Roving Romania 1: Living it up in Dracula’s lair

Shahriar Feroze
Thursday, November 24th, 2016


The baffled immigration officer facing me at the Transylvania airport kept sporadically looking first at me and then at my deep green passport. He simply couldn’t figure out why would a Bangladeshi land at the Tirgu Mures airport – located in the remote north of the country. Having explained him the reason, I said, flights from Germany’s Baden-Baden airport lands only at Transylvania, he was a bit convinced. My multiple entries Schengen visa was eligible enough for travelling in Romania, but then started the problem with my passport’s country code and my profession. He couldn’t find the code in his computer. It wasn’t registered in his list of recognised countries. Nevertheless, after half an hour of argument and counter-argument I worked a way out and told him to type my name in Google and it worked. The search engine displayed more than 15, 000 results and some recent write-ups under my name following half a dozen images. Taking me to be a journalist and a writer for sure, he now seemed ‘reasonably confirmed’ that I wasn’t a passing refugee, seeking illegal immigration, and of course a tourist far away from the Middle East. So after some 45 minutes of unexpected apprehension he let me pass by coldly saying in broken English – welcome to Romania Mr. Feroze, enter happily leave safely. By now the small Transylvania airport was nearly empty.


Picking up the only piece of luggage from the baggage carousel, my 20 plus year old faded red backpack was seen to be resting in utter neglect. This traveller then walked towards the exit gate. Yes, he has made it to the country he had always dreamt of. Especially, the name Transylvania to me, is not only associated with genre of horror fiction but also with mesmeric landscapes and its mystique mountain ranges.


I clearly remember the four markedly unforgettable legends to have introduced me to Romania when I must have been some 10 or12 – Count Dracula, Nicolae Ceausescu, Nadia ComanecIand Gheorge Hagi. The first two being rather sinister on different counts are followed by two globally famed sporting personalities. And oh yes, there was also a book – Sheba Prokashoni’s Bengali translation Karpathian durgo, (Jules Verne’s The Carpathian Castle). Obsessed by Verne’s unforgettable portrayal of an eccentric 19th century Baron and a Count’s rivalry to win over a beautiful woman, the book had also drawn a mysterious but haunting image of the Carpathian mountain ranges. Having read it, the vow was taken at the draw of a hat more than 25 years ago, ‘sooner or later, I will one day walk the same landscape of Verne in the Carpathians, and put an end to that voyage by landing at Bran castle, aka Dracula’s castle ’.


However, with the lonely planet’s latest edition on Romania at hand, I hit the TaxIstand just outside the Transylvania airport. On entering a cab, I glanced on my left, painted in deep camouflage-blue, a frame of the (now obsolete) Mig – 21 was seen to be displayed to serve as a stark reminder of Romania’s vanished communist era. Today it’s completely different from what we had read about it when it was behind the ‘iron curtain’. Bus stands here mostly consists of comfy mini-buses. Located some 60 kilometres away an hour drive will take me to the quaint medieval town of Sighisoara. Getting inside I chose a seat beside the window. A group of stunning female police officers, smoking and gossiping outside reminded – the more east, the more beautiful.


Transylvania began to unfold as we hit the road. Forested valleys, vast expanses of farmland appeared before me. A little further ahead horses and carts waited for herd of goats and sheep to scatter about. The bus stopped in two small villages to drop and pick a few passengers, but the stopovers were short.


Surprisingly, even the very non-descript of towns here are well connected with the big cities with smooth and spacious highways. The Dacia is the only local brand besides the abundance of Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and BMWs, clearly hinting at the peoples increased purchasing power parity. Almost all multi-national clothing retail chains have found their way in almost everywhere in the country. Also, most of the French and German grocery retail chains have succeeded in opening up numerous branches. Following the country’s entry to the EU, though it initially introduced the Euro but with the deepening of the Euro crisis it went back to the locally currency Ron. As a developing upper-middle income market economy – Romania is doing well and so is its tourism industry.


Despite many ups-and-downs it’s booming. This passenger got down at the bus station located just behind the old train station. It’s partly derelict and has a 19th century locomotive engine is exhibited at the old entry point.


Guessing October being the start of offseason this traveller wasn’t expecting too many tourists. He was proved wrong as he strolled along the main road and reached the threshold of the old town. The citadel’s site was full of tourists. The town’s medieval towers, stony lanes, cobbled streets, gingerbread roofs and turrets to small souvenir shops and cafes plainly forced me to rub my eyes in disbelief. It’s inside a small old two storey building, located just on the right side of an alley, where Transylvania’s most notorious ruler was born. Inside a small corner of the restaurant was born the tyrant Vlad The impaler, who in a span of some five hundred years would be discovered , imagined and modified by Bram Stoker and turned to the celebrated horror character of Count Dracula. If it was not for Stoker, Dracula would have been just another forgotten tyrant concealed within the pages of Romanian history. It’s amazing that how the entire vampire industry, in and out of Romania, has grown just out of one blended character of facts and fiction. But apart from being the birthplace of Vlad Dracul, the fortified walled town Sighisoara is a living magic by itself. Built in the 12th century by Saxon colonists, the citadel steeply rises above before ending at a hilltop church. Here time stands still.


