Dracula Lives!

SIGHISOARA/BRASOV, ROMANIA: August 12-16, 2013

Leah: Who doesn't want to see where Dracula was born? Fresh off our less than stellar Workaway experience, we were stoked to be on our own again and decided for an evening stopover in the citadel city of Sighisoara, set high on a hill overlooking the Tarnave Mare valley. Despite our train arriving an hour late (seriously, what is it with Romanian train tardiness?), we quickly settled into our dorm at the Burg Hostel in the late afternoon and even managed to snag a discount with our Hostelling International cards.

With a good chunk of daylight still left, we poked around the well-preserved walled old town which used to be the heart of the most important city in Transylvania, thanks to its artisans and craft guilds. From climbing the covered staircase (which brought us to the church on the hill and a cemetery with quite the view) to marveling at the's city's landmark- an imposing 64 meter high clock tower- every twist and turn brought archaic history to life as flowers cascaded from balconies and church bells rang throughout the city. We even fell prey to a pre-dinner appetizer in the form of langos, a circle of fried dough slathered with sour cream, shredded cheese and fresh garlic, which was pretty much as heavenly as it sounds.

Although decidedly buzzing with tourists and vampire kitsch, we were quickly charmed by Sighi's sights and sounds and the people watching was second to none to boot. As we noshed on salad and pizza at a corner restaurant, we were treated to some of the most dubious clothing choices we've seen yet. First place would probably go to a bleach-blond mother in an x-rated tank top, stilettos and cut-off jean shorts that left both her butt cheeks literally falling out of the back, while the front was cut so high that it didn't cover much more than a bathing suit would. As I sipped my Redd's cranberry beer (it would prove to be my Romanian obsession), judged atrocious attire choices and let my eyes rove over the skyline's needle spires and battlements, I couldn't have been happier and my mood was further augmented by the fact that I wouldn't be taking a well water "shower" tonight or digging a trench in the morning.

We'd be catching a mid afternoon train to Brasov the next day, so we were fortunately able to sleep in (as much as one can when the church bells around the corner ring continuously for 14 minutes- we timed it) before grabbing some morning beverages and eating our leftover pizza from dinner. The breakfast of champions! High on our list of things to do before we left was to check out the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, aka "The Impaler" aka the inspiration for Dracula. Born around 1431 into a family of privilege, the young Vlad's father, Vlad Dracul, was commander of the nearby mountain passes but was forced to send his sons to Anatolia as Turkish hostages for a period. There Vlad observed the Turkish methods of torture and once he returned to Romania he was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands by truly barbaric measures, most often by impaling. His former house was right down the street from our hostel at Strada Muzeului 6. It's been turned into a tourist restaurant, but we knew we'd regret it if we didn't pay a few bucks to walk upstairs and see where Vlad the Impaler was born, if only so we can tell our future kid that mommy and daddy were in Dracula's bedroom. Who could turn that down?

We dutifully handed over 10 lei ($3) to a gentleman at the second story bar, who then gestured that we should wait as he headed up a short staircase into the room above, returning a few moments later. He waved us on and as we walked up the darkened stairs he flickered the lights on and off and our ears were assaulted by the bad horror music that usually issues from Halloween funhouses. The room itself was dimly lit and draped in black and red fabric; a coffin stood directly in the center, complete with Dracula inside and a lit candelabra at the base. A wooden cabinet to the side displayed souvenirs for sale in the shop downstairs and as the music reached a crescendo, Dracula suddenly lurched out and grabbed for us! He actually reminded Steve of Grandpa Munster (from the old black and white Munsters TV show) and while we both felt bad that he had sit in the coffin all day listening to crap music and wearing a cheap polyester costume, we loved the cornball approach to it all. An adjoining room proffered a few creepy busts of the real Vlad, along with a painting depicting him eating parts of his victims while his servants carved off fresh meat from those still impaled around him.

Dracula's room was probably our favorite thing in the city, if only for the level of sheer ridiculousness. Definitely way better than the underwhelming Torture Museum around the corner, which was little more than a 20' x 20' stone vault where they used to hold prisoners and had installed a few reconstructed torture devices and moldy framed drawings from books depicting how they were used. The clincher here? They charged 5 lei for admission and then 40 lei on top of that if you wanted to take pictures. Seemed to be quite common in tourist areas to charge a reasonable entrance fee for places and then an exorbitant amount for photography. We couldn't believe they'd have the audacity to do so, but apparently some people actually fall for it. Anyway, after our vampire meet-n-greet and grabbing another addictive lango for the road (we figured the garlic would kill off any lingering vampire cooties) we gathered our bags and headed to the train station for our 3 P.M. departure to Brasov.

