Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Every once in a while a really weird opportunity shows up at my door. Well, more like my inbox, but you get what I'm saying. I don't do a whole lot of junkets. I'd like to say it's because I'm a pure journalist who doesn't want to be tainted by fancy studio trips, but mostly it's just about content.
The mystique of the junket trip is usually overblown. I think many readers assume it's first class flights, luxury hotels and rubbing-elbow hangouts with A-list stars, but the reality is a little different. When you're doing these things it's not interviews with Clooney in a hot tub while masseuses rub our shoulders. It's usually waiting around in a hotel hallway for an hour for a 5 or 10 minute interview with an actor or filmmaker who has been answering variations of the same questions all day.
That's not to say that there isn't something cool about being flown across the world to talk with artists I genuinely admire and that I'm not grateful for being in a job that makes that something that happens every once in a while, but it's not the yacht sailing, caviar-snacking extravagant deals a lot of the more cynical commenters make it out to be.
At the end of the day these things can be quite boring and that's why I don't do too many of them. Not because it's not worth my own personal time (I'd probably just waste it playing Destiny or fucking around with my cat anyway), but because I'd want whatever I write up to be of interest to you guys.
The offer that came through this time was a trip to Romania in support of the Blu-Ray release of Dracula Untold. The Universal folks had the idea to bring a handful of nerds on an adventure through the Carpathians, following in the footsteps of the real Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler aka Vlad Dracul.
The movie touches upon the real life origins of the legend. While Vlad Tepes did some unquestionably barbaric things in his time ruling Wallachia (now Romania) the real life version bears little resemblance to the cape-wearing pointy toothed bloodsucker that would take his family's name into worldwide infamy. The more I went through Romania and Transylvania the more apparent it was that within Romania Vlad Tepes was looked on in much the same way George Washington is to us Americans.We went all over the country, but our first stop on the tour was the Snagov Monastery, about a 30 minute drive outside of Bucharest.
This is one of the rumored burial sites of Vlad Tepes. It was a perfect misty and cold morning, everything shrouded in fog. The monastery was located on an island in the middle of a lake. This time of year that lake is frozen, as was the metal bridge that took us from the mainland to the monastery.
And this was my view trying to cross it:
Keeping one eye out for ice patches, I looked cautioned a look over the side and saw bike tracks and foot prints lining the frozen surface. As I crossed an ice fishermen appeared in the mist and just as I got close enough to make him out the fisherman caught a small fish and in a practiced movement dehooked it, dropped it on the ice, baited the hook and sent it back into the hole in the ice again.
When we got to the island our group was greeted by little Ewok-looking dogs. Stray dogs are the norm in Romania (saw probably 100 or so over my 6 days in the country), but I can say these little guys were a much needed cute contrast to the imposing church looming out of the fog.
Circling around the Monastery, I came across a rather beautiful, but creepy old well that I had no choice but to photograph:
We were told in advance to not mention the word “Dracula” and that the monk that ran the Monastery wasn't fond of the movie, thought it was too violent. As a result we weren't given permission to film officially, but I did take some photos of Vlad's rumored final resting place.
It's hard to tell from those pictures, but the actual building was pretty small. There was a front room, which had some documentation on Vlad (most of it in Romanian) and a second room behind it which is considered the resting place of the ruler. The room was sparse, faded murals of different rulers and religious figures on the wall. The stone square in the center of the room was maybe five feet long. An embossed gold portrait lit by a single candle rested on top of the grave.
Whether or not this is his actual burial site is unknown. This was long believed to be his burial site for centuries since he was partial to this location in life and did a lot of work restoring it in his time, but in the '70s an excavation was approved and what they found was horse bones, not human bones. The newest theory is that Vlad's family had his body moved to Italy and that's his final resting place... at least from the neck down. His head was sent to Istanbul as proof that he was dead. The ruler placed it on a spike in a way to insult the impaler even further.
There was a young man watching over us in the actual church, but the actual priest crossed our path as we were leaving. We thanked him for letting us see the church and he blessed us with a quick hand wave and we were off again, this time towards Castle Bran.
Our arrival to the castle a couple hours later was perfectly timed. The sun was setting, which means it was that time in a horror movie where you still have time to get out, but for some reason you don't.
While most of the group hung out down on the grounds, some shooting video in front of the castle, I huffed and puffed my way up the winding path to the castle, over a bubbling brook. It did cross my mind that this was the spot I needed to make it to should there be real vampires in the castle.
At the foot of the steep incline up to the actual cast was a really shabby gift shop filled with colorful stuffed animals, the super cheap kind you'd expect to win at a shifty traveling carnival, and plain white tee-shirts. I was hanging with my buddy Aaron Sagers who had been there before, and he said the gift shop I wanted was actually in the castle, so we tried to pass this one in order to get to the good merch.
“Castle closed. Buy here” called out a creepy old woman. “No, thanks.” “No buy at castle, you buy here.” Our footsteps hastened and we tried to thank her for the offer while also getting the hell away from this woman, who looks like the witch in every Grimm's fairy tale book ever. Headwrap, bulbous nose, warts, wrinkles, messed up teeth, et al.
