Visiting Vlad the Impaler, Romania

Visiting Vlad the Impaler, Romania

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By John Malathronas
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The whereabouts of Dracula’s grave is a contentious issue; two monasteries in Romania are fighting for the title of the resting place of Vlad the Impaler – but which one has the strongest argument? John Malathronas goes to Snagov monastery to find out.

“You need four people for an impalement,” says my guide, Gabriel, in taciturn tones, for he’s answered the same question many times. “The victims’ hands were tied behind their back while they lay on the ground. Two men spread their legs apart. A third strong man pushes the pole up, while a fourth person, the professional executioner, kneels and directs the pole between the ribs so that it misses the vital organs, especially the liver and the heart. This way, the person lives longer and suffers more.” I process this impaling course mentally and swallow hard. I’m glad I had a light breakfast.

We are in Gabriel’s car crossing the thick Snagov forest about half an hour north of Bucharest. We are heading for Snagov monastery which, according to tradition, is the burial place of Vlad III Dracula, dubbed The Impaler. The country road is so full of holes it probably hasn’t been maintained since Vlad’s times, and he died in 1476.

Snagov monastery and old gate

When we reach Snagov we have to cross a footbridge, because the monastery is built on a small island in a lake. There used to be a pontoon bridge connecting the island with the mainland during the nineteenth century, when the monastery was used as a prison. Not long after it was built, it collapsed when a parade of enchained convicts was crossing. They all drowned. I stare at the murky waters below me, green with algae. “Sometimes you can see the wooden slats of the old bridge in the shallows”, says Gabriel.

Snagov monastery itself is minute. There is only one monk and one small church, last rebuilt in 1512 by Prince Neagoe Basarab, whose portrait adorns the wall facing the iconostasis. In front of the altar, there is a clean, unmarked tombstone on the floor with fresh flowers and a portrait of Vlad the Impaler. Typically, when the tomb was excavated in 1933, no body was found inside.

Small the monastery may be, but so strong is the Dracula myth that it’s become the most popular sight to visit outside of Bucharest. Entry into the church is just 15lei (£3) – but it costs 20 Euros to take photos; monks in newly capitalist Romania are beginning to comprehend rather well the law of supply and demand. This could be why a monastery south of Bucharest wants to buy in too.

The grave of Vlad Dracula in front of the altar according to tradition

“Contemporary historians have concluded that Comana monastery is the real resting place of Vlad Dracula,” Gabriel tells me, and perhaps they have good reason: Vlad actually built this monastery and the battle in which he died, killed by his own troops, is now thought to be nearer Comana rather than Snagov.

Whether Vlad the Impaler would have been so notorious had Bram Stoker not associated his name with the Dracula of fiction is anyone’s guess. Still, Vlad’s life exudes mystery. He was a Prince of Wallachia who spent his childhood as a hostage in the Ottoman court together with the future Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople. When the two childhood friends eventually came to confront each other, Vlad beat a Turkish regiment in a famous night attack on 17 June 1462 and captured 20,000 troops. Five days later an angry Mehmed II crossed the Danube heading for Vlad’s capital at Târgoviște. Sixty miles out he was confronted by a forest of Turkish carcasses on stakes in a semi-circle one mile deep. Rattled, the Sultan turned back, and the legend of “The Impaler” began.

A Candle for Vlad II Dracula on his supposed grave

Because of this Turkish defeat, contemporary Romanians have claimed Vlad the Impaler as a “cruel-but-just” patriotic hero. The 500 years of his death were lavishly celebrated in Communist Romania back in 1976. And as Gabriel tells me: “It was the Germans who first punished people by impalement. Vlad learned the technique from the German merchants of Transylvania. Then he just… perfected it.”

Perfection, indeed. The Germans impaled people from the back through the navel and death was quick. Vlad’s impalement through the rectum involves a sadistic humiliation as well as lingering death.

My attention is drawn to the graves on the south side of the church. “One of those is supposed to be the grave of Count Dracula”, I say and startle Gabriel.

Snagov lake

As another set of historians point out, in the 1933 excavation archaeologists found a headless body on the south side, dressed in purple. We know that the head of Vlad Dracula was cut off and sent to the Sultan, and we know that purple cloth was the garb of royals. There are other hints too: a ring and a buckle that can be traced to Vlad’s father. The case that Vlad’s body was reburied there from before the altar – maybe during the rebuilding of the church forty years later – is strong.

It’s somehow comforting to know that Vlad Dracula still exerts a mystery from beyond his grave. Wherever that might be.

Explore more of Romania with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.