Many who visit Sighisoara do so in search of Dracula. But it is such a charming town that even if it had not been the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, it is well worth a long visit.
Photography by the authors
Coming face to face with the statue of Vlad III in Sighisoara wasn’t really a surprise. The town was his birthplace in 1431 and just about everyone is prepared to talk about him despite being almost certain he was the provocation for Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula.
Our thoughts on finding this part of the world were somewhat similar to Stoker’s protagonist who found this district…
“…in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe.”
Re-reading the novel remains one way of preparing a visit to Dracula’s birthplace but investing time in a more recent novel, Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 The Historian may be more useful. It’s the superb novel Kostova wrote to get her MFA at the University of Michigan.
But walking the cobbled, wandering streets of Sighisoara is a factual experience, not a fictional one, and there are placards on walls to show the reality.
The words are not in English, but the story they tell is easily deciphered: Vlad was born in this house and lived here for 2 years. It is now a restaurant, Casa Vlad Dracul. Vlad was such a fearsome man who lived in such fearsome times that none of his contemporaries would have ever dared to be funny and use his signature dragon as an ad for fast food.
We know now his father was a member of the feared Order of the Dragon and dracula means the “little dragon.” We’ll come later to what was so fearsome about Vlad III (Vlad Tepes). And why a person so horrifying in literature is seen by his country folk as a national hero in real life.
Sure, there are some T-shirts hanging in stores and unappealing vampire figures standing in restaurants, and signs propped up in shop windows—but locals seem to think their history is enough.
We find the town only modestly uses Dracula as a tourist attraction. In fact locals raised an outcry in 2001 when Romania’s minister of tourism thought, (after finding a Madrid theme park successfully devoted to Spanish history), a Dracula Park in Sighisoara would bring in huge numbers of tourists and additional jobs for Romanians.
Many of the county’s intellectuals were horrified. Some felt it might become “a magnet for cultists.” Even Britain’s Prince Charles weighed in: “The proposed Dracula Park is wholly out of sympathy with the area.”
He would know. British tourist louts almost ruined one of our favorite Greek islands, Kos, the home of Hippocrates, because of Greece’s apparent allowance for underage drinking. Ultimately Romania’s minister of tourism gave up his idea.
Romania’s history at the time of Prince Vlad surely doesn’t need additional fiction. Reality surrounds those times, his rule, his wars, his attitudes, and his behavior. Furthermore, the beliefs and superstitions of his rural countrymen have continued to the present day.
A guide at our hotel in Bucharest told us that just a few years before our visit, several children died abruptly in a village in Wallachia. The village now knows it was influenza that made the children so pale and finally killed them. But a rumor started that a vampire had bitten them and drained their blood. Responding to this story, several men went into the village cemetery and dug up a murderer who had recently been executed. They hammered a wooden fence post into his chest and threw him back into his grave.
And this was in the 21st century!
So, it’s no surprise tales circulated in the 1400s about this prince who, because he defended his country so determinedly against his Ottoman enemies, is now seen as a patriot and hero in Romanian history.
Antique paintings of Vlad III are readily found in Sighisoara public buildings and, in one restaurant, a particularly gruesome old framed painting tells a story that appears in all the history books: how Vlad the Impaler got his name—while he enjoyed his breakfast.
Vlad fought and defeated an invading Ottoman Empire army and took 20,000 of them prisoner. He had been personally abused as a child hostage in Turkey, and his country had suffered severely anytime it was defeated in battle by the Turks. These were ugly times and, just as the Romans crucified some prisoners of war, both Turks and Wallachians tortured their prisoners.
The worst death was by impalement: a wooden shaft like a small telegraph pole was carefully driven up through the anus and up into the throat in such a way that it didn’t kill the victim. Then he was propped up like a lamppost to suffer until, ultimately, he died.
Thus Vlad the Impaler.
It would be an ugly horror fiction, except he lived and left a presence. We are taken to a room in a restaurant where the owner was restoring and cleaning an inner wall. When he removed the wall covering he found a painting, apparently dating to the 15th century, depicting Prince Vlad in his youth. The rest of the walls have been white washed, but the fragment of art has been left exposed.
Yes, Sighisoara has its history and many who come do so in search of Dracula. But it is such a beautiful, charming small town that even if it not had been the birthplace of prince Vlad III of Wallachia it is well worth a long detailed visit.
The memories one takes away are of a magical medieval hill town. If only it were closer to America.
We’re now heading back to Bucharest to show how you can put the search for Dracula to rest and at the Club Dracula embrace the Dracula legend for fun. Maybe.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.