Land of Dragul

Oh no! It’s Dave O’Leary! Millions of Irish folk bedecked in green gasped into their pints with more than a hint of unnecessary doom. Sure-footed Dave proceeded to step up to the spot and slotted the penalty home. Dave stood still and was engulfed and embraced by his team.

Delirium swept the country, but was not limited to the boundaries of our tiny island as Irish all over the world celebrated. We had beaten Romania. It was the World Cup in 1990 and we had made it to the quarterfinals for the first time. Packy Bonner had previously saved Timofte’s penalty and was later canonized in his native Donegal. The unfortunate Timofte had a fishing boat named after him in Killybegs.

We didn’t know much about Romania at that time. It was that dark country of Transylvanian vampires. Dubliner Bram Stoker based his fictional Dracula on Vlad Dracula, a 15th century Romanian voivode or prince.

Romania was also one of those countries hidden behind the red Communist veil of the Iron Curtain. We knew about some of its sports people and their heroic endeavours. Diminutive and anorexic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, only 15 at the time, delighted and amazed the world with her balance and poise and her perfect ten in the Montreal Olympics of 1972. Also in the 70s, the comic genius of tennis star Ilie Nastase entertained us and took the dullness out of the serve and volley game. Unfortunately, he never held it together enough to win Wimbledon. Silky-skilled Hagi dominated that match in Genoa that the Romanians should have won but didn’t.

Then in the early 1990s we heard about the tragedy of those orphanages and how Romanians had suffered under the cruel communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The nasty Stalinist dictator had a meteoric and fortuitous rise to power. It went to his head and he became a megalomaniac. His extreme economic policies and attempts to industrialise the country landed it in extreme debt. Then when he tried to tackle the debt, his people endured extreme hardship and poverty. Many parents were forced to abandon their children in the state run orphanages. In these horrific institutions, the children were neglected and they lived in degrading conditions.

Ceaucescu, like most statesmen of his ilk, stashed money offshore. He built himself a huge sprawling extravagant palace in Bucharest. He was executed as the communist era in Romania came to a violent end in 1989, but his legacy of repression remained and to a certain extent still lingers in Romania today.

Bucharest the capital of Romania was at one time one of the grandest cities in Europe. In legend, Bucur, a simple shepherd founded the city as a small village. In the 15th century Vlad Dracula made it his capital and really put Bucharest first on the map. Various rulers past through and it wasn’t until independence in 1861 that it started to really flourish as a city. The city expanded and wide boulevards, grand architecture and even an Arc to rival the monuments of Paris were constructed. After the World Wars the older buildings had fallen into disrepair and some were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1970s. Ceaucescu modernized the city but destroyed its heart and soul and any elegance. His architectural legacy remains the Palace of Parliament, or more ironically the People’s Palace.

It is the second largest building in the world by area with only the Pentagon larger. So flamboyant was he in spending the country’s money that he went further over budget than even any Irish construction project could go.

Now Romania is in transition with hopes of joining the EU in 2007. It is emerging as one of those new cheap beach destinations in Eastern Europe. The weakness of the local Lei currency adds value for tourists from the Eurozone and you really get extra purchase power with your Euro.

The beach resorts of Romania are clustered around the Black Sea Coast. The Black Sea is an inland sea joined to the Med by the Bosphorus of Turkey. It is a sink for the great Danube River and its delta, an area of great natural beauty, has world heritage protection.

Flights to the Black Sea Coast are into Constanta, the largest Romanian port and second city. It has an ancient history, but there is not much left as it was bombed heavily during both world wars.

Mamaia, a suburb north of Constanta, is the tourism centre on the Romanian Riviera with a requisite number of hotels (footballer Hagi even owns one), bars and restaurants and a long and pleasant sandy beach. It is only a short transfer from Constanta airport. The season is from Mid May to October. There is a propensity of health spas in the area because of the healing properties of the black mud from a nearby lake. Sapropelic is the Romanian wellness industry slang for the therapy that involves a soak in the mud to alleviate rheumatic and skin disorders. A mud bath is an experience you will remember if you haven’t tried it even if you are dubious about the health benefits.

