As Nicolai forced me to leap over a pit full of fire to earn my dinner, I wondered how I had ended up in such a bizarre situation. The idea of going to Transylvania for Halloween had been more of a whim than anything – similar to that of a friend who went to Turkey for Thanksgiving. Exploring this little known corner of Europe and home of Bram Stoker’s renowned Count Dracula seemed like a fun and possibly creepy thing to do. Creepy it was, but not in a particularly scary sort of way.
Creepy but not scary
A friend and I booked one of the standard “Halloween in Transylvania” tours offered by at least half a dozen different companies in Romania. All revolve around the same principle: give the crazy Americans and Brits what they want. The problem is that the Romanians don’t really know what we want. Since they view Vlad Tepes (aka “The Impaler” an arguable inspiration for Dracula) as a folk hero instead of a vampire, Halloween is to them merely a prelude to the somber All Saints Day. Thus, there is noticeable confusion at our apparent blood-lust and morbidity. Never mind: they are determined to exploit this interest in vampires, and for the fun of it, they’ll throw in just about anything with the remotest connection to Halloween. Do you like fortune tellers? Cemeteries? Witch trials and haunted houses? Well, chances are you’ll get a little of each if you follow in my footsteps.
The zenith of the trip is, naturally, Halloween. Each tour company does something a little differently, and every year they make changes and improvements. You can expect some sort of big costume bash, possibly an appearance by “Count Dracula", and a vast array of supernatural services for sale: indulgences for your sins, afterlife insurance and fortune telling – in case you didn’t come prepared.
That’s not all. In their desperate desire to please, tour operators such as Transylvania Tour and The Company of Mysterious Journeys offer several additional activities which, if truly Romanian, are in fact a little eerie. Case in point: one night we were treated to the “Miss Transylvania” pageant. Assuming it would be a small affair amongst our own group, where we each put on our best and most vamp-ish outfit, imagine our surprise when we found ourselves at a formal affair where a dozen or so teen aged Romanian girls in scanty hot-pink ball gowns and bikinis strutted their stuff before 300 drooling old men. On yet another occasion, we were introduced to the self-styled “Baron of Dracula", an aged man singing Ukrainian folk songs and reeking of brandy – at ten o’clock in the morning. He led us to his tower full of supremely creepy puppet dolls and then staggered down the streets arm in arm with my friend (I think she was holding him up).
“Stay away from Castle Dracula!” he warned as he tottered away at last. Of course we ignored him. Dracula was the whole point of the tour, right?
That is how I found myself jumping across a bonfire on a crisp and clear Halloween night at the Castle Dracula, an uninspired and inelegant concrete mass erected in the Borgo Pass of the Carpathian Mountains. Of course, there was no real castle here for Stoker when he wrote his novel. Even the historical Impaler never lived in the Borgo Pass. But the Romanian tourist industry is determined to capitalize on the popularity of Dracula, both the book and subsequent movies, even if it means creating the legend out of thin air.
Bram Stoker would be amazed to see how the places which only existed in his imagination have sprung to life. In addition to the Castle Dracula, there is now a Golden Krone accommodation in Bistrita, where the character of Jonathan Harker ate a robber steak. Now you too can choke down a steak decorated in dancing blue flames. I say “choke down” not because it was inedible, but because the Romanian cuisine to which we were treated unfailingly consisted almost entirely of meat stuffed with meat, usually including some layer or two of fried cheese and a steady infusion of apple brandy. To be honest, the only truly terrifying thing in Transylvania was the food – and the possibility of having coronary artery disease by the end of the trip.
A lot to see
Dismal cuisine aside, there is a lot to see in Transylvania. From the UNESCO World Heritage city of Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes the Impaler, to the spectacular painted monasteries and the scenic castles of Bran, Peles, and Poienari, you will have ample opportunity to soak in some of Romania’s fascinating history and culture. Even the countryside of Transylvania abounds with sights – don’t forget this is still Eastern Europe. In some places it will feel as though you’ve gone back in time 150 years. Human- and horse-powered agriculture is still in wide use. Due to their remote locations, many farms in the mountains have private graveyards for burials. October is the ideal time to observe the harvest. Leaf fires cast hazy blue smoke over yellow fields, haystacks and heavily-laden apple trees. Chickens peck in the farmyards of wood-and-stone houses that have been patched together over the centuries, while gigantic pumpkins and squashes ripen in the gardens. The rest of the magic comes from the people: scarved women offering home-baked treats and men wearing hats and aprons over their trousers vie with bands of gypsies for your attention.
Don’t forget to pack your sense of humor: a Halloween tour of Transylvania is bound to be cheesy. Admit it – that’s why you wanted to come! So turn up your appreciation for absurdity when Miss Transylvania enters your Halloween night festivities to the tune of “Dixie". Keep your patience when the inn attendant brings you two “beers” when you asked for two pillows to cover your “ears". Bear in mind that you might have something to learn or teach (as I did when the staff watched in awestruck wonder as I showed them how to make a banana split).
Some of my most treasured moments are of hysterical laughter brought on by our guide, Nicolai, and his misplaced word usage and blatant invention of the English language. After hearing his lectures, I firmly believe that the words “Draculistic", “architechtonical", and “yin and yung” should be added to Webster’s Dictionary. These were the words of advice he doled out on our first night.
“Curtsy to Vlad’s painting.” We were in a dining room in Sighisoara, where a mural of Vlad Tepes’ father, Vlad II was featured. After we made our obeisances, he assured us, “Now you will not be impaled tonight. But of course there are no guarantees.” We tried our hardest to keep straight faces and avoid giggling, until, “Unless you want to be impaled?” That was all we could take, and we burst out of the room in riotous laughter.
Most standard Halloween trips in Transylvania last seven days, and cost between $750.00 and $2,000.00 U.S., exclusive of flights. Several tour operators to try are: Romania Travels, Company of Mysterious Journeys, Best Tours of Transylvania and Halloween in Transylvania.
I recommend you re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula prior to your trip. IN SEARCH OF DRACULA: A TRUE HISTROY OF DRACULA AND VAMPIRE LEGENDS by Raymond T. McNally also provides an interesting look at both the development of the vampire myth, Bram Stoker’s character and the “historical” Vlad the Impaler.