The Undead Travel

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In April 2006, after having spent far too long in a city that had been immortalized in books and movies, I felt exhausted, so I took a train from the Paris Est station in the hope that it would reinvigorate me.

I was headed to a destination I knew nothing about, having been intrigued by an outdated guidebook that depicted Eastern Europe as a place of innocence. After a brief stop in Vienna, I arrived in Sighisoara, Romania, a small town in the Carpathian Mountains.

The first thing I noticed was that it seemed like it had been left behind by Europe’s advancement and decay. When I got off the train, I saw that there were just a few cement blocks alongside the track, and an unattended wooden booth that I assumed was the station.

I had already made reservations at the Elen Villa Hostel on Libertatii Street, but when I got there, the old couple who ran the place did not speak French or English, and also were unaware of my reservation, though luckily the hostel was empty.

A 1998 guidebook had warned that the area would be devoid of the usual trappings of tourist hotspots.

It said that Transylvania, where Sighisoara was located, had dark, misty hills, and well-preserved medieval towns, but also had unreliable transportation, steep inflation, and the occasional threat of rabid dogs.

As I meandered through the cobblestone streets, I saw horse-drawn carts, Soviet-era cars, and crowds of young people hanging out against the walls of the citadel, with their spiked hair and tracksuits.

Above us all was a dark, medieval clock tower, which housed a small, painted wooden figure that would come alive at the turn of the hour to perform a tiny, lifeless dance. I felt like I was the only foreigner there.

As I looked out of the window of the clock tower, I thought of the contrast between this place and Paris, where I had been swarmed by foreigners, and had begun to think that they lurked in the shadows.

Gazing from that high point, it was simple to envision Sighisoara as it may have looked when Vlad Tepes was born in the 1430s, in a house that still stands in the citadel (though later renovated).

Vlad’s dad, likewise named Vlad, was stationed in Sighisoara as an army commander delegated to watch the border between Transylvania and Wallachia, a lasting fight zone between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

Young Vlad likely got a conventional education of an army officer’s child – Italian, some French, Romanian, the language of the army; the Cyrillic alphabet; Latin, the language of diplomacy; and the current political theory.

In 1436, Vlad’s dad, who had been invested into the chivalric Order of the Dragon by King Sigismund of Hungary, expelled Wallachia’s previous prince and was assigned prince by the country’s landowning boyars.

Maybe as an assurance of servitude from their dad, Vlad the younger and his sibling Radu were taken hostage by the Turkish sultan. Vlad the younger was delegated ruler in 1448, following his dad’s passing.

It was likely around this time he began to once in a while utilize the name Dracula, meaning “child of Dracul.”

As I left the clock tower, I noticed a number of vendors who had set up shop at its base, selling memorabilia such as T-shirts, pictures, and postcards. Additionally, there was a sign posted nearby announcing pony rides in the nearby hills.

Dismissing this, I made my way around the citadel’s quaint cobblestoned streets and stumbled upon the Cafe International.

I overheard a group of Spaniards, who were evidently trying to purchase a drink, arguing with the girl behind the counter about speaking Spanish as their country was the first to colonize other nations.

Feeling uncomfortable, I quickly left the coffee shop and wandered the streets in an effort to find my way out. Every corner boasted a small hotel or Internet cafe, each with an English name like Culture Club, Burg Hotel, Hotel Rex, or Club B.

When I returned to my own hostel, a family of French travelers had taken up residence. Deciding it was best to explore the outskirts of town, I had barely passed the last house when I was startled by a huge billboard advertising a motel restaurant called Dracula.

I hurried to the city and soon I was strolling through its thin streets. In the middle of a scanty gravel square that overlooked the steep side of the hill, there was a bust of Vlad Tepesatopastone on a stone and concrete stand.

A black sign close to the bottom had his life’s dates written, 1431-1476.

The features depicted in the bust were the same as those seen in a few portraits done after Vlad’s death: a long nose, a drooping mustache, hair that went up to his shoulders and wide, dark eyes that seemed to contain a hint of sorrow.

Bram Stoker, visiting the British Museum in the 1890s, found the name Dracula in a book about the Turks’ fifteenth-century military campaigns.

His intention was to set his then-in-progress vampire novel in Styria, as Joseph Le Fanu had done in “Carmilla”, but he later chose Transylvania as his locale. He never visited the region, and what he knew of the Romanian prince remains a mystery.

It is possible that he was familiar with the stories of Vlad.

Like the poem “The Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia” which was read to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, or the exaggerated tales of Saxons who had visited Transylvania while Vlad was in power.

