When thinking of Romania first thing that comes to mind is track suit wearing coaches screaming abuse at small yet ridiculously muscular women whilst they somersault over the gymnasium floor.... and vampires. Now whilst we didn't go to a gymnasium to spot the first, we did make it to Transylvania to search for some pale faced, night dwellers with wicked overbites. Whilst again we sadly failed at finding any vampires we did manage to learn a lot about the true Dracula story and even have some unexpected Romanian experiences.
Our first stop took us to the small little town of Sighisoara, where coincidentally the Dracula story begins. Now for you Blade,Twilight & The Count fans out there I know this might be a little hard to hear but vampires don't actually exist! I know its a little hard to hear but don't blame me, blame Hollywood. The real story, which in fact is a little more gruesome, is about a man called Vlad III Dracula, who had an almost border line obsession with impaling people.
Born in Sighisoara, Vlad III was the middle son to the then prince of Wallachia, Vlad II Dracul. Dracul was the title giving to Vald III father when he entered the sacred order of the knights called 'Order of the Dragon', who's sole purpose was to up hold Christianity and defend against the Turks. During that time Wallachia was in the middle of the firing lines between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottomans. Trying to stay neutral to both parties, Vlad II was eventually forced to pay tribute to the Ottoman sultan due to their seemingly unstoppable power. Eventually however, the Turks were defeated, but due to Vlads II alliance the Hungarians forced him out of his seat and to flee Wallachina. A year later, with the help of the Turks, Vlad II won back his throne with the condition of sending his 2 youngest sons to the Sultan as hostages. For a while everything was peaceful, however eventually the Hungarians decided to launch the Varna Crusade in an effort to drive the Turks out of Europe. The leader of the crusade enquired the help of Vlad II reminding him of his oath with the 'Order of the Dragon'. Fearful for his 2 hostaged sons, Vlad II set his eldest son in his place. The Hungarians did not succeed in their campaign and bitter with Vlad II's lack of participation the Hungarian ruler had him and his eldest brutally assassinated.
During all this Vlad III and his younger brother were being educated in both Turkish literature and warfare. Upon hearing about his fathers death, the Turk's released the then 17 Vlad III, supporting him as their candidate for the Wallachian throne. His initial seize of the throne only lasted 2 months, with the Hungarians taking back the seat, at which time the young Vlad III went into exile. Unhappy with the new Wallachian ruler, who also eventually sided with the Turks, the Hungarians sort out Vlad III for a possible treaty. With his knowledge of the Ottoman Empire the Hungarians used Vlad III as an advisor and in 1456 they invaded the Turkish ruled lands and Vlad III once again reclaimed his seat in Wallachia. For the next 6 years Vlad III held his throne, fixing the destroyed Wallachia and making a name for himself through his numerous acts of impalement. It is said that his first order of impalement was a group of boyars and their families who were believed to be involved in the assassination of his father and brother. He believed many of the leading nobles were the cause of all the strife in the area and overthrowing the previous leaders, so many if not all were impaled and replaced with middle class and pleasent who would be loyal to their new prince. No one was spared from Dracula's attentions, from 20000 Turkish prisoners to local Transylvanian's both men, women and child, if you did not obey you were likely to be impaled. But impalement wasnt the only method of choice for Vlad the Impaler, he was also known to have nails in heads, cutting off of limbs, blinding, strangulation, burning, cutting off of noses and ears, mutilation of sexual organs (especially in the case of women), scalping, skinning, exposure to the elements or to wild animals, and burning alive. Obviously this drove fear into the heart of Vlad's enemies and countrymen, but he also achieved his goal into returning order to Wallachia. It is said that Vlad was so confident with his laws that he put a golden cup in the center square of his castle and that for his entire reign it was never touched.
Whilst he experienced much success at fending off the Turk's, in 1462 he was eventually over run and was forced to flee. Appealing to the King of Hungary for help, he was immediately arrested for the crimes he had committed. It's a little unsure as to how long Vlad was imprisoned however he was eventually released on the conditions of renouncing Orthodox for Catholicism and wedding a member of the royal family. In 1476, Vlad Dracula along with the Prince of Transylvania returned to Wallachia in force and once again took back the area. However soon after winnings back his throne, the prince and most of Vlad's host left leaving him very vulnerable to another Turkish attack. With less then 4000 men Vlad led his troops out to face the massive host only to be defeated and killed. His head was apparently removed from his body and sent to the Sultan to be displayed on a stake in proof that he was finally dead.
Now I know some of you are probably thinking 'but what about that eerie gothic castle that's always in the vampire movies?' 'Dracula's Castle' or Bran Castle as its actually called, was just the setting to the famous Bram Stroker's novel 'Dracula'. Historically the castle has little connection to the 'real' Dracula, with records showing that he may of stayed there a couple of time in passing. Now days the castle and its grounds is set up as a museum showcasing the history behind the actual castle and explaining the difference between Dracula the man and the myth.
One unexpected surprise that we managed to experience during our time in Romania, was to go see some bears. Just north of Bran, near the little town of Zarnesti, is host to over 60 bears who have all been rescued from various parts of the country. Established in 2005, the 27 hectare sanctuary contains numerous fresh water pools, hibernation dens and hundreds of tress with lush natural vegetation for the bears to live a semi normal life. Sadly as most of the bears have been raised in cages with human contact, they will never leave the sanctuary due to their lack of natural survival skill. However with the excellent facilities at the Libearty Bear Sancutary they can at least live out the rest of their days in a peaceful safe environment.
As most of you already know my interest in all things medieval has taken us to some pretty interesting castles and museums. However after talking to some friends of ours I realised that I have been missing out on one crucial thing... medieval dress ups! Most of the places we have visited have had all the garb on display although the 'do not touch' sign has always been that invisable barrier keeping me away from my ultimate goal. But this was all to change in Romania. Whilst walking around Bran, Louise's noticed an advertisement displaying a medieval festival not to far away. So the next day, we cruised on down to the old medieval town of Fagaras to find hoards of locals preparing themselves for an awesome weekend of entertainment. Whilst the castle, which the festival encompassed, was a little run down the festival itself contained numerous actives, demonstrations, shops, exciting food and best of all MEDIEVAL DRESS UPS!!!!!!! I was literally so happy I almost wet my chain mail. Even though our Romanian was a little rusty I managed to communicate with one of the 'knights' who helped me don on my armor before posing for some pretty snazzy shots. With my mission accomplished my new medieval friend even added in a special supprise by teaching me some archery. Whilst I may not be good enough yet to fire arrows from horse back, I'm pretty good at maiming bales of hay.
Of course a post about a country would not be complete without a little blurb about food. With no real expectation we entered Romania with an open mind and an empty stomach, and to our delight we were never left unsatisfied. Much like the rest of the Baltic region your plate is always full of meat and carbs, but in Romania instead of potatoes, polenta seems to be the main substitute. Like everywhere else traditional food is first on our list when it comes to ordering and during our time we managed to scoff down numerous plates of sarmalute cu mamaliguta (boiled meat rolled in cabbage) , Romanian goulash, Māmāligā (polenta topped with sour cream and cheese) and assortments of grilled meats with pickles. Not only did it all taste great, but the plates even seemed to smile back at us.