Vlad Tepes ruled a portion of Romania from 1456-1462. His practice of executing enemies, peasants, and even children by running them through with sharp sticks earned him the title “Vlad the Impaler.” (There are also stories of blood drinking and cannibalism, but these have been dismissed as myth by scholars.) Vlad is generally believed to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula — an idea Transylvanians eagerly embrace, as it sells a lot of t-shirts.
So it is a bit imprecise to say we are visiting Dracula’s grave today, but this is what everyone says we are doing. And we play along, because doing so not only embraces local practice — it’s a lot more fun.
To get to the grave of the Master Vampire, we drive about 30 kilometers outside Bucharest. Our friend, Antonio, steers the car off the main highway, taking a left turn onto a rutted road lined with towering, skinny trees. The sunlight fades, replaced by a cool green gloom. In the woods, we spot a lonesome figure: an elderly woman in a head scarf, black shawl, and ankle-length skirt, gathering mushrooms in a wicker basket.
The road deteriorates further, becoming less of a road and more of a series of potholes loosely connected by crumbling asphalt. We arrive in a small village and park on the roadside. A metal bridge, slick with rainwater, leads us across Lake Snagov to the island at its heart. And there, rising improbably from the loamy soil, is Snagov Monastery — billed as the burial place of Vlad the Impaler.
The monastery is tended by many small dogs and one hard-working groundskeeper: a thirty-something young man with an enormous wound on his left cheek. The welt looks fresh and wet. To be blunt: it looks like someone or something has bitten him. Hard. Recently.
The monastery itself is a boxy brick structure: a cubic base, topped by a broad, flat roof. Above the roof extends the spindly neck of a tower, which is, in turn, topped by a triple-armed cross. From the outside, the place looks more like a crypt than a monastery.
Inside, though, a surprise: every single inch of every single wall is covered with murals: luminous golden saints on blood-red backgrounds. This silent congregation peers down at us from every angle. They are serene, but there is something about their poses — they way they gesture, the way they cast nervous glances at the inner chamber — that laces their beauty with a tinge of paranoia.
In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the inner chamber is ornate and lavish: a sample of the riches of Heaven. The gold and the murals draw the eye at first, but there’s nothing that can keep us from noticing the oblong hole in the floor. I am surprised to see bare earth — packed and compressed, yes, but bare and moist. On top is a stick of burning incense and a sketch of Vlad as you always see him depicted: pointy helmet, eyes rimmed with too much mascara, a beak of a nose, a sharp little moustache.
Outside, a light rain falls. We walk around to the back of the building. Antonio is drawn to an old stone well that reminds him of the ones near his family home. He loosens a chain and turns a crank. The grey wooden bucket descends into darkness. Seconds later: a splash. Antonio brings the bucket back up again, brimming with cold, dark water. A chipped cup is nearby; he lifts it, dunks it, and offers it to me. The water is clear and tastes faintly of flint.
I am in Transylvania, drinking water from a well not ten yards from Count Dracula’s grave.
The rain picks up, hissing in the trees above us and thudding on the metal roof of the well. When it lets up, we make our way back across the bridge, climb into the car, and drive away.