This article originally appeared in the September 1978 issue playboy magazine.
Security at Romania’s Otopeni Airport is severe but gently done. My wife, Nancy, and I are politely separated–it’s weird to have come so far with her, to such a strange place, only to see her led away–and we are searched in curtained booths; she by uniformed women, I by lean young soldiers bearing automatic weapons. The soldiers are thorough but never rude, and though they constantly watch your eyes, they are careful to make comforting little jokes.
We’re rejoined after the search and walked over to a customs official with a fixed smile who misses nothing. At the instant our passports are stamped, a dark man of medium height appears and introduces himself as our official guide from the Ministry of Tourism. His name is Nick (I like the Mephistophelean ring to it) and his looks and bearing put me very much in mind of Peter Lorre when Lorre was trim and fit. We shake hands all around and he smiles with a pleasantly sinister affability.
“I understand you are interested in Dracula.” He says it Drah-koo-lah, exactly like Bela Lugosi!
I don’t know just when it dawned on me that there actually was a Transylvania. For years, like any other growing American kid, I’d assumed it was pure fantasy, that Bram Stoker had made it up as a suitable working locale for his fiend vampire, as L. Frank Baum had made up Oz for his Wizard and Tin Woodman. Certainly, Stoker’s descriptions of the place, its towering, wolf-haunted mountains, its crumbling castles reeking with ancient evil, did not seem particularly credible to a lad of the mild Midwest. And who could believe in the bleak strangeness of the Borgo Pass or all those peasants with their dark legends and eerie superstitions?
A tough old man wearing a cap and a turtleneck sweater is waiting for us in the reception area. He gives us a friendly glare with his bright-blue eyes, scoops up our baggage and glides off ahead of us into the crowd, dodging interference smoothly as we saunter along behind.
“I thought,” says Nick, “we might start by visiting Snagov–site of the grave of Dracula. It seems appropriate, don’t you think?”
Nancy and I exchange glances. It’s been a long trip and we hoped for a rest, but who can resist Dracula’s grave? The old man is stowing our luggage in the trunk of the black Mercedes as we come down the steps, but he’s at the doors and got them open before we’re near the car. He tucks us in back, giving Nancy a fatherly but appreciative smile and me a respectful nod, then ushers Nick into the front. As we get under way, Nick twists around and hands us our itinerary. I glance at it casually, wishing we could at least have a short nap; then my fatigue vanishes and I go back to its start, carefully reading each precious word. There, written in a small, precise hand on blue-lined pages torn from a notebook, are the names of places I have dreamed of seeing for years. I pass it to Nancy.
“It’s perfect,” I tell her. “It couldn’t be better.”
I got my first hints about Dracula the same way I got those about sex and other dark, forbidden things; from whispers from another kid, far away from grownups.
The kid was Bobby Marty, and he’d sneaked out of Evanston to Howard Street, on the Chicago-Evanston border, which was pretty daring right there, and he’d gone into a Chicago movie theater where they showed pictures Evanston didn’t, and he’d seen a rerun of the first Lugosi movie and it had scared him silly. In an attempt to pass the scare on to me, he told me the whole story, acting out the parts, mostly that of Dracula, of course, and providing sound effects, including a really swell stake being driven into a human chest. I admired the strangeness of his version of the Lugosi accent and enjoyed the stalking and the way he clawed his hands and waved them about, but what determined me to take, in turn, that perilous expedition to Howard Street to see the movie for myself was the sinister, toothy smile that played on Bobby Marty’s mouth.
The tough old chauffeur has taken off his cap now and revealed he’s bald as a vulture. A driver of the Ian Fleming persuasion, he’s belting the Mercedes along as fast as it can be done safely.
I’m terrified, at first, sure we’ll all be killed before we get to Snagov or even out of sight of the airport, but then I see how he handles his passing, and how sudden stops ahead never take him by surprise, and relax. Nancy, I learn later, has complete trust in him from the start.
The traffic he’s weaving us through so expertly is interesting: eccentric black tricycles, the men driving the sputtering motors, their wives or girlfriends holding long loaves of bread in the sidecars; trucks with two or three sections joined by accordion pleating; lots of Dacias, the Renault-styled national car, the only one they make; plenty of bicycles, many built for two, and, here and there, an oxcart.
