Vampires, Dracula and Transylvania

Vampires, Dracula and Transylvania

Who's afraid of Dracula?

“My friend,
Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and will bring you to me. I trust that your journey from London has been a happy one, and that you will enjoy your stay in my beautiful land.
Your friend,
Dracula”

Bram Stoker, Count Dracula

And so began what became one of the most popular legends of all times, the legend of Dracula surpassing even the current Latin-American soap-operas. Based on local traditions and superstitions, Bram Stoker had found the perfect setting for his fearful vampire, nowhere else than Transylvania – the land beyond the forest, a far-away land hidden from the suspicious eyes of the Western Europeans.

So if you are a fan of the Dracula legend or at least curious about its connection with Romania, you will now find the answers to basic questions such as why this legend is related to Romania, why the name of this vampire is Dracula, who is the historical personality behind the fictional character, and which are the best Romanian destinations related to the legend.

Dracula Book, cover - Romanian edition

Dracula Book, cover

Count Dracula, the novel

Since it was written in 1897, Dracula has become the most influential vampire book, with movie directors, novelists, and playwrights all inspired by Stoker’s vision of the vampire.

Almost every vampire book or movie in the 20th century owes something to Stoker’s novel, starting with the silent German film Nosferatu and continuing to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire series. Even in the Twilight Saga, the handsome vampire Edward Cullen is aware of the impact that Dracula has had on our collective thinking and tries to make his girlfriend, Bella Swan, pass beyond the traditional image of a vampire as described in the novel. Nevertheless, vegetarian or non-vegetarian, a vampire is still a vampire.

But let’s leave Edward Cullen to live happily ever after with to his new-born vampire Bella and get back to Dracula, our own official vampire.
If you haven’t had time to read the novel, here’s a summary: Jonathan Harker, a young London lawyer, travels to Transylvania to help a rich nobleman, Count Dracula, purchase an estate in England. Dracula wants to emigrate to England, and wants Harker to help him arrange the legal details. At first, the young Harker is impressed by Dracula’s politeness, but is soon creeped-out by the Count’s strange ability to communicate with wolves and by the lack of servants in the Count’s huge castle. Soon after, Harker realizes that he is actually a prisoner in the castle.

Vlad the Impaler, Dracula

Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula

Transylvania, a.k.a. the land of Dracula

Being a tour guide and travelling with foreign tourists in Romania, I am always asked why Bram Stoker chose Transylvania for his novel, and not Russia or some other place? What is so special here? So before starting, pack your garlic and crucifix (required accessories!) and let’s discover together the answer to these questions.

You see, legends of vampires have existed for centuries, even millennia. The Mesopotamians, the Romans, even the Ancient Greeks, all had blood-drinking entities in their culture which can be considered the ancestors of modern vampires. Nevertheless, the image and description of these spirits/entities, as we know them today, date from the 18th century – and from nowhere else than Southeastern Europe and particularly Transylvania. During that period of time, little was known by Western Europeans regarding the culture and life in dark and far-away Eastern Europe with its profoundly religious, but also very superstitious, people.

Halloween in Transylvania, Romania

Halloween in Transylvania

These days in Romania and above all rural villages, it seems that the situation is more or less the same with some elders rigorously keeping alive the old traditions and superstitions. It’s funny that some of them have long forgotten the meaning of certain habits but still keep them because “this is the custom of our ancestors”. But more about this in a future article.

In Transylvania, there used to be several ethnic groups (also mentioned in Stoker’s novel) whose verbal traditions were recorded and later published. The word “vampire” did not exist in the local culture. Romanian vampires were known as Moroi ( from the Romanian word “mort” meaning “dead” or the Slavic word meaning “nightmare”) and Strigoi, being either living or dead. It was believed that Strigoi had the ability to send out their souls during the night to meet with others of their kind and feed themselves with the blood of livestock and neighbours.

Also, according to local superstitions, the seventh child in any family – if all of his or her previous brothers or sisters were of the same sex – was doomed to become a vampire. The same thing happened to someone born too early or someone whose mother had a black cat cross her path. If a pregnant woman did not eat salt or was looked upon by a vampire or a witch, her child would also become a vampire. Others who were also at risk of becoming vampires were those who died an unnatural death or died before baptism.

Did you keep the garlic close? Good, because there’s more. Do you remember Jacob, another Twilight Saga hero, the rebel Indian who can turn himself into a werewolf? There is something similar in our culture as well. Another type of Romanian vampire is the “pricolici.” These are humans born with a tail and who can control their transformation into werewolves. The list of superstitions goes on and on, and as you have no doubt noticed, our local believers gave shape to the perfect conditions for the legend of Dracula.

And if all this were not enough, Bram Stoker based the creation of his character on the life and cruelty of a real Romanian ruler, known as Vlad the Impaler (Vlad Tepes or Vlad III in Romanian). And this is how we get to the next chapter…

Impaled people at the Dracula's Castle

Impaled people at the Dracula’s Castle

Dracula, between reality and legend

Known in the past as Dracula, Vlad was a famously cruel prince in medieval times. As his nickname suggested, he used to brutally punish his enemies and corrupt noblemen by impaling them. Even though he was considered a monster by foreigners because of his cruelty, back in Wallachia where he ruled, he was considered a hero fighting for his people and taking care of the poor.

