September 08, 2019

Seeking Count Dracula in Transylvania

Len Rutledge Goes Exploring Transylvania for signs of Dracula

We are driving along narrow, winding roads through dense, dark, ancient forests and over steep mountain passes through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. Tales of the supernatural have featured in Romanian folklore for centuries and the countryside seems so right for this that we now find it easy to be caught up in the Dracula story. Certainly, Transylvania evokes powerful images of vampires and Gothic castles.

Dracula House
Bran Castle
We are here now because we want to visit some sites associated with Dracula and try to sort legend from truth. When Irish writer Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, he started something which is now a great tourist attraction.

Count Dracula, a fictional character in the Stoker novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of the Romanian province of Walachia in the mid 1400s. As we travel around, we find some physical evidence and hear many stories about him which have vague connections with the Count.

Sighisoara is at the heart of the Count Dracula legends. This was founded in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons, but it's Dracula that has put the town on the map with today's visitors. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town is full of cobbled streets and ornate churches.

Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Dracula. You can visit his birth home which is now a restaurant and museum. As we climb the narrow stairs to the museum in almost complete darkness, something falls on my neck causing goose bumps all over my body. Emerging into a darkened room we come face to face with a vampire in a coffin. As we approach, his arm springs out causing muffled screams from several visitors. For one second I almost believe in vampires.


Not too many people can call vampire acting their full-time occupation!

Brașov is the largest city in this part of Romania. It is fringed by the Southern Carpathian Mountains and resplendent with glorious architecture and historical attractions. It was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1211 on an ancient site and was settled by the Saxons as one of their seven walled citadels.

We stroll around the old Town Hall Square where we admire colourfully painted and ornately trimmed baroque structures. We go inside the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, named for damage caused by the Great Brașov Fire of 1689, when flames and smoke blackened its walls. The interior is impressive and it houses one of the largest pipe organs in Eastern Europe.

Part of the defensive wall, once 13-metres-high, two-metres- thick and over three-kilometres-long, can still be seen today. So too can Rope Street, the narrowest street in Europe, at just 1.3 metres wide.

The relationship between Vlad Dracula and Brașov was problematic over a number of years. At one point he invaded southern Transylvania and destroyed the suburbs of Brașov, ordering the impalement of all men and women who had been captured. It is said that Brașov has the distinction of seeing more stakes bearing Dracula's victims than any other place. Fortunately, there is no evidence of this today.

Sibiu is the other city in this region. The heart of the city is its medieval centre complete with open squares, stone wall defences, towers, and centuries-old buildings and churches. Staircases link the Lower Town with its small, colourful houses and the Upper Town which was inside the main fortifications.

From 1451 to 1456 Vlad Dracula lived in Sibiu yet just four years later he mercilessly raided this region and killed, impaled and tortured 10,000 of his former fellow citizens and neighbours. I wonder if Count Dracula would be impressed.

Dracula House
Vlad Dracula's house in Sighisoara

Perched on top of an 80-metre-high rock, Bran Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to being the castle Stoker used in his book. While the association with Dracula is dubious, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count, so naturally we have to visit. We find narrow winding stairways and torturous passages lead through some 60 timbered rooms.

While Bran Castle is the spooky place that inspired Stoker's tale, it's really Poenari Fortress about two hours west that is considered to be the real Dracula's Castle. Poenari Castle was erected around the beginning of the 13th century then later was abandoned and left in ruins. In the 15th century, Vlad the Impaler repaired and consolidated the structure perched high on a steep precipice of rock, making it one of his main fortresses.

The ruins of Poenari Fortress are all that are left today. If you decide to climb the 1,462 stairs, you'll be able to touch pieces of the walls and towers that are still standing.

Did we find Dracula?

We encountered a make-believe vampire and learned much about Vlad Dracula and his exploits. While vampires may not be real, there is no doubt that Stoker's Dracula has become a powerful reminder of the rich and authentic Romanian folklore, and a great tourist attraction and money-spinner for the country today.



Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge

Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au

September 03, 2019

Alaska's new 'Gold Rush' - with Fiona McIntosh

Ian and Fiona McIntosh find not all that glitters needs to be gold in Alaska

Stage one of our Air New Zealand flight to Vancouver is over - we are in a very comfy terminal talking about how good the experience was. Lovely flight attendant, both welcomed by the flight director, comfy leather seats - plenty of leg room and we were seated just behind the entrance door to the 777 200. It is a short flight from Sydney to Auckland - around two and a half hours but we had a massive tail wind and rolled to the terminal nearly half an hour early. We left on time and drinks soon arrived - I had a glass of bubbly - pity it was in a plastic cup though. The simple menu looked very promising - to begin a beetroot and goat cheese salad with balsamic and beef gel, toasted hazelnut crumble. Did it live up to expectations? Absolutely. - appetising to look at and all the real flavours were there. Bread variety includes sourdough loaf and walnut loaves served with extra virgin olive oil and yes the bread was warm. What a start. Drinks are served with the main course - I naturally chose a sauvignon blanc from Villa Maria, New Zealand's most awarded winery. I now know why it earns the gongs. The real treat followed - braised beef short rib with potato puree, sage, buttered carrots and parsnips, creamed Swiss chard with horseradish jus. Adding to the experience was NZ butter and cheese. After more than 40 years of looking forward to main courses on airlines I know how easy it is to be disappointed. Very, very disappointed. Not today folks. The meat pulled away and each veg made a contribution. We were very happy. The movie selection is ok - the screen on the small side but picture quality is excellent. To finish lunch the offering was flourless dark chocolate cake with vanilla bean cream. What did the chef (she who must be obeyed) think? Good enough as one of the small treats for the wedding of one of our sons that is coming up next year. High praise indeed.