Steve: Although Sighisoara sated our desire to experience an authentic Transylvanian town steeped in Dracula lore, Brasov was still a place we had to see, if not only from word of mouth and exemplary descriptions in guide books. Much larger than Sighisoara (the metropolitan area has almost 370,000 residents versus Sighi's 26,000) it has still been able to maintain its rustic charm. Built in the 11th century but inhabited since the 9th century BC, this decidedly ancient city still has its original city walls surrounding the old town, replete with guard towers and turrets. It is a great jumping off point for adventure tourism in the surrounding mountains though we couldn't attest to this ourselves seeing as how we were still hungering to see a bustling European city after our stint in a charming yet very quiet village.

During our stay in Brasov we set up camp at the Liberty Villa Hostel which was nicely situated on the outskirts of the old town. Once we got the lay of the land we quickly realized that it was the ideal location--a short walk to the bustling Piata Sfatului but far enough away to get peace and quiet, except when your Polish dorm-mates decide to set up base camp every morning at 6 a.m., chatting away as if the rest of us didn't want to sleep anymore, and then conveniently leaving the room so that their alarm clock could go off unattended. Note to any backpackers that might come across this post: GET THE DOUBLE PRIVATE ROOM IF AVAILABLE. Seriously, it's the best value in town. We wanted it for all the nights there but could only get it on the last night. At $12 per person you get a nice double bed with a flat screen TV, cable and your own balcony with chairs and table. It'll make up for the ire you feel when the creepy Chinese-Canadian vampire hunter lady tries to kick you out of the communal showers (true story).

Most days found us going to and fro around the old town, taking in the historic sights or deciding which restaurant we would want to try next. Even though Brasov is a tourist mecca and has pricey and chic shops and restaurants there was plenty to choose from in the economy aisle. To counteract our caloric intake we made a venture to the peak of Mount Tampa, the wooded peak that looms over the city and even has its own Hollywood-esque "Brasov" sign (Fun Fact #5,110: during part of Romania's Soviet era, Brasov was renamed Orasul Stalin or "Stalin City" and his name was "written" on the hillside by cutting down fir trees). From the top we hiked over to the Brasov's eponymous sign where we were afforded probably the best views of the city. You could make out the old town with its piazzas, Black Church, and ancient battlements as well as the new town sprawl out into the countryside. It was well worth the 12 lei...oh yeah, just kidding...we didn't hike up as I implied; we took the cable car up and back. (Leah: I also loved the Brasov crest, which features a crown wrapped around some seriously hefty tree roots. Steve took it at face value, but I thought it looked like a crown puking out coral. You be the judge.

We opted to save a trip to the famous Bran Castle for our last day in Brasov (and Romania for that matter). We hadn't checked the weather reports and it ended up raining whole night before and the grey skies threatened to pour during most of the day. Luckily only moderate drizzles ensued and instead gave us cool weather to stand in as we waited in the insanely long lines for this surprisingly overcrowded attraction. A little history: while a historic landmark, Bran Castle is most famously known as "Dracula's Castle" although Vlad Tepes had little connection with this place and Bram Stoker probably didn't even know about it prior to writing his masterpiece Dracula, which single-handedly put Romania on the tourist map in my most humble and honest opinion. (Leah: the Romanian royal family were the most recent inhabitants, hence the furnishings and period pieces we raced past in our quest to break through the crowds and breath real air).

Although well preserved and on beautiful grounds my enduring memories of Bran Castle will be of acute agoraphobia sprinkled with generous doses of claustrophobia, all while lacking any sanguivoriphobia (fear of vampires). At all times we were sandwiched between fellow tourists moving from room to room like a herd of cattle. Navigating through narrow hallways or vertically-challenged secret passage ways meant that we were bent over for long periods at a time, at the mercy of the large groups either in front or behind us. I really enjoyed the architecture, funky layout, domestic artifacts and informational signs but I just could not wait to get out of there. I don't regret the trip out to the castle one bit but I can check it off my list of places to see and I can't say I'll ever make it a point to come back.

Even with our interesting Workaway I can honestly say that I enjoyed my time in Romania. It was a little trickier to get around but the old world charm and atmospheric sights more than made up for it. I know that in our short time we only delved into a few layers of this unique European country; with a longer itinerary and slightly bigger budget I have no doubt Romania could impress the most discerning of travelers. Still, I leave this place fulfilled and with a happy heart--even with today's economic struggles its good to know that Grandpa Munster still has a place to make an honest living.

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