to believe in things that you cannot.” - Bram Stoker, Dracula -
It’s October. A chill is creeping into the autumn air. Scarlet leaves the colour of blood blow from skeletal boughs in one final, desperate flight. Beautiful, but already dead!
Ghoulish foreshadowing acknowledged, but after all, this is the fall issue of Okanagan Woman and Halloween is fast approaching. The streets will soon be filled with witches, goblins, zombies and (my personal favourite) vampires!
I admit, I have morbid fascination for undead beings in human form! I devoured all four novels of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight Series” like an immortal in a feeding frenzy. Perhaps that explains the allure for me of the tangled maze of ancient caves and passageways I stumbled across in a recent trip to Budapest.
THE LABYRINTH: CAVES WITH A DARK AND MYSTERIOUS PAST
The Hungarian capital straddles the Danube, separating the hilly Buda-district from the flatlands of Pest. Overflowing with dazzling architecture, thermal baths, quirky cafes, stunning vistas and UNESCO World Heritage sites, Budapest is a treasure trove for curious travelers.
My husband and I were wandering the cobbled backstreets of the Castle Quarter, when we passed an unobtrusive doorway with steep, stone steps leading directly down into the underbelly of Buda-hill. Ever inquisitive, we descended the stairs not really knowing what we’d discover at the bottom.
After several twists and turns, we found ourselves in a large cavern in front of a Hungarian cashier who wanted 2500 HUF (the equivalent of $12 CDN) before she would allow us to proceed. She spoke no English and after we’d paid, she gave a disinterested waive in the general direction of a gaping hole in the rock.
On the way by her desk, I snagged a brochure in hopes of gaining insight into our immediate future if we passed through the iron gate. It said (in stilted English, obviously translated from Hungarian) we were in the Labyrinth, which was about 1,000 meters long, walkable in approximately thirty minutes and arrows would show the way. Over the centuries, the ancient cave system had been used for many things, including a storage place for wine, a torture chamber and - according to the handout - a prison in which Dracula was its most infamous “guest”.
Dracula was a real person? That was news to me - I had always thought him to be the notorious anti-hero of the Gothic horror novel of the same name.
Not so, at least according to the brochure. The fictional character created by the author, Bram Stoker, was loosely based on the real deal: a 15th century, Romanian war lord, Vlad Tepes (or Vlad III), who was by all accounts, an equally bloodthirsty fellow. He was affectionately known as Vlad, The Impaler, because his specialty was – you guessed it – impaling people and then displaying their bodies publicly to frighten his enemies.
With some trepidation, we entered the Labyrinth and were immediately buried by blackness. It was total - so thick and encompassing, I only knew my eyes were open by feeling myself blink. If there were “arrows”, as the brochure so optimistically advertised, there was no way to see them.
Groping the dank walls, we shuffled forward with tiny, tentative steps. Within moments, I managed to walk smack into a stone column, which entertained my hubby to no end. Then we remembered, we had our iPhones - thank you Apple, for the flashlight App!
As we drifted deeper and deeper into the cave, my edginess rose commensurate with the dropping temperatures and the loss of our sense of direction. Around the stone corners of the passageways, curled something that looked like smoke, but felt like fog and music, an eerie haunting sound, floated about us in the thick, underground air.
When we stumbled across a cavern pronounced to be, “Dracula’s Chamber”, it was totally by chance. Leering down at us from a portrait on the rock wall was the dark, disturbing image of Vlad III. He was wearing the same veneer of brooding, aristocratic charm as Count Dracula - Bram Stoker’s purely fictional creation.
WAS "VLAD, THE IMPALER" THE LIVING DRACULA?
With a bruised forehead and a resolve to find out more about “Vlad The Impaler”, I emerged with my husband several hours later from the bowels of the Labyrinth – both of us grateful not to have disappeared permanently.
While a great deal of mystery surrounds the real man, his life and deeds are no less fascinating and fearsome than those of his literary namesake.
It is believed the historical Dracula was born in 1431 in Transylvania (now Romania) - a prince, not a Count. The name originated from Vlad’s dad who belonged to a secret fraternity called the “Order of the Dragons”. Since in Romanian, “Drac” means dragon and the ending “ulea” means “son of”, Vlad III became known as the “Son of the Dragon” or Dracula.
At the age of thirteen Vlad and his brother were taken as political hostages for four years by the Ottomans - maybe that contributed to his overall nastiness in later life. After his release, he gained and lost the throne to his kingdom three times in a continuous struggle to fend off one or the other of his powerful neighbours, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
Under the reign of King Matthias (Hungary’s most beloved monarch), he was captured and purportedly imprisoned in the Labyrinth. There are conflicting accounts of how long he languished there, but the brochure said for ten years.
Surprisingly, after his release he met and married a member of the Hungarian Royal Family, which makes one wonder what went on down in the caves during his incarceration. Mystery also surrounds his death and final resting place. Some say he was killed in battle in a bid to once again retrieve his throne, others say he was assassinated.
There is no question though that during his intermittent rule, he earned a reputation for heinous acts of torture, murder and inhuman cruelty. Several historians credit him with the deaths of between 40,000 to 100,000 people. While some attempt to justify his actions on the basis of political necessity, many more report that he had a taste for cruelty and derived perverted pleasure from it.
There you have it! Vampirical evidence that Dracula is both man and myth: a fictional Count who turns into a bat, sleeps in coffins and drinks the blood of the living; and the notorious Vlad Dracula, The Impaler, a 15th-century prince who history, for the most part, remembers as a sadistic madman.