Transylvania Dreaming: A medieval town stuck in the shadow of Dracula

ERNEST WHITMAN PIPER
ISTANBUL
Published
Transylvania Dreaming: A medieval town stuck in the shadow of Dracula

This week, my travel companion and I decided to do something different and hunt vampires in their homeland of Transylvania

Vampires are real. Everyone knows this. It's like trying to deny gravity or chemtrails. Most kids grow up with at least one vampire in the neighborhood, and usually the vampire has a gnaw on any of the slower kids in hide-and-seek who have the misfortune of hiding under their patios. I myself was attacked by hundreds of vampires as a boy.Everyone also knows that the home of vampires is Transylvania, a long valley in the ethnically ambiguous country of Romania. Transylvania has been ruled over at points in its history by Romans, Hungarians, Wallachians, Turks and now Romanians. In the 19th century, Bram Stoker read other English explorers' descriptions of the moody, misty landscapes in Transylvania and set his novel "Dracula" there. At the heart of the story, as we all know, was a blood-drinking nobleman. He was based on a real person - Vlad Dracul, the Impaler. In Turkish, his name is Kazikli Voyvoda, or Prince with Sticks.

For this expedition, my travel companion and I were determined to find a real-life vampire to either stake, slay or take a selfie with. If we couldn't find Vlad with Sticks, we'd settle for Brad with Logs, Tad with Twigs or Chad with Splinters.

Our first stop was the city of Sibiu in central Romania. Full of dramatic mountainous scenery, medieval facades and a mix of cultures, it seemed like the best place to start looking for bloodsuckers.

Walking around in the old part of Sibiu feels like you've stepped out of time and into a fairy tale. I don't say this lightly, cliché as it is. Yes, the main square has bougie cafes and touristy postcard shops, which were likely hard to find in central Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, but if you duck into the cobblestone alleys, through imposing gates, between intricately designed Austro-Hungarian houses, well that's when the dormant and insane part of your brain begins to believe in fairy tales. And then, of course, you'll turn the corner and find a plastic vampire waiter posted outside a restaurant, holding a blackboard of today's specials.

The council tower is open to the public for an itty-bitty fee, and you can climb up the clock tower to get a view of the town. What they don't tell you is that there's a man-sized model executioner with a plastic axe, frozen mid-swing, ready to lop off a head into a waiting basket. Behind the clock tower, back down on earth, is an iron bridge called the Liar's Bridge. It collapses if you tell a lie while crossing it, or perhaps if you have previously ever told lies. This was, like many of the promises of fantastic creatures or magical encounters I'd heard about in Romania, a lie. I told all sorts of lies on that bridge. I tested little white lies, life-changing lies, legal lies, mortal lies, and finally I tried just jumping up and down with great ferocity. It's a well-built bridge. "Vampires are not real!" I shouted. The bridge held.

While meandering in the alleys of Sibiu, we encountered Potter's Tower and Carpenter's Tower on Strada Cetatii. These were suitably castle-like and could perhaps house between four and 20 vampires each. The two towers are the best-preserved parts of Sibiu's medieval walls, since they both got restored in the early 2000s, and they remind visitors of Romania's sordid history. After getting sacked by Mongols and besieged by Ottomans, town leaders saw the wisdom in erecting some more substantial turrets and walls. These two 15th-century towers loom out gloomily over the Transylvanian valley, and it's pretty easy to imagine Hungarian archers leaning out the balconies.

But as we'd failed to find any blood drinkers in the 2007 European Capital of Culture - did you know Sibiu won that award? it did! - we decided to head further south. Brasov, the capitol of the Transylvania region, sits in a forested gully between two mountain ranges. Teams of villagers sometime in the recent past ran up and down the streets with seven different tins of pastel-colored paint, icing each gingerbread house in a different shade. We stayed in the Kismet Dao Hostel, a colorful backpacker's mansion, both cheap and staffed by friendly locals and only a 10-minute walk to the center of the town. We dropped our things off and bee lined it for the fortress on the hill. Any vampires? No, but we did see the huge Hollywood-esque "BRASOV" sign on the neighboring mountainside.

