meal in the house Vlad Tepes was born in, secure in the knowledge that I too, have been reborn.
Fittingly our final stop in Romania is Snagov Monastery, the burial place of Vlad Tepes. The monastery is situated on an island and the only way to get there is by boat. As we are gently rowed to the island, I cannot help but feel that I am on the river Styx, about to enter the Underworld. As a black robed priest greets us at the door and welcomes us into his church I am transported to my own childhood. I remember the Orthodox churches of my youth with exquisitely painted interiors, framed saints and fragrant incense. It makes me yearn for a religion I no longer practice. But my reverie is broken by the sight of the altar. At its foot is a grave on which sits a plaque of Vlad Tepes. This is his final resting place. Vlad’s decapitated body supposedly lies beneath that slab of concrete. As I solemnly stand beside the grave, the priest stands next to me and, unbelievably, poses for a photo. I try not to laugh as his irreverent reverence so reminds me of the priests I grew up with. It is a deeply moving place to visit and the perfect way to end my trip.
I finally return home, but not as the forty year old Countess Dracula I had hoped to be, but more like Igor, the twisted servant of the vampire nursing my bruised and battered ankle, but with my spirit soaring from my experiences. Dracula brought me to Romania but its flora, fauna and people won my heart. I look forward to returning and further exploring this strange land.
A recounting of my travels through Romania exploring Vlad Tepes sites.