Traditional Romanian fare is better than you might expect. In some rural areas, because of the poverty and dearth of variation in produce, the menu can be sparse and the food ordinary, but in tourist areas this is far from the case. The national dish is a hearty soup or casserole called a ciorba. There are many varieties with beef or lamb and vegetables being the most widely available. Samales are stuffed cabbage rolls served with polenta. Grilled sturgeon is a specialty on the Black Sea Coast, although this species is supposedly not as good for caviar as Sturgeon caught in the Caspian Sea.

Romania has quite a reputation for wine, which is cheap in price and of top quality. The Murfatlar vineyards produce award winning sweet whites and they are an ideal accompaniment to your sturgeon. You can visit the vineyard if you stay in Mamaia, as it is not that far away. The best aperitif is the local plum brandy called palinca.

The strongest link between Ireland and Romania lies in the horror fiction of Dubliner Bram Stoker. Stoker of course penned Dracula and he based it on a fictitious vampire count from Transylvania, a mountainous area (Carpathian Mountains) in the North of the country, which is particularly popular for skiing.

Brasov is the major mountain ski resort in the central Carpathians, but it is a popular tourist destination at all times of the year, despite a recent problem with encroaching wild bears. The lively town with its wood-panelled baroque architecture, attractive cobbled streets and wide central square seems reminiscent of somewhere in Saxony. This is the kind of place you could readily spend a few days exploring the bars and restaurants.

Sinaia is an equally attractive ski resort. The elaborately adorned Peles Castle is the major attraction and this was the former summer home of King Carol I.

The Dracula book didn’t become a hit until the character hit the silver screen. Bela Lugosi, a Transylvanian Hungarian, and Christopher Lee immortalized the legendary Count and etched him into our darkest fears.

Dracula tourism is just beginning to be exploited by Romanians and plans are afoot to create a Dracula theme park, but it is a thorny issue, as there are a number of misconceptions about the Romanian Dracula who inspired Mr Stoker to write his book.

Stoker didn’t base his Dracula on the historic Vlad Dracula but just took his name. He based the fictional character in Transylvania, but the real Vlad was from Wallachia.

Vlad Dracula or Vlad Tepes (his nickname was the inhaler) was bloodthirsty but he didn’t drink the stuff. He got his name Dracula from his father who was made Knight of the Order of the Dragon (Dracul) by the Holy Roman Emperor for fighting the Turks. In Romanian dracul means the devil but also dragon So Vlad Dracula was the son of the devil and this suited Stoker for his macabre writing.

Vlad Tepes was obsessed with impaling and inflicted this cruel slow death on tens of thousands of people at once. He would display the bodies on sticks around his fortress to ward off invaders. His rule was very severe and even a white lie could result in impalement and death.

His lust for torture and blood was insatiable, but he was also the victim of a negative propaganda campaign. German chroniclers exaggerated the horror of his punishments, whereas Romanian historians viewed him as a national hero who protected the country against invasion from the Turks and Hungarian Magyars. So still to this day there is some local reservation and anger about his association with Stoker’s fictitious vampire count.

Despite this tourists flock to Transylvania to visit the real, fictitious and imaginary places associated with Dracula. Sighisoara is where Vlad Tepes was born and his house is now a restaurant. He lived in a fortress at Poenari where most of his atrocities were carried, but the fortress is a ruin. Plans are afoot to have a Dracula theme park with an institute of vampirology at Snagov Monastery where he is buried.

Fictitious sites that appear in the book include Borgo Pass near Bistrista. Here there is a Dracula Castle Hotel and a restaurant where you can have the robber’s steak eaten by Johnathan Harker in the book. It is a meat kebab with bits of bacon, beef and onion roasted over a fire on a stick. He probably had garlic bread as a starter.

The Romanian Tourist Authority association of Bran Castle with Dracula’s Castle definitely came from their imagination. It is firmly ensconced as the major Dracula tourist attraction, but there is no evidence for this and it never appeared in the book. The Wallachian Prince may have stayed here en route from his capital, but it is not his castle. Granted it is a dramatic looking edifice on the top of the cliff but it is not really scary. Indeed Bran Castle looks more like it is out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than it being a haven for evil bloodsucker vampires.



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