We turn off into a forest and the road gets narrower and the traffic turns into a holiday parade, everybody heading for a picnic, family cars stuffed with baskets and big rubber balls, dogs lolling out the windows. We roll into a fair-sized parking lot cleared out of the woods, leave the car with the old man and head for a pier bedecked with bright flags where a man is renting all kinds of boats. Nick selects a broad sturdy-looking rowboat and we push off through the water, thick with lilies bright in the sun, Nick on the one oar, me on the other and Nancy in the prow, trailing her fingers in the water. Nick, grinning, mentions that the catfish in the lake are so big they commonly eat the ducks. Nancy laughs but leaves her fingers where they are. She’s been to Africa with me, the Yucatán, scarier places than this.
I was fortunate. I did not see Dracula first on a tiny TV screen in, God help us, someone’s living room; I saw it as it was designed to be seen: in a dark, cavernous theater, a glorious Gothic barn decorated with peeling murals and sagging tapestries. I did not understand then that I was in some film mogul’s dream of European elegance, but I did know it was supposed to be a sort of palace. I doubt if I was aware that all the cracked and dusty grandeur looming about me lent poignancy to Lugosi’s wistfully sinister line, “It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle in Transylvania,” but I did relish the booming acoustics that made the deep, alien voice echo and rumble, and I well knew the sheer size of the spectacle, the acreage of the screen that allowed such a vast spreading of that cloak, was vital to the over-all effect.
The island’s up ahead now, getting closer with each stroke of the oars. I recognize it from the pictures I’ve seen of it, by those towers topped with Byzantine crosses, but the pictures always showed it in autumnal gloom, not in sparkling sunlight surrounded by willows in shiny summer green; and if I imagined any background noise, it was a quiet lapping of water, not roars of out-board motors and kids yelling on water skis.
We tie up at a small, teetering dock. A couple of cheerful men are sitting on it, fishing with bamboo poles and drinking plum brandy from a labelless bottle. They offer us some and we take a sip before walking toward the chapel through the tall grass, annoying numerous waddling turkeys, and then we enter, stepping on the grave. There’s no way to enter the chapel without stepping on Dracula’s grave. The thought cheers me. It was getting a bit too pastoral.
The peasants knew about the grave long before the experts, of course. And they knew about the other grave, too, the one before the altar. They set candles along its edges, had done so for as long as anyone could remember, no one knew just why. Eventually, the experts opened the altar grave and found, rudely entombed, an ox skull, and they are still arguing over what it might mean.
Then they opened the other grave, the one you step on as you enter, and found the ruins of a body wearing artifacts that indicate it may have been Dracula. The historical Dracula, that is.
The historical Dracula is not the Dracula Bobby Marty told me about in that dark alley; he is not the silver-and-black menace of Lugosi nor the horror smeared with Technicolor blood as played by Christopher Lee. He was the real-life warrior prince of Walachia, a Romanian national hero, and he defended the country from the Turks and held off invaders from the north and last year a grateful nation, with the blessings of its president, Nicolae Ceausescu, admitted him with appropriate pomp and ceremony into Romania’s official hall of fame.
This existence of two Draculas, the historical and the literary, makes a pilgrimage at first a bit disappointing.
Suppose a Romanian author of the late 1880s hit on a clever idea for a thriller: Benjamin Franklin’s life is extended by a freak accident with a kite in a thunderstorm and a series of increasingly weird and eventually deadly experiments is performed by the now deranged scientist during the first term of the Grover Cleveland Administration. Imagine that the book is established as a horror classic, is made into a number of movies abroad and its lead character joins the popular lore. Now, suppose a Romanian reader of Franklin makes a pilgrimage to the United States and, instead of being shown the site of the terrifying events he has read about, he is shown Franklin’s printing shop and his seat in Independence Hall. He will be vastly interested, no doubt, or pretend to be, for the sake of his hosts, but will he feel himself in the presence of the green old man with a diabolical lightning simulator?
