Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia

The village of Eğrigöz, near Emet.

During the planning phase of the Vlad Tepes World Tour I had been congratulating myself for not being in Turkey during Ramadan, something I knew would lead to complications in terms of services, particularly in more remote areas such as where we were headed next.

I, uh, apparently didn’t do my homework well enough.

We did actually arrive in Turkey after Ramadan was over. We neglected, however, to check for other holidays. Such as Kurban Bayramı, a festival I now fondly refer to as “The Festival of Lamb Intestines”.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

The first inkling we had that something was not entirely right was the sight of animal intestines lying in the gutter in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul towards the very end of our stay in the city before heading into Western Anatolia to the town of Emet. At first, we just thought maybe we were near a butcher shop or a serial killer had been mistakenly set free.

Then we saw more intestines. Damn, that’s one dedicated serial killer.

By this time we were due on the (very) long bus to Emet, so without thinking too much of it we got on board the bus for a nice little ten hour or so bus trip down through Turkey’s interior where my seatmate, despite very little English and with little patience for my translation program insisted on taking us for tea at one of the stops and otherwise being a fascinating conversationalist, by which I mean we used a lot of hand signals and exchange of passports.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul's mosques is from this region.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul’s mosques is from this region.

(He was returning home from Saudi Arabia, a point made by enthusiastically showing me his passport stamp – I didn’t realize it at the time, but my guess is he was returning from the Hajj, a supposition supported by his generous use of prayer beads during the trip as he struggled to avoid murdering the small child seated behind us who spent most of the trip testing my seatmate’s patience).

Towards the end of the trip – Emet was the second to last stop, so most of the passengers had already disembarked as we entered the hills engulfing Emet and its boron mine (apparently, the source for a fairly impressive percentage of the world’s boron) – the bus attendant and bus driver on one side, and my traveling companions and I on the other spent a fascinating effort in technology and language difficulties as we passed my iPad with its Turkish translation program on it.

By fascinating effort, of course I mean hysterically funny and utterly hopeless effort. As it turns out, Turkish and English are grammatically very, very different. Specifically, Turkish is agglutinative, much like German or Classical Nahuatl (Aztec, which I studied in college). Where the translation programs extant today actually do a pretty credible job of translating things like Romanian to English, Turkish to English, well, let’s just say not so much.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

We spent the better part of the last two hours of the trip trading the iPad back and forth between the two groups, scratching our heads and trying to translate the most bizarre sentences I have seen this side of an H.P. Lovecraft dream sequence.

Finally, as night quickly advanced over the hills, we arrived in Emet, our staging ground for a trip to some nearby Roman ruins (these had nothing to do with Vlad Țepeș but were well-preserved, close, and the location of the world’s first stock market) and, much more importantly to me, the ruins of Eğrigöz. More about that last later.

Emet isn’t exactly a hopping, cosmopolitan part of Turkey. It is known for exactly two things; a sprawling thermal spa resort, and a boron mine. Given the general lack of hotels in an area like this, we had booked a room in the thermal spa resort (though only one of us wound up taking advantage of the facilities – I was there for adventure, and I was deeply concerned that being too comfortable might negatively impact that).

IMG_0032Hiking through Emet after dark was an interesting experience of its own, and by the time we arrived at the resort we soon realized that rumors of some resort personnel speaking English was, perhaps, a little optimistic of an interpretation. To be sure, getting checked in was no problem, but how were they going to explain to three American travelers that the four-day long Lamb Intestine Festival meant that car rentals were closed, getting a driver was next to impossible, and if we wanted to see the ruins that I had just traveled thousands of miles across the world to see with only days left in Turkey, we might have to walk.

After an hour or so of sweating bullets I bit the bullet and called the friend from Turkey who had helped us earlier with both bus tickets and resort reservations (the Internet fails when you are navigating in a world of gender segregated buses and rampant online fraud, apparently) and put her on the phone with the man at the front desk.

Finally, the next morning we had it settled: a friend of the manager was willing to loan us a car. Well, and, as it turned out, a driver (whose name we never got and whom we later discovered was a taxi driver who decided earning a couple of hundred lira to drive some Americans around wasn’t a bad few hours work).

Which is how we made our way to Çavdarhisar, a small town that is distinguished in that it sits in the middle of the ruins of Aizanoi, most lately a Roman ruin, but in earlier times also a Byzantine and, even earlier, a Greek city.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Aizanoi’s ruins are in remarkably good shape, and consist primarily of a mostly-intact Temple of Zeus, a stock market, public baths, the theater-stadium, a necropolis and a sanctuary to the Anatolian Earth Mother goddess Meter Steunene, which unfortunately is largely buried and undergoing excavation, so wasn’t visible for viewing.

