A travel book investigating Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula and the vampire monster he inspired
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 Justin Bieber, despite unremitting horrifying behavior, the public can’t get enough of him even after more than a century of being name-dropped in literature 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 celebrity rag 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. The book explores the Romanian regions of Wallachia and Transylvania, the respective homelands of the Prince and the Count, where I’ll cover surviving sites associated with Vlad including Bran Castle, where he briefly stayed (and/or was possibly imprisoned – it’s complicated); the ruins of his stronghold, Poienari Citadel in Wallachia and Arefu village in the valley below, said to still be populated by the descendants of Vlad’s loyal subjects; Vlad’s boyhood home (now a restaurant) in Sighisoara; and the ruins of Wallachia’s Princely Court in Târgoviste.
Finally, I’ll investigate 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 explore this bucolic region on Transylvania’s border with Moldavia, including the campy Hotel Castel Dracula (sic), which a shrewd entrepreneur built on the site where Stoker set Dracula’s fictional castle. I’ll stop in at other high-kitsch Dracula sites as well, including the Count Dracula Club in Bucharest, complete with coffins and walls dripping with blood.
The final character in this book is modern day Romania itself, where I lived and traveled for a cumulative two years while researching multiple editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks. This complicated young member of the European Union is not far removed from its early 2000s moniker “the wild west of Eastern Europe” and though European integration is well on its way, old habits die hard here, including a near-majority rural population, peasant culture, superstition, corruption, and frighteningly improvised driving conventions.
With the chaotic, fragile state of rulers, regimes, alliances and betrayals of the time, Vlad Dracula’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 Transylvania and Wallachia, where he grew up and ruled respectively; patriotic almost to a fault, misunderstood by co-workers, steadfast in defending the region from external enemies and internal provocateurs, and quick to punch anyone in the face that got in his way. In the surprisingly brief eight non-consecutive years of his rule (1448; 1456–1462; 1476), he staked ass and took names, using undisguised terror to virtually wipe out crime and corruption, and on multiple occasions repulsed and scared the bejesus out of Ottoman invaders.
One legend has it that Vlad literally frightened off Sultan Mehmed II (“The Conqueror”), leader of the Ottoman Empire, a brilliant warrior and no stranger to psychological warfare himself. After weathering continuous guerrilla assaults by Vlad’s forces, Mehmed and his battered troops finally reached Vlad’s court at Târgoviste. Vlad had retreated, but left a welcome gift: a “forest” of 20,000 staked and gutted Turks from a previous wave of soldiers. Mehmed paused, presumably barfed in his mouth a little, then hastily returned to Constantinople, leaving his rattled minions to change their underwear and continue pursuing Vlad.
Four centuries removed from the facts, such as they were, Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula recast Tepes as an undead monster whose power and survival is dependent on blood, preferably from humans, with a dash of torment thrown in there for the heck of it. 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 and film. The original DRACULA novel has never been out of print.
As a travel expert and one time expat in Romania, I have great respect for the enduring culture and history, including Vlad’s reign which still ranks as one of the region’s most noteworthy periods. 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.