But still, here, looking down at the grave, I can imagine something rustling underneath the stone flooring, and Nancy has bought a crucifix from the cheerful little priest who tends the chapel and has a wooden tray full of the things, not to mention holy medals and postcards. She puts it around her neck.
“Just thought I’d be prepared,” she says, laughing.
“The peasants believe his body was put here so that the worshipers walking over it would, little by little, take away his sins,” said Nick. He shrugged. “It is typical of him that when they got him to Bucharest, his body disappeared, along with everything else they had found.”
The priest was waiting for us outside, holding up a double-page spread from some newspaper showing the excavations of the chapel in progress. He pointed carefully at various, pictures, speaking to us in Romanian, nodding and smiling when he had made some point.
“He is explaining to us that Dracula was buried in his church,” said Nick.
We have lunch at a pleasant bare wood restauránt in the forest, overlooking the lake. The place is mostly spreading roofed porches crowded with plank tables; it’s designed for fine weather and can be neatly packed away when the ice and cold winds come. Each table has at least one wine cooler waiting by it with bottles of beer and soft drinks standing in a bed of crushed ice. I learn this is a basic prop for any Romanian eating place. The beer is locally made–each small area has its special, fiercely defended beer–and tastes something like British bitter. With it we have a roast chicken served with a bowl of garlic sauce, and I’m introduced to mamaliga, a sort of corn-meal pudding, which goes beautifully with the chicken and, I will learn, with almost anything else, and which I will think of henceforth and forevermore as the country’s national dish, even if it may not, by some fluke, own that status officially.
An old, old gypsy, bronzed and wrinkled, wanders about the tables in a shabby but neatly pressed suit and plays the violin. Another gypsy has a box full of folded bits of paper and a parakeet sitting on his shoulder. If you give the gypsy some money, the parakeet will hop onto the edge of the box and pluck out one of the papers and that will be your fortune. Nancy has her fortune read and it seems that someday she will be rich. Nick, meantime, continues his exposition on the historical Dracula.
They called him Dracula simply because that was the diminutive of what they called his father: Dracul, which means Devil. He was, and is, far better known under the name Vlad Tepes, which means Vlad the Impaler, which refers to his hobby of putting people on standing stakes and leaving them there to die.
Now, the Romanians do not pretend that Vlad Tepes was a gentle or a kindly man. “But,” Nick says, looking around wide-eyed for any possible refutation, “name me a Fifteenth Century monarch who was!” Besides, Nick argues reasonably, Vlad has all along suffered from a bad press: The pamphlets Stoker used for research were printed and written by Germans, and Germans had every reason to dislike him, since he would not pay them taxes and was consistently rude to their armies. A famous account of his villainy put out by them, the attack that took place on Saint Bartholomew’s Day and the subsequent slaughter by stake of some 30,000 persons, loses something in effectiveness when it is pointed out that a church, the objective of the attack, was actually a garrisoned fort and that it is doubtful whether the entire population in that area numbered as much as 3000.
We stay that night in Bucharest, the capital, which looks surprisingly like a larger version of Nice. Romania was the chess piece the French used in that endless game the major powers played over the Balkans, and their influence lingers in that city. They have, for example, some of the best croissants I’ve eaten.
The next day, we head north, the old man peering like an eagle over his wheel, Nick taking meticulous notes, Nancy and I keeping track of our progress on a floppy road map from the Romanian Automobile Club. We’re heading for Targoviste, Dracula’s capital when he was warrior prince of Walachia, the rich land spreading south of the Carpathians. Bucharest dwindles to small houses behind almost endless green picket fence, and then we are in the country, American Midwest flat, with a tall corn crop on either side. I see a farmer and his ox looking tiny in the middle of their huge field and wonder how they do it.
One thing I worried about before the trip was the peasants. Would there be any and, if so, would they be quaint peasants? Oh, I’d seen photographs of peasants in the folders and guidebooks, wearing those wooly jackets with the flower patterns and smoking elaborate pipes, their women decked out in layers of colorful skirts topped with babushkas–but would there really be honest-to-God peasants wandering by the sides of the roads and actually living in the villages, or would there be only plastic ones, mostly running tourist curio shops? The answer is, friends, that there are lots of peasants, and they are real ones, and they have all the props, including goats and scythes and all that stuff. You don’t have to worry about it.