Vlad Tepes was born in Sighisoara, Transylvania, son of Vlad II, known as Vlad Dracul. He spent his tumultuous teenage years as a political hostage in the Ottoman Empire along with his brother Radu the Handsome to ensure that their father, ruler of Wallachia, remained loyal to the Ottomans during their war with Hungary. During these years, both young Vlad and Radu received a good education, most of all in the art of warfare. Despite this, Vlad didn’t enjoy being held prisoner and when he eventually became the ruler of Wallachia in 1448, he focused his energy on obtaining independence for his country and fighting against the Ottomans.

Vlad’s preferred method of execution – impalement – wasn’t just a way to get rid of his enemies; it was also a good way to scare them away. Having few soldiers at his disposal, he used ingenious methods to win on the battlefield. For example, during Mehmet’s campaign to conquer Wallachia, Vlad III dressed his soldiers in Ottoman clothing and led them on a midnight raid of the sultan’s camp. The result? The Ottomans stayed up until morning, slaughtering one another believing that their comrades were really the enemy in Turkish clothing.

Not only his acts inspired all the fearful stories about Vlad – his appearance was also a good source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s version. His long pale face, prominent chin just as sharp as his bent nose similar to the beak of an eagle, his thick and fleshy lower lip in contrast with the thin upper lip, the mustache and stubble – all gave his face an expression of strange sadness that could easily turn into a terrifying air of ferocity.

Another interesting personality is Elizabeth Bathory who after Vlad the Impaler, is perhaps the most famous vampire in history. Nevertheless, if Vlad wasn’t really a blood-sucking vampire, Elizabeth Bathory may have actually bathed in blood. She was a Hungarian countess in the 16th century who found joy in torturing peasants. Rumors that Elizabeth was a vampire began when it was alleged that she bathed in the blood of young maidens. It’s reported that she began doing this to reduce the effects of aging. In the end, Bathory was walled-up alive inside her castle, with only enough space for her to get air and food until she died years later.

Which is the meaning of the name “Dracula”?

As mentioned before, Vlad’s father was Vlad II, also known as Vlad Dracul. He was a member of the Order of the Dragons founded by the Emperor Sigismund in 1408, mainly to protect Christianity from the Ottoman threat. The spiritual patrons of the Order of the Dragons were Saint George, Saint Michael and Saint Margaret. The heraldic sign consisted of a dragon with a tail coiling in a loop around its own neck, symbol of sacrifice. The heraldic dragon image is also traditionally associated with the victory of Saint George against the forces of evil. Thus the Heraldry of the Order of the Dragon symbolizes a knight giving his life to save another soul in a gesture of self-sacrifice.
In Transylvania, the dragon was not part of the local culture and was considered evil. In the Romanian language the word is is “dracul” and that is why Vlad II, member of the Order of the Dragons, was called Vlad Dracul, a name which was subsequently passed on to his son Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler).

Bran Castle, Transylvania

Bran Castle, Transylvania

In the footsteps of Dracula. Was Bran really Dracula’s castle?

OK, so we have seen the various sources of inspiration for Bram Stoker and his novel, why he had chosen Transylvania as home for his count, and the meaning of the name Dracula. But let’s imagine that you’ve come to Romania for the first time and you want to see the places described by Stoker in his novel, i.e. the Carpathians, Borgo Pass, and Transylvania, and that you want to travel in the footsteps of Dracula. Where should you go?

You can start with Sighisoara and visit the house where it seems that Vlad Tepes was born. Other places related to this legend are: the Old Princely Court of Targoviste where Vlad Tepes ruled Wallachia seven years, the Old Princely Court of Bucharest where one can visit the remains of his palace built in the 14th and 15th centuries and expanded by Vlad Tepes and others, and Poienari Fortress, considered to be the real Dracula’s Castle and located at the top of a hill after a climb of 1480 steps. We suggest to be sure you carry the money for the entrance fees before starting to climb, otherwise you will have to do down to get it and then climb up again! There is also the city of Brasov, where Vlad the Impaler initiated many raids against the Saxon merchants, and Snagov Monastery, where it is said that Vlad is buried. Also, you can overnight in the Golden Crown Hotel in Bistrita (the hotel where Jonathan Harker stayed) or at Dracula Castle Hotel, built recently in the Borgo Pass and the site mentioned in the novel.
But probably the most famous place related to the legend of Dracula is Bran Castle. This is a 14th century castle built for military and economic purposes. Its medieval appearance, the mystery which seems to surround it and the similarity with the castle described by Stoker in his novel, all make tourists consider it as Dracula’s Castle. Thanks to this legend, Bran became the most visited castle in Romania.

Hopefully, we will soon boast a major theme park in Transylvania called Dracula Park as the tourism associations are currently trying to persuade the government to support its construction between Sighisoara and Brasov – we’ll let you know, don’t worry!

Despite the many medieval aspects of vampires, we have to admit that vampires can be found not only in Transylvania but in almost all countries around the world. According to a local joke, if you want to see the “real” vampires of Romania, you need only visit The Palace of the Parliament, the second largest administrative building in the world. Just imagine how many there could be there!

Probably you are tired after this long journey, which is why we should now have a break. Nevertheless, vampires remain a source of inspiration and mystery for us all. I once heard an Egyptian motto: “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids”. I think that in our case, we could easily say that “Man fears time, but time fears good legends,” Dracula’s legend being one of them and as Oscar Wilde said, it is probably the most beautiful novel of all time.

And when you visit Transylvania, never forget that: “Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely, go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring.” (Bram Stoker, Count Dracula).

by Valentina Marinescu

Valentina Marinescu

Valentina Marinescu

Travel is my first name. If my passion for traveling involves a bike, it's even better. And if the day ends with a good book and a dry red glass of wine, then I live in a paradise.
Valentina Marinescu

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