Touring Romania on a BMW Motorcycle | On the Trail of Dracula

Touring Romania With Vlad On the Mind

By Peter Starr, Photography by Peter Starr, Zed Zawada

When the Irish novelist Bram Stoker wrote the dark Gothic novel Dracula in 1897, the world of mysticism, the occult, and belief in the underworld were held in a very different regard than today. His novel dabbled in the unknown and was indeed made of scary stuff. Doubtless he would be amazed that his fictitious vampire character not only spawned numerous cult movies but also an entire tourism industry for the district of Transylvania in Romania.

So who was Dracula and where might I find him or evidence of him? My quest first took me to Bucharest where I picked up travel partner Zed Zawada, guide Gabriel Jderu, and a couple of BMW motorcycles.

Old Town Bucharest with its cobbled streets, quaint hotels, and outdoor cafés provided the perfect atmosphere from which to launch our journey. We left on Saturday, perhaps not the best idea given the two-lane main roads and abundant weekend tourist traffic. But with our guide, a very experienced rider who happened to have a PhD in motorcycle sociology, we were able to run down the outside of sometimes miles of stationary car traffic with little or no hindrance.

The real life Dracula was Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler (because of his well-earned reputation), who lived between 1431 and 1476. He was the son of Vlad Dracul. Dracul can be interpreted in two ways: Dragon or Devil. Dracula has been interpreted as “Son of the Devil,” but I am told that was not until after his death.

Evidence of Dracula’s castles are scattered all over Transylvania and our first stop was the elegant Peles Castle some 75 miles and two hours of easy riding north of Bucharest. Built in the late 1800s, this castle is relatively new. But it was on an existing medieval route linking Transylvania to the north with Walachia to the south, which quite likely would have been defended by Dracula in his day. However, there was no evidence of his presence at Peles Castle or its environs, so our trio headed north to the next castle, the much more famous Bran Castle.

The August weather as we headed into the mountains was clear and hot. The sinuous roads made wonderful riding and once off the main north/south highway the traffic was light. Our respite that night was at the modern and architecturally dramatic Hotel Orizont in Predeal, leaving us a fast and twisty 20-minute ride through the mountains to Bran the next morning.

Bran Castle, which has become the center for “Dracula tourism,” lies 18 miles south of the city of Brasov. Those who visit Romania in search of vampires and Dracula are told to visit Bran. The small town has welcomed the myth with open arms. As our castle guide told us, if they had asked Disney to invent such a marketing tool, it would have cost millions. Bram Stoker’s novel and a plethora of movies starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula in 1931 and Christopher Lee’s portrayal in the late 1950s created a major tourist attraction for free. Finding hard evidence that Vlad spent any time at Bran Castle is difficult, but many historians agree he could have spent some time there en route to Brasov.

With our bubble burst and no empirical evidence of Vlad Dracula, we headed north to Brasov. Romania is a country in transition. It is scrambling out of the repressive communist regime into a free market capitalist system. But growth and change are not without their own struggles. Sometimes old habits are hard to break and old demons hard to shake. Whatever the eventual outcome, I found the people to be one of Romania’s greatest assets. We were welcomed and befriended wherever we went.

Every town in Transylvania can trace its heritage back to the time when Leif Eriksson landed in America circa 1000. And many of the foundations of the original buildings can be identified and even viewed. The very narrow roads are for the most part paved, but cobblestone streets can still be found and make for interesting riding.

By Peter Starr
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