A Romanian Experience


In August 1994, I spent two weeks in Romania. Though I am an experienced traveller (having visited over 20 countries in the past 30-plus years), this was my first trip to Romania. That is probably because up until recently, I have never had a particular reason to undertake such a trip. But that changed, as a direct result of my scholarly interest in Dracula. Now before you dismiss me as frivolous, please bear with me while I explain this interest!

I am a professor in the Department of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Having spent several years researching and publishing in the area of Newfoundland literature, several years ago I went back to an earlier passion, British Romanticism. While for most people "Romanticism" means the poetry of Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Keats, the aspect that drew me back was Gothic fiction (which developed side-by-side with Romanticism). Interest in the work of Mary Shelley (author of _Frankenstein_) and John Polidori (author of "The Vampyre" - the first vampire story in English fiction) led me through the Gothic novels of the 19th century and inevitably to Bram Stoker's classic _Dracula_ (published in 1897). That is what I have been working on ever since. I have given several conference papers on the novel, have published a couple of articles, and have much more of the same lined up for the next several months. I am hoping to have a book ready for publication in 1997, the contennial year of _Dracula_. This has become a full-time scholarly pursuit.

My research in _Dracula_ includes, not surprisingly, the historical figure whose name Bram Stoker borrowed for his vampire Count - Vlad Tepes, who, of course, was neither a vampire nor a Count! [I must resist the temptation to expand on the connection, but this is not the purpose of this essay. I am supposed to be writing about my trip to Romania!] Having read a number of historical works about Vlad Tepes, I decided I wanted to travel to Romania to see the sites associated with this 15th century voivode of Wallachia. So, like many other Western tourists who make the trek to Romania, I was drawn by my interest in Dracula. I consider my trip to have been a major success. Not only did I achieve the objectives related to my scholarly interests, I found (hardly to my surprise) that Romania had much much more to offer than Dracula! And I have already made plans for a return visit in 1995.

Before I begin to discuss specific experiences and impressions, I would like to give some background about how I planned the trip and how it was organized. This might help others thinking about travelling to this most interesting country.

I obtained most of my information about travelling to Romania from an agency in New York, Carpati International, Inc. Their representatives were very helpful in providing information about various tour options. As I was travelling alone, I did not want to go entirely "on my own" (eg. renting a car and making my own way around). There would also have been the language barrier, as my knowledge of Romanian was nil. (That is changing, and I now know 4 or 5 phrases!) But neither did I want to go on a "group tour" as I hate feeling I am part of a flock of sheep being herded from one museum to another. And I did not want to be stuck with a bunch of silly tourists to whom "Dracula" means nothing more than a Halloween costume!

Much to my delight, I found the ideal compromise, just right for me. It was an individually escorted tour. I had at my disposal a car (a small station wagon, actually), a driver, and a guide who was completely fluent in English. There was a pre-set itinerary, labelled "In the Footsteps of Dracula"; however, much to my dismay it did not include what should be compulsory for any Dracula tour - a trip to Poenari to see the ruins of the fortification of Vlad Tepes on the Arges River. But I was able to have this side-trip added as an extension to the itinerary.

So, my trip was set out as follows: Bucharest, Tirgoviste, Sinaia, Brasov, Poiana Brasov, Sighisoara, Tirgu Mures, Bistrita, the Painted Monasteries of Moldavia, Bicaz Gorges, Lacu Rosu, Brasov (return visit), Sibiu, Cozia, Curtea de Arges, Poenari, Ploesti, Bucharest.

Before I left on the trip, I posted a few questions to the newsgroup soc.culture.romanian and received a number of very useful suggestions. As for the trip itself, while my overall impressions were positive, there were a few negatives. I will try to give as balanced a view as I can of the experience, and maybe even offer some suggestions as to how things might be improved for future visitors.

