TRAVEL; In the teeth of history

Armed with Bram Stoker's novel, Richard Gilbert joined the first World Dracula Congress in Transylvania in pursuit of a myth that refuses to die TRAVEL NOTES
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DAN MATEI, Romania's youthful minister of tourism, looked a little embarrassed as he bent his head forward to receive a black cloak that billowed up around his head. Nicolae Paduraru, the suave president of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, bowed and conferred on the minister the title of hereditary knight of the society. We were in an open-air theatre at Casde Dracula hotel in Transylvania, a fake medieval confection built in the Borgo Pass, the authentic location of Count Drac-ula's castle as described in Bram Stoker's classic Gothic novel.

Casde Dracula is an imitation Gothic pile that looks as if it has escaped from Las Vegas. It's a brave but unconvincing attempt to cash in on the precise site of the fictional count's lair, with masked balls for residents and cod initiation ceremonies. The superb isolated location, surrounded by small farms in deep valleys with the snow-capped Carpath-ians as a backdrop, rescues the hotel from tackiness. In the nearby forests, bears and even wolves still survive, but more commons sights are wild boar, lynx and wild goats. At night, the cacophony of animal howls is like a Hammer film soundtrack.

This was the climax of the first World Dracula Congress, a mobile event which had carried 180 of us through cities, villages, mountains and forests in search of the mythical Dracula and of the Transylvanian roots of the historical 15th-century prince, Vlad the Impaler, whose blood-lust originally inspired Bram Stoker to write his novel.

Our journey had begun in a Bucharest hotel, where the nearby buildings still bear deep pockmarks from the fighting in December 1989. There this curious caravanserai of international academics, historians, writers, vampirologists and folklorists had met to hear the first papers and debates on the legend and history of Dracula. The tree-lined boulevards of Bucharest are a reminder that despite Ceausescu's monolithic concrete blocks the city was once called "the Paris of the Balkans".

Packed into three coaches, the congress headed north through Wallachia. Sweeping plains and scattered oilfields gave way to mysterious forests, rolling wooded hills, fast-flowing rivers and Hansel and Gretel houses with ragged storks' nests on their chimneys. We passed rich farmland where horses and oxen pulled carts and ploughs and groups of elderly women hoed and scythed in the fields. Solitary crosses stand in private cemeteries near remote villages that had escaped Ceausescu's crazed plan to merge them into giant collective farms. At Sighisoara, probably the best preserved 15th-century town in Europe with its cobbled streets and turreted clock tower, there was a chance to see the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. A plaque on a yellowhouse in the square marks the spot, now a thriving restaurant.

In the main square at sundown the locals put on their dramatised version of a 15th-century witch trial. After being beaten and dragged through the streets, the distraught, blood-caked witch is naturally found guilty of poisoning neighbours' cattle. "Free the witch," muttered Katie from the University of Calgary (special subject: "The ambiguous nature of violence in Dracula").

Soon the congress was tracing the precise route in Transylvania taken by Jonathan Harker as he travels to meet the count at the beginning of the book. At Bistrita you can even eat, as Harker did, "robber steak" (a form of kebab) at the Golden Krone hotel, as recommended by Dracula. As we climbed higher through the forested hills towards the Borgo Pass, Bernard Davies of the British Dracula Society pointed at the weeping ash trees, gigantic beeches and orchards. "This landscape is exactly how Bram Stoker described it. It's amazing because he never visited Transylvania. But he got all the details right in the book." I checked with my copy as we got closer to the Carpathian mountains. In the first chapter Harker writes in his journal about how "beyond the green swelling hills rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians ... with the afternoon sun falling full upon them, bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range .... and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags." Spot on, Bram.

For Romania, this congress was a turning-point for its tourist industry. The country has always felt ambivalent about the notoriety the Dracula legend has brought to it. But as Dan Matei told me: "This is the new, open Romania. We need more visitors, and if tourists want hands coming out of coffins, we'll give it to them." He admitted that some of his colleagues in the Ministry of Culture are unhappy about the Dracula industry, but the country needs more than Black Sea resorts, the Danube Delta and ski resorts to bring in visitors.

Vlad Dracula, Prince of Wallachia, is still seen as an Orthodox crusader by many Romanians, the last warrior to defend Europe against the Turks after the fall of Constantinople.Yes, goes the defence, he was ruthless, fond of impaling thousands of Turks as well as his domestic enemies, and partial to feasting in the open air surrounded by kebabed corpses. But he was also a master of psychological warfare, a skilful military tactician and a victim of black propaganda that began immediately after his death in 1476. To his defenders, the vampire tale is one more slander. "Sure, he impaled," said one Romanian, "but he never drank blood."

Bram Stoker's novel, published in 1897, could not be published in Romania until after the 1989 revolution overthrew Ceausescu, and none of the 250 films about Dracula was shown until 1991. Many Romanians have always felt uneasy about Western enthusiasm for the Dracula myth. Vampires, garlic and stakes through the heart were not how they wanted their country to be seen. But a new entrepreneurial class has seized on Dracula as a potential money-spinner for the ailing tourist industry. One company inagurated three grades of Dracula tour tracing the footsteps of Stoker's characters and the historic Vlad: the third grade was classified as "unsuitable for more fragile or sensitive minds" and the eccentrically translated brochure warned: "Survivors of Dracula tours are kindly requested to shut up."

