Discovering Dracula and Playing with Fire

An Eejiet Abroad: Discovering Dracula and Playing with Fire
By Conor Makem

Last year I signed off on a “to be continued” column, leaving readers on the edge of the precipice, so to speak. The topic was a three-month adventure in Romania, which the other half and I had just begun.

I had yet to even be served my first breakfast when I ran out of Ohio Irish American News space, so you can imagine how many letters I’ve received from everyone concerned about what happened next. I’ll give you a hint, it’s smaller than a breadbox, but less than one.

Close to a year later, I’ll set the stage for the second act with my promise to you that I will never again leave anyone hanging on a topic that has so little to offer in the way of interest.

Libby and I had just set ourselves down in a quaint restaurant in a town called Sibiu in the region of Transylvania. It was a beautiful area and our nerves were still aflutter from the very real concern that we weren’t going to be allowed into the country the night before.

When last I left you, the waiter was bringing black tea, which I would later find out is only ordered in Romania when someone is feeling ill. There was also breakfast on its way and let me just say on that topic that the Romanians are quite fond of meat. Not that I don’t love it as well, but they could take over the world if they could figure a way to transfer their collective arterial plaque to the leaders of other countries.

Now, to put you at ease—and maybe I could have fit this into the column a year ago—the breakfast was uneventful. Sorry for the wait on that one. Now we’ll move on.

We found ourselves in a town called Sebeș. It has a population of about 24,000, so visualize a town about the size of Ennis, Co. Clare, with the caveat that the similarities end there.

For example, where Ennis boasts many reputable mobile phone shops, not one of them also doubles as a car rental business. Ho-ho! That’s one for Sebeș. Also, the residents of Sebeș are quite adept at keeping their bus schedules a well-guarded secret. Ennis plasters the information all over the place for any nosy vagabond to misuse as he or she sees fit. Chalk up another one for the little Transylvanian town that could.

And finally, Ennis is bogged down with low-income, late night troublemakers, known in some circles as musicians. When I asked our host in Sebeș where to find some quality live music, she replied, “Er… there might be a wedding or something.” (This actually happened.)

Nonetheless, we were determined to immerse ourselves in the local culture, so with that in mind, this same woman and her husband brought us out for a traditional Romanian celebration a couple weeks later. Lots of fun, we were promised.

The first thing I’m going to do is admit that yes, it was more fun than I could have imagined. Secondly though, I’ll say that there isn’t an insurance company that would ever allow a town or city to host this sort of thing here in the States, or at least I hope not.

Once a year, Romanians head out into fields to whirl around ¬balls of fire

You see, this nighttime event centered around wrapping bits of cloth onto a thin wire, setting the fabric alight and whirling the fireball around in wild abandon. If this sounds dangerous as a solo affair, imagine a field of hundreds of participants—including children of all ages— engaged in the activity at the same time, with 50-gallon barrels and bonfires blazing hither and thither. I will add that the event was hosted by the fire department and there were firemen and firewomen aplenty to keep things as sane as you can imagine something like this could be.

It was during these festivities, friends, that I realized that I had to know more about these people, and it was a topic that Libby and I were both more than happy to research. Every once in a while, we’d up and leave our temporary abode in Sebeș and take a week or two to travel somewhere new in Transylvania.

I’ll dispense with everyone’s first Transylvanian thought at the get-go: where was Dracula from? Irish author Bram Stoker based his most famous of characters on Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Romanian tyrant known for impaling people on stakes. Vlad was born in a village called Sighișoara, and yes, it’s still standing, along with the town’s original fortified walls, its thirteenth century clock tower and the house in which he was born.

This is the building wherein Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Dracula) was born. A tourist trap to be sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth the $1.25 entrance fee.

Libby and I had no option but to check out his home when we were in town. A tourist trap indeed, it was worth the $1.25 entrance fee. We even saw the man waiting in the coffin to scare us strolling around town later that day and he seemed a nice chap.

The entire village of Sighișoara is so well preserved, it boggles the mind, thus, I suppose, its designation as a World Heritage Site. The network of narrow cobbled streets hosts two- and three-story pastel colored shops and homes, most from the fifteenth century and earlier.

Now I’ve seen and done a lot of things, but walking past the old Sighișoara graveyard on our way back to our hotel on the evening of Friday the thirteenth, and hearing an owl coo, is up there with the eeriest. But that’s exactly what happened.

In some ways, this could be considered Dracula’s birthplace, as seen from the local pizza shop.

Surrounding the old village are the newer sections of Sighișoara, a bustling city of banks, shops, restaurants and homes. It’s where most of the people who aren’t tourists go about their daily lives. Be prepared for busloads of tourists in the nicer months.

As you can well imagine, it’s one of the country’s most visited sites. If you’re looking for advice on where to stay, I couldn’t find a reason to steer you away from the hotel we used, within walking distance of the old village: Casa Cu Cerdac, where the owner will be happy to give you a tour of the old village onboard his tuk-tuk (that’s one of those open-air motorcycle cabs you see in places like Vietnam.

*Conor Makem spent 22 years traveling and honing petty gripes as an Irish musician, and enjoyed a further 13 years of people not returning his calls as a journalist. He is fluent in English, American and old Kerry farmer. More of his photos are on Instagram under cb.makem.

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Once a year, Romanians head out into fields to whirl around ¬balls of fire
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