Halloween In Transylvania – Tour For Singles

We led our largest group ever on a vampire vacation to a land that time forgot. Romania isn’t a top tourist destination, but it was delightfully surprising to discover the unique culture and natural wonders in this undiscovered part of Europe.

We set out to follow the footsteps of Bram Stokers gothic novel “Dracula.” Our itinerary was a mixture of educational history and spooky fun to celebrate a Halloween never to be forgotten.

It’s ironic that Romanian’s don’t celebrate this holiday in a land so rich in folklore and legends. For us Americans, that was the draw as our group swelled to 67 singles with 140 suitcases in tow. We had two coaches and two excellent guides named Hunor and Radu who were with us 24/7 throughout.

On arrival into Bucharest, we went to the Count Dracula Club for a welcome dinner. It was a uniquely themed restaurant with medieval rooms and a visit by the Count himself.

Our menu presented a Van Helsing platter of assorted meats and cheeses along with “blood wine.” The entrees were fried chicken breast shaped remarkably like a rat with anatomical designed eyes, ears and tail.

Day 1- We toured the capital city which had greatly changed from my last visit years ago as they now strive to blend the old with the new.

Under the yoke of communism for 46 years, it was a broken city but now restoring itself with new cafes, boutiques, hotels and casinos. Some refer to it as the “Little Paris of the Balkans.”

After touring the outdoor Village Museum. We viewed the Parliament House which is the second largest building in the world and took 20,000 men to build it. It was erected by the paranoid and near mad dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from his megalomania ideals.

He bulldozed entire neighborhoods and historic districts to make room for this monstrosity that now sits empty. It is a thorn in the side for Bucharest’s 3 million people.

Most meals were included on this trip. This evening we had a festive dinner at the lakeside Pescarus Restaurant. The typical menu included stuffed cabbage, polenta, meats and a desert to die for called pappanash 2 giant fresh baked donuts smothered in fresh sour cream and jam.

Our meal was served under the backdrop of a folk music band and costumed dancers. The entertainment was brilliant.

Day 2- We headed out through the Olt Valley to Transylvania. We toured Cozia Monastery with it’s beautiful frescos and tomb of Vlad’s grandfather.

The setting was postcard perfect in a land of lakes, plum orchards and lush forests that now draped the hills with an explosion of golden autumn colors. We journeyed on into the Carpathian Mountains where 6,000 brown bears reside.

We toured the charming town of Sibiu established in 1192 by German colonists. Inside the fortified walls were cobbled lanes and gabled houses that looked like old Nuremberg.

It was amazing how it all resisted the ravages of time. Walking the Old Square and Liars Bridge, we learned the history of the Saxon’s and Hungarian influence here.

At night we visited the little shepherd village of Sibiel, toured the glass Icon Museum and took a graveyard walk under the stars.

There is a graveyard here where the carvers of tombstones were free to write whatever they chose without protest. For example some epitaphs read “This man was a beggar and thief” or “This man died from drinking too much.”

Our special dinner was arranged at a farmer’s house where the family cooked for two days in their tiny kitchen to receive us all. It was delicious traditional fare of homemade and organic pork, apples, eggplant, beans, sweet local wine and plenty of plum brandy.

Transylvania is Romania’s heart between the mountains with a population of 5 million and boasts a rich heritage.

We learned about the gypsies who migrated here from northern India 1000 years ago. There’s great mystique about these Bohemian nomads because they have no written historic documents.

They call themselves Romani meaning human beings and they avoid being legal citizens of any land. They have unique tribal customs. Most are craftsmen that use only primitive hand tools and are renowned to be great musicians though they don’t read music.

We may know of their reputation for stealing, but to the gypsy they look at everything as community property. Whatever opinions are correct, all agree that they are masters of survival.

Along the way we also learned about Prince Vlad Tepes III, aka Dracula. Born in 1431, he later ruled the Valachia region here. He was strikingly handsome.

Due to the way he punished his enemies, he received nicknames like Dracul meaning devil and The Impaler. He had to protect the land from invading Turks and Tartans.

When the Turks refused to remove their turbans, he simply nailed it into their heads. Cruelty was common in the Middle Ages, but Vlad’s ways were the ultimate. He would decapitate people and post heads along roads like sign posts and would boil people alive.

His favorite punishment was impalement. Here he would insert a wooden stake into the rectum up to the shoulder blade painstakingly to avoid all major organs. Slowly these poor souls would writhe in pain until death some 48 hours later.

Hundreds were impaled at a time and posted looking like a forest of humans on a stick. It was physiological warfare at its best as it drove fear into the hearts of all his enemies.

In saving the land from invaders, he became a hero for the Romanians. Contrary to the novel, he was bloodthirsty, but not a vampire. Rumors spread that he drank blood and ate human organs.

This led to led to the fictional idea of vampirism. Vlad died at age 40. No one is sure how or where his headless body is buried. Perhaps he didn’t die?

