The Truth About Dracula’s Castle and Other Things I Learned in Romania (and Bulgaria)

Vlad the Impaler (?!)
Vlad the Impaler

“Is it usually so foggy this time of year?”

We rode in a van through the Carpathian Mountains in what was once Transylvania, one of three former kingdoms that now comprise Romania. We had just passed through a gypsy village and more than once had seen a horse and cart on the road carrying logs or hay.

“Yes, usually in the mornings over the farmland,” our driver/tour guide answered. I don’t know why I was surprised. While we had waited for him to pick us up at our Home Away apartment a couple hours earlier, a black cat had loitered a short way ahead of us on the sidewalk. “First we’re going to Peleş Castle and at the end I want you to tell me which you think is better.”

I’ll let you decide for yourself about the castles, and the rest of the highlights of the trip as well. What follows is the rest of our long weekend of sightseeing.

Peleş Castle

Extravagant is the best way to describe the first castle we visited before the main event. It had been commissioned by King Carol I of Romania, who was originally born in Germany. The outer design particularly retains a lot of German style, while the inside is filled with carved wooden wall decorations, Italian marble, a Turkish smoking room, and so on and so on. I imagined this being built after a consultation that went something like, “I have virtually unlimited money and want to showcase my wealth. What can you do for me?” The result was truly gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

Peleş Castle
Peleş Castle

Bran Castle (“Dracula’s Castle”)

The four of us had prepared for this visit by taking turns reading aloud from the opening of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on our balcony in Bucharest on the evening we arrived. Bran Castle, having belonged to Queen Mary for much of its history, is built directly into a foundation of sheer rock. It stoically served as the gateway between the former kingdoms of Transylvania and Wallachia. Compared to Peleş Castle, its unornamented wooden rooms make it look like more of a practical living space.

The truth is that this castle is only loosely tied to the (anyway, fictitious) story of Dracula. It seems that Bram Stoker had at one point visited Bucharest, collected stories from Romanian history and folklore, and spun them into a tale whose tremendous popularity is to blame for a good deal of tourism in this area. The tyrannical Vlad the Impaler’s father was named Vlad Dracul, and the Impaler’s grandfather had owned Bran Castle for a few years after it was given to him as a gift. So the family name Dracul, the briefly owned Transylvanian castle, and Romanian folklore about “strigoi” (vampires that could be warded off with garlic, etc.) has since breathed a new and mysterious life into the scenically located but otherwise ordinary Bran Castle.

Side view of Bran Castle
Side view of Bran Castle
View from Bran Castle
View from the top of the castle
Inside Bram Castle
Rooms inside

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Religion

We visited many churches on this trip as well and learned a lot about religion in Romania. The vast majority of Romanians are Christian Orthodox, with some Catholics in Transylvania and a smaller percentage of other religions. The first thing we noticed in the Christian Orthodox churches was that there are very few seats and that these usually line the walls. That’s because church-goers stand for services. Note: A typical Sunday service is three hours long, while a holiday service can last closer to five hours. Smaller services take place twice a day. And Wednesdays are somewhat important church days too. And Fridays. And we even saw a roadside church where people can take their new cars to be blessed.

Christian Orthodox church
Christian Orthodox church
Paintings outside the entrance
Paintings outside the entrance

In a small town called Braşov we also saw a beautiful historic synagogue. Post-WWII Romania has a small Jewish population as well.

Synagogue in Braşov
Synagogue in Braşov

Bulgaria

We spent the following day with the same guide on a trip to Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria. Bucharest is about an hour from the Bulgarian border and from here we traveled another two hours to this scenic city, crossing the Danube and winding our way through the Balkans. Although both countries are part of the EU, they each still use their own currency and have a toll booth-style customs office you have to pass through on the border. Once in Veliko Tarnovo an older gentleman behind a counter exchanged some Euros for Bulgarian lev (meaning “lion” like the Romanian lei) with a calculator and stacks of money. In the meantime, signs had switched over into the Cyrillic alphabet. Romania had once used this alphabet too but changed over to the Latin alphabet we use, with the addition of many types of accent marks.

