By Chris Hagen
BUCHAREST, ROMANIA (2010) – The first step up the stone slabs to Poenari is a difficult one, especially just before sunrise when all is dark and an early winter mist pierces like a wooden spike.
Nearly one hundred and fifty flights and precisely one thousand four hundred and eighty steps upwards to his five hundred and sixty-three-year-old lair, the Poenari Fortress is not only “Dracula’s” true home, it also is considered one of the most haunted place on earth.
Ears at attention and wide-eyed, the knees shake as raindrops mimic tiny footsteps and rolling thunder becomes a demon’s growl along the journey. A stray dog’s nip at the heel is nearly enough to force the bravest man to cower.
“You know you feel like chills on your spine, have a little panic,” said Valentin Grancea, guide for the Butterfly Villa, a hostel near the Old Town in Bucharest.
“It was in the middle of the mountain where he executed half of the boyars,”
Boyars, the Romanian explained, were local leaders at the time who betrayed “Dracula,” or more accurately named Prince of Wallachia, Vlad “Tepes” or the Impaler. Sometimes he was referred to as Vlad the Devil, as his father, Vlad Dracul, was bestowed a title in the Hungarian Order of the Dragon, a coalition to fight against the growing Ottoman Empire.
Fear, during the hike, begins when the legends are recalled.
In 1447 when Vlad was seventeen and he had yet to earn his nickname, his thirst for vengeance and the strictest of order began. In a land torn with internal rivalry, betrayal and the ominous threat of the Ottoman Turks, Vlad sought to unify the three kingdoms of what is now known as part of Romania.
First, however, Vlad the Impaler wanted blood. Under the guise of a banquet, Vlad invited boyars – guilty of murdering his elder brother – their families and soldiers to the Princely Capitol in Tirgoviste. After fifteen hundred of the Boyars arrived and drank their fill, his loyal soldiers surrounded them and forced them on a fifty-mile march toward the Carpathian Mountain range and the fortress Poenari . He impaled approximately half of the Boyars and enslaved the rest atop the fortress, which sits on a peak above the Arges River. The dungeon can still be seen today along with part of the castle that has not collapsed.
“Sometimes it could take two days for people who were impaled to die,” Grancea said in his thick Slavic accent. Starting from the buttocks, an executioner would place an enemy, a wrong doer or anyone else Vlad sentenced to the cruel fate on to the top of a sharpened pole. Slowly, the pole would work its way through the body, usually coming out of the shoulder and sometimes the mouth.
“It was a terrible way to die,” said Reiner Katscher, owner of the Butterfly Villa. “But Vlad was a fierce ruler and demanded honesty.”
“All is legend,” said a fortress ranger, Nicoloe Victor. He lives next to the crumbling castle in a small shack, equipped with a simple bed and an old, ceramic heater called a soba. His job is to ensure people are safe, as tickets are not sold to visit the fortress.
“There is no scoo-bee-doo,” he added with a wave of his hands and a chuckle.
Stories from his rule range from the prince placing a golden cup in his courtyard in Tirgoviste to catch a thief to paying a Italian merchant an extra gold coin after a robbery as a test of honesty.
“Nobody ever took the cup,” Katscher said, “and Vlad told the merchant, ‘You are fortunate that you told the truth or I would impale you.”
Although impalement was his favorite, Vlad practiced a variety of other tortures. Once, when the Ottoman Turkish armies invaded nearly to Bucharest, he created the Forest of the Impaled, and slaughtered twenty thousand Turks upon wooden spikes. At this point, the Ottoman armies retreated from disgust and fear, but soon returned and nearly captured the prince at Poenari Fortress.
He escaped however, after his wife threw herself off the battlements and seven brothers made the prince backwards horseshoes.
“The horseshoes made him look like he was going up the mountain and not down,” Katscher said. A self-declared student of history, he has taken more than two hundred tours in the past five years to “Dracula” related sites around Romania.