Much of my time during my first visit to Romania in August 1994 was spent visiting sites associated with Vlad Tepes, whose nickname "Dracula" Irish author Bram Stoker appropriated for his famous vampire Count. Stoker found the name "Dracula" in a book written in 1820 by William Wilkinson entitled _An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia_ in which there was a brief reference to a Wallachian voivode named Dracula who drove the Turks out of his homeland. It does not appear that Stoker knew very much about the historical Dracula; he just seems to have been attracted to the name. Certainly the Dracula of his novel bears very little resemblance to the Dracula of history. But because the connection is there, many scholars of Stoker's literary work are interested in the historical figure that provided the name.

Before travelling to Romania, I had read four books on Vlad Tepes: three by Radu Florescu & Raymond McNally ("In Search of Dracula", "Dracula: A Biograpghy of Vlad the Impaler" and "Dracula: Prince of Many Faces"); and a collection of essays edited by Kurt Treptow (most of them written by Romanian scholars) entitled "Dracula: the Life and Times of Vlad Tepes". So I was well versed in 15th century Romanian history before visiting the country.

Cozia and Sighisoara.

I am going to describe my visits to the historical sites, not in the order in which I actually visited them, but in their order of chronological significance. Let me begin with the monastery at Cozia located in the Olt valley on the highway that leads south from Sibiu through the Carpathians to Rimnicu Vilcea. This monastery interested me because of its connection with Mircea the Old. Built in the 14th century, it contains both a fresco and the tomb of Mircea, the grandfather of Vlad Tepes and an important ruler in his own right. Like so many of the Wallachian voivodes, Mircea expended much time and energy defending his homeland against the Turkish Empire. He died in 1418. The monastery itself, like so many of the monasteries of Romania, is well worth a visit.

Even more interesting for me was the visit to Sighisoara, a Transylvanian town which has a very well preserved medieval citadel. In its main square is the house in which Vlad Tepes is believed to have been born. His father, Vlad Dracul, lived in Sighisoara from 1431-35 while serving as military governor of Transylvania. No portraits of Vlad Dracul exist, but when work was taking place on restoring the interior walls of his house ("Casa Vlad Dracul"), a piece of a mural was discovered containing what 15th century scholars believe is a likeness of Vlad Dracul. This can be seen today by anyone visiting the house, the second floor of which now contains a restaurant. The exterior of the house is marked with a plaque, identifying it as the residence of Vlad Dracul. By the way, there is a consensus among historians that Vlad used the name "Dracul" after he was invested into the Order of the Dragon by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, probably in 1431.

Vlad Dracul's son, later to be known as Vlad Tepes, was born in this house in 1431 and spent the first years of his life in Sighisoara. Later when he became voivode of Wallachia, he established his capital at Tirgoviste, the next place I wish to mention. Because of limited time, the only site I saw in Tirgoviste was the ruined princely palace. [I am going back there in late May and hope to see more of the city]. Near the ruins is a statue of Vlad Tepes, one of many indications of his importance as a figure in Romanian history. The ruins itself are quite interesting. I am one of those people who like ruins better than totally restored historic sites. One gets much more of a sense of the historical reality, in my opinion. These ruins are no exception. Many of the stories about Vlad Tepes and his atrocities centre on Tirgoviste. One has to keep in mind, however, that many of these stories come from late 15th and early 16th century pamphlets that can hardly be considered objective. Anti-Vlad propaganda was in abundance. However, there is general agreement that Vlad was a harsh and sometimes cruel leader; the disagreement exists over whether or not his actions can be justified in the context of the time and circumstances. I will not go into that subject here, as it is too detailed and a bit off the topic. But it interests me considerably.

As many Romanians are well aware, Romanian history rarely, if ever, uses the name "Dracula" in reference to Vlad Tepes. However, some of the early pamphlets (German) do refer to him as "Dracole", and on at least one occasion he signed a document with the variant "Drakulya". And he is called "Dracula" in the book which was read by Bram Stoker! Associating "Dracula" with vampires is, of course, the work of Bram Stoker, as there is no such connection made in the historical documents. Dracula as a vampire is entirely a Western construct.

Bran, Curtea de Arges, Poenari, and Snagov.