The main attraction point of this medieval township is the Clock tower. Also known as the Council Tower built in the second half of the 14th century and expanded in the 16th century. The four small corner turrets on top of the tower are proudly guarding a massive clock in the middle.


In the 17th century, the two-plate clock, with figurines carved from linden wood, was set at the top of the tower, with one dial looking over the Lower Town (Orasul de Jos), and the other facing the citadel. The figurines, moved by the clock’s mechanism, each represent a different character. On the citadel side Inoticed the Peace holding an olive branch, accompanied by a doll-like drummer, beating the hours on his bronze drum; above them are Justice, with a set of scales, and Law, wielding a sword, accompanied by two angels representing Day and Night. Every morning at 6 am, the angel symbolizing the day appears, marking the beginning of the working day and at 6 pm, the angel symbolizing the night comes out carrying two burning candles, marking the end of the working day. The dial overlooking the Lower City features a set of seven figurines, each representing the pagan gods who personified the days of the week: Diane (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday), Saturn (Saturday)and the Sun (Sunday).


The spire of the tower ends in a small golden sphere. At the top, there is a meteorological cock, which, turned around by air currents, forecasts the weather. This intricate two-plate clock has been working continuously since the middle Ages. Preserve the heritage and will pay back with manifold dividends. From the top of the Clock Tower, visitors can clearly look down on the red-tiled roofs of the Old Town and see intact 16th century Saxon houses lining the narrow cobblestone streets. Today, merchants and craftsmen still go about their business, as they did centuries ago.


During the daytime the pathway to the church is crowded with nearby hilltop school students and buzzing tourists so this adventurer chose to climb the top after six in the evening. Not by taking the scholar’s steps, a covered wooden stairway with nearly 180 steps, but via an offbeat road, an uneven stoney path rarely used by tourists.


A little before 7 I got out of the hotel took and took a left turn in the lights of the dimly lit neon lamps. The winter had set in. It was below 10 degrees. Squeezing the muffler tight around my neck, I walked straight in the direction of Dracula’s birthplace. The citadel quarter was nearly empty. Bypassing the the Count’s birthplace, a small 14th century two storey building, I walked through the clock tower’s archway. Went down and up again through the circling pathway. The mind was shrouded with gothic Romanian scenes painted by Stoker some 150 years ago and in about 20 minutes reached the main entrance gate to the church. It was closed from inside but another private entry on the far left at the back of the church was still open. I circled around the distance, entered and walked straight to the adjacent graveyard. Built on top of the hill the tombs gradually declined along the crag of the hill. I spotted an empty bench facing a row of century’s old tombs and an oak tree and sat on it, turned on my mobile phone and touched at the Dracula icon. The first chapter of the e-book opened and just then the sound of a bird’s wings flapped. I looked on top. A soft wind blew. I saw nothing. It was Pindrop silence.


This nostalgic writer has just done what he always wanted to do as a ten year old: re-read Count Dracula in the midst of ruins inside a medieval Romanian cemetery. The dark night and surrounding gothic edifices of tombs surrounding me on that frosty night cloaked my mind with a creepy feeling. The impractical fear of the Count to be resting in one of them did in fact come to mind. Or perhaps, his coffin is now empty while its occupant is busy hunting for new prey.


This writer had done the same with a George Orwell novel in the Burmese town of Mowlamine, and if god wills, he looks forward to do the same with an Ian Fleming novel at Goldeneye, in Jamaica. However, a practical advice to my readers is, that those of you who are inspired by this experience should come down to the citadel well before nine since most of the restaurants in this medieval town closes down by ten during the off seasons.


Walking my way down a different but a lengthy path, I stopped in front of Vlad Dracul’s birth place once more and asked myself – had he only known what the world is doing with his tailored image of a blood thirsty count? The multi-million dollar Dracula souvenir industry is everywhere in this country. Ranging from, pens, post cards, dolls, t-shirts, mugs, CDs to almost everything with a link to Dracula are sold in the souvenir shops in Romania. I am pretty much sure – Vlad Dracul would have been shocked at the buying and selling of consumer goods linking him. He may or may not have drunk blood, but Romanian shops undeniably capitalises on the horror legend surrounding him. One needs to pay five Rons just to be in the room where he was born adjacent to a small bar.


Sighisoara, however, is only the beginning to follow the tracks of the Count but the real meeting takes place probably the day after tomorrow at his supposed residence – Bran castle? I am without a clue what events would follow me there.


To be continued.


The writer is a freelance journalist

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