The Middle Ages live again in Dracula's hometown

January 10, 1993|By Jon Marcus | Jon Marcus,Contributing Writer

SIDHISOARA, ROMANIA — SIGHISOARA, Romania -- The proprietor of Dracula's house is a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi, but he deals in wine and watery beer, not blood.

The house -- no castle, though considerably larger than its

neighbors -- is a restaurant today. The vaulted first floor, once a barracks for the military garrison, is a beer hall whose tall, amiable manager could easily have been Lugosi's stand-in.

Welcome to Dracula's hometown, the place where the historic figure who was made the legend came into the world.

And if Francis Ford Coppola's recent movie, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," has piqued your interest in the count, this is the place to visit.

It was in Sighisoara that the medieval prince Vlad Dracul had his court. And it was here, amid the intrigue, that the son of Dracul -- Dracula -- was born.

Sighisoara, far enough from Bucharest to have escaped Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's ravaging "modernization," is a Transylvania Shangri-La, a perfectly preserved and operating relic of the Middle Ages.

No modern buildings

Horse-drawn farmers' carts still rattle through the cobbled streets, past stone-and-masonry facades unchanged since they were built by merchants in the 14th century. Cocks crow, men and women dress in simple homemade clothing, families work farms with hand tools, and the sight or sound of motor vehicles is rare. There are no modern buildings to obscure the towers, tile roofs and steeples of the Old Town.

"It is my favorite place in the whole world," says Ray McNally, co-author of "Dracula, Prince of Many Faces."

The real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, was, if anything, more bloodthirsty than the legendary count. Born at the end of 1431 in Sighisoara, he was handed over by his father as a hostage to the Turks, but soon returned commanding armies, unencumbered by compassion.

Known also as Vlad the Impaler, Dracula impaled captured enemies on sharpened stakes; he often dined amid impaled victims and at least once dipped his bread in human blood. Men, women and children were burned, boiled, roasted, mutilated, skinned alive, blinded, strangled and dismembered on his order. Dracula once reportedly lured vagabonds, most of them blind or lame, into a banquet hall, then locked them in and set the hall afire.

Sighisoara's quiet streets belie this twisted legacy. The houses built by German merchants when the town was on the trade route to the Black Sea are painted blue, green, gold and pink. The ruins of the fortress wall still wrap around the Old Town; nine of the original 16 watchtowers remain, each built by a different guild of local craftsmen.

Local legend has it that young Dracula liked watching from his father's house in Sighisoara's main square as condemned prisoners were led out of the monumental Council Tower to their executions.

The house was restored in 1976, the 500th anniversary of Dracula's death. The tiny restaurant inside is decent by Romanian standards, and the dark, carved wooden chairs, fresh tulips and chipped glasses give it atmosphere. Of Dracula's presence, there is a single vestige: a faded fresco near the door.

Sighisoara's Council Tower contains a rich collection of historic items, from the instruments of 15th-century apothecaries to the flags and banners brandished during the rebellion that resulted in Ceausescu's fall in 1989. Atop the tower is a giant clock built by the Swiss in 1648. Visitors can watch it toll the hour through two windows cut into the mechanism. Carved figures, one for each day of the week, appear out of a portico -- at midnight. There are unequaled views of Sighisoara from the balcony.

Dracula left castles behind in Tirgoviste, from which he ruled Walachia and Poienari on the Curtea de Arges River. Both are ruins, but the stark, 1,000-foot drops at Poienari still evoke images of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." It was there in 1462 that, surrounded by the Turks, Dracula's mistress jumped to her

death while he escaped through secret tunnels.

Headless body

Fragments of fortifications built by Dracula in Bucharest also survive, along with the foundations of his princely court and chapel, near the restaurant and inn Hanul Manuc.

Snagov Monastery, a popular day trip from Bucharest, is where the headless body of the real Dracula was thought to have been buried after his assassination by the Turks. But when the crypt was excavated in the 1930s, it was empty of remains. The monastery, on an island in a lake, is reachable by rowboat.

It is Bran Castle, near Brasov, built in 1378 and newly renovated, that Romanians promote as Dracula's. In fact, he stayed there only once or twice. Brasov's Old Town, unlike Sighisoara's, has virtually disappeared behind Ceausescu's dull concrete apartment projects.

Even the Hungarians are cashing in on Dracula, who was imprisoned there for 13 years. A Budapest travel agency runs Dracula tours, which include a visit to the palace of a distant cousin, Erzebet Bathory, who thought bathing in the blood of virgins was good for her skin.

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