I'll start with Bran Castle, located in the village of Bran not far from the Transylvanian city of Brasov (more about Brasov later). Actually, Bran Castle has very little connection with Vlad Tepes, who may have stayed there occasionally as he was travelling between Tirgoviste and Brasov. But for some reason, for many years Bran Castle has been presented to tourists as "Dracula's Castle". I have seen numerous notations to this effect in various travel brochures. In fact, this deception is probably my strongest criticism of Romanian tourist literature (more about that later). Even though Bran can hardly be called "Dracula's Castle", it is a most impressive site, and definitely worth a visit. And it was the only place in Romania where I was able to find any Vlad Tepes souvenirs!

On the way to the actual "Dracula's Castle", we passed through Curtea de Arges, an interesting town with fortifications dating back to the 13th century and the times of Basarab I. Curtea de Arges also has a magnificent monastery (16th century), one of the most impressive I have ever seen.

Travelling north of Curtea de Arges, along the Arges River, we finally reached the base of the the mountain on which Vlad Tepes built his famous fortress (Poenari). In order to reach this fortress, one has to climb approximately 1500 steps. It took me over an hour (but then, I am not as young as I used to be), but the climb was well worth it. As you approach the top (about 50 steps or so) the scene is awesome. There is the outline of the castle perched on the top of a rocky outcrop, seeming to grow out of the mountain itself. The fortress covers the full space at the top of the outcrop, has sheer drops on all sides, and is accessible only by crossing a very narrow (and, thankfully, short!) bridge. The view from the top is magnificent, and certainly must have given Prince Vlad a commanding view of approaching enemies.

According to available historical accounts, the structure was built by the boyars of Tirgoviste, who Vlad believed had betrayed him. As punishment, he had them captured while they were enjoying an Easter feast (in 1459) and forced them to march to Poenari and construct the edifice. There are many legends associated with the Poenari fortress (referred to now by many as "Castle Dracula", as a result of the books of Florescu & McNally). Some of these legends still survive in the folk tales of the villages in the area (eg. Arefu). When I return to Romania in late May, I will have the opportunity to visit this village and hear some of these legends. Folklore is, in many respects, just as interesting as history!

Not far from the base of the Poenari mountain, in the village of Corbeni, there is a monument to Vlad Tepes, one of many indications of the place that he still holds in Romanian history. There was also a bust of Vlad in the city of Tirgoviste (not far from the palace ruins) as well as one in the foyer of the National History Museum in Bucharest (which also contains a room devoted to the period when Vlad was voivode of Wallachia). Westerners who are interested in Vlad only as the precursor of Stoker's Count Dracula often fail to realize the significance of Vlad Tepes in the history of his country, not only because of his struggles against the Turks but also his role as founder of the city of Bucharest.

Not far from Bucharest is the island monastery of Snagov, traditionally held to be the burial site of Vlad Tepes. There is still a mystery about the location of Vlad's remains, as excavations at Snagov in the early 1930s failed to discover his grave. But officially, Snagov Monastery is listed as the site.

Brasov, Poiana Brasov, Sibiu, Moldavia, Suceava and Bucharest.

My time in Brasov, located at the foot of the Carpathians, was unfortunately brief. It is one place where I would like to spend more time. I did have an opportunity to visit the famous "Black Church", a magnificent building in the German Gothic style. It is of considerable historic significance. Started in the 14th century, almost destroyed during a Turkish invasion, it was finally completed in the late 15th century. Most impressive are its Gothic naves , its outer buttresses and its magnificent organ (4000 pipes). It derives the name "Black" from the fact that its external walls were blackened by a fire in 1689. This building is a "must-see" for anyone visiting Brasov. Something else that interested me in this church was an old map of Transylvania (dating back to the 16th century) which is on display in the church museum.

I had only a morning in Brasov so there are many things I did not see. I did have an opportunity to walk around the older part of the city (it was a beautiful sunny day that day) and I particularly enjoyed the pedestrian mall (can't recall what it is named) which is not too far from the Black Church. And there is a magnificent view of Brasov to be had from the side of the road which leads to Poiana Brasov. A scenic look-out provides an incredible panorama of the old city of Brasov with Timpa Hill in the background and the newer sections of the city in the distance.

