It is with enormous satisfaction and pride that I announce the publication of my first solo, book-length project, a Romania travel memoir called Backpacking with Dracula. Honestly, so many nights and weekends have been dedicated to working on this project for the past year and a half, I guess the prevailing feeling I have right now is more like “phew!”
As with any solo project with minimal, infrequent feedback, I quietly worried that it would suck. But I’ve already gotten some very kind blurbs from smart people, including:
“Leif Pettersen has sucked the life into the Dracula phenomenon. He mines his topic expertly, leaving no coffin unturned, weaving the hard-to-put-down narrative between his own travels in Romania and centuries past.”
– David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity
“Most people try to stay far away from bloodthirsty tyrants, but luckily for us, Leif Pettersen has plunged straight ahead and lived to tell this rollicking, history-rich tale. Backpacking with Dracula offers an up-close view of the man and myth of Vlad Dracula, along with Romania past and present, all told with Pettersen’s trademark wit and insight.”
– Doug Mack, author of Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day and the upcoming The Forgotten States of America
Since Amazon success/failure hinges on reviews, I will now beseech you to buy and review my book. Not sure if a book about two fascinating guys named “Dracula” and liberally peppered with humor is for you? Well, maybe the overview will convince you.
The undisputed A-lister among Transylvania’s cabaret of supernatural blood-drainers and face-eaters, Count Dracula is both a publicist’s dream and nightmare. Like Donald Trump, despite unremitting horrifying behavior, the public can’t get enough of him even after more than a century of being name-dropped in literature, TV and film.
Little known to most people is that our vampire friend is the namesake of someone with similar PR challenges, Vlad “Tepes” Dracula, the extravagantly mustachioed 15th century Prince of Wallachia. Depending on which medieval gossip magazine you read, Tepes was characterized as a brutal tyrant, a hero, a traumatized child who became a psychopath, a passionate leader whose reign brought order to a kingdom in chaos, scourge of the overwhelming forces of the Ottoman Empire and/or a textbook sadist who prolifically impaled tens of thousands of enemies.
Backpacking with Dracula is my quest to explore fact, legend and fiction (and the copious, delectable gray areas), sifting through the divergent, sometimes fantastic stories about the mercurial prince and modern confusion with the vampire.
My quest involves touring through Wallachia and Transylvania, the respective homelands of the prince and the count, located in modern day Romania. This tour will focus on visiting surviving sites associated with Vlad including Transylvania’s Bran Castle, where Vlad briefly stayed (or was possibly imprisoned – it’s complicated); the ruins of his stronghold, Poenari Citadel, in Wallachia; Vlad’s boyhood home (now a restaurant) in Sighisoara; and the ruins of Wallachia’s Princely Court in Târgoviste.
Finally, I’ll delve into the various theories of Vlad’s final resting place – minus his head, which, in lieu of a Snapchat photo, we know was bagged and shipped directly to a relieved Sultan Mehmed II in Constantinople as confirmation of his death.
Though Dracula author Bram Stoker never laid eyes on the Borgo Pass, home of the vampire, I will dutifully cover this bucolic region on Transylvania’s border with Moldavia, including the campy Hotel Castel (sic) Dracula, which a shrewd entrepreneur built on the site where Stoker set Dracula’s fictional castle. I’ll also stop in at the Count Dracula Club restaurant in Bucharest, complete with coffins and walls dripping with blood.
As I peel away these layers, I’ll share my accumulated knowledge of modern day Romania, where I lived and traveled for a cumulative two years while researching multiple editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks.
With the chaotic, fragile state of rulers, regimes, alliances and betrayals of the time, Vlad’s fortunes changed constantly throughout his life as hostage, prince, warrior, prisoner and ground-breaking practitioner of stake-diplomacy. His well-documented passion for ruining the very short remainders of his enemies’ lives is how Vlad earned the post-mortem moniker “Tepes” (The Impaler): a dull, greased wooden stake was judiciously driven through the victim’s anus, emerging from the body just below the shoulder blades without piercing any vital organs, causing up to 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death.
Vlad was like the Jack Bauer of Wallachia: patriotic almost to a fault, steadfast in defending the region from external enemies and internal provocateurs, misunderstood by co-workers and quick to punch anyone in the face that got in his way. In the surprisingly brief seven non-consecutive years of his rule (1448; 1456–1462; 1476), he staked ass and took names, using pure terror to virtually wipe out crime and corruption in his principality and, on multiple occasions, repulsed and scared the bejesus out of Ottoman invaders.
Four centuries removed from the facts, such as they were, Bram Stoker’s fictional, bloodsucking Count Dracula recast Tepes as an undead corpse reliant on the blood of the living to sustain his immortality. Though he never set foot in Romania, had Stoker made the journey he would have enjoyed a wealth of additional vampire material, being that vampires formed an integral part of the region’s extensive folklore.
Vlad Tepes died in 1476, and Stoker in 1912, yet Count Dracula lives on in an extraordinary subculture of literature, TV and film. The original Dracula novel has never been out of print.
In Backpacking with Dracula, I will share and build on my substantial knowledge of both Vlad’s Romania, Romania today, and any pertinent paranormal digressions, all of which happen to be agreeably bedecked with severe mountains, gothic castles, peasant villages, spooky moonlight and creatures capable of eating me for lunch.