Twenty years of consideration, a year of preparation and one trans-atlantic flight from San Francisco to Budapest by way of Frankfurt led to this, a walk through the haunts and steps of Vlad III, self-styled Dragwlya (“Son of the Dragon”) also known as Ţepeș (“The Impaler”) to the Romanians and Kazıklı Bey (“Impaler Prince”) to the Ottomans, and best of all known as Dracula, or rather, the historical basis for the namesake of Brad Stoker‘s most famous novel.
Geographical realities and logistical practicalities being what they were, my two traveling companions and I made the deliberate decision to not retrace Vlad’s path chronologically. As well, there were a few legs (notably, Moldavia, Brașov and Giugiu) that we skipped as well, though I am considering a second trip in a few years to hit those as well.
After getting into the city in the afternoon local time, we grabbed a taxi to the hotel in a rather dingy part of town, dumped our gear and immediately headed out to check out Budapest first-hand, specifically Pest, where we wound up in the circus. That is, watching a circus complete with a fascinating act where a woman walked upside down with no visible means of self-preservation other than a conspicuous lack of wires or hooked shoes, leading to some speculation of perhaps electromagnets, though that sounds crazy now that I’ve typed it out like that.
Budapest, see, is actually an unholy amalgamation of two separate cities, Buda on the west side of the Danube, Pest on the east side, a situation that was, in fact, very much the case when Vlad Ţepeș arrived. Both times.
Both times? Yep, he was there twice, once as a refugee, a second time as a prisoner.
The first time, Vlad Ţepeș was around twenty years old; his first short reign over the Romanian principality of Wallachia with the support of the Ottomans had ended spectacularly when the Kingdom of Hungary, then playing a deadly cold-and-hot war with the Ottoman Empire, took grave exception to Vlad Ţepeș’ assumption of the throne of Wallachia in the borderlands between the two great powers.
Vlad Ţepeș’ finely-tuned sense of self-preservation was such that he knew a losing situation when he saw it and he bolted, first for Edirne, then the site of the Ottoman court that had supported his bid for power, but soon after in Moldavia where he took refuge with relatives of his mother, specifically his cousin Stephen III, who would himself eventually become Stephen the Great.
Stephen and Vlad became close friends, each, throughout their lives, supporting the other’s respective bids for power with troops and diplomacy. Both were in precarious political positions, and it doesn’t take any particular historical insight to understand what each saw in the other. That precariousness of political positions soon forced Vlad and Stephen to flee Moldavia in favor of the German merchant town of Brașov in Transylvania, a principality adjacent to Vlad’s Wallachia that was generally dominated by Hungarian politics.
The Hungarians soon discovered that Vlad was in Brașov and demanded to the city that he be turned over. Vlad, knowing which side of the bread Brașov’s butter was on, decided to bolt again. Fortune favored Vlad this time, however, and the current voievod (sometimes translated as “prince”, but originally more accurately an appointed warlord, and eventually governor) of Wallachia began making bedroom eyes at the Ottoman Empire. This, naturally, ticked off the Hungarians, particularly since the Hungarians were probably his original ticket to his position in the first place.
A truce was brokered between Vlad and the Hungarian John Hunyadi, Regent-Governor of the Kingdom of Hungary, and Vlad (and I believe Stephen as well) found themselves being entertained in Buda in the Hungarian court. In Buda, Vlad eventually met – and eloped with – a cousin of Matthias Corvinus by the name of Jusztina Szilágyi, reputed by folklore to be the namesake of “The Lady’s River” below Poenari Castle who threw herself into said river rather than being captured by the Ottoman forces sieging the remote castle.
Much later, around the time Vlad was thirty or so, Vlad managed to become very politically inconvenient to Matthias Corvinus. Vlad went to Corvinus to ask for military aid from the Hungarians and was instead captured, put up on forged charges of treason, and put first in prison, and then later under house arrest for some twelve years.
When Vlad arrived this second time in Buda he was entertained not in the court, but rather put into the dungeons made out of cave network beneath Buda Castle briefly, then for a longer, more comfortable imprisonment in the Tower of Solomon, a part of the fortress of Visegrad upriver from the city, and later in a house in Buda proper. When Vlad left – converting to Roman Catholicism in an exercise of political expedience – he also left with his second wife, Ilona Szilágyi, the daughter of Hungarian nobleman (and cousin to the king), Michael Szilágyi.
Several of the aforementioned locations will come up again, but back in the original story – that’s the one about us treking through Eastern Europe – that’s how we found ourselves in Budapest.
So to summarize, the official targets:
- Buda Castle (The Vas)
- The Labyrinth under Buda Castle (complete with a creepy little makeshift black and white theater)
- The Tower of Solomon
There were a lot of unofficial things as well – Budapest is a strange city, complete with the most bizarre toilet I have ever seen bisected with a shelf, presumably so one can securely admire one’s work before flushing said prized accomplishment down the drain.
Then, later, there was the Enchanted Forest, a pair of houses on the Pest side of the river that had been converted into a network of bars, hostels and very strange, very cool sets of rooms, not to mention a bartender who made the smoothest, meanest rum and coke I think I have had.
Visiting Visegrad required an incredibly confusing train ride (sorry, Budapest, but your train system is completely incomprehensible where none of the words on the ticket match any of the words on the train schedule – how again is someone supposed to figure this out?), a ferry trip across the Danube (mostly for the cars, but they allowed passengers as well), and then a hike up the Cavalry Trail up to Visegrad itself.
(We originally intended to bus it up, but what can I say – I thought I saw a trail, and somehow managed to convince my two traveling companions to join me. Then again, they probably were just as baffled by Visegrad’s bus schedule as I was. For a tiny little tourist town it had the most complicated bus timetable I think I have ever seen. I am still reasonably certain it included extensions to several out-of-the-way alternate dimensions and afterlifes of no fewer than three competing religions.)
From Visegrad, a very impressive fortress in a very impressive location, the lower wall originally went down to the Tower of Solomon, a separate, smaller fortress that has alternatively been used for storage, a prison, and myriad other uses. As we went down the path to the Tower of Solomon, I regretted again that our timing was a week after the tower was closed for the year.
But then, something awesome happened – a reenactment event was happening at the Tower of Solomon, and the tower was open for the use of the reenactment ceremonies.
Yeah. About that.
We made our way through the tower – itself in the midst of being rebuilt from the relative ruins it had been enjoying – then up, all the while getting a fascinating look at what it must have been like to live under those conditions (and, really, for the time, it was obviously pretty posh). After we reached the top, we went down, me a little ahead of my traveling companions.
To find the gate had been closed. Which is how I found myself, much like Vlad, imprisoned in the Tower of Solomon. For fifteen seconds before a security guard noticed and freed us. Excuse me. “Freed” us. And by adding those quotes, I am referring to the fact that as it turned out the gate hadn’t actually been locked yet, just closed at the base of the gate.
The next day we were off to the Vas, the high plateau to see the remains of the old Hungarian court, complete with the recently reopened caverns of the Labyrinth which had been rather oddly converted into a wax museum.
Like you do. Apparently.
It was a strange and twisting little network that had been abruptly – and roughly – closed under still unexplained circumstances several years ago. We had arrived to the Vas with the latest information indicating it was still, unfortunately closed. Except, of course, that it had been reopened as an aforementioned wax museum.
The day ended eventually, as days have a bad habit of doing, and we found ourselves on a night train out of Budapest for Romania. But that, as they say, is a tale for another time. Meaning next time.
Next Article: The Train of Terror!