Long before “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries,” and “Interview with the Vampire,” there was “Dracula.” Bram Stoker’s 19th-century novel about a vampire count is considered as the basis for modern vampire fiction.
While Stoker’s classic draws on folklore and myth, its character was inspired by a real person who lived in 15th-century Romania—Vlad Dracula or Vlad III Dracul, who ruled what was once the province of Wallachia in the mid-1400s. He was also dubbed Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) because he impaled his enemies.
Vlad Dracula was born in the city of Sighisoara, located in the historical region of Transylvania, which became associated with vampires because of Stoker’s novel. Count Dracula was from Transylvania and wanted to move to England.
Sighisoara (pronounced seeg-hee-swah-ra) was one of the cities I happened to visit during my recent European holiday.
My high school friend, Mari-an Santos, was taking a masters course in Romania, so I decided to include it in my itinerary. (I also met up with two other high school classmates, one who now resides in London and another who happened to be on a business trip in Dresden.)
Romania is considered one of the most beautiful countries in Central Europe, with many well-preserved medieval towns, among them Sighisoara and Sibiu, where Mari-an was based. Both Sibiu and Sighisoara are located in Transylvania, and about four hours from the capital, Bucharest.
More about Sighisoara later; first, let me tell you about Sibiu, or Hermannstadt in German. The place looks like it has been frozen in time, forgotten by time, but it has a lot to offer. It has an interesting nightlife, and nearly all the pubs and restaurants have free wi-fi! Or you can just hang out at the Piata Mare (big plaza) and people-watch.
I stayed in Casa Baciu, a three-star pension in the old part of the city. My room was big, and Mari-an didn’t need much convincing to take a “vacation” from her dorm and accompany me.
Walking is the best way to discover Sibiu, according to Mari-an. Her first advice: Ditch those heels! During my three days in Romania, we strolled along cobblestone streets and narrow pathways, with Mari-an talking about the place like a local. We walked up and down the steps leading to Piata Mare several times, and each time I took pictures. I love the Old World feel!
Among the other places she took me were an Orthodox cathedral with a horizontal-stripe design, the Piata Mica (small square) and its bars, and the Council Tower, which we climbed all the way to the top for a view of the entire city.
We had refreshments in a café called Haller (yes, that’s right) and dinner at a restaurant called Hermania, where a violinist, Dan I. Balasoiu, serenaded guests. It’s a bit odd that some bars there don’t sell any food. You get a menu with all sorts of drinks but nothing to nibble on, not chips or peanuts.
Hoping that I would out-sing her friends, Mari-an dragged me to a karaoke place. I was game, but unfortunately (or fortunately!) they didn’t have the song I wanted to sing (and which, I don’t mind saying, I’d been practicing—Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You”).
As intermission between karaoke singers, the DJ played mostly traditional Romanian songs to which everyone sang along and danced or head-banged to. Can you imagine rockin’ it out with “Bahay Kubo” or “Ati Cu Pung Singsing” at Red Box?!
There are lots of remnants of the Saxon colonial settlements, from the churches to the fortresses to the names of places. On my first full day, Mari-an and I and some of her friends joined a group tour to the towns of Cisnadie and Cisnadioara, former Saxon strongholds. One of our stops was an old church that also served as a watchtower.
Bridge of Lies
It was evening when we returned to Sibiu. On the way to the pension, we passed the Bridge of Lies, built in 1859. It is supposed to have gotten its name because of the tall tales told by hawkers and hagglers in the area. Now it is said that if you tell a lie while standing on the bridge, it will collapse under your feet. I behaved like a good girl.
Finally, my third day in Romania was “Dracula day.” It was a hot day—38 degreee Celsius in one of the towns we passed—on the hour-and-a-half trip to Sighisoara by bus, which had air-con blowing ever so gently.
Now don’t think that Sighisoara is only known for Dracula. It is tourist destination for other reasons, one of which is that it’s a well-preserved walled old town. It was founded in the 12th century, Transylvanian Saxons, mostly merchants and craftsmen. There are still a few artists in the area. I bought a pretty watercolor painting of a street scene by a local artist, Nicolai Ioan, with whom I had my picture taken.
Of course, Sighisoara is best known for Vlad Dracula. No, he was not a blood-sucking-bat-turning-undead count, but a prince who earned a reputation for extreme brutality against enemies.
Also known as Vlad III, he was a son of Vlad II Dracul, who was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a union of Eastern and Central European rulers. As the son, he was called Vlad Dracula, “son of the dragon.”
Father and son repulsed the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t want to go into historical details. What’s interesting to note is that in the Romanian language, “dracul” means both dragon and devil.
Mari-an and I had a game plan. We were going up the Clock Tower first, but were disappointed to find it closed at 3:30 p.m. We had missed it by 30 minutes!
At the foot of the tower is the Torture Room, where instruments used on prisoners during the Middle Ages are displayed. That would’ve been interesting to see!
A few paces from the Clock Tower was the house where Vlad Tepes lived as a boy in the early 1430’s. It is now the Restaurant Casa Vlad Dracul, which also houses the Museum of Weapons.
We hung out on the café on the first floor and ordered Dracula Iced Tea (really, just raspberry-flavored tea) and a tuna sandwich.
Before we continued with our tour of the little plaza, we went to the ladies’ room located on the second floor of the restaurant. There was a bust of Vlad Tepes, a display case of what looked like implements of torture, and a mural of the walled town of Sighisoara and its most famous resident.
Church on the Hill
Mari-an and I took our sweet time at the restaurant, so that we nearly didn’t make it inside our next stop, the Church on the Hill, another site tourists visit for its 500-year-old frescoes.
I was thinking then, it’s hard enough to get people to go to church without having to “punish” them by making them climb endless stairs, tsk, tsk. Still, up the covered stairway we went—175 steps!—stopping every now and then to catch our breath and take pictures.
By the time we got to the top, my heart was ready to explode. We only had about five minutes to look around before closing time, but Mari-an managed to charm the husband-and-wife team at the doorway by pleading in Romanian.
More than Marian, I thanked the Holy Spirit that we were able to enter. See, at this particular church, there is a fresco of the Holy Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is female!
When Mari-an asked the man at the doorway where this female Holy Spirit was, his face lit up as he asked if we were Catholic. He was surprised that we’d known about the fresco. He said that most Asians who visited weren’t interested and looked only at the architecture. Funny, I don’t remember now if he told us why the Holy Spirit was female.
We weren’t allowed to take photos inside. There were postcards for sale, however, and I bought a few of the Holy Trinity image. I know a few ladies who’d appreciate something like this.
From Dracula to the Holy Spirit—you could say that was quite a range of experiences for one day, and in just one city.
Prior to my visit, I knew little about Romania except for the gymnast Nadia Comaneci and her perfect 10 score at the 1976 Olympics. Whatever Mari-an’s reason for choosing to study there, I’m glad she did.