This roving Dracula Congress tried to tease out answers to some puzzling questions. Why has a late Victorian novel written by an Irishman and set mainly in Whitby and London captured the imagination of the world? What are the links between the historical Vlad and the mythical count? How can the book be deconstructed?

I hadn't anticipated the vast academic interest in the subject. Over five days and in as many locations, I heard one American professor speak on "The image of Dracula in juvenile literature" (in his research, Professor Melton of Santa Barbara has uncovered a vegetarian vampire rabbit called Bunnocula who sucks the juice out of vegetables at night); another compared Dracula to Sherlock Holmes as a symbolic fin-de-siecle figure; an LSE sociology professor compared the cult of Dracula to New Age religions; Professor Introvigne from Italy (swiftly dubbed Professor Intravenous) investigated the links between vampirism and Satanic scares; a British specialist focused on hypnosis and mesmerism in Dracula; and Major Mircea Dogaru, a Roman-ian military historian, dissected the various myths about Vlad Dracula.

At the congress opening, Nikolac Paduraru had celebrated this ground- breaking alliance between the Romanian experts on Vlad and the Western analysts of Count Dracula. Outside the hall you could buy bottles of Dracula Spirit (blood-red vodka), Dracula goblets, Draculina soft drinks, paintings of Vlad and books on Dracula from the Encyclopaedia of the UnDead to the libretto of a Dracula musical.

Over glasses of red vodka, delegates discussed their Dracula specialities. Marie Mulvey Roberts, who teaches female Gothic literature at the University of the West of England, was dressed as a Goth and wearing a large wooden crucifix round her neck for protection. She was at the congress to explain the medical imagery and pathology of Dracula. "I see Stoker's work as a book about menstrual taboos. I believe the curse of the vampire is the curse of the monthly cycle, and of course the vampire is a thinly disguised metaphor for sexuality. The book is also a very rich medical text. The fear of the count is probably a fear of syphilis coming from the East and infecting Britain."

The keener Draculists continued their discussions as we drove through the thickest forests in Europe. Carol Davison from McGill University in Montreal outlined her thesis that Count Dracula is in fact the classic Wandering Jew figure: "He is saturnine, malevolent, and I will argue that he is the rootless ur-cosmopolitan outlaw." For Bernard Davies the myth of immortality gained at somebody else's expense explains the count's fascination. Professor Ekstromer from Lund University told me his paper would examine the different myths of hot and cold societies: "As a social anthropologist, I want to know why we have no tradition of vampires in Sweden. We only have trolls and fairies."

Professor Radu Florescu, a Romanian-born academic who now teaches at Boston College, aptly called his paper "What has the Dracula renaissance done for Romania?" He is urging Romanians to be ambitious and build two theme parks. "One could be based on the Dracula myth," he said, "and the other could be on Vlad and the Middle Ages. I wish Disney had bypassed France, where EuroDisney has been a flop, and invested here instead. I also would like to see a horror film festival set up in Bucharest."

Outside Castle Dracula's restaurant, the final papers were delivered. Jean Marigny from Grenoble Uni-versity did sterling work on the image of Dracula in contemporary fiction, concluding that the definitive portmanteau spin-off called Zoltan, Hound of Dracula is "the most stupid book I've ever read'. A professor of cinema studies from East Carolina compared film interpretations from Bela Lugosi to Coppola. Learned theories about the significance of the vampire symbol were followed by a Romanian folklorist's account of how supernatural beliefs still flourish in Romania today. In some villages, teenage girls wear not garlic but basil in their hair to ward off the unwelcome attention of young males.

I sensed a schism between the academic and the more populist approaches to Vlad Dracula. Mem-bers of Dracula fan clubs from Japan, Germany, USA and Britain tended to stick together. Jeannie Youngson, president of the International Dracula Fan Club, with members in 28 countries, explained how she sends out "Drakpaks" to new members and even gets letters asking how to become a vampire. "I tell them we're not interested in that kind of thing, and in any case the first qualification for a vampire is that you have to be dead." This seemed a long way from Professor Ray McNally's meticulous digging into mediaeval archives to establish that Vlad always called himself Vlad Dracula (Drac meaning dragon or devil) and never Vlad Tepes (the Impaler). "Do you think any ruler is going to wander around saying `Hi! I'm Vlad the Impaler?' You've got to be kidding."

Romania has now grafted together its medieval warrior-prince and Bram Stoker's late Victorian fiction. The Bowie knife plunged into Dracula's heart turned the count to dust in the final pages of the book. But the Master of the Un-Dead, always so adept at transforming his shape and form, has at last returned to his homeland in his most potent disguise yet - as a tourist attraction. !

GETTING THERE: Skylink Travel (0171-396 9933) has Tarom flights to Bucharest from Heathrow for pounds 195 return; BA (0181-897 4000) flies from Gatwick for pounds 204 return.

TOURS: Romania Travel Centre (01892 516901) organises flights and accommodation and will tailor-make trips. Explore World-wide (01252 319448) offers 10- day tours to Transylvania from pounds 495 b&b. Waymark Holidays (01753 516477) do 14-night walking tours of Transylvania for pounds 675, full board.

FURTHER INFORMATION: the British Dracula Association, 203 Wulfstan Street, London W12 0AB