A visit to Dracula's castle in Romania

After touring Suceava and the painted monasteries in Bucovina, I board a bus for the seven-hour ride south to Bucharest. When I take my seat, a friend turns to me and says, "Bucovina is seeing Romania in Technicolor and Bucharest is seeing Romania in black and white." I press play on my iPod and look out the window.

Red-tasseled horses draw wooden carts laden with potatoes or watermelons, sharing the road with cars and pedestrians. Haystack mounds march upon grassy fields and disappear over purple hills. Water wells, a symbol of good fortune, dot the roadside. Three carved wooden crosses, as tall as me and enshrined in a glass room not much bigger, give thanks for crops, water and good harvests.

Three small crosses top its blue-porcelain-tiled roof. Peonies, roses and marguerite daisies bloom around the foot of the shrine and cascade over a white picket fence in shades of orange, purple and yellow. A wrought-iron cross stands in front of the fence, staked in the grass. An ivy wreath encircles its iron beams.

I reach into my backpack and pull out a 100,000 lei note, worth around $50. Illustrations of hollyhocks on the plastic currency match the portrait of the painter Nicolae Grigorescu in size and detail. Romanians love flowers -- and artists. Fresh flowers adorned the darkest concrete stairwells of the Ceausescu-era block apartments in Suceava.

One roadside shrine blurs into another. How can a land of such beauty, with a people who honor art and literature, be synonymous with horror around the world? Tomorrow, my last day in Romania, I will tour Transylvania, the land of Dracula.

In Bucharest, I open my second-floor window at the Hotel Carpati, a not-quite one star hotel. Harvest fires scent the air. Crows swarm the city skyline. Their intense cawing sounds like screaming children.

Club Dracula in downtown Bucharest is the perfect place to crank up the scare factor.

My friends and I settle into our seats in the restaurant's dungeon.

Rubber severed human heads and skulls are mounted on the walls. A coffin nestles next to the bar close by. The menu reads like something out of the novel "Dracula."

I order a drink called the Longest Kiss. Veins of melted red sugar stream down the outside of my cocktail glass and taste of cinnamon. My friend orders impaled chicken. Skewered breasts, legs and thighs hang from black steel prongs, languishing over a wooden plate. On my walk back to the hotel, the cawing of crows and yelping of wild dogs increase my pace. I search the shadows thinking about the monsters I've met in Romania.

A monster simply defined: One who inspires horror.

My first encounter with real Romanian monsters happened a few days after I arrived. As a friend and I walked in Revolutionary Square in Bucharest I heard faint whispers. I glanced from side to side. A bunch of children, none more than 8 years old, had gathered around me. I bent down to hear them better. They wanted money. More children crowded around me. I felt a tug on my small backpack.

As I turned around to face the mob, a boy unzipped the backpack. My cellphone flew into the air, a football going to the best player. As the boys ran away with my phone, I knew the real monsters were not the children but the adults demanding that the boys meet begging quotas in exchange for food and housing.

On my last day in Romania, my guide Patricia arrives early. Her broad smile and excitement calms any lingering spooky feelings I harbor from last night even as I am about to meet another Romanian monster.

My friends and I get into the van and we chit-chat with Patricia on our hour-long ride to Transylvania. Carstic rock crowns the Transylvanian Alps and drips -- like the wet sand sculptures that my kids and I make at the beach -- into the woodlands below.

Patricia says in a thick Romanian accent, "Vlad Tepes, the real Wallachian prince about whom the story of Dracula is based, is a national hero because he saved Romania from Turkish invasion. His cruel ways of impaling his enemies reflected the violence and cruelty of medieval Europe, not of him personally."

I think about the impaled chicken from last night's dinner. I also think about the closets in my bedroom when I was a little girl. Nothing scared me more than those closets at night. The small "way up" closets had little witches hiding in them, and the big closets below had big witches hiding in them.

I figure its human nature to make up stories about the things that scare me. Considering how closets haunted me as a little girl, I try to imagine the story I might tell if I had seen someone impaled. That's horror.

Patricia adds, "Vlad's father had shipped him off, along with his handsome brother Radu, to a Turkish Sultan to further the understanding between the two nations. Unfortunately the torture and abuse that the brothers suffered fueled Vlad's personal flame of hatred against them and caused his chilling policy of impaling the Turks in such a way as to cause the slowest death and most excruciating pain. For this reason it is difficult for Romanians to accept that their legendary hero is portrayed to the rest of the world as Dracula, a blood-sucking monster." That's horror too.

It was Vlad's dad, she said, who became known as "Vlad Dracul, after a brave Order of the Dragon (draco in Latin means dragon). His son became Vlad Dracula, meaning son of the dragon. Tragically, another meaning for draco is the devil. The peasants' legends ran away with this interpretation of Dracula, son of the devil."

So, the combination of impaling and misunderstanding created the legend of Dracula. But that doesn't explain why this place gives me the creeps.

Maybe it is all the talk of impaling. Maybe it is the strange magnetic field rumored to occur in this part of the mountains.

As our van pulls into the little town of Bran, wooden signs advertise "Vampire Camping" and "Vampire Wine." Kind of like a Dracula Disneyland, campy not creepy. "Cazare" (rent) signs hang from many homes in Bran and welcome visitors. Hotels here are rated with flowers, not stars.

At my first sight of Bran Castle high atop a hill, chills race up my spine.

"A beautiful garden once stood at the base of the castle, tended by Queen Marie who used the medieval fortress as a summer royal residence," Patricia says, flicking butts off her cigarette. Mountain winds whip as I walk up the long, spiral cobblestone path to the castle entrance.

"Saxons built Bran Castle in 1382 to protect the gateway to Transylvania at Bran pass. By building the castle, the Saxons gained their freedom from the Romanians. In order to provide rapid access to weaponry and fortifications, a labyrinth of secret passages and tunnels exist throughout the castle and beneath its courtyard."

I spot a water well in the center of the courtyard. A metal grate bolted over its opening prevents adventurers from further tunnel exploration.

Real bear skin rugs and winding secret staircases add to the Dracula legend. In the marketplace at the foot of the castle, elongated sinister faces carved into wood capture my imagination. I buy a few. They remind me that little about Romania is black and white, especially its monsters.

They also remind me of how setting, imagination and circumstance can inspire horror in anyone anywhere, even in a land of such beauty. I buy a watercolor of Bran Castle but pass on the vampire wine.