Our journey begins in Sighișoara, birthplace of Vlad Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler. It is a warm, gloomy day in July 2010. My sister Pebby and I pass through the gate under the crumbling 14th century clock tower. The tiny walled city is more hushed than silent. Watchful. Although these days the invaders arrive on tour busses.
The house where Vlad lived until he was four years old is now a restaurant – Casa Dracula. My sister scrutinizes the menu. A waiter comes out and scowls at us. Pebby sets the menu down and we set off in search of friendlier establishments.
Two days later we drive the winding, magnificent Transfăgărăşan highway. Poenari Fortress, Vlad’s real castle, awaits us at the end. Contrary to popular belief, it’s in the province of Wallachia, not Transylvania. It’s nearly impossible to reach by public transport, and I’ve heard that many Romanians aren’t even aware of its existence. With every twist and turn of the road, a migraine digs its claws deeper into my skull.
We round a bend and catch our first glimpse of the castle, which is perched high on a cliff overlooking the Argeș River canyon. It’s 1480 steps straight up to the castle. On a scale of one to ten, my migraine is now an eight. I should be seeking a silent, dark room. But, dammit, I’m at Dracula’s castle. I take a deep breath and begin the ascent.
At the top, we find ourselves totally alone, except for the guard at the ticket booth. I stagger around the ruins, disoriented. The pain drowns out any wonder that I might feel. My sister wanders off on her own, annoyed that I want to stop in Curtea de Argeș for the night instead of driving another three hours of winding road to Brașov.
I spend the eternal night wishing for a swift death. My favorite quote from Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes on a whole new meaning:
No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.
And yes, my migraine dissipates with the breaking dawn. I am weak, but euphoric. Ready to hit the road for Bran Castle, which is on the way to Brașov.
Most tourists only make it to Bran Castle, which is marketed to the masses as Dracula’s Castle. It’s conveniently located a couple of hours from Bucharest and only thirty minutes from Brașov, which is on the main trail for those backpacking across Europe. It is said that Vlad might have attacked the castle in 1460. But this is not certain.
The parking lot is jammed with tour busses. Tourists swarm the entrance. Souvenir vendors beckon us from their wooden stalls. They glare at us when we pass by without stopping. The ticket cashier scolds me for not having exact change. Once inside, we follow behind an American family. The father sneaks up behind his very young sons, grasps their shoulders, and whispers, “Boo!” Pebby and I look at each other and roll our eyes.