Bucharest - I should have been awake. Our destination after landing at the tiny airport in Târgu Mures, Romania, was Borgo Pass. The area around here is the setting in Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the coach ride undertaken in the night by the young English solicitor Jonathan Harker on his way to meet the terrifying count.
We took this journey in the dark too, so it might have been the perfect opportunity to connect reality with fiction. But soon after we turned off the road that weaves through the Carpathian Mountains, I fell asleep, waking as we turned up the drive towards Hotel Castle Dracula.
Perched on a promontory above a pass, its facade is suffused in red lighting and the foyer, with its animal skulls on the walls and images of ravens and bats at every turn, does little to settle nerves. In the bedroom we found a sheet of “advice for the people spending the night at Dracula Castle”.
Dracula is big business for Romania – there is even a Dracula wine (red, of course) – though, thankfully, plans for a theme park were shelved a decade ago.
Hotel Castle Dracula was opened 30 years ago, built on the spot indicated by Stoker in the book to be where Dracula’s castle stood, and its design, with its crypt and inner cobbled courtyard, is faithful to the Irish novelist’s description.
A “Golden Crown”, where Harker stayed in the novel, has been built and we lunched in the Jonathan Harker Salon, where the walls are covered with pictures adorned with quotes from Dracula.
We asked for “robber steak”, eaten by Harker in the book – “bits of bacon, onion and beef, seasoned with red pepper, strung on sticks, roasted over the fire”.
I had long wanted to visit Transylvania to witness its rural scenery and there was constant evidence of a rustic lifestyle that has changed little over many decades.
I’d come here to follow in the footsteps of the fictional creation or, more accurately, the inspiration behind him, the 5th-century ruler Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, as he was known, thanks to his favoured form of punishment for his enemies.
Vlad’s father was a member of the Order of the Dragon, which was formed to defend the Christian religion (Dracula means son of or little dragon).
Having had breakfast the day after our arrival, we were given a tour of the hotel crypt where, we were told, Dracula slept in his coffin. Our guide Maria, dressed in a cape, led us down creaking wooden steps by the light of a candle to a vault where a dark red coffin lay. Standing by it, she said there were some bones inside. Would we like to see them? Well, yes, of course. Then the flame died and, with a dreadful roar, a figure leapt out of the coffin and rushed up the steps.
Our next stop was Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Tepes. You enter this 12th-century fortified town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, through an arch and find yourself in a cobbled square with film-set-perfect houses. The house where Vlad was born is now a restaurant, Casa Vlad.
Sighisoara, delightful though it is with its colourful houses and alleyways, is no museum piece. In the old days, it was exclusively inhabited by Saxons and ruled by guilds, with lesser mortals (Romanians and Hungarians) consigned to the lower slopes outside. As we strolled past the wall towers, our guide Bogdan regaled us with stories about Vlad.
Bogdan later showed us around his home town of Brasov, proudly showing us the 16th-century Ecaterina Gate; the Black Church – the largest Gothic church in Romania; and Rope Street, one of the narrowest thoroughfares in Europe.
This is a prosperous town. We were given an indication of this at our dinner at the Hotel Belvedere restaurant. Its elaborate dishes are a far cry from robust Romanian staples such as lángos – rounds of deep-fried batter smothered in garlic sauce.
We stayed the night farther up the hill in Brasov-Poiana, another setting for a Dracula hotel.
The House of Dracula is modelled on Bran Castle, widely touted as Dracula’s castle even though it has no connection with Stoker’s novel. It’s nowhere near the Borgo Pass; nor is it in Transylvania. It is in the neighbouring province of Wallachia. But it looks the part, with rocky cliffs leading up to it, just as Stoker described so vividly.
Poenari Castle, a remote outpost high on a cliff in the foothills of the Carpathians, does have connections to the myth.
Vlad was besieged here by the Ottomans in 1462 and managed to escape through a secret tunnel.
He was finally assassinated in 1476 and is believed to have been buried at Snagov Monastery, north of Bucharest. So his last resting place is, we’re told, on a tranquil island in a reed-fringed lake.
In front of the altar in the monastery is a stone slab under which may be the bones of the original Dracula. – Hilary Macaskill, Daily Mail