Day 4- Like on safari, we change hotels each night. The rooms are spartan but clean. It’s a bit of a shock for my first timers abroad.

As we travel deep into the southern Carpathians, we pass the prison town of Gerla, the factories of Alba Lullia and salt mines of Turda which look Third World.

We stayed in Cluj Napoca and after a brief tour we explored the university town. It’s not all that impressive but a good party town with many nightclubs to explore.

Day 5- We headed over the Borgo Pass to the border of Moldavia and finally to Bistrita, a market town located in the heart of Dracula-land. Witch trials were big here.

After a walking tour of the 13th century sites, we boarded our coaches to ascend up the mountains.

The villages here looked like they are in a time warp. This is seriously remote countryside where cars are replaced by horses and wooden carriages. In some parts the road turns into dirt.

The architecture is painted neon with fire orange matchbox houses, turquoise churches and hot pink barns. The sun shown down and lit up pumpkin patches and plum tree orchards. This is the lovely part of Eastern Europe tourists rarely get to see.

We climbed hair pin curves and arrived to Count Dracula Castle Hotel located on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.

Perched at 1116 meters, there were awesome sweeping views of the countryside below. It has gothic towers, arched windows, an interior courtyard and no elevators.

It looks like something right out of the movies. Five petite young girls hauled our suitcases up countless stairs.

Our dinner prepared here was “hearty peasant cuisine” consisting of slabs of lard, pickles and mystery meats in gelatin. It was so comical; we photographed our platters that looked like “Fear Factor” food. Later we were led on a “hysterical tour” into the hidden cellar.

We descended a dark passageway and entered the crypt of Dracula. Here paintings depicted the life of the legendary dark one. A lone coffin was in the middle of the room. Suddenly it opened and the hand of Vlad reached out to grab us before bolting way.

Later Terry then joined others for a chilly moonlit walk and they were joined by a pack of 15 stray dogs all with wagging tails.

October 31 – Halloween! We drove through apple-land into the heart of gypsy country. Roadside stalls selling garlic and onions lined the road. Our drive times were double than anticipated on these rural one lane roads.

We finally arrived to Sighisoara, UNESCO cultural center with a haunting fort surrounding the town, the birth place of Dracula and the creepiest Clock Tower ever seen. We checked into our hotel and prepared for our costume party.

Tonight was our Halloween party which was 5 hours of howling fun. Three ancient cellar rooms were decorated and lit with candles. Slowly one by one, my group arrived fully costumed with creativity beyond imagination.

There were several vampires, Dracula’s, gypsies, witches, wenches and a knight. But also such variety from Daniel as cross dresser and an unrecognizable Whitney as a bald monk.

My favorite was Elizabeth dressed as a lab rat, but our grand winner was Sandra as a vampire Bride of Frankenstein. She wore a full tea stained bridal dress, white contact lens and a wooden stake pierced her heart. It was a delight to watch the staff peering through the kitchen doors at us in wonderment.

After our appetizer, we were led outside for a mock witch trial. (700 witches were burned at the stake here.) In the end, we the jury decided to save her and she joined us for dinner. Even Vlad himself made an appearance. To our surprise, a team from Romanian National Television came to record us for the news.

This was certainly an entertaining human interest story for the locals. Some of us were interviewed with the main question of “Why Americans celebrate Halloween this way?” We really couldn’t give a good explanation.

Romanians are superstitious. Beliefs still exist today that spirits return to torment people. Since the mid 1800’s, vampire stories grew widespread.

The DJ was so good that we danced until midnight. Even our guides and bus drivers joined us on the dance floor with looks of feeling guilty for having so much fun. Our driver Johnny didn’t have costume so he simply shed his shirt.

Day 7- In the morning we toured the disappointing arms and torture museum. The dungeon, however, was virtually authentic. On to Brasov where we toured the gothic Black Church built in 1383 and St. Nicolas Monastery from 1477.

Then on to Bran Castle referred to as “Dracula’s Castle” but he spent little time here. After shopping the gypsy market, we climbed the old rock steps to reach the famous castle perched on a cliff.

We all wondered, how could this have been constructed. Both exterior and interior were spectacularly preserved. Our last stop was the fairytale town of Sinaia before we headed back to Bucharest.

There I was informed by locals that our AFS party was on national news. Our driver Johnny had his moment of fame when he was seen dancing by his friends and is now nicknamed “shirtless Johnny.”

We covered 800 miles and saw an eyeful of this land off the tourist trodden path. There were rugged landscapes with haunting natural beauty, more castles and fortresses than Scotland, churches painted from the inside out and there were rural villages with shepherds and weavers where century’s old traditions are still alive.

I wonder how all this will be affected when Romania soon joins the European Union. I hope she can hold steadfast to her spiritual treasures and reputation for warm hospitality.

As Americans abroad here, we felt a welcoming spirit inviting us to return again.

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