Bulgaria has changed hands many times in its history: It was ruled by czars, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire, part of it belonged to Romania, it was under Communist rule, and is currently a democracy. Unlike Romania, it apparently achieved democracy without a revolution. As you can see, we saw a town-enclosing fortress that was rebuilt under Communist rule, a beautiful church hidden inside an ordinary-looking farmhouse, and a Turkish-style (Ottoman Empire period) house.

First glimpse of Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo
First glimpse of Tsaravets Fortress in Veliko Tarnovo
Fortress up close
Fortress up close
Execution rock
Execution rock
Beautifully painted church hidden inside this house
Beautifully painted church hidden inside this house
Konstantsalieva House
Konstantsalieva House
Turkish-style living room inside
Turkish-style living room inside

Bucharest: A City in Transition

Unity Square with The People's House (now Palace of the Parliament) in the distant center
Unity Square with The People’s House (now Palace of the Parliament) in the distant center

Impressions of fear, oppression, and poverty from the not-so-distant past still hang in the air of Romania’s fascinating capital even as it continues to rise into a more optimistic future. James and I traveled here with two of our friends for a long weekend and learned a great deal about Bucharest’s mysterious history from a free city tour guide. It was incredible to hear about the history from someone who was born not so long before the revolution and to see remnants of it up close.

Vlad the Impaler: One of many heroes erected from Romania's history in the 80's
Vlad the Impaler: One of many heroes erected from Romania’s history in the 80’s

Modern-day Bucharest was largely shaped by and in response to its last communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu in the 1980s. He wanted to rebuild the city in larger-than-life proportions, ordering existing buildings to be torn down to make room for his vision: a boulevard a few centimeters wider and longer than the Champs-Élysées, new apartment buildings to hide churches from sight in the main squares, a grandiose palace nicknamed the iceberg for its maze of underground offices and secret tunnels, and so on. Ceauşescu never lived to inhabit the palace near Unity Square that he dubbed “The People’s House.” Michael Jackson was the first person to speak from its balcony after the revolution where he mistakenly referred to the city as Budapest (the capital of Hungary).

Buildings waiting to be restored
Buildings waiting to be restored

Many buildings in the city are being restored, but many still lie in ruins. Under Ceauşescu’s leadership, people were denied ownership of individual property and evacuated from their homes to live in assigned group housing. Over time squatters took over many abandoned properties, ripping up floorboards and lighting fires to keep warm during the winters.

During communist times, everything was also rationed. People waited in long lines for whatever food was available at a particular time and electricity was cut off in homes at 9 p.m. But our tour guide said the worst part was the lack of freedom. People weren’t allowed to express their ideas openly and were unable to trust anyone, including their families. It was even dangerous to express opposing views about the government in front of children because teachers were trained to ask questions to gain this type of information.

Revolution Square
Revolution Square
Memorial of Rebirth (black marks represent communism leaving an impression on Bucharest)
Memorial of Rebirth (black marks represent communism leaving an impression on Bucharest)

In 1989 rumblings of revolution brought Ceauşescu back from a trip to make a televised speech to show the strength of the government. He spoke from a low balcony (strategically filmed to appear much higher) to a crowd that turned on him. This area is now called Revolution Square and is filled with monuments commemorating the revolution. The military ended up joining the people, and Ceauşescu and his wife Elena were caught not long after, brought to trial, and executed by a firing squad.

Bullet holes from '89 still visible near the top of the building on the left
Bullet holes from ’89 still visible near the top of the building on the left

In the five or so days leading up to Ceauşescu’s capture there were many casualties, but not nearly as many as in the week or so during his imprisonment. During that time, the military provided the people with guns and told them that there were terrorists in their midst. Paranoia reigned, and whether it was true or whether there was nothing to fear but fear itself, many people died including many foreign students (Ceauşescu had allies with leaders in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan). Strikingly, we saw a magazine photo of an Iranian student’s body with the word “Terrorist” written on it.

