In Search of Dracula

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Most tours of Dracula's castle visit Bran Castle in Bucharest, but the real one lies 80 miles southwest. Amidst all the serious searching of Vlad Tepes' history, visitors should remember to have a little touristy fun.

Photography by the authors

Vlad Tepes lived at a time of intrigue and great cruelty. European rulers would use unimaginable measures to hold on to their thrones. War was mostly on land in those days as if 15th century nations had forgotten the great sea battles in Greek, Roman and Persian history.

We know of at least 3 voyages Vlad Tepes took. Across to Constantinople as a political hostage as a child with his brother, then his return alone; then a third voyage for his decapitated head so the Ottomans knew he was truly dead.

Anyone in search of Dracula should find the story on land rather than sea. However, we came from the Danube on a Uniworld cruise and before we took off, as if on a Mount Everest expedition into Transylvania, we had the benefit of reading some tourist information in the River Countess’ library, chatting on board to persons who knew Eastern European history and taking 2 shore excursions with Uniworld-arranged guides.

We found the Dracula.cc map useful to remind us how powerful Vlad’s enemies were. We have emphasized the Danube in blue ink and added red dots at some of the stops the cruise made on the map and where, in Bucharest, our cruise ended.

It was by coach that we came to what some guides tell their tourists is “Dracula’s Castle.” Not so, our shore excursion guide tells us—any connection to Dracula is tenuous, although he may have spent an overnight or 2 here marching through with his army.

Bran Castle was built in 1377 and in 1920 was given to Queen Maria, who had its use until she died in 1938. Her photograph on a castle wall does not do her justice. She was a “looker,” evidently as beautiful as the castle’s location. Bran is an easy journey from Bucharest.

The real castle of Vlad Tepes lies in ruins at Poenari above the Arges River with its 1,480 steps created up the mountain from the valley floor by the hundreds of prisoners Vlad had made his slaves.

The castle lies about 80 miles south west of Bran Castle and would require an extraordinary obsession in the Dracula story or an unusual amount of a tourist’s time to go to Poenari. But guided tours from Bucharest are available. And Viator, as an example, has a list of personal guides for Romania here.

The story of Queen Maria of Romania appears in many places from the Bulgarian coast on the Black Sea—where challenges of ownership between Bulgaria and Romania were common—to, more strangely, the Maryhill Museum in Washington State built by business man, Sam Hill, one of the queen’s friends. Queen Marie of Romania is perhaps the least known European monarch to Americans, although she is arguably the most interesting of them all. Sam Hill, too, is a virtual unknown and either person would be a fascinating subject for any college thesis.

About 25 miles north of Bucharest, on an island on Lake Snagov, stands Snagov Monastery. The church was built in 1634 and in 1448 Vlad Tepes reinforced its walls and, Vlad being Vlad, added a dungeon.

Our Uniworld Bucharest shore excursion guide delivers us on the shore of the lake to the attendant for the monastery and leaves us us with freshly baked pretzels. About 10 minutes later we approach the towers of the monastery.

The monastery walls, though showing their age, reveal the images and attention to detail of Eastern European Orthodox churches. It takes our group a moment to realize as we crowd the floor that we are standing above the mausoleum enshrining the headless body of Vlad Tepes. It’s our last moment with reality and we head back to Bucharest into the world of today.

It’s more than a bit obsessive to pursue a fragment of history, and it’s fun to realize, “Hey! We are tourists! Let’s do tourist things!”

The receptionist at the Rembrandt hotel has a suggestion for us: the Count Dracula Club at 8A Splaiul Independentei Street.

“It’s a bit expensive and the food gets mixed reviews, but most people who go there expect to have a good time and they get exactly that,” she says. “You have to go with the right attitude.”

We go with the right attitude and a couple of friends, Diane and Jack, who like us, are happy repeat cruisers with Uniworld. He’s a retired Boeing vice president and she has a master’s in business and finance. They are sophisticates but, to our eye, look a bit scared. Maybe not. The menu seems OK, although we had been told, wrongly, all the club offers is bloody steaks. In fact, as we come in, we meet a young waitress with what seems to be a salad. An etching of indeterminate age mounted on the wall shows the Count. “That’s the Tooth Fairy,” we say to give ourselves courage.

The meal is actually quite good with lots of wine—red, of course. The lights gradually darken. We are glad we have candles.

The buzz in the room dies down like the lights. The women at our table grin. Takes a lot to frighten them, they imply and, besides, isn’t there a romantic side to Dracula, too?

They smile: “We can handle him.”

Count Dracula weasels in from the doorway.

Nancy shoots him a welcoming smile, out of politeness, surely.

Diane—the urbane, the suave—now looks less confident. She would like to turn her head but that would mean looking.

He pounces; she handles it by screaming.

The whispers in the other rooms stop. A spooky feel creeps into the room. Something terrible is happening.

Something terrible is happening.

Eric had asked the owner, the count, if he would give a moment’s warning to get the camera ready and had implied Diane would be a convenient woman for him to nibble on.

Now it’s all falling apart.

The count takes Nancy down into the cellar and positions her for his advances. Only a dimmed red light gives illumination.

And Eric doesn’t have his camera ready. It’s terrible.

The count bites! And she very clearly puts her arms around Dracula!

Eric will never come back to Bucharest.

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.