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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Dracula Revisited: On my long-ago journey to Romania

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

My original article, published in the Eagle Tribune about my search for the historical Dracula, and the author, twenty years ago this month, at Castle Dracula in Romania. (Author's photos.)

“Dracula is out there. I have seen him.”

Thus began a rare personal column I wrote for a local newspaper about a trip I made to Romania twenty years ago. I was proud of those lines and fought with an editor to keep them even though I was a very new reporter and was used to having my leads rewritten. They were a bit symbolic given that I ended up leaving out the anecdote that inspired them because I didn’t know, at the time, how to describe it. I will try to do that here.

I backpacked in Eastern Europe for three months twenty years ago and found myself in Romania in October of that year. My general method of travel was to go where I seemed to be brought, but I had one particular plan to visit the castle of Vlad Ţepeş, the historic Dracula, a medieval ruler of Wallachia (bordering Transylvania) who was perched precariously at the edge of the Ottoman Empire during a period of expansion and war with Holy Roman Empire. Those Eastern lands were then what they would become for the Soviet Union: a protective barrier between competing civilizations. The pressure may have inspired the brutality of the warfare. Ţepeş was not a last name. It was a nickname describing a practice of execution and a way to spread terror. Vlad Ţepeş was Vlad “the impaler.” We get the more popular name from his father’s nickname, Dracul, “the dragon.” Vlad was Dracula, the son of “the dragon.” Bram Stoker used Vlad as a foundation for his undead antagonist, even giving Dracula a speech hearkening to his time battling the dreaded Turk. The rest of the novel is Stoker’s brilliant invention.

Vlad Ţepeş, Dracula

Bust of Vlad Ţepeş, Dracula in his birthplace, Sighişoara, Romania. (Author's photo.)

I picked up an English copy of Dracula in a bookstore in Prague on that trip, and as I headed east, I found myself following the steps of Stoker’s young protagonist, as we both traveled by train to what seemed to both of us like the wilderness at the edge of the world. Jon Harker had paprika chicken, so I had paprika chicken. He tried plum brandy, so I tried plum brandy. And on the train at night I turned pages feverishly in my sleeper and made notes in the back of the book!

When I reached Curtea de Argeş, the closest hub to the castle one can get a train to, I had run out of plans for how to get any further to my destination, but I generally refrained from planning and everything always seemed to work out, so I wasn’t worried. I spent my first day touring the city, which did not disappoint. In a few daylight hours, I saw an open casket funeral parade, an older woman with garlic wreathed around her neck and heard a cell phone ring tone that was the opening notes of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. I also spied a grossly out-of-scale map painted on a wooden sign at the bus station that showed the road to the castle, which I would try to follow the next day.

When I say Castle Dracula, I should specify that I am referring to Cetetea Poenari -- Poenari Castle, not the picturesque Bran Castle that could stand in as a Disney castle with its turrets topped in terra cotta tile. According to scholars Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula, Bran can be thought of as Vlad’s summer house, but Poenari was his home. I have read that Stoker had no knowledge of Poenari, but he certainly described it as if he did: “The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable." Poenari is indeed perched on a rock overlooking the Argeş Valley. It would have been a terrible position to attack, accessible from only one side at the top of a steep climb.

Regardless, I had no way to this castle. Attempts at communicating with the kiosked clerks had failed and I didn’t know which bus, if any, would get me to the closest stop. I looked at the broadly painted map, clearly meant to give a general sense of where the castle lay, and started walking. It was a day of anecdotes, if not a story of reaching Castle Dracula. I saw a horse-drawn wagon with a long, jointed spine and wooden wheels delivering lumber. I saw a man and woman laughing hysterically as they seemed to throw clods of dirt at a chicken in a field. I bought an apple from a boy at a roadside stand. And I ran into Dracula, my version of Dracula, anyway. I omitted him from my newspaper story because I didn’t think I could properly convey him without sounding crazy. He was a short, broad man, middle-aged, with brown, wild, wiry, curly hair, dressed in work clothes. His mustache and eyebrows were enormous and perhaps reminded me of the bust of Ţepeş that I saw days before in Sighişoara, where he was born. But something of his eyes struck me, for they communicated that trait that would once have been described as animal magnetism, which my editor would have laughed at had I used it. I never summoned the courage to talk to him, let alone ask for a picture and to be honest, I don’t believe a picture would do my memory of him justice. I saw him, his face and eyes, and have never forgotten their impression, even if the specific details are now hazily remembered. And then I moved on as I must! I could not have gotten far that day, as the warm October sun sailed to the west and the shadows began to lengthen. I eventually turned back, regretting failure, but fearing the country roads in the vicinity of Castle Dracula at night.