The cobblestone path increased upwards, putting much needed steps into my new Vitofit and a lot of strain on my poor fat guy lungs. Finally make it up to the castle and into the gift shop where I bought some really choice tchotchkes, including an incredibly cheesy/awesome Dracula standing up in his coffin.
Drac, shotglasses and other garishly touristy crap in hand, I went to wait for the rest of the group at the side entrance and took some lovely pictures of the grounds and a nice creepy setting sun shot for good measure.
When the rest of the group arrived we began the tour in earnest.
We need to talk about the crazy Vlad the Impaler tour guide. This man popped behind us as we stood in the courtyard, getting some startled yelps from some of the reporters (not me, naturally. I'm way too much of a manly man for that) and stayed in character as the proud ruler of Wallachia the entire evening. He got saucy, too, describing his impalements in graphic detail, focusing on the anus penetration part, and flirted super heavy with all the girls.
He didn't flirt with me, sadly. For me all he did was ask where I was from. When I told him Austin he referred to me as “Texas” for the rest of the evening.
Cheeky Vlad gave a tour of the Castle, including a wing that held an exhibit on torture devices.
Oddly enough Castle Bran wasn't really home to much torture, but the exhibit was a traveling one and seemed to fit in with the castle. In fact, although Castle Bran has long been believed to have been Bram Stoker's inspiration, the actual Vlad Dracul didn't call this place home. I don't believe there are any records to back up Vlad even having spent time there, but it is believed by most scholars that he would have since Bran was an important place that the royalty and noblemen of that time period traveled to frequently.
Still, it's an impressive castle and we not only got to tour it, we got to have dinner there.
As authentic old timey Romanian musicians rocked the place we got served some of Bran Castle's actual house red wine. Mine tasted kinda like pennies and by the end of the dinner I started hearing the rats of Transylvania call out to me. Thousands of them! Millions of them! That's normal, right?
After dinner my merry band of nerdy travelers made for our bus. The stars and moon were out and Castle Bran bathed in an eerie orange light. I snapped this shot before Vlad called out “Goodbye, Texas! Thanks for visiting!” (I'm not joking around, he actually did)
We stayed overnight in a small Transylvanian town. While the night was uneventful, I did make sure to check my neck when I shaved the next morning.
Our next destination was Targoviste, which is home to the ruins of Curtea Domneasca aka Vlad Tepes' court where he ruled over Wallachia. Unlike the other stops on the tour where Vlad might have been buried or visited, this place was the real deal if we were looking at Vlad from a historical point of view, not a funny Dracula-related one.
The two plus hour drive to Targoviste was one of my favorite parts of the trip, actually. The countryside was amazing and varied. One moment we'd be in a wealthier ski town that looked straight out of Disneyland in design and the next we'd be in the poorest town I've ever seen. Crumbled houses, barefoot kids, chickens running wild, horse and buggies moving out of the way of our bus, etc. I was told later that this little town was actually where they shot the Kazakhstan scenes in Borat, which should give you an idea of how truly impoverished this area was.
Between the changing scenery, the amazing morning sun hitting the tall trees of the Carpathian mountains and amazing local flavor we'd pass by every few minutes I was glued to the bus' windows. It was an oddly peaceful time in the chaos of this fast-paced excursion and one that will stick with me for a long time to come.
Upon our arrival in Targoviste we were greeted by a giant stone tower as well as a small group of people with cameras. I mistook them as other tourists, but it turns out it was Romanian media. Some of them were local media, but I was told there was at least one national news outlet there. I asked what was going on and was told “You guys.” Apparently it was a big enough deal that American journalists were visiting the ruins that a bunch of Romanian news organizations sent out teams to cover us wandering aimlessly around their history.
If you've seen Dracula Untold, this is what remains of his court, which is where the Turks demanded Wallachia's children for their army:
Also, if you're a little read up on Vlad Tepes there's another fascinating story of brutality that happened in this spot. The story goes a visiting Turkish envoy was asked to remove their turbans as a sign of respect. They refused, saying it was against their religion. Vlad asked what should happen if the wind blew their turbans off, if their God would be offended. He then assured it would never happen by nailing their turbans to their heads. At least that's the way it was relayed to me at the site by renowned Vlad Tepes historian (and apparently a martial arts sensation) Vasile Lupasc, pictured below on the right.
The stone tower was built at the highest point in Targoviste so that when you climb to the top you could see for miles in all directions. It was a strategic move to help defend the royal court and obviously they built it well since time has broken down the rest of the court to ruins while the tower still stands.
That was the last stop on the big Romanian tour. There was much fun had in Bucharest, but I don't know how interested you'd be in reading about ridiculous 7 course meals, the roving bands of Dickensian street urchins that would descend on the tourists as they exited their hotels or my adventures scouring the city for a decent Cuban cigar. In other words, stuff of interest to pretty much just me, so I'll leave it at the cool Vlad the Impaler tour.
My final day in Romania had me sitting down with Luke Evans to talk about Vlad and the next step in Universal's shared monster universe. I'm running that interview separately since this thing is already too long, but it's a good chat, so go ahead and click over here if you want to give it a read.
Thanks for following along with me on this ridiculous travelogue courtesy of the folks at Universal. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to send a bunch of US nerd reporters to Eastern Europe, but I'm glad they did because I learned a lot about the man behind the cape and I hope at least some of that rubbed off on you guys reading this.