Witches, demons, ghouls and vampires have always held sway over me. Perhaps they fuel my desire for a supernatural dark side or perhaps my Mr Hyde is simply closer to the surface than is healthy. Whatever the reason, the thoroughly evil and wizened witches in the stories of Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and Baba Yaga were far more appealing to my childhood self than stories of Cinderella or the Frog Prince. Being a princess didn’t interest me; I wished for magical powers I could use for evil gain. So it was inevitable that eventually I would chance upon the source of the legend that grips our collective imagination and has spawned a literary and cinematic canon ranging from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to the do-gooder supernatural beings of the Twilight industry.
From the first time I devoured Bram Stoker’s Dracula, at 17, a desperate longing to visit the mysterious and mist-filled land of Transylvania possessed me. As I read, moths banging furiously at my window became bats clamouring for entry; dogs baying to one another transformed into the panting, red-eyed wolves of nightmares; and street lights appeared as blue flames lighting up the dark on St George’s Eve, when ‘all the evil things in the world … have full sway.’ Stoker’s book transported me to a place filled with giant beasts, superstitious peasants, ghost ships and desolate crossroads manned by the undead. It is gothic fiction at its spine tingliest.
Since then, I’ve revisited that glorious novel many times; no other book stokes the imagination quite like it. Stoker’s petrifying prose always inspires an irrational urge to whip around while at the mirror, just to make sure the reflectionless Count isn’t lurking behind. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (two generations pursue Dracula through Eastern Europe) cemented my resolve to conduct my own pilgrimage to those superstitious lands.
Friend Kate and I catch the overnight train from Belgrade to Romania’s capital, Bucharest, and change over to a coach that will take us into the heart of vampire country. I had conjured up a rose-tinted world of traditionally garbed folk tilling the fields, with crosses around their necks and garlic wreaths dressing their hair to ward off evil spirits. However romantic my fantasy, the Romanian countryside does resemble a bygone time. A little thrill runs through me as I spy through the train window horses trussed to carts, triangular fairy-tale hayricks, and chickens and rabbits darting about in the backyards of delightfully lopsided thatched cottages. These pretty country scenes are all overshadowed by one of the imposing Carpathian mountains, a rock-climber’s dream, resplendent with a giant white cross teetering on the cliff at its very peak.
So far, reality and mind’s eye are matching up beautifully. But then we arrive at Transylvania’s heart: Brasov. I can look past the modern train station with taxi drivers clamouring to take us to our destination, and neon signs urging us to buy the latest burger at McDonald’s, but it’s when I see a Hollywood style ‘Brasov’ sign plastered across Tampa Mountain that doubts begin to creep up on me. Brasov is a picturesque orange-roofed medieval town, with numerous watchtowers and winding little streets, all overshadowed by Tampa looming possessively in the background. But there’s more than a whiff of tourism here. Umbrellas all over proclaim: ‘Brasov: probably the best city in the world,’ and the place mats at one restaurant say, ‘ Life does NOT suck.’ No it certainly does not! Stray dogs roam the streets, a legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, but the slathering wolves of Stoker’s fancy are nowhere to be found.
However, my hopes are pinned on Bran Castle, the very one Dracula is supposedly based on. Mist hangs low over the mountain and it begins to drizzle as we begin our journey along a winding, desolate road, locals crossing themselves as we pass. An aristocratic man with a glistening red mouth, dressed impeccably in an old-fashioned suit, lowers the drawbridge for our arrival. I hear howling in the distance as we approach the castle, which is dark and commanding in the semi light.
What I actually see is a line of tour buses parked beneath a faraway castle on a hill. We join the throng to buy tickets, bypassing tacky vampire memorabilia. The locals are certainly capitalising on their claim to fame: signs welcome us to Dracula’s lair and roadside stalls line the route.
A glut of happy snappers all jostle for the best shot in front of a large cross-shaped tombstone just outside the front door. Once inside, we battle with the masses to read about the castle’s actual history (it was once the home of Queen Marie of Romania). There is one small room dedicated to the book that put it on the map, and to Vlad Tepes (also known as ‘Vlad the Impaler’), on whom Count Dracula is loosely based. In fact, Tepes had only very tentative links to Bran Castle and I am horrified to learn that Bram Stoker had never visited the area. His descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside were based on the advice of an uncle who resided nearby.
A life dream dashed in a couple of hours? Not quite. While climbing the castle’s secret staircase I black out, to wake many hours later in the bowels of the castle. An empty sarcophagus lies open beside me and an itch on my neck reveals two small puncture wounds oozing with blood. I quickly wipe them away and rejoin Kate in the grounds of the castle, who, oddly, has taken to wearing garlic around her neck – the smell and taste of which I used to adore, and now revolts me. Reality bites.
Amy Roil blogs at Book Witch.