That night I felt defeated. My feet were swollen as my steel-toed work boots were not meant for long walks. My shoulders and back and legs were sore. I teetered at the precipice of deciding to pack my belongings the next morning and hopping a train to Istanbul. Instead of fretting, I took a hot bath in the claw-footed tub in my room’s bathroom. And as I lay there in the quiet, I heard them howling in the streets: the children of the night. In the novel, Dracula controls wolves, and orders them to tear a woman apart. Outside my hotel were the ubiquitous Romanian street dogs really, not wolves, just as my Dracula was a farmer. But they howled, and they were many. And then a shotgun blast sounded and the howling stopped. I wrote in my journal and read Stoker until sleep took me.

Sleep fortified me and instead of giving up, I took a gamble: I jumped on the first bus I saw and hoped for the best. And I won! The bus headed in the right direction and at my request, stopped at the village of Arefu, near the foot of the hills on which the castle lay. The driver, one of many good-hearted people who felt the need to look after me, called out the window to a local to lead me to the castle. What I saw of Arefu included cottages with thatched roofs and little roadside shrines with Orthodox saints and burning candles. I also saw an old woman cross herself as she got on the bus. And then I met my Renfield. Renfield is Dracula’s mad servant. Mine was part Bela Lugosi, part Count from Sesame Street, which is entirely acceptable in a tour guide in any setting. Renfield was the old man the bus driver asked to help me. He wore a fur cap and spoke no English, but he narrated the whole story anyway. I don’t think I could have stopped him. I didn’t understand any of it, but I was very attentive nevertheless. I did catch one word, which made it all worth it. He would from time to time stop walking, point at me and say the name Dracula punctuate it with a slow, deliberate laugh: ha, ha, ha. This happened repeatedly on the journey to the hill and up the oft-noted 1480 steps.

Cetetea Poenari --Castle Dracula

My view as I ascended the final steps to the Cetetea Poenari, the historical Castle Dracula. (Author's Photo)

Given what I went through to get to the castle, and what would happen when I tried to leave, the actual castle ruins are a vague memory. I don’t know if the images in my memory are only based on the pictures I took. It was largely ruined. Impenetrable by assault, earthquakes finally toppled it. One can make out the shape of the castle and see the outlines of the rooms, but what stands out in my memory is its height above the valley, and the tree-covered hills stretching in all directions.

Argeş Valley, View from Castle Dracula

Photograph taken by author from the top of Castle Dracula, October, 2000.

But it was what happened when I left the castle that impresses most listeners, and for many years I feared that in the telling, people would think I was surely exaggerating and I myself had wondered if the danger I felt at the time was more a figment of my imagination. It was only recently, in hearing a story about Romania’s feral street dogs that I have the courage to share what happened and feel that it was indeed something that could have happened as I wrote it so long ago.

Exhilarated with the success, the proof in my camera, I fairly floated down the hill. I did not think much of the dog that began to follow me at a distance, and perhaps not the second dog. Surely the third or fourth stray dog must have alarmed me. But the fifth, the sixth or the seventh dogs to appear made me wonder exactly how my walk back to Arefu would end. I don’t know how many dogs in all materialized, was it ten? More? I know that I felt balanced in a precarious position. The dogs massed around me in a pack with myself forming the apex. We moved in sync. I felt that continuing to move as one was better than distracting them or trying to scatter them. I had been reading of Count Dracula, remember, who commanded his children of the night to tear a woman to shreds and to threaten with grisly death the character I most associated with, who tried to leave Dracula’s castle before Dracula intended him to. These were ragged street dogs, not wolves, but surely if they turned on me… I didn’t intend to find out. I walked stiffly across the valley towards the village and towards a chain linked fence I had not had the time to notice as I walked to the castle with my guide Renfield. Either by recollection or by research I conducted afterward, it was the property of the Romanian military. And behind that fence: a guard dog. And it barked. And my pack’s heads turned as one and then they bolted. I did not run for fear that the movement might catch their attention. I walked a bit more swiftly and did not sigh with relief before I was out of sight.

I would soon leave Romania and continue my travels east into Turkey, where my sights were trained on the far east of the country, but I have not forgotten the week or so that I followed the Dracula trail. Sometimes during the month of October I recall that night when I heard his children sing mournfully to the moon and recall them by day marching in step at my heels. As long as we feed our imaginations with stories of the fantastic, adventures like this will never end.

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