He may even have known that the word Dracula can also be translated as “son of the devil”.

Although in Romania Vlad was more commonly referred to as Tepes, or “the Impaler”. Ultimately, Stoker kept the name and the setting for his novel, and buried the history – creating an aristocratic vampire, a seducer, and a predator, with eyes set on a foreign city.

During my initial evening in Sighisoara, I dined on tripe soup, a regional delicacy recommended by my guidebook, at an alfresco eatery near the citadel.

In the middle of my meal, the radio in the eatery’s kitchen blasted a louder volume, and the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” burst out into the night.

This wasn’t the 1960s soul version of the song, which I had heard earlier in the day at a cafe, but a mainstream, polished, white-boy cover version from the 1990s.

Hearing American R&B in Sighisoara seemed odd, yet something about hearing that cover version echoing off the old walls around me felt spooky, like the sudden appearance of a bat in a bedroom in the dark.

Feeling quite full after my meal, I returned to the citadel to look up train times at a bar that also served as an Internet cafe. It was called the Culture Club, and I couldn’t help but think of the English singer from the ’80s who now paints his face white and wears bright red lipstick.

As I walked in, a young man in his twenties wearing a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt and a red cap called out to me in broken English: “I think you should get me a drink”.

He said his name was Petre, and he could tell I was a foreigner from my appearance. Petre worked as a marketing director for a high-end hotel close by and had lived in Sighisoara all his life.

When he heard I was from New York, he expressed his desire to spend a year there, even though he didn’t know anyone. He said he was sure he would become the boss in a year because he didn’t care about anyone and he had no respect for my city.

I provided Petre with a beverage, and he was incredibly talkative. His stories captivated me; he seemed to have an idiosyncratic command of English and used weird metaphors and violent expressions that he attributed to watching American films.

Petre questioned me if I had ever been to the Sighisoara cemetery. I had, and it is situated at the back of the citadel hill, covered with ivy and its tombstones standing in a petrified angle.

There is a brick church at one end, which was a place of worship for some of the Saxon immigrants, who were loathed by Vlad Tepes and came to Transylvania during the 15th and 16th centuries.

According to Petre, he made a woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was in that cemetery, run around nude. He then chased her, and when he caught her, he had sexual intercourse with her.

I was introduced to Petre’s younger brother who was a man of few words. He had a thin face, shoulder-length hair, a thin mustache, and an exhausted, melancholic expression in his eyes. Petre then told me about a fight club they had, similar to the movie.

Although he was rather small, Petre’s brother was a talented fighter and showed me a chain he had in his pocket that he used for hitting people. He demonstrated to me how to correctly wrap the metal ring at one end over my middle finger.

He then told me about a Romanian form of combat that involved the chains from chain saws. His brother explained that this was not true fighting, and the only kind he took part in was the one-on-one fights. Petre proudly asserted that for his brother, he would do anything, even kill.

Petre’s brother complained about always hearing him talk about fighting, as they needed the money it brought. The reason being that their mom had cancer and their dad had passed away when they were young.

As we continued drinking, Petre and a middle-aged history professor from Italy, who once lived in Brooklyn, argued about Romania’s decision in World War II.

Petre asserted his desire to initiate a political party to get rid of the gypsies, while his brother disputed this, claiming the poverty and thievery in Romania didn’t only come from the gypsies.

We eventually called it a night and I headed off to the hostel to get some rest. Petre’s brother suggested that we should all visit Culture Club the following evening, telling us that they were there all the time.

The following day in the citadel, I overheard a man speaking English to someone else, so it was likely a foreigner. He was saying that vampires can be found in many places, from France to Germany to Russia and even India and China.

The vampire of the folklore was nothing more than a reanimated corpse – bloated, discolored and with a terrible odor. It was said that this creature could only be eliminated by staking it in the heart, decapitating it, burning it, or turning it over in its coffin.

In Eastern Europe, vampire scares rose from 1670 to 1750, with reports of unearthed graves and swollen cadavers.

This caused a furor and popularized the topic. In 1816, a vampire character was created in Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel, Glenarvon, which was a satirical representation of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Byron had traveled extensively around Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece and Turkey, and was visiting Switzerland when Lamb’s book was published.

It was during this trip that John Polidori, Byron’s doctor, wrote “The Vampyre”, in which the protagonist, another Byronic figure called Ruthven, is discovered in Rome and Athens. This led to a lot of translations and imitations of the story across Europe.

