Believe it or not, people often ask me, “Karen, was Vlad the Impaler really a vampire?” I finally decided to make a trip to Romania and Transylvania to investigate. The next few posts will be about that journey.
We’d set out for the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania from Bucharest in the morning, encountering a tempestuous rainstorm so severe as to be deafening, lashing the vehicle and obscuring our sight. In the brutal rain teaming from a blackened, ominous sky, it became easy to imagine why Bram Stoker set his novel Dracula in this countryside.
Three hours later, however, we are luxuriating under a cerulean sky with my friend’s godfather, Dragos, on the patio of his serene restaurant, Parc Bran, which sits at the foot of Bran Castle, the medieval structure often misidentified as the home of Vlad Tepes, aka The Impaler. (Vlad is also now indelibly misidentified as Bram Stoker’s muse for his novel Dracula, but more on that later.) On a cloudless August afternoon, with the happy sounds of children playing in the park across the way, and surrounded by planters of bright summer flowers, it’s hard to believe that anyone has ever associated this verdant landscape with vampires.
Dragos asks me what I am doing in Bran, and I tell him about my latest novel, Dracula in Love. “Ah, another one,” he says.
“Oh no!” his goddaughter protests, launching into a pitch about the book’s uniqueness in the pantheon of recent vampire tomes, explaining that it’s from the female perspective, and that I do not link Vlad to Dracula. That connection was made, by the way, not by Bram Stoker, but by a journalist in the 1970s. He postulated that because Vlad was called “Drakulya,” which means “devil” in Romanian, Bram Stoker must have used Vlad as his model for the uber-vampire. However, Drakulya also means “son of the dragon,” a reference to the Order of the Dragon, a medieval order of knights, of which the men in Vlad’s family were members. Poor Vlad. Or rather, lucky Vlad. No longer merely the sadist of the medieval world who displayed his victims on pikes, he is now thought of as the trendiest of creatures—a vampire.
Dragos listens to us respectfully. “Well, good!” he says, but I can tell that he remains unconvinced that my novel has anything new to offer. After all, he runs a business here in Bran, where generations of tourists and vampire-seeking fans have incorrectly linked not only Vlad to Dracula, but Bran Castle to Vlad and vampires. And being a restaurant owner, I can only imagine how many patrons have asked him where he keeps the garlic.
“Do you like cheese?” he asks, changing the subject.
We nod enthusiastically! What’s not to like? Dragos gives one of his waiters a lengthy list of orders, and the man disappears, returning with a log that looks like it could heat a small room for about five hours. The waiter presents it to Dragos for approval before he plops it on the table. Hmmm.
Dragos turns the log on its side, revealing creamy white cheese inside the bark. “I make it here,” he explains, “from the milk of my own flock of sheep. We prepare the bark and then pour the cheese inside. As the cheese hardens, the oil of the bark infuses it with flavor and preserves it.” With a machete-size knife, he cuts a humongous slab.
Our eyes pop wide as we realize that this portion is our serving. “Romanians eat,” he shrugs, as the waiter reappears with gargantuan, locally-grown tomatoes (the best any of us have ever tasted), sausages, lamb cutlets, puffy white potatoes, melons, and heaps of bread, to go with our appetizer portion of cheese.
Silenced by the food making its way into our mouths, we’re chewing contentedly when Dragos returns to the table. “Would you believe that twelve sheep have disappeared from the mountain over the last two nights,” he asks as we smear the cheese on thick slices of homemade bread. “Six sheep per night. It’s crazy. What could have happened to them?”
“Wolves?” I offer sheepishly (forgive the pun).
“In the summer, the females have given birth and stay with the pups, so the male wolves travel alone. A wolf will take one sheep for his dinner. Six? No.” He shakes his head. He looks genuinely stumped.
My imagination, on the other hand, is running wild. What does he think has happened? The answer is obvious! How can he not put two and two together? But I am afraid to suggest it, after my speech divorcing myself from the other vampire-chasing kooks who have landed on his patio. I’m not a nut, and yet I can’t lose the idea that apart from the delicious cheese, bountiful produce, and tranquil setting, a sheep-eating vampire is roaming the mountain!
What luck! My first day in Transylvania, and a vampire has already shown its fangs!
I am about to blurt out my theory when Dragos starts to laugh. “I asked the shepherd what happened to my sheep. So today, he brings me some skins and tells me that these are the remains of the missing sheep, which he says were attacked by bears and wolves. And yet there was not a bite mark on them.”
I am about to suggest that the vampire made a clean slit in the sheep’s neck, so neat it was not detectable. I mean, hasn’t he watched True Blood or seen the Twilight movies? Doesn’t he know how sophisticated these creatures have become? Taking a sheep’s blood without spillage is not much of a challenge for someone who’s been sucking blood for centuries.
“That shepherd is a little thief!” Dragos smiles sardonically. “He sold my sheep! He must think I’m a fool!”
I feel blood rushing to my cheeks, which are turning rosy with embarrassment. Grateful that no one at the table is a mindreader, I take a long sip of my wine.
To be continued…
Restaurant Bran Parc website: http://restaurantbranparc.ro/en/index.html