Transylvania: Death, Dracula and the Viet Cong

Near-death experiences, the Prince of Darkness and the Canadian Viet Cong make macabre travelling companions in Transylvania

By Gary Rose


Snagov Monestary Interior

“Death” in Transylvania

The moment I reach for the jetty, but slip back, neck-deep, into the freezing water. That’s the point when, just for a second, I realise I might not make it out alive.

I’ve been invited to Romania by Universal Pictures to interview Luke Evans, star of the film Dracula Untold. The interview is to take place in a smart Bucharest hotel suite. A businesslike press junket; bright lights, boom mics, mahogany floor, coffee and pastries. But first, the other journalists (two dozen Americans and a guy from the Mail) and I are taken on a two-day bus tour of the Transylvanian wilderness.

“This’ll write itself,” I think. “It’ll be a travelogue, in the diary style of Bram Stoker’s book. I’ll be Jonathan Harker, crossing the Carpathian mountains to rendezvous with the Count.”

It’s January, and although it’s ten degrees colder here than in the UK, I’m glad to get away. My dad is very ill. He’s not expected to see the spring.

Stop one is the supposed burial site of Vlad the Impaler, at Snagov monastery; a mausoleum on a tiny island on a lake, 40km north of Bucharest. En route from the capital, on the back seat of the coach, I listen to the new LP by Canadian band Viet Cong. It ends on a 12-minute epic dramatically titled Death. Its sense of impending catastrophe; its crashing, staccato cymbals; the frigid bleakness; the haunting, angular jangle of its lead guitar; the way its lyrics drip into delirium. They suit the scenery perfectly. Perfectly: like the song was conceived here. Born of a screaming wolf; steaming crimson in the snow.

“Anchored to the bottom; you can see the current. Situation ending; in and out of focus,” it says.

I’ve never seen mountains this jagged. They look exaggerated, like a cartoon Dracula backdrop. Sloshing along the roadsides are grubby-faced kids in bobble hats; craggy workmen on horses pulling carts piled up with hay and wicker baskets. And packs of feral dogs. Lots of dogs.

When we reach Lake Snagov, fog quilts the frozen surface like a shroud, and there’s a guy fishing through a hole in the ice. His dog is skating around beside him, looking as helpless as a… dog on ice. A nice photo opportunity, but they’re too far away and I’m only carrying a wide lens. A jetty beside the lake would allow me closer access.

This is when I forget about that time in Valletta when I fell out with the tour guide over which is the best nut; and the time I ordered “figi” in Parma, thinking it was Italian for figs (actually it means Fiji); and about the fact that I always do at least one really dumb thing on press trips. I lower my foot off the edge of the jetty, to give the ice a tap. I just want to feel its slippery crunch under the ball of my foot. It must be thick, after all, to hold the fisherman’s weight.

Obviously not thick near the edge. The mirrored veneer gives way, swallowing my balance.

The PR lady from Universal appears, panicking in fast forward. She’s waving hers arms around but she can’t squeeze out any words. She looks like a victim in the silent version of King Kong. It’s much deeper than I expected, and my saturated parka is sucking me downwards. My camera is surely fucked…

Well, there’s no point in trying to create any suspense, because you know I make it out alive. No thanks to my American friends. One of them later says that me falling in a frozen lake was the best bit of the trip. I spend the rest of the day wearing an ill-fitting fleece and a Romanian tour guide’s spare combat trousers.


Matt Flegel

A couple of weeks later, I see Viet Cong play at the Green Door Store in Brighton. I’d requested an interview with the band for a local magazine, and they’d initially agreed but were forced to cancel after hitting heavy traffic en route from Leeds. Luckily, I bump into the singer, Matt Flegel, at the bar.

“I’ve just got back from Transylvania,” I tell him. “Your album was the perfect soundtrack to the landscape. Must be because you’re from Canada.”

He looks surprised, pauses, and then… “Wow! My family is originally from Transylvania. Flegel is a Romanian name. I’ve always wanted to go back there,” he says, closing the circle, and concluding my journey two weeks after its end.

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