The ruins are on the outskirts of the town, which is quaint and quiet-seeming. There’s a light sprinkling of tourists wandering amiably on walkways and through passages and climbing the wooden steps of the restored tower that dominates the scene. From the tower, you look down onto the palace that was the scene of Vlad Tepes’ most purely nasty acts, none with a military excuse, just the sort of stuff a bored monarch might dream up after a few monotonous weeks at court.
Here is where he nailed the turbans to the heads of a Turkish delegation after they refused to doff them in his honor, and where he presented a visiting ambassador with a standing golden stake after dinner, asking him if he knew what it might be for, but here, most interestingly, is where he carried out a Draculian civic-improvement program by inviting the village’s poor, old and lame to a banquet, locking them in at the height of the festivities and then burning the whole affair to the ground.
From there we veer west in our northern course to spend the night at Curtea-de-Arges, a small village possessing one of the prettiest little Byzantine churches in the world. It was a lot of bother to its architect, as he was forced to wall his wife up alive during the building, and when it was done, the king decided to kill him as well so he’d never build another as fine. The poor bastard improvised some wings out of roof planking in an attempt to fly away, but made it only across the road, and the crash site is presently marked by a spring babbling out of the rock he cracked on impact. Nick is full of stories like that.
The next day is one I’ve been looking forward to. Our target is the site associated with the historical Dracula that best evokes Stoker’s monster as well: his ruined castle in the mountains high over the River Arges. This was his true lair, his favorite lurking place. He worked his worst enemies to death building it, and it was here he went whenever seriously threatened.
The trip isn’t easy, as the river has broken loose shortly before and caused a dreadful flood. New roads have been improvised alongside the ruins of the old, and we edge across a wobbly wooden bridge while kids cheer us on from the bent steel beams of the one the flood has destroyed.
We park in a bulldozed clearing by a wide point of the river and head for some concrete steps that mount up a gentle, wooded slope. There is no sign marking the place that I can see. The driver, standing by his car, looks up at the cliffside rising over the slope, shakes his bald head and mops it with a handkerchief.
“I would not hurry,” Nick says, “but take a leisurely pace. There are fourteen hundred steps to the castle.”
A soldier stands in a patch of wildflowers next to the stairs and we exchange shy nods and smiles while he shifts the strap of his Sten gun. The stairs take a bend and the upward slope starts to increase. I see another soldier standing at the next bend and, looking higher up, see the stairs form a series of hairpin bends going out of sight. We are about three bends past the second soldier when we hear him shouting down to his companion. We pause as Nick listens to the exchange.
“He says he has seen a viper,” Nick explains cheerfully and we resume our climb.
The vegetation starts to thin and I see there has been considerable planting of vines and other things to firm the earth, held in place, amusingly, by hundreds of wooden stakes. Then I begin to observe paw prints here and there, set into the concrete of the stairs.
“Those are wolf tracks,” says Nick. “The wolves would come out and play at night while the cement was still setting. There are bear tracks, too, of course.”
By now, the steepness of the slope down from the edge of the stairs is becoming more apparent. The parking space is very small, the driver, who has wandered across the road and is gazing down the further drop to the river, is a dot.
A slow, steady pace, together with an occasional pause, make the climb quite tolerable.
Then we come onto a ridge and the view turns spectacular.
We round a bend and pass before the incongruous little cottage of the caretaker, quite comfy and homey. There are pots of flowers on the porch. Ahead, up 100 or so more winding steps, is the castle.
It has been very partially restored, “propped up” might be better; rebuilt enough to be safe for snooping and climbing on. It reminds me more of Frankenstein than of Dracula, actually, and looks like the sort of place the good doctor would pick to bring some botched creation to life. The main tower is a dead ringer for that one in Bride of Frankenstein. All in all, I find it a very satisfyingly Gothic ruin and am sure it houses many owls and bats, and that wolves prowl it at night.