The little township of Skagway Alaska was super busy today thanks to a maximum of four cruise ships clogging the harbour - but the thousands of visitors hardly rated a ripple compared to the influx during the Klondike Gold Rush. More than 100,000 hopefuls arrived after gold was discovered in 1896. Madness is the only word for what followed - men and women - even children made a life-threatening journey across treacherous, icy valleys and harrowing rocky terrain. We saw part of it today aboard a vintage railcar as it traces the track from Fraser to Skagway. The railway was built to make the journey to the goldfields easier - but the gold had petered out by the time it was finished in 1900. The White Pass and Yukon Railway clatters through increasingly hostile valleys and mountains - how anyone managed the trek during summer let alone winter is a mystery you are left to ponder from the comfort of your train seat. The 3 ft (914 mm) narrow-gauge railroad linked the port of Skagway with Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon. The trip on the section from Fraser is interesting enough - before we boarded we braved a suspension bridge over a raging river way below. While you marvel at man's ability master nature to blast the railway out in the first place, you could be forgiven for getting a little bored as the journey rolls on. Most memorable, as i said before, is pondering just how people managed to tame some of the most inhospitable country on earth.

Less than half of those who started the trek to the Yukon arrived and after that monster effort they stood little chance of finding gold.

Out soon from Fiona. Click for more info.

It was discovered by American George Carmack in 1896 in Rabbit Creek (later renamed Bonanza Creek), a Klondike River tributary that ran through both Alaskan and Yukon Territory. Canadian authorities required every prospector to have a year's worth of gold mining equipment and supplies before crossing the Canadian border which made the trek along a narrow path all but impossible for pack horses. It's estimated 3,000 of them died on White Pass. After crossing Chilkoot or White Pass, prospectors had to build or rent boats and brave hundreds of miles of winding Yukon River rapids to reach Dawson City. No one knows how many died during the river trip - only about 30,000 weary stampeders finally arrived in Dawson City to discover reports of available Klondike gold were greatly exaggerated. By the end of 1898 countless miners had already left Yukon Territory penniless, leaving cities such as Dawson and Skagway in rapid decline. These days fortunately the gold boom is back - but it has been renamed tourism.

Fiona ponders her next blockbuster. Will our heroine find love and
adventure amid the icy wastes of the Gold Rush-era Klondike?
Today we woke up to see rugged, ice capped mountains and hurried to dress and get out onto the top deck because we were about to confront the Hubbard Glacier. I visited the San Rafael Glacier in Patagonia many years ago but this sort of natural, ancient brilliance never gets old. And the bridge mentioned that they often sail here into a misty or rainy day but we were blessed by a sparkling, sunny morning where the ice winked and glinted at us, as did the freezing waters. It was unnerving to see so much ice broken and thawing and I tried to reassure myself it was summer but a fellow next to me who had been here at least half a dozen times let me know that the glacier used to be much, much bigger with huge icebergs all around. I'm assured it continues to thicken, defying other glaciers around the planet, but even so, he seemed determined it was larger with towering ice pillars breaking off 'back then'. 

The 450 year old glacier remains awe inspiring and so very beautiful to gaze upon, which we did for an hour. Everyone was hushed - it demanded silence from us all. No wildlife, not even birds around although I gather it supports a population of grizzlies and the rare, silverblue 'glacier' bears. The glacier flows for more than 120 kms with a 120 metre or so 'snout' and is embraced by 24 million acres of wilderness - hallelujah. It's famous for its swift surges and has been known to suddenly move forward up to 30 metres a day - that was back in the mid eighties. This is the largest tidewater glacier in North America.

A special day in a far flung spot called Hoonah. 
Talk about isolated. Today we arrived at Icy Strait Point Hoonah Alaska. Beautiful day - and we were the only ship at the tiny destination designed to lure more tourist dollars into the area by the Huana Tiingit people. To say I was impressed is an understatement. The ship was tied up to one large pier - and the gangway allowed passengers on Oceania's Regatta to walk straight into the settlement. Its green colour and simplicity meant it blended straight into the thick natural undergrowth and forest of pines. While having breakfast in the outdoor restaurant we saw our first bald eagle - perched at the end of the mooring area consuming what I assume was a salmon. It stayed there for a while and then joined a mate in a tree nearby - we assumed they had a nest. 

When you arrive after a short walk down the gangway you are greeted by an interesting collection of attractions - ranging from shops to the old cannery factory and a zip rider. Kids roar down from a 1,300 foot mountain hitting speeds for more than 60mph. There are buses for the elderly - the site is super clean and tidy - a great example to any destination wanting to lure tourist dollars. We were on a special tour tracking bears - but the guide was very honest with us saying the morning tour had failed to spot any of the famed four footed locals. After a short bus ride we went from lookout to lookout with the same result - nothing - and then as we could hear the bus motor starting in order to take us back - a bear finally appeared. Amazingly he strolled down the river right past us and kept going until he discovered a bald eagle eating prey. Naturally enough, the eagle decided to move giving us another glimpse of life in one of the most remote parts of the world. We returned to the ship delighted with our day. Even if the bear had not appeared - it was enough to wander through narrow tracks between virgin forest - the light every now and then illuminating the group.

Follow Ian and his travel treasure hunts at his website