“Did you see Dracula?!”
This has been the most common response I’ve had after telling people I just got back from Transylvania. And as much as I’d like to roll my eyes and tell them that the region has much more to offer than an old legend (which it does), I can’t deny it: I loved the tacky tourism around Dracula.
The proud tourist
I have to admit: I’m a buyer of tacky souvenirs. Show me a novelty mug over a cultural artefact any day. They are my guilty pleasure (along with One Direction) and I feel no shame.
What’s more, I really enjoy indulging in being a complete tourist from time to time. These days, “tourists” get a bit of a bad rep from “travellers” who present themselves as wizened lost souls aimlessly wondering around Europe seeking out new experiences, free WiFi and organised pub crawls – but engaging with a county’s tourism is important; it shows you how country wants itself to be seen.
So I was definitely looking forward to finding a piece of stereotypical Transylvania on my travels.
But if you’re on the lookout for Dracula keyrings and Gothic kitsch, where is best to go? The easy answer is easy: head to Dracula’s usual haunts.
I’m sorry, I’ll stop now.
But in all seriousness, Bran Castle is the number one destination for any keen Drac-fanatic. Though historically speaking the castle has actually very little to do with the mythical figure, the place has become famous as Dracula’s castle. In reality, Vlad the Impaler (on whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was based) only ever briefly stayed at this castle while passing through.
Entry to the castle is very pricey by local standards (around €10 entry – including access to the Torture exhibit), but this doesn’t seem to put anyone off. The place was packed. Inside the rooms and exhibits are well laid out and give you a detailed history of the castle and its former usage – including a bizarrely long stretch as part of the Forestry Commission.
Of course, Bran town is a bit of a gem in itself. A total tourist trap, the town thrives off the industry of Dracula and is home to a large number of stalls selling mugs, magnets and Twilight T-shirts. But it doesn’t stop there: the small café we sat in to escape the rain actually sold Dracula pizza and Dracula beer. (We were told the Dracula beer was actually just local beer with red food colouring. Pity.)
Another great stop on the vampire trail is Sighisoara (Schäßburg in German) and its looming citadel. Sighisoara was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler and it’s hard to imagine that the town has changed much since. The historic old town is a tourist favourite thanks to its brightly-coloured houses and picturesque cobbled streets, but there are still plenty of Gothic corners to please Drac-hunters.
For Vlad-lovers, the first stop in Sighisoara should be Casa di Dracula – that’s right: Dracula’s birth house. The building now houses a restaurant, but for a small charge you can go in and have a look around. I didn’t do that.
Instead, I headed up to the Church on the Hill by way of the covered staircase, which was exactly the type of thing I expected to find in Transylvania: creepy, Gothic and just a little bit spooky. Behind the church, you’ll also find the old German cemetery. While wandering around a graveyard might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I wanted to ‘pay my respects’ to the former German community of the town, which today has dwindled significantly.
There’s also a badly misshapen busk of Vlad the Impaler’s head beside the Cloister Church, though it’s not really worth making a detour for…
After the hunt
In reality, you can’t avoid coming face-to-face with Bram Stoker’s literary figure if you are travelling through Transylvania. And while you could go out of your way to try and avoid it, it’s simply not worth it – Bran Castle and Sighisoara might be tourist traps, but they are also beautiful places worth visiting in their own right. So accept it, embrace it and enjoy it – and buy a cool mug.
So after my adventures chasing Dracula in Transylvania, I’m sure you’re wondering what trinkets I came away with. Though I didn’t get the novelty mug I had promised myself, I did find this amazing gift last-minute at Transilvania Airport in Targu Mures.
The best tacky souvenir ever? Probably.