On the way back, our new friend and driver stopped at one of the ever-present roadside fountains and saw…this. Yes, more lamb intestines. With no common language it wasn’t until later with the help of a teacher we befriended at the resort that we learned the gist of it:


From Wikipedia:

Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى‎ ʿīd al-aḍḥā, “festival of the sacrifice”), also called Feast of the Sacrifice, the Major Festival, the Greater Eid, Kurban Bayram (Turkish: Kurban Bayramı; Bosnian: kurban-bajram), or Eid e Qurban (Persian: عید قربان‎), is the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims worldwide each year.

It honours the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael (Ismail])a as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead.

IMG_9791Ah-ha. That explains the lamb intestines everywhere.

Another interesting fact about this feast is that – as our Turkish friend explained to us in passable English – in Islam animals have no souls, but those animals who are sacrificed during the Feast of the Sacrifice are allowed into Heaven.

I didn’t ask the sheep we passed for their feelings on the matter; it seemed likely to be a touchy subject.

The final non-traveling day of our trip – not just in Turkey, but for the entire trip – we visited what was one of the three places I had determined to see on the trip, and the entirety of the reason for going to Turkey on this trip – the ruins of the Ottoman fortress of Eğrigöz (pronounced – as I unfortunately was to figure out only once I returned to the United States, “eh-ree-gooz” – though that explains the strange expressions I got from locals).

Surveyor's map of the fortress.  The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Surveyor’s map of the fortress. The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Eğrigöz (the fortress) sits adjacent a modern day village (also called Eğrigöz), perched up against the river on an incredibly steep outcropping. It is not, it should be noted, large – the entire walled area was only a couple of hundred feet probably, and as I later put together afterwards, the actual “citadel” part of it was a keep only modestly larger than Poenari Castle in Romania, Vlad Țepeș‘s prized fortress perched high in the Carpathian Mountains which we had visited the previous week.

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad's father belonged to - it is the origin of the name "Dracula", meaning "Son of the Dragon".

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad’s father belonged to – it is the origin of the name “Dracula”, meaning “Son of the Dragon”.

As a barely-minted teenager Vlad Țepeș and his younger brother Radu cel Frumos (the Handsome) were sent as hostages to their father’s good behavior, first to Edirne, the site of the Ottoman court (remember, this was still before Constantinople fell), and then later to the fortress of Eğrigöz in Western Anatolia, a common destination for hostage rulers’ children.

On arrival to Eğrigöz the value of the location was instantly obvious. Yes, it dominated the river valley it sat over, but it was also a brutally long way from Europe and any possible hope of rescue or escape. By comparison, Edirne would have been a cakewalk.

Vlad Țepeș and his brother were hostages, but they were noble hostages, and as such they were trained in academic and martial subjects with contact – it’s unclear whether at Eğrigöz, Edirne, or some other location – with the sultan’s son, Mehmed II (who would later, it should be noted, be the man who finally conquered Constantinople and moved the capital of the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul).


There is precious little beyond this that we know of those years. We know Vlad was not fond of Mehmed, though it never got so bad as to interfere with Vlad in later years working out certain political “arrangements” with Mehmed’s father, Murad.

There are, as well, stories that Mehmed and Radu the Handsome – Vlad’s younger brother – got along, um, very, very well. (Naturally, these stories are vehemently denied by Turkish historians, but given Radu’s relative obscurity and the reverence with which Mehmed II would later be held in, it seems quite plausible).

Years later, Vlad would be freed, making political arrangements with the sultan and taking his hard-won knowledge of military tactics and Turkish to great effect when his boyhood companion, Mehmed II, marched into Wallachia and tried to burn down Vlad’s realm.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

So there at the end of the Vlad Tepes World Tour, we hit not the very beginning, perhaps, but very close to Vlad’s beginning.

Perhaps, too, one can argue that Eğrigöz was a psychological birth of sorts for Vlad, as it was there that he learned about the enemies – Ottomans and his brother Radu alike – that would hound him for the remainder of his life. There, too, he learned the skills that would keep him alive through three reigns until his death led to his body staying in Wallachia, but his head making one final trip to Istanbul to give testament of his death to Mehmed II.

So after four days in Emet, my traveling companions and I made our way back to Istanbul, and from there onto a plane back home.

At least until next time. After all, we never did make it to Moldova or Giurgiu…

Istanbul, The City of Cats


It isn’t difficult to understand the historical might and power of Istanbul.

I mean, look at all the cats.

Legions of calicos pace the byways of the outlying districts. Clusters of shorthairs and tabbies mob the unwary, and despite the best efforts of even the occasional grumbly old beggar, the cats know the truth of it, creeping back to the comfort of the beggar’s blanket spread there on the unforgiving pavement.

IMG_9328If ever there was a conclave of felines that rule all cat-kind, it would not be found in Bast‘s old stomping grounds of Egypt, but rather in modern Istanbul. Where Romania was the Land of Dogs with packs of strays marking out their territory in the shadows of old Târgoviște‘s statues and monuments, in Istanbul it is feline-kind that clearly hold power.

