Count Dracula gained his infamous nickname Vlad the Impaler as a result of his reputation for having an unquenchable and notoriously sadistic bloodlust against any and all those that opposed or challenged him, from the Turks, to errant monks, female concubines and ordinary beggars and vagabonds alike. The practice of impalement dates back to the Egyptians and was at one time or other practiced as one of the cruellest forms of death by torture in many parts of the middle and near east. The practice involved putting the victim on his or her stomach, tying their hands behind their backs, splaying their legs apart and taking a sharpened wooden pole (which had to be at least twice the length of a human being), oiling the end and then hammering it 50-60 cm into the anus of the victim, then plunging the pole into the ground. The weight of the victim’s body would then slowly push him or her ever deeper on to the pole until it would eventually exit at the shoulder, the mouth or the chest. Vlad’s bestial love of this form of sadistic murder has been interpreted as a sexually motivated act derived of a deep rooted deviancy or even temporary impotence. It was an act he often performed in person, at times rounding off the sharpened end of the pole so that it would not pierce vital organs (especially the heart or liver but rather slide past them), so as to prolong the agony of the victim who could take up to three days to die. Victims thereby also fell prey to being eaten alive by carrion birds and wild animals. Vlad Tepes (Tepes means impaler in Romanian) and the soldiers in his employ, murdered tens of thousands of people in this way. But even this unbelievably evil form of murder was often preceded by the victims (both male and female) having had their genitalia mutilated, their noses and ears cut off, and having been blinded with hot pokers. Therefore, no matter how far fetched Bram Stoker’s flight of horror fantasy may have been, it did not compare in any measure to the evil perpetrated by one of history’s cruellest and most sadistic mass murderers; a character too ghoulish even for the most horrific Halloween chiller.
Vlad Tepes clearly saved most of his sadistic hatred for the Turks, into whose hands he is said to have briefly fallen as a prisoner as a young man. The Ottoman Turks advance into Europe had always been followed by a baggage train of slave traders who would gather up all the men, women and children of the towns they captured, then strip them naked, prod and abuse them at will and sell those fit to work into life long bondage to serve the whims and needs of the occupiers. The 15th century was a cruel and barbarous age but even in such a savage period Vlad the Impaler stands out as evil personified and no doubt tales of the abominations he committed inspired Stoker to use him as the basis for his largely fictitious account of Count Dracula.
The irony is that although Bram Stoker immortalised Vlad’s association with Transylvania, Count Dracula’s family were not native to Transylvania but were only passing through. The Vlads were from Wallachia. The Transylvanians are therefore stuck with the infamy of a historical figure who is not one of their own. Transylvania, has long been a multicultural patchwork of many competing ethnic and religious groups. For most of its history it has been dominated by the Hungarians, whose kings brought in a number of other immigrant groups to colonise the region from across the Empire including Swabian and Saxon Germans from the 12th century onwards, who were used to help fortify the territory’s natural mountain terrain, first against encroaching Slavic and then later Turkic invaders. But by the time the territory was lost to Hungary, following the First World War carve up of this part of Europe as a result of the Treaty of Triannon post 1919, Transylvania had a slim Romanian majority of some fifty-four percent of the population, but still possessed very substantial Hungarian and German minorities (alongside twenty or so other smaller groups from across what had been the multicultural frontier lands of the Habsburg Empire).
Having visited the citadel cemetery in the town most associated with Dracula we then worked our way down the steep staircase back into the lower part of the upper fortified town of Schaesburg (Sighisoara) where we sought out the house where Vlad is said to have been born. It is now a restaurant with motifs of his murderous past painted on the walls. Beyond the house in the main square, somewhat disconcertingly a statue was erected in his ‘honour’ in 1998. For many Romanians he remains a national hero, regarded as a brutal but effective ruler, who brought about a brief period of order during a time of chaos. He is also remembered as the founding father of the capital city of Bucharest. At the Tourist Information centre opposite his birthplace I mentioned the pumpkins I’d seen walking up the hill and asked, whether in view of the Dracula legend, the town had a unique Halloween celebration of its own. The lady was kind enough to indulge my question, although I got the distinct impression she was fed up with people only ever asking about Dracula and not enquiring about any of the other rich aspects of the town and the region’s history. As for Halloween, it is apparently a low key affair in Sighisoara and in Romania as a whole. It is not considered a home grown tradition at all and by and large it is only something which school children take an interest in if their teacher decides to organise a school Halloween party. Therefore, no ‘Trick or Treating,’ no Halloween carnivals, no dungeon orgies and as I was to hear repeatedly over the coming days, the Romanians would really prefer it if foreign tourists took an interest in other aspects of their country’s history rather than just in Vlad Tepes!
