Romania is famous for plenty of things: the Carpathian Mountains, medieval fortresses, Sebastian Stan… But when most people think of Romania, they think of Transylvania and, you’ve guessed it, Count Dracula! In today’s post, we explore the origins of vampires, how Dracula helped boost Romania’s tourism industry, and we’ll teach you some words and phrases you might need to talk about Romania’s most famous legend.
The myth of vampire-like creatures has existed since ancient times, though the vampire as we know it—and the word ‘vampire’ itself—first came into being in southeastern Europe in the 18th century. In fact, the word ‘vampire’ was first recorded in English in 1734, borrowed from the French and German terms (le vampire and Der Vampir), though there are several schools of thought as to where the word was originally coined.
As for the origins of the creature, well, in its most modern form, as an undead, blood-sucking creature, stories of vampire infestations have always been closely related to instances of disease outbreaks. Although there are a host of diseases that can be linked to the idea of vampirism, it is suspected that porphyria, a group of diseases that cause sensitivity to sunlight, could be where many of the characteristics we relate to vampires come from.
Of course, the most famous vampire of them all is Dracula, as created by author Bram Stoker in 1897. With his imposing castle in the heart of Transylvania, Count Dracula became an archetype for many of the vampires to follow—but aside from the vampire myths, what else inspired Stoker to write about this character, as well as to set his story in a place he never visited?
Vlad Dracula and the Forest of the Impaled
Let’s rewind to the 1400s, specifically to 1431, the birth year of Vlad III Dracula—perhaps better known nowadays as Vlad the Impaler. He received the name Dracula because his father, Vlad II, joined the Order of the Dragon, which meant he earnt the name ‘Dracul,’ which comes from the old Romanian word for ‘dragon.’
In modern Romanian, the word ‘drac’ refers to the devil—and Stoker knew this; he read a book in 1890 about Wallachia (an area of modern-day Romania, then a principality, and which Vlad II and then Vlad III both ruled over) and noted that the word ‘dracula’ could mean ‘devil.’
Regardless, Vlad III Dracula eventually became voivode (local ruler or governor) of Wallachia and it was then that the reports of his cruelty began to circulate. He killed many of his boyars (members of the Romanian aristocracy) to secure his power and was known for meting out severe punishments for all kinds of crimes.
The Ottoman-Hungarian Wars had begun back in 1366, but by 1456, when Vlad III became voivode, they were in full swing. The Wallachians had historically paid a tribute to the Ottoman sultan—but Vlad III put a stop to this in 1461, angering the sultan and triggering an invasion.
Around 90,000 Ottoman soldiers advanced across Wallachia towards its capital, Târgoviște, while Vlad III’s conscripted peasant soldiers used guerilla tactics to slow their enemy down. Vlad III also ordered wells poisoned and crops torched along the way so that the Ottomans wouldn’t be able to replenish their supplies.
When the Ottomans finally reached Târgoviște in 1462, they found that the city gates were open and there were no soldiers on guard. The army marched into the city without meeting any resistance—even all the people who lived in the city had gone.
Then they found it: the forest of the impaled. Around 20,000 Ottoman prisoners had been killed, their bodies impaled on stakes. After taking it in, the Ottoman sultan ordered that the army should turn and leave Wallachia.
Although Vlad III’s (later called Vlad Ţepeş—Vlad the Impaler) cruelty was well-documented, he is regarded as a Romanian national hero. Many of the reports that spread about him at the time were of German origin, due to the recent invention of the printing press, and were likely embellished for political reasons. Many Wallachians did suffer as a result of the Ottoman invasion and Vlad III’s scorched earth tactics, but before this, many believed—and do today—that extreme measures were necessary to keep law and order in the principality.
Dracula and Tourism
Between 1956 and 1960, the number of tourists travelling to Romania increased from 5,000 to 103,000—and by 1970, it was more than two million. Part of this was due to the ease at which someone could travel to Romania; there were minimal visa checks involved because then-leader Nicolae Ceauşescu wanted to present Romania as being an independent communist country and tourism was to play a major role.
As Vlad III was regarded as a national hero, the government couldn’t, however, endorse tourism that merged Vlad III with Stoker’s Dracula. In 1973, the Romanian Ministry of Tourism created their own tour, Dracula: Legend and Truth, which was intended to draw a clear separation between the two, but one local tourism leader in Bistriţa, north-east Transylvania, had a better idea.
Alexandru Misiuga, head of Bistriţa’s tourism office, realised that a lot of tourists were visiting because of the Dracula novel. Misiuga hadn’t read the book at first but, once he did, he got an idea: he wanted to build a hotel called ‘Coroana de Aur’ (The Golden Crown), like the one Jonathan Harker visits in the novel. Due to the royal associations with the name of the hotel, Misiuga had to fight hard to have his plans accepted—but by pointing out that Dracula was really about good versus evil, he succeeded, and the hotel opened in April 1974.
Misiuga decided he wanted to build another hotel, this one in the same location as Dracula’s castle in the book—but things were more difficult this time around and he was repeatedly denied funding. This was where he decided to use the disjointed nature of the communist government to his advantage—he got the help of the local party secretary and they arranged to join Ceauşescu on one of the many hunting parties he enjoyed. Misiuga raised the issue of his new hotel after a day of hunting and Ceauşescu asked him what was stopping him from building it.
The plans went ahead and Hotel Tihuţa opened in 1983. It was renamed Castle Dracula after the fall of communism but Bistriţa county was—and remains—the centre of Dracula tourism in Romania.
A Vampire By Any Other Name
We’ve got a few words and phrases for you to use, too, in case you need to talk about vampires in Romanian—and a handy little phrase at the end, there!
- vampire – vampir
- coffin – sicriu
- fangs – dinti de vampir
- stake – țeapă
- cross – cruce
- bat – liliacul
- blood – sângele
- garlic – usturoiul
Ajutor! Un vampir ma muşcat! – Help! A vampire bit me!
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