A night alone at Castle Dracula

CASTLE DRACULA (originally appeared in the Arlington Daily Herald)

Dracula's Castle copy

Curtea de Arges, Romania– My shaking hands are cold and sweaty. They snake through my backpack searching desperately for the leather pouch.

“Got it. Phew! Now what?”

I am ashamed of myself for unzipping the pouch as I seek further security from the tools within. Counting eight lethally sharp pointed ends, I sigh, “Stakes. Check.”

From the lid of the pouch, I dump out two items. I can smell the first before it even hits my palm, “Garlic. Check.”

The other, a knot of cold chain, I twist and turn trying to work out the kinks. Between my index finger and thumb I rub the familiar shape. “Cross. Check.”

When my brother gave it me he had joked, “You are going to take it, aren’t you? You can’t go without an emergency vampire kit.”

Three weeks earlier standing in my parents’ kitchen, I had checked the pencils for sharpness and nodded in approval. “The pencils…er uh…stakes seem good enough, but I’m not sure about the rest.” I hold up the tiny clove of garlic and the smallish cross for all to squint at. “I’ll be alright as long as the vampires are either mini ones or have very keen senses of smell and sight.” The warm, brightly lit kitchen filled with laughter.

No one is laughing now.

I am alone in the cold, dark silence of Castle Dracula, a half-day’s travel west of Bucharest, Romania. Haunted by boyhood nightmares, I have no vampire repellent Snoopy sheets to pull over my head, no fearless teddy bear by my side keeping a vigilant watch over my slumber, and no parent to conduct the nightly vampire sweep.

The castle is not part of any myth or legend. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad “The Impaler” and frequently referred to as Dracula, chose this position, on a razor-edge ridge high above the Arges River for its strategic location. He built up the walls of a small existing fortification that had been on the ridge since Roman times. During Vlad’s rule the castle saw a bloody Turkish invasion, his wife jumping from a tower to her death, and his own near capture.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula would likely squirm in the presence of Vlad, whose favorite method of punishment was death by impalement– the practice of running large stakes through people. On occasion he dined amid the squirming impaled bodies of his enemies. Vlad’s brutality was Stoker’s inspiration.

Invasions and earthquakes had badly damaged the castle over the years. The Romanian government had rebuilt portions of the castle in the 1970’s. The original walls can be seen in places, but the small soft clay bricks used in the reconstruction, now scarred with graffiti, dominate the structure. Reaching over 10 feet high only in a few places, the walls are supported by concrete and steel. It is as if someone sliced off the top two-thirds of the castle, leaving its rooms and passages open to the air.

The low-lying, crumbling walls of the castle fade into the night. When I switch on my flashlight, the world shrinks down upon me. I can see only what is illuminated; the rest of the castle is in dancing shadow.

From one of the remaining towers, I look out to the Arges Valley thousands of feet below. I listen to the night, a large void defined by a light breeze. I had planned on staying awake until midnight, the witching hour, but the cold forces me to seek the warm confines of my down sleeping bag.

My eyes creep across the dark walls of the castle, up to the stars and back again. They are restless, processing information to feed my imagination. Besides the imagined threat of vampires and a 500-year-old ghost tyrant, there is the all too real threat of being visited by the areas many curious inhabitants — bears and wolves. I adjust the sleeping bag so it covers my entire face and think of warm oceans, colorful fish, and puppies. I sleep.

Footsteps! There they are again, getting CLOSER and FASTER, surely a nocturnal hunter of fantasy, history, or reality bounding down upon my blue cocoon. As the rising and falling of my chest increases so does the noise. I hold my breath and it stops. Inhaling, it begins once more. My thoughts are filled with echoes of the overactive imagination of my youth: BLOOD THIRSTY VAMPIRES! SOUL SEEKING GHOULS!

I’m 8 again.

In one hand I hold a pencil; the other slowly unzips my blue mummy sleeping bag. CLOSER AND FASTER. As I throw the bag off of me with a large whoosh, and whirl around to confront my fears, my eyes search the darkness and the dilapidated ramparts for bears, wolves, vampires, and ghosts. Darkness stands still all around. The noise has stopped.

Crawling back into my bag, I notice a certain noise when my chest rises to meet the inside of the sleeping bag. The hair rustles against the nylon fabric and to a paranoid 8-year old spending the night in Castle Dracula, it sort of sounds like a monster’s footstep. I laugh to myself and loosen my grip on the emergency vampire kit. I guess this 8-year old is going to have to get used to having chest hair.

“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and how dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.” – Bram Stoker.

The mist clings to the mountainside, lingering fingers of the cold night. I walk to the tower and stare out into the valley, the mountains in the east silhouetted by the first rays of light. I scan the valley below.

Everything is quiet. The Arges River, which has carved this dramatic pass into the mountains, trickles below inaudibly. It had long ago been dammed and now remains a shadow of its former self.

With the passing of time, rivers lessen, castles crumble, history blends to legend, legends become myth, and little boys become grown men with hairy chests.

(Cartoon by Geoff Hassing)


If you go “freely and of your own will”

Castle Dracula, Romania

Go: If you are comfortable in the outdoors and have ever considered investigating haunted places.

No: If you can’t handle being stared at by locals who rarely see tourists or if you have to cover your eyes during scary movies.

Need to know: The Romanian National Tourist Office, (212) 545-8484, www.RomaniaTourism.com

Dracula’s Castle?- Vlad’s Castle above the Arges River is far off the beaten path and therefore most guidebooks, and Romanians, will point tourists seeking Castle Dracula to easily accessed Bran Castle, which has nothing to do with the man, myth, or legend. Take care not to be misled. Locals refer to Vlad’s scenic hideaway as Poenari Castle; it’s located near the town of Curtea de Arges.

The Journey- Take a train from Bucharest’s main station north-west to Pitesti (1.5 to 2.5 hours, $15-$25). From Pitesti grab a local train filled with farmers and gypsies to Curtea de Arges (1 hour, $5-$10).

Overnight in the spartan accommodations of Curtea de Arges ($20) and be sure to take in the ornate monastery on the western side of the small town.

The next morning grab a cab ($12) north to Castle Dracula or flag down one of the mini-buses ($0.30) that runs service to the small village of Carpateni. From Carpateni walk 1-2 miles north to the castle.

Castle Dracula is perched high on the ridge to your left and a small unmarked pullover sits at the trail head just past the nearby hydroelectric plant.

Dracula and You: The Sleepover- 1,300 steps lead up to the castle and entrance costs a few dollars if there is anyone there to collect it. Explore the ramparts and enjoy a packed lunch with the Arges Valley at your feet.

Spending the night at Castle Dracula may be frowned upon by the caretakers, again if there are any there, so don’t set up camp until night falls and you are alone.

Make sure you bring a warm sleeping bag, a tarp or tent to combat the night’s dew, and most importantly, a fully stocked vampire kit, because you just never know.