In the shadow of Dracula

When traveling to Transylvania, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is Dracula. In fact, the myth created an entire industry, from movies to annual festivals, books, hotels, foods. No other Romanian Prince (although Romania has many other quite extraordinary historical figures) was able to match Dracula’s international fame. Of course, part of his popularity is due to Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who made Dracula truly immortal with his pen and a lot of imagination.

Vlad Dracul (Dracul means Dragon in Romanian) whose family belonged to the Order of the Dragon, was born in Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best preserved Medieval towns in Europe. A small inscription mentioning Vlad’s birth date (b. 1431) can be observed in the yellow house next to the Clock Tower, the main gate into the Medieval Town.

Vlad Dracula’s beginnings in life were pretty much similar to that of any other child born into a Transylvanian family of Romanians. But certain events in his early years, such as growing up in Moldavia alongside his cousin Stephen (who was to become Stephen the Great, the Prince of Moldavia), or being imprisoned in Turkey by the Sultan in order to force his father, Prince Vlad II, ruler of Walachia, to obey the Ottoman empire, shaped the personality of the future Prince of Walachia.

His enemies nicknamed him “The Impaler”, not because Vlad invented this type of punishment, which was very common in the 15th century Europe, but because they wanted to paint him as something indestructible, therefore, evil. Hence, the association between his family name, Dracul – the Dragon with the Devil (the dragon has held various significances in different cultures; in Asia, it is the symbol of power and majesty, whereas in Christianity it is seen as a creature of darkness, hiding in underground caves). But what really convinced his enemies that he was “related to the Devil”, was Vlad’s zero tolerance for traitors (usually
the boyars at the Walachian Court) and the expansionist Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was the first king to use deadly germs in warfare, most notably against the frequent Ottoman invasions. One war, in particular, drew the attention of several neighboring countries. In 1462, Pope Pius II sent a special investigator to Buda, to determine the fate of the money that the Vatican gave to Matias Corvin, the King of Hungary (his father was the Romanian Prince Iancu of Hunedoara), who was supposed to join Vlad in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. As the help never arrived, Vlad ended up against the Ottomans alone with his small and outnumbered Walachian army. Niccolo de Modrussa, the Vatican investigator and historian, left a 215 page manuscript detailing his personal meetings with Vlad Dracula, as well as with some of his soldiers. As the Ottoman army waited to cross the Danube River into Walachia, Vlad gathered all the sick people he could find, dressed them up as Turkish soldiers and sent them in the middle of the Turkish army. The sick infected with deadly viruses (malaria, typhoid fever, etc) spread the diseases throughout the Ottoman camp and many Turkish soldiers died before the actual battle. Vlad Dracula and his soldiers also frequently dressed up as Turkish soldiers to carry out blitz night attacks against their enemies.

Modrussa’s writings portray a Vlad Dracula that was loved and admired by his people, a diehard patriot, who would not back down against any threat and would always lead his men in the battle. Many of the German, Hungarian and Slavic Medieval chronicles that describe Dracula as being blood thirsty and evil might have been heavily influenced by the political animosities of the time and the fact that Vlad was in conflict with the Saxon and Hungarian settlers into Transylvania, a territory that historically belonged to the Romanians since the ancient times.

Today, Vlad Dracula’s house is both a museum and a restaurant in the famous Medieval Town, one of the few completely preserved medieval towns in Europe, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. No visit to Sighisoara would be complete without a glass of wine or palinca (the Transylvanian brandy) paired with a traditional Romanian or Saxon meal in the historic town, in places such as the Stag House (Casa cu cerb), the Tinsmith’s House (Casa Cositorarului), the Saxon House (Casa Saseasca), or Dracula’s House.

Sighisoara was a Roman fort during the ancient times. In the 12th century, the city was rebuilt on the Roman ruins by a group of Saxon merchants who settled in Transylvania at the invitation of the Hungarian King. Hungarians gained some control of Transylvania at the end of the 11th century after several battles with the Romanian rulers (or, Voievods). The city, originally named Castrum Sex (or, Fort Six) continued to develop during the 14th and 15th centuries. The most important features are its ancient ruins and beautiful medieval architecture. Recommended sites to visit: Vlad Dracula’s birthplace house, the nine towers of the medieval city, the Church on the Hill renowned for its 500 years old frescoes, the Venetian House built in the 13th century, the Gothic Church of the Dominican Monastery built in the 17th century, and the Clock Tower.

Every year, usually at the end of July, Sighisoara hosts a Medieval Festival. The festival is meant to emphasize Sighisoara’s rich historical and cultural heritage through a display of Medieval costumes, traditional foods and drinks, art, shows, music, dances and fighting competitions. During the festival, the tourist filled streets of Sighisoara mixed with Medieval knights, princesses, merchants, historical characters, and street entertainers really feel like a place from another time.