Saturday, July 16, 2011

Romania: On The Trail of Dracula - Bucharest and Snagov

This year, Diane and I took a spectacular trip to Europe - splitting our time between two countries. One we'd been to before, Italy, and the other was a place most of us have heard about but most have never been to...Romania.

More specifically, the part of Romania that most everybody has heard of is Transylvania - mainly because of the Count Dracula and, more recently, vampire stories that are so pervasive in entertainment.

To be sure the lure of Dracula was interesting to us, but the primary draw for us was not Count Dracula of vampire fame because, well, he never existed. Rather, we were interested in the history of the real man - Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes (which translates in Romanian to "Vlad the Impaler).

Indeed, based on our knowledge of the fictitious Dracula and the Transylvania he inhabited, both Diane and I read the biography of Vlad Dracula, prince of neighboring Walachia in the 1400s and no stranger to Transylvania either. And through reading about him and his often gruesome exploits (he didn't earn the nickname Tepes for nothing) we also learned about Romanian history. We also learned that so bloody were Vlad's methods of ruling that he was used by author Bram Stoker as inspiration as he built his fictional Dracula vampire character for his book. (Left: Vlad Dracula)

Given that we had a great time in another eastern European country a few years ago, Poland, we thought it might be time to check out another east Europe country. And yes, of course, there is that appeal that Transylvania has given all the movies and books written about vampires. Hell, it's cool to have gone to Transylvania and to be able to say so. It's proving to get a reaction every time I say it.

With all that as set up, with this post I'm starting a series of reports on our trip - including both Romania and Italy. For the Romania portion, the places we saw were more or less both important to overall Romanian history and the history of Vlad Tepes. Hopefully by reading you'll get a sense of what these locations were like and why they are important. Along the way, I'll drop some knowledge about Vlad, as well as food, beverage and such.

To begin the series, I'll start with...

Bucharest and Snagov
We flew into the capital of Romania from London via New York and starting in Seattle...all in one day. Literally, a whole day of travel. But, luckily we arrived in the late afternoon. So, all we had to do was stay awake to clean up and eat...and then it was bed time no matter how you looked at it.

We stayed at the nice and well located Rembrandt Hotel in the older district of Bucharest. This locale offered us easy walking access to a load of restaurants and centered us among buildings that show why Bucharest used to be called "the Paris of the east." We ended up going to dinner at a very good place nearby called Caru cu Bere. Featuring traditional Romania dishes and their own delicious beer all in a baroque setting, this meal really hit the spot. After that we had enough energy to take a walk the hip and happening streets nearby where there were narrow street after narrow street chalk full of bars and restaurants - each with outdoor seating. Quite the scene. Lets just say the 20/30 somethings of Bucharest were out to see and be seen. (Right: Out on the town, Bucharest)

We slept hard that night, but were in surprisingly good shape the next morning. Following a delightful breakfast in the hotel overlooking the pedestrian byway, we met up with our guide for the trip. We decided that driving around Romania ourselves would probably not be a great idea given the road conditions and what we'd heard about Romanian drivers. In hind sight we probably could have done it ourselves, but having now used the PAN Travel agency in Romania to plan things out, drive us and guide us we wouldn't have done it any different anyway. And, we arranged it so it was a private tour from just we two.

After breakfast we met up with our unstoppable guide, Andrei. Upon meeting him, we instantly knew we were in for a good time as Andrei has a positive attitude, a good sense of humor and a sense of adventure.

Andrei showed us the "highlights" of Bucharest in a driving tour in the first part of the morning, including the massive Palace of Parliament, universities, opera, traditional neighborhoods and the key locations where the revolution against the communist government happened in 1989. (Left: Palace of Parliament in Bucharest - one of, if not the, largest buildings in the world.)

The only Vlad Dracula angle in Bucharest is that he is fabled to have named the city and founded it as the capital of his domain. More on that on our second visit to Bucharest at the end of our Romania tour.

A more clear link to Vlad, however, was at our second stop of the day - Snagov. Located outside the city on an island in a pleasant lake, the Snagov Monastery is the place where it is strongly believed that Vlad Dracula is buried. So we had to visit.

To get there you have to travel outside of Bucharest into the countryside, through a village and down to the water's edge of the lake in which the island monastery is located. As we rambled toward the destination, we realized that if we didn't have a guide who knew where he was going we'd never have found the place because there were no signs at any time. But, eventually, we got to a parking spot on a village road right by the lake. Exiting the truck and into the hot, hot Romanian summer, we walked the bridge from the land over to the island and onto the grassy, tree-lined way that leads up to the monastery.

Entering the chapel, we marveled at the all-mosaic interior. Unfortunately, the monks would not let us take pictures. Suffice it to say that while small, the church was impressive. And sure enough, on the floor near the later was a picture of Vlad Dracula with a lit candle standing directly over what looked to be a grave marker. So, who knows...we may have (probably did) see "the Impaler's" last resting place. (Right: Snagov monastery, burial place of Vlad Dracula.)

After a leisurely stroll around the flowery grounds, we returned across the bridge and to our vehicle - satisfied that we'd seen our first real Dracula site. And of course learned a bit about the religious history of the area.

With that, we hit the road for our next destination. Along the way, we decided to try a roadside diner for lunch and boy were we glad we did. A true highlight for here, on the side of the road was a restaurant serving DELICIOUS Romania fare. For example, our lunch consisted of a rich soup, thick bread and a dish called sarmale - meat, rice, onions and spices wrapped in grape leaves (or sometimes cabbage leaves). Throw in some nice polenta on the side and we're talking a really good lunch. And beer of course. Romania has some great beer. Ursus and Ciuc.

Filled up and happy, we made our way to Targoviste - a town where Vlad ran his principality from his "princely court."

Check back to the blog later for the next installment of the series!

NOTE: All pictures in this post except the portrait of Vlad are taken by me, Marc Osborn, and are not authorized for use without written permission from me.

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