In a word: Radu. Our guide, with his encyclopedic knowledge, passion for history, and unwavering energy, made the difference between a great trip and a once-in-a-lifetime one.
Amidst the lackluster cuisine (who knew there was so much schnitzel in Transylvania?), shabby 3-star hotels (except Hotel Dracula of course!!) and hotter-than-three-hells weather in Bucharest, Radu and his unflappable expertise, like Dr. Frankenstein in his secret lab, brought the past to life.
The trip was fright-filled even before I touched down in Romania. At 35,000 feet somewhere over the Atlantic, I took advantage of my hulking, muscle-bound aisle seatmate’s absence to stretch and powder the old nose. I pushed open the accordion toilet door and found Mr. 32D sitting there, tremendous pants around his ankles, hands cupping his genitalia. We stared at each other in horror. I managed to pull the very unlocked door closed. To call the next five hours awkward would be a gaping understatement.
Mine was not the only shocking trans-oceanic passage. Poor Jeanne and Leonard Pickel, owners of Haunted Attraction Magazine, were schedule to arrive in the Sahara, I mean Bucharest, late that first night. As if on cue, a terrible storm suddenly thundered through the city, baptizing our Dracula Tour in frightening ambiance.
On that dark and stormy night, their pilot tried valiantly to land at Otopeni Airport. The plane shook violently right and left, port and starboard, passengers screaming, praying, vomiting. He wisely gave up, banked right and headed for Costanza on the Black Sea (yes like that guy on Seinfeld), a fine resort town and NATO military base to wait out the storm. They finally landed in Bucharest at 2 a.m. Ouch.
Radu thought this was hilarious and teased them the whole time: “Our tour does not include the Black Sea! Did you make the pictures?”
Day One found us lumbering through muddy dirt roads on our big blue bus (with its gorgeous driver) towards Snagov, the burial place of Dracula. Now I had done some research on Dracula tours and this was the only one that included Snagov on its itinerary. I was incredulous. Why on earth wouldn’t all tour companies come here? I soon found out why.
Picture, if you will, the algae-est little lake you’ve ever seen. Put an island in the middle of it with an ancient Orthodox Christian monastery complete with a lonely caretaking monk and not one congregant. Add a few goats and you’ve got Snagov. How to cross this lake where not falling in is the greatest consideration? Walk out on a rickety old dock, hoist yourself down into a tiny rowboat, and hold on tight while an old man rows you out…that’s how!
How on earth the Halloween Dracula Tour with its 80 or so people (we were 18 in July), two buses and wildest tourists make it across every year was a mystery to us. It must have taken all day!
I was in the first group on the rowboat, clutching the sides, bemoaning my muddy sandals, avoiding the sludge off the splashing oars. And then we were ashore. We were the only tourists for miles, and down the path came the monk to greet us, formidable in his black cloak and beard.
And just like that, I was hooked on Romania.
Who Is Dracula?
Now you’re probably wondering how Dracula could even have a grave since he’s still sort of alive, and whether he was in his coffin, and were we able to drive a stake through his heart? (Of course given my constant attraction to the wrong men, you’re probably really wondering if I didn’t go quite the other way.)
The Dracula legend is actually based on 15th century diabolical Vlad III, prince of Wallachia. Vlad Dracula’s father, pronounced Dra-koo-lia, or Dra-koola but never Dra-kyu-la, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a secret society dedicated to defending the Christian world against the Ottoman Turks. So Dracula means son of the Order of the Dragon. A really rather nice title at the time, although Drac also means devil.
Vlad was fierce and merciless in his quest for order, loved by his people and feared by invaders. Under his rule, a golden drinking cup was set out at a fresh spring, and there it stayed as no one dared to steal it. Against the mighty Ottoman Empire encroaching on Europe, Vlad used fearsome methods. He became known as Vlad Tepes, meaning Vlad the Impaler.
Let’s get gory. Being impaled means having a sharp wooden spike lubed up and pushed through your body via the anus, exiting through the mouth or anywhere you like. A military historian on our tour said that Vlad was not the first to use this means of punishment, but he was the first to perfect it by rounding off the tip of the stake to make death come slower. Yeesh.
There are fabulous stories regarding Vlad and the Sultan, too numerous (sadly) to go into here, but highlights include the time when some sultanic envoys came to see Vlad and refused to take off their turbans, so Vlad nailed them to their heads. Or the time when a nobleman came to dinner and complained about the smell of all those impaled, rotting corpses around the table. So Vlad politely impaled him on a higher stake above the stench.
And especially the time when the Sultan finally drew his forces close enough to attack, but as he rounded the bend he found an entire field of human impalement, 20,000 strong, with even children clinging to their mothers’ breasts. He proclaimed that he could not conquer the country of a man who could do such things (probably because his army was scared out of its wits).
Now before you start to feel sorry for the Sultan, remember that he like started it by kidnapping young Vlad and his brother Radu the Handsome (no admitted relation to our guide) and turning brother against brother when Radu chose to stay (some even say that Radu and the Sultan were sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g … ).
Part 1 | (Part 2)
By Stephanie Block