Though mostly cute, parts of the town still emanate an ominous aura. The fearsome gothic-style Black Church, Biserica Neagra, rises above the central square to dominate the skyline. The church was once in a great fire, and it's been transmuted through heat and soot to look like a massive sarcophagus. A black stone wall bounds the spiny roof of the church, and a few dirty windows allow the weak winter sun to pass through to the worshippers within. All is night, and all is terror. Sadly, no vampires inside.

So perhaps one would have to be in a fortified church? One of the delightful things Romania's famous for are its bizarre Saxon church-town hybrids. Germanic peoples came to Wallachia and, most likely in their urgent need to protect the townspeople and clergy from the undead, built round white walls of wattle and daub around their churches. Prince Charles of Vampire Island - I mean, Wales - came to Transylvania in 1997 and invested in the preservation of Saxon churches there. Most are on the UNESCO World Heritage list now. The big names in fortified churches, Viscri and Biertan, were bound to be overrun, so we opted for the less famous and way closer fortified church of Harman.

The modern-day village of Harman, just a few train stops away from Brasov, sheltered the old weird church of Harman. The church arose without warning from a muddy roundabout - a square white tower topped with a sloped red roof stabbing into the sky, surrounded by a smooth circle of walls. Every 100 meters on the walls was a turret, also with a stabbing red roof. After paying a few dollars to enter the grounds, we gained entry. Inside it felt like an Austrian town, with the dwellings and workshops built into the sides of the walls. Wooden stairways led up to the second floor so we could venture into the turrets. Though it felt like a barn with its wooden walls and straw-strewn dirt floors, the murder holes belied its purpose - defense. The upper walkways wound all the way around, and tiny slits in the floor would have allowed peasants to throw rocks or boiling oil on invading armies of man-shaped leech fiends.

Outside the central building, the church, the caretakers had placed the old church bell on a place of honor upon the grass. We made haste for the bell tower and climbed up to get the view and quickly found ourselves navigating through rickety staircases and rickety ladders. The bell rang out hugely above me, just as I was letting go of a rung, and I almost dropped to the ground beneath in surprise.

But now we were at our wits' ends. Through a progression of medieval towns both old and older, we'd uncovered no evidence of vampires, other than a graffitied bat on the side of a Brasov wall, with the tag "Vlad was here." Was he there? Or would we have to go right to his front door?

We'd have to go to Bran Castle, Vlad's supposed home. The historical reality of Vlad with Sticks is gruesome. He was a prince of the Romanian kingdom of Wallachia and got his delightful nickname from literally impaling people on wooden stakes - he even staked two emissaries from Mehmet II when they demanded homage. He also staked about 20,000 villagers while running away from the Ottoman army which had landed at the Danube. He also tried to kidnap and murder Sultan Mehmed II, but missed him in his camp by about a day. Stories about Vlad's cruelty became bestsellers in Germany during his lifetime. It's no wonder Bram Stoker used the man as inspiration for his horror novel. And even though it wasn't really where Vlad with Sticks lived, the stirring descriptions that Stoker read of Bran Castle cemented it in his, and therefore everyone else's, imaginations.

Up a winding forest glen, the castle juts out from a craggy hilltop. It looks like a cuckoo clock made by a sadist, a magisterial stone fortress with red spires and crenellations. It was also a lot smaller and way more livable than I expected. On the inside, we walked around with our group of tourists, eyeing the antique furniture, the interior decor, the display of arms and armor. It was nice? It could have passed for a hotel in Salzburg. There was an extra section of torture implements you could pay extra to get into, but I was so disheartened from the spruced-up reality of the castle that I sauntered out in regret.

Just at the base of the castle's hill, we walked through a carnival of knickknacks and horror fun house games. The locals figured out long ago that dumb tourists like me have bought into the vampire thing. There are no vampires. Just vampire dolls and portraits of Vlad the Impaler.

And then, we saw a man dressed in a cape and a big rubber horror mask turn the corner, cigarette in hand. Vampires are real.

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