By 1820, the adventures of the peripatetic Lord Byron, who wrote his age as one hundred in hotel registers with traveling entourage.

Which included a valet, a sparring partner, a peacock, a dog, a monkey, dining quarters, sleeping quarters, and a library, had become legendary and immortalized.

On the other hand, Shelley, despite his constant roaming throughout Europe, had grown tired of the merchants, innkeepers, and guides he encountered along the way, and of the European population he deemed as analogous to parasites feeding on the weakened travelers.

Tragically, Shelley died in 1822.

In 1845, “Varney the Vampyre: or, The Feast of Blood” was published in England and became a popular “penny dreadful.”

On August 4 of that same year, Thomas Cook, a temperance campaigner from Derbyshire, offered a special deal of fourteen shillings per person for a day trip by rail from Leicester to Liverpool, which happened to be the first successful packaged tour.

Meanwhile, Sir Francis Varney was on his own journey, touring Bath, Venice, Naples, and Pompeii as he sought out prey. Cook’s tours gradually expanded, allowing British and American travelers to visit France, Switzerland, Italy, America, Egypt, and the Holy Land.

The invention of the railroad in the early 19th century made it possible for the working class to have access to international travel, and Cook’s packages provided those travelers a way to take their minds off of themselves and the past.

In 1870, Vikram and the Vampire, a compendium of Indian fables, was made available in English by the celebrated explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton.

His friend Bram Stoker noted his peculiar habit of lifting his top lip to show a pointed canine tooth whenever he laughed.

Two years later, Joseph Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” a narrative about a female vampire in Styria, was released in an English periodical, and Thomas Cook & Son, Inc. set up its initial round-the-world expedition.

In 1897, Thomas Cook passed away before the release of the classic vampire novel Dracula. He had, however, already become an iconic name. Cook’s touring business, which he developed, remained incredibly successful and left a lasting impact.

A poster from the late nineteenth century included an image of a man with a mustache, pointy ears, and devil horns who was carrying a party of British travelers while soaring above a picturesque vista of mountains and castles, with wings of a bat.

As my visits to Sighisoara increased, I realized there was an atmosphere of manipulation and exploitation, in contrast to the innocence and life I had expected to find.

Forty years ago, Jeanne Youngson told me, there were no hotels and restaurants, and buildings were illuminated by 40-watt bulbs. As night fell, all the businesses closed, which discouraged any tourists looking for entertainment from going out.

Jeanne, who founded the Count Dracula Fan Club, lives alone in a penthouse with Dracula-themed items filling the shelves and walls. She first traveled to Romania in 1965 and was amazed at how primitive the town seemed, like it had been trapped in the 1920s.

Her husband, a movie producer, had promised her tickets to anywhere in the world, and after a tour of Germany with a flood of tourists, she chose Romania. She was accompanied by an Australian man, the only two English speakers on the trip.

Our guides from Germany took us to Sighisoara to view the ancient architecture. The town seemed unwelcoming to outsiders such as us, so we stayed close to our guides. Not surprisingly, they never once mentioned vampires.

At the time, the bust of Vlad Tepes had not been erected in the citadel and the plaque that marks the house where Vlad was likely born had not been put up.

Now, a vending machine selling soft drinks is outside the building and a modern cafe is inside, where tourists go for lunch. However, in 1965, Sighisoara had nothing to offer foreigners.

I recall going into a toy store to buy a memento for my nephew and the light was so dim that it was hard to make out the items on the shelves. An Australian, who seemed to be well-traveled, was the only one to bring up vampires.

He stated on the coach ride to Sighisoara that this is where Dracula – the real one – was from.

It was only after he spoke about Bram Stoker and Vlad Tepes that I understood he had been drawn to Sighisoara by the belief that the nineteenth-century writer had crafted his fictional villain on the life of the Romanian prince from the Middle Ages.

In 1974, Jeanne made another visit. At this point, the Dracula Fan Club was quite active, so they were able to hire a Romanian tour guide.

Even then, when he was quite young, there was something disturbing about him. Nowadays, he wears Savile Row suits, drives a fancy car, sports an expensive haircut, and wears diamond-studded cufflinks.

However, in 1974, he was a scrawny man in cheap glasses. Every time they mentioned Bram Stoker, he would tell them not to talk about it due to the Romanian regime not wanting the country to be associated with the British novel.

This guide was an agent of that regime, which had oppressed the people for many years, not allowing foreigners, especially Americans, to travel without a chaperone.