Poiana Brasov, just a few miles away, is also worth a visit because of its magnificemt scenery. A well-known ski resort, it is tucked in the mountains and is a wonderful place to go and relax in the midst of the beauties of nature. And at night I was able to take in some musical entertainment with a visit to the Outlaw's Hut for an evening of traditional Romanian food and music.

Sibiu is another Transylvanian city with a strong Germanic influence, including another magnificent Gothic church (I must admit that I have a strong affinity for Gothic architecture). Again, this church has a most impressive interior, including an organ (with 6000 pipes this time!) Also visited the Brukenthal Museum and walked around the main Square in the centre of town. Sibiu is another city that I would like to spend more time in! [It also has a Vlad Tepes connection: not only did Vlad spend some time there, but his son - Mihnea - was assassinated outside the Evangelical Church and is buried in its vault.]

A highlight of my trip was a day spent in Moldavia, visiting three of the Painted Monasteries. The drive into Moldavia was beautiful. We left the city of Bistrita and drove through the "Borgo Pass" (made famous in Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula") and on into Moldavia. This is a most scenic drive. The first monastery I saw was Voronet, built in the late 15th century by Stephen the Great to fulfil a promise he made if God would grant him victory in battle. He fulfilled this promise in 1488. What distinguishes Voronet and several other similar monasteries is that they are painted on the outside in a most elegant and decorative style. One has to see these to fully appreciate their beauty. They are unique and are certainly one of Romania's leading tourist attractions. I also visited the monasteries at Sucevita and Moldovita (and there are others as well!)

After visiting the monasteries I spent a short time in the city of Suceava, just long enough to see the ruins of the fortification of Stephen the Great, before travelling on to Piatra-Neamt where we spent the night. Next day we headed back towards Brasov via the Bicaz Gorge. This was an absolute delight. I got out of the car at the base of the mountain (at the narrowest point of the gorge) and after buying a few souvenirs at the stalls set up on the roadside for tourists, I walked up-hill all the way to Lacu Rosu. The fresh air was wonderful!

The last place I want to write about (for now) is Bucharest. I had three days in the capital city, so was able to see most of the major tourist attractions. I spent quite a bit of time just walking around the city (I love to walk and the weather was most cooperative). Let me just mention the two things I enjoyed most in Bucharest. One was a visit to the National History Museum. This is an excellent museum, and covers the whole range of Romanian history from the earliest times to the present. Far too much to see in one afternoon, but I did my best. I was delighted to find a room devoted to 15th century Wallachia ("Tara Romaneasca in Timpu lui Vlad Tepes") which came as a surprise to me as I didn't know it was there. I also enjoyed the artifacts and columns that survive from the Dacian period. I will make a return visit there, I am sure! The other place I especially enjoyed was the Village Museum on the outskirts of Bucharest. It is a display of houses (reconstructed from dismantled originals) representing traditional living quarters in different parts of the country.

That concludes a synopsis of the places I visited during August 1994.


I have travelled quite extensively during my lifetime, having visited over 25 countries, but my two trips to Romania have been by far the most memorable. Now I realize that part of this can be attributed to the enthusiasm I have for Dracula studies, both as a scholar and an aficionado. In fact, I probably would never have even thought of going to Romania were it not for this particular interest. So, in spite of the reservations that many Romanians have about promoting their country as "Draculand", there is some merit in taking advantage of this "unnatural" resource! (More on the pros and cons of this later.)

Romania has much to offer the tourist. First of all, there is the natural beauty of many parts of the country. Now, I did not visit all of Romania so if I leave out a particular area, please forgive me. I write only about what I have experienced firsthand. The scenery around Poiana Brasov (in fact, in that whole region) is quite impressive; the area is well known as a popular ski resort and I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the autumn and the winter months. Equally impressive is the scenery in the Eastern Carpathians, especially the Bicaz Gorge area, another popular spot for tourists. But the most spectacular of all (in my opinion) was the area around the fortress at Poienari (the short stretch between the villages at the base of Poienari and the power dam). It was one of the few times in my travels that the scenery rendered me speechless (anyone who knows me realizes that rarely does anything leave me speechless!) Again, I am sure that part of it was the fascination that comes from a sense of history, but even without that, the scene is awesome. I would rank driving through the Arges gorge right up there with standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon as one of the Great Moments of my life. The same can be said for the view from the Poienari fortress itself. But in this case, I am sure it was more a sense of history that affected my response.