Unperturbed we headed off into the night to continue our Dracula quest, this time to visit the capital of the fortified Transylvanian Saxon towns – Sibiu (for most of its history however better known as Hermannstadt). In 2007 Sibu was named capital of European Culture, in an accolade that is much sought after by cities all across Europe, and which here as everywhere else brought about a frenetic sprucing up of the city’s attractions, its historic buildings and a much hoped for boom in tourism. Sibiu however received all the benefits of a sprucing up, as well as the construction of a number of large new hotels but although tourism numbers did increase, its isolated location, Romania’s lousy infrastructure and the fact that there are virtually no direct flights with any of the major budget airlines to its nice little airport, means it remains a gem which you can enjoy free of hordes of weekend tourists and stag parties. It is also extremely good value, with those plastic Leis being one of the few currencies that have not appreciated against the Pound and because the 2007 boon created more hotel spaces than guests. Added to which the place is crammed with great value quality places to eat and drink; all in all, a winning combination.
I was particularly taken with the great range of food and wine on offer and have no doubt that as soon as Jamie Oliver discovers the place he will do a series on the incredible variety of foods on offer in Romania. There can in fact be few places left in Central Europe that have such a wide variety of home grown culinary specialities. Sibiu has a host of beautiful old restaurants oozing with charm and character both above and below the heart of the old town, with plenty of great Romanian, Siebenburger Saxon, Transylvanian Hungarian and Austro-Italian specialities to choose from.
And the mix of races has created some stunning looking people of all hues and shades from striking tall blondes to dark haired tall and thin and very pale but beautiful vampish types, and they weren’t even trying to dress for Halloween! The ladies in particular I thought all looked very stylish.
After decades of communist repression modern day Romania should be commended for coming to embrace its multicultural history, traditions, cuisine and communities in a far more tolerant way than virtually any other nation in central or eastern Europe has thus far been willing to do. It is a refreshing beacon of hope in a part of the world where many national governments still try to justify the horrific ethnic cleansing of the post World War II era and the accompanying obliteration of a millennia of rich indigenous multiculturalism. Much of Central Europe from Bohemia to the eastern Baltic has suffered from decades of nationalist histories that have attempted not only to rewrite history but to obscure the contribution of those termed ‘non historic peoples’ of particular regions. Sibiu-Hermannstadt is a wonderful exception to that eastern European norm; where the town’s minorities no longer have to fear violent state repression and where they can openly honour and cherish their customs and traditions, be they Transylvanian Hungarians, Siebenburger Saxons, Roma Gypsies or whoever. We largely take these rights for granted in Western Europe but in the East these remain rare commodities indeed. The generosity of the Romanians has subsequently been rewarded with Sibu not only being named the capital of European Culture in 2007, but in the town making positive headlines the world over and receiving funds from a wide variety of charities, church groups, special interest groups and businesses, which led to the town’s wonderful makeover, a boost in much needed tourism income and making it one of the most prosperous towns in Romania. Prince Charles has even become a champion for the preservation and restoration of the unique 850-year-old cultural and architectural heritage of the fortified Siebenburgen Saxon towns of Transylvania and his charitable foundation has helped young people of the region train in the skills required to carry out further restoration work.
As for the Dracula legend and Halloween traditions, the Romanians may well have to get used to the fact that no matter how fed up they are with them, they are not going to go away any time soon and they may as well start cashing in on them. There is a large gap in the tourist season between the Harvest Festival and Christmas, and it seems to me to be a missed opportunity not to make the Saxon fortress towns and their association with Count Dracula a theme for local tourism in late October each year. The gothic architecture lends itself beautifully to the spooky legends, as does the backdrop of the dark snow capped Carpathian Mountains. In Sibiu-Hermannstadt when the sun sets it’s empty streets also suddenly come alive with the sound of noisy black crows which arrive with nightfall and circle the trees alongside the old town walls, as if still waiting to feed on the ranks of impaled victims beyond its gates. This gives the place a very eerie feeling, not least if you’ve got an over active imagination! I recommend you go and visit Sigisoara (Schaessburg) and Sibiu (Hermannstadt) and the Saxon towns of Transylvania before the budget airlines discover these jewels and the streets then become packed with circling teenage piss-heads!
To read my latest book on the history of Germany and its influence on modern Europe, please take a look at 'Death of a Nation', available now.