Scattered down one slope is a third of the castle, fallen during the year 1888, the year of Jack the Ripper. It was from that parapet that Vlad’s wife threw herself to her death so he’d be unhampered in his flight from the Turks. Overlooking that view is Vlad’s bedroom and, beneath that, the torture chamber.
Back in the car, speeding smoothly alongside the Arges, I look up at the Carpathians looming ever higher before us and rub my hands in an open gloat. On the other side of those mountains lies my goal, for there, by God, is Transylvania–the home of the real Dracula, by God, the pale skinny man with the long, sharp teeth who sleeps in a coffin and crumbles in the sun. This historical stuff is all very well, but now and then it does get in the way!
The mountains are towering over us now and they look terrific. We are going to cross them at their highest point, the Făgăras range, over a brand-new road, one that is still in the process of settling down. The Romanians, Nick explains, have a strong feeling for the ecology, they do not want to force the earth against its will, so they give it the option of accepting or rejecting innovations such as this road we are about to travel. They do not start by sinking piles and pouring concrete, they sketch out the road with bulldozers, using minimum shoring, and then they watch and see which curves and grades the mountain takes to, which ones it throws aside.
We’ve begun to climb, leisurely, but I can see glimpses of the road curling high above. It’s packed earth with now and then a chunk missing from its outer edge and an earth along its inner. The chauffeur has hunched a little lower over his wheel and his gearshifting becomes noticeably more enthusiastic.
Nancy is looking apprehensively out the window. The sky was clear when we began our ascent, but now clouds are scudding in from the north, from Transylvania. Of course, I am delighted to see them. There are occasional little red-and-white trestles placed on the border of the cliff’s edge to warn of the sheer drop beyond, but many of these have fallen, not a few along with generous portions of earth, and they look like scattered Band-Aids on the steep slopes below.
“I see,” says Nick, smiling, “that this road has not yet been tamed.”
The clouds, moving with remarkable speed, have covered the sky and are now starting a vertical expansion downward. Everything is suddenly wet, the rocks glistening, the earth road turning a bright red. Nick smiles. “I think Dracula has taken the form of a clump of thunderclouds,” he says, “in order to welcome you appropriately.” I smile back at him, but Nancy has grown very still, which means she is not enjoying herself at all.
We are nearing the top of the Carpathians and I see that the research and art departments at Universal Studios knew just what they were about when they did those lovely faked shots of appallingly rugged mountains in The Invisible Ray; but those big screens in the movie houses weren’t big enough, after all, for they weren’t up to suggesting the fantastic vastness of the place.
Directly ahead of us is the black gape of a tunnel cut into the rock–the entrance to Transylvania turns out to be a mysterious darkness–and at the precise moment of our entry, at the exact instant, I swear it, a huge bolt of lightning, fat and solid-looking, spirals in from behind us and smashes ker-raak into the side of the opening! Nick and I are startled into laughter, Nancy frowns and clenches her teeth and we zoom into the darkness of the tunnel, which is no staid arrangement of concrete and tile but a thing chopped and blasted out of living rock, almost like a natural cave. Abruptly, like something from a haunted-house ride, I see a tall lady in a niche wearing a long white robe with a kind of hood, holding a candle in one hand and making signs at us with the other, as if to ward off the evil eye. She is gone with equal suddenness and we emerge from the tunnel into the thickest, peltingest rain I have ever seen, even in the tropics.
The driver has the wipers on at once, but from the back seat, only water is visible. The roar of the rain on the roof is incredible. He hunkers down a little further over his wheel, readjusts his grip on it and I am pleased to see a grim smile twitch at the corner of his mouth. He is going to use all his skill and ingenuity to see that the storm doesn’t slow him down.
At first we’re surrounded by whirling darkness–we’re actually working our way through the interior of a cloud!–which is irregularly lit by blinding flashes of lightning showing jagged boulders and twisted spires of rock slanting at bizarre angles; sometimes the lightning silhouettes them in stark outlines, sometimes it blasts in front of them, flood-lighting the rain bouncing off them and making them seem covered with dancing spangles.