To this day, he runs one of the largest tour companies in Romania and strives to stay in the good graces of whoever is in power. It is evident that he relies on the government as well as tourists for his income.

Jeanne said that her last trip to Transylvania was before all the chaos began, and she pointed to a table in her home which was filled with pictures of vendors at Sighisoara selling portraits with fangs of Vlad Tepes.

The Dracula Bazaar located at the bottom of Bran Castle with items such as dolls in black or red capes, coasters, ashtrays, stuffed heads with fangs, wine, postcards of an old man with a hooked nose and sharp teeth looking at a woman whose body was lit by a crescent moon.

And the phrase “thinking of you… from Romania” written in red; and a wide array of T-shirts with Dracula on them; and all sorts of vampire-related items like Drac Snax, VampBites, Candy Fangs and Candy Bats, Count Crunch, Dracula Piller and Pez.

Buncula and many other souvenirs, which looked like flies swarming around the table.

On my second day in Sighișoara, I had to take refuge from the bad weather in the Cafe International, free of Spanish tourists. As I flipped through a Christian magazine, the shop’s only English reading material, I went to its Internet cafe.

A few minutes later, the same small boy I had seen the day before followed me in. He had asked me for money in broken English and I had given him a euro. This time he asked me to give him some lei for a sandwich.

He was accompanied by a middle-aged Romanian man with a laptop. During our conversation, the man said he had worked in the Louvre’s labs studying art preservation. He also told me the boy’s name was Simion and that he was trying to help him become a tour guide in Sighisoara.

He added that Simion was now learning he must work to get money instead of demanding it from visitors.

The rain had ceased and I bade goodbye to Simion and his educator before departing the citadel towards the newer, lower parts of town, where the majority of Sighisoarans reside. I soon stumbled across a makeshift market in an abandoned lot.

On long, cement tables that gave off a sense of suppressed sorrow, merchants and nomads from the surrounding areas had put up their products of apples and potatoes, vegetables, beans, seeds, and unidentified liquids in glass jars.

One man was hawking cheese, another a wooden spoon. There was a female with handmade brooms, and one with woven baskets and painted wooden eggs.

A farmer opened the boot of his vehicle and presented two sheep, lifting them up by their tied feet and placing them for sale on the pavement. I wandered past every stall, wishing to find some unique or genuine item that I could take back home to commemorate this instant.

But everything was strictly utilitarian. Here I was certain I was the only foreigner.

Each item–the cement tables, the farmers’ merchandise, the ancient notes and the new notes being exchanged–appeared to link up with the next to form a stream that stretched forward and backward from that second yet that didn’t attach to me, and that I couldn’t access.

That evening, I had a look at a page in my guidebook that I had not read before. It was about vampires and stated that since 1897, Vlad Tepes has been confused with Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula by Westerners and, recently, by the Romanian tourism trade. Stoker never visited.

Transylvania and wrote most of his Dracula while on holiday in Scotland in Aberdeenshire. It was peculiar that he chose the Borgo Pass of the Carpathian Mountains for the count’s castle, because there never was one there.

Then, in 1983, the faux-medieval Hotel Castle Dracula was constructed as a tourist destination. Although Dracula was translated into many languages after its publication, it was not available in Romanian until 1990.

In the meantime, Transylvanians had been living with vampire Draculas since 1931, when Bela Lugosi’s performance as the count first made Hollywood’s adaptations of the novel popular.

Yet, the guidebook went on to say, the continuous release of vampire films, many of which featured Transylvania and the name Dracula, left Romanians somewhat perplexed.

since the fictional origin of the Dracula-vampire connection was unknown to them without a Romanian version of Stoker’s novel.

Since Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was released, hundreds of movies and plays have been inspired by it. However, the 1970s saw the most introduction of vampire-related media.

Hammer Films unleashed a slew of Dracula-based films, such as The Vampire Lovers, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Lust for a Vampire, Countess Dracula, and Scars of Dracula in the first two years of the decade alone.

During this period, Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, Vampyros Lesbos, Blacula, Son of Dracula (with its tagline of “The First Rock-and-Roll Dracula Movie!”)

Nachts, wenn Dracula erwacht, and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Deafula, Old Dracula, and Doctor Dracula were also released.

In addition, Frank Langella, Jeremy Brett, and David Dukes all starred in stage productions of Dracula between 1977 and 1979, while Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire came out in 1976.

That same year, Varney the Vampyre was republished after being out of print for over one hundred years.

As a result of this widespread cultural presence, the figure of Dracula has become something of a floating mythology, with its elements (Transylvania, the undead, the name Dracula, seduction, and bloodsucking) being widely recognized and referenced.

