(Posted at Allianz Travel)
Halloween is the time of year when the normal world and the spirit world overlap, so it’s the perfect time to explore the side of you (and your family) that is fascinated by the macabre. Just imagine how your friends will light up when you tell them how you went searching for Dracula in Transylvania on the scariest night of the year. The castle of Vlad Tepes, from the House of Drăculești, rises above Sighișoara, just 287 km NW of Bucharest (as the bat flies). Bucharest will be your homebase in this leisurely hunt for the living dead.
City of Frights
Any trip to Romania1 should start with a flight into Bucharest, a magnificent and ancient city with more spooky buildings than Paris and more mysterious passageways than St. Petersburg. There’s a kind of hollow grandeur to the place, like a gargantuan haunted house with centuries of ghosts hanging about. Before you head out on your mythic journey, make sure you build up your strength with a hearty meal (and something to drink) at The Count Dracula Club restaurant.2 This ancient mansion is full of surprises, like the Transylvania Room and Hunter’s Lodge Room. Order the Van Helsing plate or a light Mina’s Salad and try not to cut yourself on the steak knife.
Where to Stay
Bucharest is a modern European capital city, with hotels ranging from luxurious mansions to cozy B&Bs. A great way to put yourself in the mood for this adventure is by staying at the Hotel Epoque,3 which makes you feel like you’re living in a 19th-century Gothic novel, where anything is possible.
Finding Baby Dracula
Transylvania proper begins at Brasov, just a couple hours by car northwest of Bucharest. You’ll soon see that Dracula the evil vampire is very different from Vlad Tepes, the Little Dracul, who remains a national hero after six centuries. Sighișoara is where little Vlad grew up and, like any normal kid, you can imagine him playing on these hilly, cobblestone streets with his pet bats. When people say “Dracula’s Castle,” they are usually referring to Bran Castle,4 which Bram Stoker used as inspiration in creating his monstrous vampire. The real Vlad Tepes may have been imprisoned here, but the castle he actually used as his royal residence was the Poienari Fortress5 near the village of Arefu.
Where to Stay
The city of Brasov makes the perfect central point for exploring Sighișoara just to the north and Arefu to the west. You couldn’t do better than staying at the House of Dracula Hotel.6 The countryside offers a stunningly beautiful parade of all the myriad colors of fall and nature lovers will have plenty of mountain trails to investigate. Take day trips from here to visit all of Vlad’s favorite haunts, unless you really want to brave being out after sunset.
Far to the north, right on Romania’s border with the Ukraine, lies your next mission: the sleepy town of Sapanta.7 Why are all the gravestones here so bright and colorful? Why are there jokes and smiling faces on the tombstones? Sapanta has a churchyard like nowhere else on Earth, with gravestones decorated in bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. The cartoonish pictures on the graves tell funny stories and talk about happy times in the lives of the person resting below. The locals don’t fear death and they find joy in celebrating the lives of their relatives who have passed on. Is Dracula and his family buried here? It’s possible. If he is, he’s not resting in peace. He’s probably hosting a monster mash.
Where to Stay
Spend some time in Maramuresh region around Sapanta, investigating life in the Carpathian mountains. Village Hotel Transylvania8 in the nearby village of Breb is a fantasy cottage from a dark fairy tale. Enjoy a few days living in a traditional wooden house amid the Carpathians and you will become legendary back home.
A Great Place to Put Down Stakes
Your final stop on this itinerary is Snagov Monastery,9 traditionally considered to be the final resting place of Vlad the Impaler, or at least his coffin. Getting to Snagov Monastery is an adventure in itself, and not for the faint at heart. You’ll need to walk about a mile from the village to a lake, where you can rent a row boat to reach the island where the monastery lies. This is just northeast of Bucharest, so you’ll be in easy reach of the city for your flight home.
Where to Stay
Snagov is close enough Bucharest that it makes sense to stay in the city and make a quick getaway when it’s time to go. Ease your way back into the 21st century by staying at the Europa Royale Bucharest in Old Town. Make sure you check your reflection in the mirror before you come home. If you don’t see any reflection, that means you’ll be bringing a little bit of Transylvania home with you.