Then we clear the cloud and the rain is pouring through a violently swirling grayness, like Poe’s Maelstrom, and I see swollen streams gushing down into the abyss, carrying rocks along with the force of their passage. Nick and I are clapping our hands in delight and laughing like a couple of loons (I’ve never been on a more exciting ride in my life), but Nancy, who never batted an eye when we were in an automobile accident in Kenya, who drove through the Yucatán jungle before they had the road in–Nancy has become positively grim-faced.
Suddenly, on a particularly narrow stretch of road, there is a loud cascade of banging on the roof and we see rocks spinning by the windows. Nick and I are instantly stilled and even the driver looks up with alarm. It’s the only time I have seen him startled. For a moment, we all hold our breath, but nothing more happens and we zoom on, the chauffeur neatly maneuvering a series of incredible descending hairpin turns, until finally we reach a little roadside inn, filled with sheepherders, where we decide to stop for lunch.
“Let us thank our chauffeur for seeing us safely through,” announces Nick, and Nancy reaches her arms into the front seat and gives the old man a huge hug, which Nick smiles at but does not entirely approve of. Then his eyes light up as he spots a huge, pale butterfly flopping through the moist air from one dripping branch to the next.
“Ah, I see Dracula has taken on another form to see how we enjoyed his welcome.”
Then we go into the inn, all four of us together, to toast our survival with Russian vodka and stuff ourselves with meat grilled and spiced in the manner Transylvanian bandits used to favor, and maybe still do.
Of course, I am entirely satisfied with our sensational ride through the Carpathians; it was more than I’d dared hope for since I’d long ago looked up from the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the Evanston Public Library and realized Stoker’s locales were honest to God based on fact, but there is more to come: There is Bistrita, where Jonathan Harker stayed at the Golden Crown Hotel and had a crucifix pressed on him by his frightened hosts; and, better, the Borgo Pass, the wild valley that Harker drove through in a wolf-accompanied coach to Dracula’s castle itself.
We spend the night in a monastery called, oddly, Upper Saturday. It has wood-burning stoves and you walk through corridors lined with glittering glass icons showing Christ sprouting branches and saints bleeding and Michael slaying the dragon. Nancy snuggles close to me beneath the fat goose-down quilt on the enormous bed in our tiny room, elaborately decorated in red velvet. She has stopped making jokes and, I notice in the flickering firelight, has kept the crucifix on. The next morning, we have breakfast with the abbot, who shows us the proper Romanian way to open and eat a fresh green pepper.
We drive most of the next day and it’s late when our headlights pick up the sign bistrita. My initial reaction is what I have feared for all these years: disappointment. It’s a place of tidy avenues with trimmed trees and modern lamps and ordinary-looking houses. It actually reminds me of Evanston, and when we pull up at an aggressively un-mysterious-looking gas station and the pump goes ting, just like it did on Dempster Street, I wonder if I am the butt of some cosmic joke.
My apprehension increases considerably when we arrive at the Golden Crown Hotel. It is purposely named after the place Stoker made up, but offhand I can’t see any other point of resemblance. It’s a nice, comfortable place, a little too much like home, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to look out at the up-to-date parking lot and see Fords and Chevies with illinois, land of lincolnlicense plates. True, the band in the restaurant does break off the prom music to play a doina, which is to say it does its best to imitate a pack of wolves, a favorite pastime of the live musicians found in almost every eating establishment in the country, but this traveling businessman’s hotel is definitely not what I had in mind.
The next day, we go to the old part of town and I perk up at once. This is much more like it. I can easily imagine Jonathan Harker wandering under the arcades, browsing over the curious foods and goods for sale in the little shops, and I’m delighted to see there are plenty of elderly ladies with babushkas and colorful clothing and, yes, crucifixes; there seem to be plenty of crucifixes.
It is all very much like the Bistrita I had hoped and, on braver days, expected to see. The only odd thing is that the most noticeable feature of the whole place is a huge church with a towering steeple, which, I learn, can be seen for miles. It is by far the most outstanding and memorable building in Bistrita, yet Harker doesn’t mention it once in Dracula, despite a lengthy description of the town, doubtless because the author never actually made the trip himself.