Even without knowledge of Stoker’s novel. Nowadays, “the Dracula myth” is used to refer to a collection of concepts that are often contradictory.

When Raymond McNally was a young professor of Russian studies at Boston College in the late 1960s, he was inspired by his love of late-night vampire movies to read Bram Stoker’s novel.

He was amazed to find that Transylvania, which he thought was an imaginary region, actually existed. In 1972, McNally and Radu Florescu published the book In Search of Dracula: A True History of Dracula and Vampire Legends, in which they discuss their experiences among

Transylvania’s dark hills and castles. It was here, McNally states, that they discovered Vlad the Impaler, the man who was the original Dracula, the inspirational source for Bram Stoker’s count.

For readers who wanted to take up his research, McNally added an appendix to the book with a guide to Dracula- and Vlad Tepes-related sites.

1973 marked the release of Across Asia on the Cheap, a hand-typed and stapled guidebook created by Tony and Maureen Wheeler at their kitchen table in Sydney, Australia. This book was the first to be published by Lonely Planet, one of the largest producers of travel guides.

In contrast to the traditional format of the Michelin and Baedeker guides, the Wheelers’ publication was intended to satisfy a new type of sightseer that desired to experience the culture they explored.

Lonely Planet guides are now viewed as a reliable source of information, even being used by novelists to add detail to their works. This first book sold 8,500 copies in Australia and the Wheelers’ reach expanded across the rest of Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Other series tried to achieve similar success, yet none did as well. Handwritten signs in English started appearing in hidden inns and hotels, stating “Tony Wheeler slept here”.

As the 1980s unfolded, stories circulated that Tony Wheeler had been killed in a fateful incident, so when the next edition of the guidebook was written by him, readers believed he had returned from the dead.

It was about thirty years ago that the travel agent Eduard Popescu first noticed a new type of visitor in Romania.

According to Eduard, who has worked in the travel industry for decades and wrote to me from the Bucharest office of Medieval Tours, a custom tour company.

Many Americans began to visit Romania during the 1970s, drawn by the vampire movies they were exposed to. Until then, the name Dracula had not been very significant to Romanians, and Prince Vlad was referred to as Vlad Tepes or Vlad III.

The regime of Nicolae Ceausescu even went so far as to promote Vlad Tepes as a national hero. But the tourists were looking for the castle described in the Dracula novels and found it in Bran, a small village in the Carpathians.

This castle became known as “Castle Dracula” despite the fact that Vlad Tepes never lived there. The real castle of Vlad Tepes is now a pile of ruins located hundreds of miles away from Bran in Romania’s Poienari region.

Eduard told me that nowadays, roughly half a million people visit Bran each year, with a notable influx of Americans around Halloween, which is not celebrated in Romania.

Dracula has been a huge asset to Romania’s tourism industry, with millions of international tourists flocking to Transylvania.

Jonathan Harker’s journal entries in the novel Dracula are based on the Romania guidebooks of Stoker’s era which were as popular as Gothic narratives during Victorian England.

Since Stoker never visited Romania himself, he had to rely completely on the accounts of other writers, and Harker’s journals show that.

Harker describes the landscape in a romanticized way and includes the ethnicities he finds in the area, such as Szekelys, Germans, Saxons, and Slovaks; however, the ordinary Romanians are left out.

While discussing Dracula’s plans to travel to England, he expresses his dilemma, the eternal dilemma of a tourist – understanding and loving the foreign land, but never being able to fit in due to being an outsider.

This connects him to the tourist, who is also cut off from history and is unable to be an active participant in it. Both the vampire and the tourist are removed from the passage of time, and neither can differentiate between one particular year or life from the next.

At one point, I thought that when a tour guide had to explain to a foreigner that what they were looking for in Romania was a fiction, something valuable had disappeared from the national heritage.

But then I realized that any tourist is a traveler seeking something that isn’t really there. The people of Sighisoara seem to have comprehended this, and are okay with it. It appears to me like the Romanian guides are alluring the tourists as much as the tourists are appealing to them.

Both sides use the same notorious dates and names, of attractions, misconceptions, and made-up stories.

I think that when the tourists leave, the locals, who are not tour guides, souvenir sellers, or hotel keepers, can have something even more real for themselves that the travelers can not touch. Because if the tourist stands outside of history, then they do not have access to it either.

This is what saves the locals: they can provide the traveler with this false undead version of attractions, monuments, and sites, while keeping the real history to themselves.

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