Europe | Romania | Brasov – His head on a plaque
The cemetery is crowded. Gravestones feature faded pictures in ovals, like in Lithuania and France. Sometimes they have two or more generations – older folk with moustaches or headscarves; more recent ones with bouffant hairdos. A woman in black sits at the foot of a grave, her handbag draped over a wooden cross nearby. Many gravestones have wooden crosses tied to them for more recent additions. One grave is piled high with brown wreaths and ribbons; it is new, from early July. Some are open, waiting for bodies.
A black cat crosses my path. A wolf howls. It’s new moon. I notice bites on my legs fang-tooth distance apart. Then I spot a third bite. ‘Maybe the vampire had a wisdom tooth coming through,’ suggests Sexton. Elvis Villas needs 13 people for the tour.
We weren’t going to do the whole Dracula thing. Merely being in Transylvania was interesting enough. But Elvis Villas runs a 3-castles-in-one-day minibus tour for a good price. We thought we may as well see a bit more of the mountains and countryside.
The first stop was Rasnov, a hill top fortress where renovation had only recently begun. Still mostly ruins with a small museum and stunning scenery all around. I wished we could have gone hiking in those hills. But with Sexton’s bad ankle, walking from the minibus to the castle was hard enough.
Rasnov was Sexton’s favourite castle of the day, he said later, which surprised me as he was barely awake at that time and all he did there was drink coffee (that must’ve been why it was his favourite).
We already had low expectations of Bran Castle, after hearing of other people’s disappointments. So I was very pleased with it. So what if they didn’t make a big deal out of the Dracula aspect – he never lived there. Far creepier than the fact that Vlad may have stopped by for a cup of tea is the room full of Nicolae Ceausescu’s hunting trophies. I was almost surprised not to see the dictator’s own head on the wall, so hated he was by the time the army shot him and his wife in 1989. The execution video was repeated on Romanian television for weeks afterwards.
Some of our fellow tourists actually got around to asking our tour guide about Ceausescu. But she could barely remember the revolution; she was only 5 years old at the time. She now lived in Los Angeles where she was beginning her final year in high school, and only came home for the summers. Though she was very knowledgeable about history and the places we visited, and she got everyone in at discount rates, she was far more keen on talking about life in America than her own country’s not-so-distant troubles.
Sexton and I sat up front in the 15 seat minibus, because we were the oldest, with Sexton’s grey hair and my binoculars. No, really it was because we were farting around at the hostel until the last minute.
At the third castle we had to wear burlap sacks on our feet so as not to scuff the floors. It was the king’s castle, unlike the other two which were built as fortresses for the people. A guide led us through rooms full of gold, crystal, armour, marble, Persian carpets and copies of old masters paintings. Sexton yawned. ‘This sword was used for beheading people. It was said when you raise it over your head God will give you eternal life, ‘ the guide paused dramatically ‘ and this is the central heating system, created in the 19th century [points to duct in wall]. And now lets us look at some Oriental weapons.’
Stories of a princess who died when she was four; a bookcase hiding a secret door. Armour for horses, inlaid knives and guns. Mirrors many metres high. Sexton finally perked up. He’d seen something he liked! It was a pipe sticking out of the wall.