October 7, 2008

Seductive Sighişoara
Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania

Visiting Vlad's birthplace

Janos and Ary's place plush pad is within easy day-trip striking distance of Sighişoara, a wildly popular tourist destination in Transylvania most notably known as Vlad the Impaler's birthplace. And even without knowing the (gorgeous) specifics of our host's living environment in Odorheiu Secuiesc, their proximity to the town had already sold me on staying with them.

The historic old town center of Sighişoara is actually nothing short of a photographer's wet dream. Half-a-millennium-old townhouses awash in bright colors overlook cobbled streets perched on a strategic hillock and fortified by a 14th-century wall.

But Sighişoara, in all its glory, is really only worth visiting for a handful of hours. Despite the reprieve the month of October granted us from myriad tourists and touts, I couldn't imagine spending much more time inside the throws of such a tourist-oriented location than we did between train rides that shuttled us there and back.

The Dracula Myth

To clear up and misconceptions you might have on Vlad, lovingly lifted from my guidebook:

Fifteenth-century prince Vlad Tepeş is all too often credited with being Dracula, the vampire-count featured in the classic Gothic horror story Dracula (1897) written by Anglo-Irish novelist Bram Stoker.

The madcap association of these two diabolical figures—one historical, the other fictitious—is nothing more than a product of popular imagination. But while Romanians increasingly reap the tourist reward of this confusion, many are concerned that the identity of a significant figure in their history has been overshadowed by that of an immortal literary vampire.

The 'real' Dracula, Vlad Tepeş, born 1431 in Sighişoara, ruled in the mid-15th century. He was outrageously bloodthirsty and killed heaps of people but he did not eat people or drink blood. His princely father, Vlad III, was called Vlad Dracul (from the Latin 'draco', meaning 'dragon') after the chivalric Order of the Dragon accredited to him by Sigismund of Luxembourg in 1431. The Romanian name Drăculea—literally 'son of Dracul'—was bestowed on Vlad Tepeş by his father, and was used as a term of honor. Another meaning of 'draco', however, was 'devil' and this was the meaning that Stoker's novel popularized.

Little Vlad had an unhappy childhood. His spent many of his youthful years in a Turkish prison, where he was allegedly raped by members of the Turkish court.

While Vlad Tepeş was undoubtedly a strong ruler and is seen by some Romanians as a national hero and brave defender of his principality, his practices were ruthless and cruel. Notorious for his brutal punishment methods, ranging from decapitation to boiling and burying alive, he gained the name 'Tepeş' ('impaler') after his favorite form of punishing his enemies. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim's anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death.

Tepeş had a habit of eating a full meal while outside watching his Turkish and Greek prisoners writhing on stake in front of him. That Vlad was likely raped repeatedly as a boy and teen in his captive years in prison adds another dimension to his favored method of torture.

Bram Stoker's literary Dracula, by contrast, was a bloodsucking vampire—an undead corpse reliant on the blood of the living to sustain his own mortality. Stoker set Dracula in Transylvania, a region the novelist never set foot in. The novel, originally set in Austria, was first entitled The Undead. But following critics' comments that it was too close to a pastiche of Sheridan le Fanu's Camilla (1820)—a vampire novel set in southern France—Stoker switched titles and geographical settings. Count Dracula's fictitious castle on the Borga Pass was inspired by Cruden Bay castle, where Stoker drafted much of the novel.

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