All these thoughts and more plague the mind as the seven hundredth step approaches. Breathing becomes difficult and a chill does run up the spine. Slowly breaking dawn begins to part the mists but the darkness feels oppressive. Gnarled oaks and elms, whose branches stretch away from the fortress, do little to help the sense of foreboding that plagues the mountainside.
A small, mostly wooden house, near the middle of the stony path, is considered haunted by locals, Grancea said.
“Some padurars, or people who protect the forest, saw some lights on but nobody has lived there for many, many years,” the guide said. “They saw the lights and could not figure out why and ran, they say,” he added with a smile.
He went on to say that Romanians knew little of the legend of Dracula until after Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” film was released. Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula,” mixed the legends together improperly identifying Bran Castle as the one in which Vlad lived.
“Before that, we knew of strigoi,” Grancea said which he believes may be a connection. “It is when somebody is dying but they do not chill. They are undead, and are still warm and you must stick a wooden pole into their chest to kill them.”
Many superstitions roam the countryside of Romania. One of which includes tying a red string or cloth around one’s body in order to ward off evil curses. The strigoi, which according to Romanian legend, have two hearts and are blood-drinking shape-shifters. There are many ways to ward off strigoi, one of which includes eating or wearing garlic. These myths and more have survived to modern times, Grancea said.
During Vlad’s reign, he was able to beat back the Ottoman Turks on many occasions, frequently seeking neighbors such as Hungary and the Moldavians for assistance. He impaled and killed more than one hundred thousand people during his reign. During captivity in Hungary, Vlad was used as a “face of terror,” to their enemies, Katscher said.
Legends point to a painting where Vlad sits amongst the impaled, drinking from a dripping cup. The substance inside the cup, which is red, resembles blood, Katscher said.
After being betrayed by his own people, according to legends, Vlad was killed in 1476 after his second enthroning. He supposedly was found on Snagov Lake, decapitated. Until the 1800s, his body was believed to lie in Snagov Monastery, one of the most famous during its day in the area.
Hundreds of bodies lie under Snagov Lake, Grancea said. Once during Vlad’s reign, Ottoman Turks rushed across a bridge to the monastery but failed to reach the island as the bridge collapsed under their weight. The most recent “Legend of the Lake,” reports that two divers went to the bottom of the deep waters in search of treasure. One man, he said, came up missing a hand but had no idea how it happened.
Vlad the Impaler’s headstone inside Snagov Monastery is simple. A single stone slab with an engraving of him propped up into a brass stand are all that remain.
Beneath the stone slab also remains a mystery. In the nineteenth century his grave was unearthed to discover partial remnants of Hungarian-styled clothing and animal bones.
“Don’t believe it was Vlad,” Grancea said. “This is supposing he is resurrect. Maybe he change his shape.”
A last bend in the climb to Poenari and the final steps to the dark fortress, shrouded in mist, approaches. If Vlad the Impaler truly is a creature of the night, or an undead, the narrow entryway to the remains of the fortress is an ideal location for an attack.
It is here, where the hairs on the neck stand on end, but only one decisions remains, continue forward.
Katscher scaled the mountain once during winter after he first invested in the hostel industry in Bucharest. He said he does believe in hauntings and felt strange that early morning as he hiked through a light dusting of snow to reach the fortress.
“It’s hard to say about these things,” the German born businessman said. “It was so silent. It was a special feeling and after all this time I have only felt this at Poenari.
“When it is sunny outside and lots of people, nothing happens,” he continued.
“Some people bring back strange stories when they come back down. At least Prince Vlad Tepes the Impaler is someone from whom Romanians derive no small amount of courage. They’re proud, Katscher said, that they had such a strong leader for during his reign all who swore fealty were safe as long as they obeyed the law.
“I am not sure about all the legends, though, even though Poenari is just a ruin, you just can’t help but ask yourself.” Katscher’s smile faded. Despite Hollywood’s bastardization of the legends, local myths still ring true for him. “Could it all really have happened?”