Now as for that sense of history, that is something else that Romania has going for it. Starting with Bucharest, the National History Museum is, in my opinion, quite impressive. And a fine sense of balance is achieved with the Village Museum and its attempt to preserve original structures.

But then, one could say, every major city has its museums and in this respect Bucharest is not unique. But what IS unique, and should be promoted as much as possible, are the Painted Monasteries in Moldavia. These have to be seen to be believed. I saw a few of them but my favorite was the one at Voronet. I could go on and on about specific sites (but I have covered them in my earlier articles). For anyone interested in late medieval history, the citadel at Sighisoara and the ruins of the fortifications at Suceava are rewarding visits. If anyone is interested in churches (and their architecture), Romania has quite a variety, ranging from the Gothic to the Byzantine, from the Black Church in Brasov and the Evangelical church in Sibiu to the monasteries at Curtea de Arges and Cozia.

Suffice to say that Romania has a sufficient number of sites to make it an attractive destination for tourists.

I found the Romanian people very hospitable and warm, especially once one gets outside of Bucharest. (People in Bucharest seem much the same as people in any large city, going about their daily tasks with not too much concern for or interest in strangers). Now my experience with the inhabitants in rural areas was somewhat limited, but those I did meet (for example in the village of Arefu north of Curtea de Arges) went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

But beautiful scenery, historic sites and friendly people are not enough to make a successful tourist industry. Most tourists want - and expect - at least an adequate level of service and accommodations. This is where Romania is sadly lacking. If the country is serious about attracting more tourists, then the country is going to have to address a number of matters. First and foremost, there must be more (and better) accommodations. Outside of a few quite adewuate hotels in Bucharest (which are, by Romanian standards, very over-priced) and a couple of others (such as the Alpin in Poiana Brasov), the hotels are below standard.

Some members of our group in May ended up at a hotel that has no hot water and no electricity. A friend of mine literally had to grope her way to her room (quite late at night) without the aid of a single light. This is not at all acceptable. Standards need to be set and, more importantly, adhered to. Another thing that is often absent is a sense of service. Check-ins at some hotels were excruciatingly slow, waitresses and waiters at restaurants at times were hardly aware of customers.

And I must add this - Bucharest needs to do something about air pollution!

Romania lacks the infrastructure for a fully developed tourist industry. Of course, many Romanians are fully aware of this. An article in "Capital" (Bucharest, June 1) drew attention to this very problem. The interest on the part of tourists is increasing but is the country ready for the predicted influx? This must be addressed.

I have not addressed here the arguments for and against promoting one's country as a tourist attraction. Such promotion, if done successfully and if backed up by acceptable facilities, can of course bring economic dividends. These, however, come at a cost. Crowds of camera-toting North American tourists flocking to every nook and cranny! Dracula- hunters by the thousands! With the good comes the bad. Some see tourism as an invitation to crass exploitation of a country's history and cultural heritage. Dracula - Disney-style!! My own views on this are somewhat ambivalent. I would be most interested in discussing this matter with anyone who would care to contact me privately.

I want to end this on a personal note. As I said earlier, I would never have gone to Romania had it not been for my fascination with Dracula (please do not automatically dismiss such interests as frivolous). Now, having been to Romania twice, my interest has expanded far beyond this. I know that I will return again. In fact, I am already planning a trip for late April of 1996.

I hope that those of you who read this have found it interesting. I would enjoy receiving any feedback that you might wish to provide. (emiller@morgan.ucs.mun.ca)

Author: Elizabeth Miller, Professor of English, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada


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