When we return to the hotel, I decide it really isn’t so bad, after all. They do sell wolf and bear salami in their shop, though they’re momentarily out of wolf, and there are a few badly painted but well-meant Dracula plaques (one of which, for no reason at all, suddenly falls off the wall and hits poor Nancy on the head) for sale and, of course, plenty more crucifixes.
Nick has arranged for us to meet the local director of tourism and he turns out to be a large, cheerful man who is a Dracula buff; admiring not just the historical Dracula but, like Nick, the real one as well. He ushers us into a secret room (I’m delighted to learn the Golden Crown has one) and pours us a rich, red Romanian wine, which, of course, inspires us to make lots of little jokes about drinking blood. He has the only copy of Dracula I’ve seen in the country, well thumbed, a collection of very scary folk masks and a file of mail from Dracula fans all over the world, a good many of whom seem actually to believe he exists, including, interestingly, a number of females, many enclosing photos, offering their fair white necks for biting. Our host denies, with a carefully ambiguous smile, accepting any of these latter invitations, but he answers all letters sent to Dracula, care of Transylvania, as diligently as his opposite number at the North Pole replies to those sent to Santa Claus.
We have a little more wine, make a few more jokes, which now strike everybody as really hilarious (even Nancy, the cut on her head having finally stopped bleeding, relaxes a bit), and then the driver peeks in, carrying a big wicker basket–everything is ready for the picnic!
In all his informed guesses, Stoker is nowhere more on target than in his description of the approach to Borgo Pass: the groves of apple trees, the sloping landscape, the lumbering oxcarts, the roadside crosses (though he had not mentioned painted tin Christs nailed to them); and, yes, even the peasants praying at their shrines were there. I gave a huge sigh of relief and smiled at the lowering mountains ahead. I was doing what I had so long wanted to do and it was working.
The road through the pass itself does not wind through crags and cliffs as I thought; it’s more a building from hillocks to taller heights, and then, on either side, the steep rising of huge, rugged masses in the distance. We stop the car at a spot that strikes me as satisfyingly forlorn, make our way up the hillside to a tree and are in the process of setting up our picnic when an enormous white dog appears. He smiles at us, revealing unbelievable teeth, and sits down.
“It would appear,” says Nick, “that Dracula has taken one of his more traditional forms to join us at our feast.”
We arrange ourselves on a spread blanket, Nancy serves out our plates while the rest of us, including the dog, from whom she keeps her distance, wait patiently, and then we all dine together, the dog getting most of the bear salami. We are just finishing the last of the local beer when Nick points out something on a far hill.
“I’ve never seen that before,” he says.
The sun is hitting it just right, making it stand out clearly on its mountain. Were there turrets? Could I just make out a broken battlement?
“It’s some kind of a huge castle,” says Nancy. “A great, huge castle.”
“What do you think?” asks Nick. “Do you think that’s it?”
“I think that’s it,” I say.
We leave in no great hurry. The dog has walked us to our car and sits now, huge and white against the grass, smiling and licking the last of the bear salami from his enormous teeth as he watches us out of sight.
Sitting back in the Mercedes, I think about Bobby Marty and wish we hadn’t lost touch. This time, I would like to tell him about Dracula and the land in which he lived and, I’m sure Bobby and I would agree, could we get together, lives yet.
There is a long silence, broken finally by Nancy, who has brightened considerably, now that we are headed back to Bucharest.
“What do you suppose the driver’s made of this?” she asks Nick. “All this Dracula business?”
“Oh, he really doesn’t care,” says Nick. “He just drives.”
“Has he ever heard of Dracula?” she persists.
Nick asks the driver.
“Drah-koo-lah?” says the driver, keeping his eyes on the road. “Drah-koo-lah?” He shakes his head. It’s new to him.
“Ask him if he’s heard of Vlad Tepes,” I say, and Nick does, and the driver replies. Nick turns and smiles, an elbow resting on the back of his seat.
“Vlad Tepes, yes, Vlad Tepes,” he translates. “He’s buried in Snagov.”