07 June 2012

Dracula Wuz Here

“We are in Transylvania... and there shall be to you many strange things.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula

Like any teenager whose melancholy had a gothic slant, I went through a bit of a vampire phase. So, fifteen year old me would have been really excited to arrive in Sighişoara, the birthplace of the real Dracula, Vlad Țepeș. Little Vlad, son of Prince Vlad Dracul ("Dracula" means "son of Dracul"), only lived here for four years. Still, the Dracula Tourism that hit Romania after Vlad was 'discovered' to be Bram Stoker's inspiration in the 1972 book In Search of Dracula, is still reverberating.  When those first foreigners arrived, Bram Stoker's book had never been published in Romanian.  People didn't know what the heck they were talking about! Dracula the vampire?
In Romania, Vlad the Impaler is considered a folk hero not a villain.  His notorious bloodthirstiness was mostly directed at invading Turks. Still, the connection between the fictitious vampire and his historic namesake has been a bit of a cash cow throughout Transylvania.  Tourist attractions that are more fiction than fact.  In Sighişoara, there are indeed plastic fangs and t-shirts that say things like "I Met Dracula Last Night. Come Closer and I'll Whisper the Story in Your Ear."  Even the most relaxed feeling cafe displays "Cafeaua Vampirului " coffee beans for sale.  The bags are cleverly sealed with dripping red wax.  It's all very silly.  More than anything, it feels unnecessary - because Sighişoara happens to be an impossibly pretty town that doesn't need a gimmick. 
Grasping at straws, visiting a bust of Vlad, eating an overpriced meal in his childhood home (completely rebuilt), going to the Torture Museum in hopes of some details about the gruesome methods of the Impaler, the Bram Stoker-reading, Anne Rice obsessed sophomore inside of me was disappointed. But then I realized, at fifteen I had never travelled outside of North America.  The cobbled streets of Greenwich Village, New York made my heart flutter.  I dreamed of backpacking around Europe.  Vampiric let-down or not, Sighişoara would have knocked my socks off
Mission: Dracula called off, I began to really take the place in. In the History Museum, located inside the town's iconic clock tower, the old doors, glass cases filled with button-up satin shoes and fraying top hats evoked that seductive, violent first half of the 2nd millennium.  The Medieval period, when violence pervaded the atmosphere and human contact could easily be the kiss of death. It was the time of the guillotine and the plague.   There was pomp, theatricality, morbidity, beauty.  A yellowed cloth-bound book was opened to a page with ink illustration of a moustachioed man in a three piece suit being stretch and limbered up by pilates-like contraptions.  There were calipers and apothecary bottles.  Instantly, I felt like I was in a world of capes and banquets.  Of vampires.
From the top of the Clock Tower, I looked out over Sighişoara. Transylvania -  Beyond the Forest.  The meaning is obvious and perfect.  It does nothing to take away the mysterious feel inherent in the word.  Transylvania.  The canvas of roofs below zig-zagged in all directions, their skyline climbed up and down frenetically like notes played by a harpsichord. The mountains beyond seemed to stretch for eternity.  There is nothing twee about the region's natural beauty.  The pastel of the houses is replaced by emerald green hills, rust-red rooftops and cobalt blue night skies. Quite simply, it's magical. 
The magic continued in Sibiu, one of Transylvania's most important cities.  Building are animated by unique rooftop windows.  Heavily lidded by shingles they look like eyes watching your every move.  A few nubby stones poke out from smoothly plastered walls.  It is a cheery place, revitalized in 2007 when pronounced the year's European Capital of Culture.  Fresh coats of paint.  Fresh blood.  Wait... are those... bats?!?  False alarm - just birds.  Fanciful trimming on Venetian-style mansions reminded me of lace cuffs and brocade velvet.  That lovely bridge with flower pots hanging from it was named "Liar's Bridge."  That cool old bastion was nicknamed "The Gate of Corpses."  In Transylvania, the whimsy feels a little darker.  The romance, a little cryptic. 
Sibiu is filled with covered alleyways that lead to small courtyards.   Heavy wooden doors close these passages off from the street, from the world.  Across from the Orthodox Cathedral, where black-robed priests moderated a lively debate amongst head-covered women after mass, this walkway shone like a gem.  The ankle-twisting cobbled stones paved in a slant down to one of Sibiu's many squares transitioned, with just a small lip, into smooth, flat, even marble.  Figures were painted on the walls and ceiling.  It was beautiful and, had the doors been closed just a few minutes earlier by a departing priest, hidden away.  It was like the flash of a beguiling smile. 
Oh, fifteen year old Rebecca.  Sibiu was like a storybook you would have devoured cover to cover.  In the Lower Town, below the historic Citadel, buildings decayed.  Plaster chipped and people begged.  Arched walkways gave the streets a gothic frame.  You would have felt the sorrow in it, the eternal sadness and ruthlessness. You would have been so moved by it all, felt so much just looking at it.  Everything you read vampire literature for - a sense of timelessness, savage beauty, shadowy figures and romantic loneliness - was all right here in Transylvania. 
Twenty-six year old me climbed the Council Tower in Sibiu.  Unlike in Sighişoara, the horizon line was there ahead.  The forested Carpathian Mountains were too far away to clearly discern and the buildings of this much larger city stretched out as far as the eye could see.  Below, the International Theatre Festival as going on.  Crowds gathered to watch a circus practice in the main square.  Bram Stoker could not have picked a better setting for his novel.  Who cares if he never actually stepped foot in Romania.

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