At the end of the tour, we tasted a bland crunchy snack called Pufuleti that our tour said her childhood had been full of. “I don’t know if we’re a real democracy yet,” she said. “I think we’re still in transition.” She gave the rest of the bag of Pufuleti to a man of the street, telling us that she had had enough.

Ads - Pufuleti are at the bottom left
Ads – Pufuleti are at the bottom left
Cișmigiu Gardens
Cișmigiu Gardens

Bier vs. Wein: Welcome to Fall

Prost!
Prost!

When we moved to Germany last fall, some Mainz locals told us that there’s a major difference between Mainz and Wiesbaden (two state capitals divided by the Rhein River): People who love wine live in Mainz. People who love beer live in Wiesbaden. We chose not to resolve this age-old dilemma and ended up moving to the border.

Bier: Cannstatter Volksfest

We kicked off the first official weekend of fall this year with an Oktoberfest-style festival in Stuttgart called the Cannstatter Volksfest. Like most of the crowd, we were decked out in traditional Bavarian gear: Lederhosen with suspenders and a stylish hat for James and a Dirndl (the traditional dress) with a blouse and apron for me. Where the apron bow is tied indicates a lady’s status: right = married, left = single, middle = taken but not married, and back = widow. Many ladies instead wore Lederhosen shorts with a blouse version of the checkered shirt. And I saw at least one man (beard and all) wearing a Dirndl and a blond braided wig.

Cannstatter Volksfest in the tent
Cannstatter Volksfest in the tent

Starting late morning, we enjoyed the first half of the day at one of the big reserved tables inside a circus-y red and white striped tent. The energy of the fest was fueled by a live band playing a mix of traditional German songs and mostly German and American contemporary pop music. After a few Maβ (the big glass mugs) of beer, everyone at our table was up on the long wooden benches singing and dancing along. Interspersed, of course, were trips to the long 50-cent bathroom lines.

Reservation hours ended at 4 p.m. so we moved on to the area outside the tent, filled with the standard festival rides, games, and food stands. The highlight toward the end of the day was, as I’m convinced it should be for all Oktoberfests, riding the roller coaster. Coasting around to view a town from every possible angle at night couldn’t be more loud, brightly lit, terrifying, or exciting by the end of this type of fest.

Fest by night
Fest by night

Wein: Grape Picking and Ingelheimer Red Wine Festival

Last weekend we were in for a totally different kind of experience, this time to develop a deeper appreciation for the wine-making process. From about 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, we toiled in a vineyard under a warm early autumn sun with a set of pruners and a plastic bucket per person. Our task was to snip every bunch of Riesling-to-be grapes in our designated row, the moldier the better in wine terms apparently. Dull thuds followed by dusty clouds of mold rising off the buckets filled the air. We brushed off ladybugs, spiders, leaves, and dry shriveled grapes, standing up frequently to combat backaches and bent knees.

Vineyard at the start of the day
Vineyard at the start of the day
From vine...
From vine…
to bucket...
to bucket…
to tractor
to tractor

In exchange for a hard day’s work, we received three meals put together by the vintner’s wife. The first two were set out on rough wooden picnic tables at the end of the rows: A breakfast of bread, cheeses, cold cuts, and light breakfast wine; and a lunch of roasted pork served with a horseradish sauce, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, and more wine. Back in the vintner’s own dining room, we enjoyed coffee and cake (yes, this is a late afternoon meal here) consisting of Apfelwein cake, chocolate cake made with red wine, and cheesecake. Followed, of course, by a wine tasting of some of the winery’s best. Leave it to a group of Americans to do farm work for the experience and food/wine.

Ingelheimer Rotweinfest
Ingelheimer Rotweinfest

While white wine is the specialty of the Rheinland in general, red wine is the specialty of Ingelheim (a town just west of Mainz). Yesterday we topped off the wine-themed weekend by sampling a couple of glasses to accompany a dinner of Bratwurst, fries, and Magenbrot (iced gingerbread) while listening to live covers of mellow American 90s hits.

Prost and happy fall!