By Schulte, Elaine L.
The World and I , Vol. 25, No. 11
Few characters capture the imagination as dramatically as Dracula, the blood-thirsty count from Transylvania--which is how the Irish author Bram Stoker portrayed the mythical monster in his 1897 novel, Dracula. In 1931, a first musical horror movie was produced. The world now knows Count Dracula as a pale, red-lipped vampire who lives in a fog-shrouded castle set high in the forested Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. At night, he prowls the villages below for fresh blood.
In Stoker's novel, Dracula can become a wolf, a bat, or a puff of smoke, and is immortal as long as he's able to drink the blood of the living. Despite his powers, he is vulnerable to such simple defenses as garlic, wolfsbane, crucifixes, and holy water. In movies, Dracula chases beautiful young women through convents, sepulchers, monasteries, prison cells and castle ruins, through rooms with trapdoors, secret passages, animated skeletons, and portraits that come to life.
In Romania, however, historians and teachers depict Dracula's model, the 15th-century Vlad the Impaler, as a patriot and champion of order, eager to be known as a mighty ruler.
Vlad was the son of a 15th-century prince known as Vlad Dracul--"Dracul" means "evil" in Romanian. His father sent the boy and his brother to Turkey as hostages to guarantee Dracul's faithfulness to the Sultan. There, young Vlad learned punishments such as impaling, which was common in the 1400s. When Vlad returned to rule in Romania, his law enforcement was simple: criminals and anyone who offended him were impaled on stakes, then raised upright so the public could see them die in agony.
In Transylvania it's easy to sort fact from fiction. A search for the historic character usually begins at Bran Castle, which towers from a bluff in the forested Carpathian Mountains and is the so-called "Dracula's Castle." Not surprisingly, it's Romania's top tourist attraction. The castle was built in 1378 by Saxon merchants as a toll station to guard Bran Pass. Later, it served as a military fortress to support nearby villages.
Did Vlad the Impaler ever live in the castle? Historians find no evidence of it. They do know that the castle served as a summer retreat for Romania's Queen Marie in the 1920s. Tour guides say the queen found the castle so enchanting that her heart is hidden in its walls. Today at Bran Castle, visitors can see its rooms and secret chimney stairway--and, outside, an army of souvenir venders selling vampire mementos.
Bram Stoker's book, Dracula, began at the British Museum in London, where he researched vampirism and Romania, and conjured up an evil Vlad the Impaler. Adding fantasy to Romania's history and geography, and using bits of the real Vlad's character, Stoker's Dracula became a masterpiece, a myth from a novelist's imagination, not reality.
In Transylvania, visitors can explore a little-known reality that gives the area its charm--almost 200 fortress churches, villages, towns, and military outposts built by Saxon colonists. Few places in Europe are as raw and enchanting.
The Saxon colonists were northern Europeans invited by a Hungarian king in the 12th-century to settle the lands and fend off invaders. They not only farmed and protected the fertile lands north and west of the forested Carpathian Mountains, they also formed guilds and public schools--the first public schools in the world, they claim. By the 13th- century, they became wealthy traders. They stayed for 850 years and named their lands "Siebenburgen" for their seven main fortress cities.
Today, the green countryside of Transylvania is dotted with the Saxons' fortified churches, villages, towns and military outposts. These citadels were attacked by Turks, Tartars, Mongols, Austrians and others over the centuries.
The Saxons' main town was Brasov, known as Kronstadt (Crown City) in the German dialect spoken by the Saxons. …