It’s hard to know what to call Istanbul, too.

I think of it now as “The City of Cats”, but it could as easily be called The City of Mosques. Mosques are, quite literally, everywhere. One or even two to a block, they attach themselves lamprey-like to factories, they loom over modern gas stations, they dominate the city’s horizon. So omnipresent are they that my traveling companions and I concocted a game – playable only in Istanbul, of course – called “Close and Count” that involved closing your eyes for twenty seconds as you rode on the metro, boat, bus, plane or whatever, then opening them and seeing how many mosques you could count in sight.

It was never, ever less than one, and the average was five to seven.


Istanbul might also be called Constantinople, the eastern capitol of the Roman Empire and bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. (Please, no more They might Be Giants-style Istanbul (Not Constantinople) jokes. For the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Hastur and Xipe Totec, no more…)


But even They Might Be Giants got it wrong, or at least incomplete; before Istanbul was Constantinople, it was the Greek city of Byzantium, which is its own fascinating story.

What Istanbul is not, ironically, is any direct part at all of Vlad Țepeș‘ story, kind of an odd thing to say, given that the major reason for being there was the Vlad Țepeș World Tour, my effort to retrace many of the steps of the (in)famous impaler himself.

Vlad Țepeș probably never stepped foot in the city.

For the first part of his life it was still Constantinople, but the Ottoman Empire had surrounded it, even transferring its capitol to the city of Edirne up the coast a bit on the European side of this gateway between East and West. As mentioned in earlier notes about this expedition of mine, as a teenager Vlad Țepeș was held hostage to his father’s good behavior, probably briefly at Edirne, but then later at Eğrigöz, a tiny village in modern Turkey that was an important Ottoman fortress where noble hostages were held.



(We did get to Eğrigöz, but I’ll talk more about that in the next, penultimate article in this series).

For the second part of his life it was Istanbul, after his boyhood companion – though definitely not friend – Mehmed the Conqueror finally achieved the ambition of generations of Ottoman rulers and crushed the Christian rulers of Constantinople. (Mehmed’s tomb is in modern Istanbul, in fact within walking distance of the old Fatih Seawall, a block or two from our hotel while we stayed in the city).

(Then again, perhaps one can argue that Vlad Țepeș did, in fact, make it through the city gates of Istanbul. Or rather, part of him; upon Vlad Țepeș’ death Vlad’s head was separated from his body and taken to Mehmed as proof of his old adversary’s demise).

For those unfamiliar with it, Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, the channel of water linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by means of the Aegean Sea. Which is really just a complicated way of saying it was arguably the single most strategic location in the ancient Greek and Roman world, and a damned important one even today, given that it controls modern Russia‘s primary warm-water seaport access.

Monument in Asian Istanbul commemorating the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II.

Monument in Asian Istanbul commemorating the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II.

This means that Istanbul is divided into “Asian Istanbul” on the east side of the straits, “European Istanbul” on the northwest side of the straits, and “The Old City” on the southwest side of the straits separated from European Istanbul by a waterway known as The Golden Horn.



All three sections of Istanbul have their adherents and attractions, but from the point of view of one with an historical eye, the Old City has the lion’s share of the things to see. From the Fatih Seawall to the Blue Mosque, from the Hagia Sophia (which was originally an Orthodox cathedral before Mehmed converted it to a mosque upon the conquest of Constantinople) to the ancient Roman aquaduct and subterranean Basilica Cistern, from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar to the Jeans Bazaar (yes, that last is exactly what it sounds like), the Old City is ridiculously dense with things of historical import and interest.

IMG_9538It’s also, of course, a tourist trap that can invite comparison to a cosmopolitan Disneyland where at times one can hear a dozen languages spoken in the space of a minute, and not one of them Turkish.

The Grand Bazaar itself has its own police force, its own mosque, dozens of gates, and is one of the oldest shopping centers still active in the world today.

Not only is it a gigantic, sprawling edifice on its own, but it spills out even beyond the confines of its own gates to specialized bazaars for old books (mostly just modern books, to be honest), the Spice Bazaar, even a “jeans” bazaar.

Important things I learned while in Istanbul:

  • Whenever anyone is watching, most Istanbulites I saw pretended indifference or annoyance with their feline co-inhabitants, but the moment nobody was looking I would see half of them sneak them food.
  • The Istanbul city council has no sense of fun. What were you guys thinking putting all that barbed wire blocking off the interesting parts of the Fatih Seawall fortifications? Or was it more like a challenge to see how badly one really wants to see the inside of it?
  • The Basilica Cistern is big and impressive, but really, it looked way bigger and more impressive in every documentary I’ve seen of it. Also, the documentaries conveniently don’t pan by “The Cistern Cafe” located right there on the water conveniently serving drinks.IMG_9470
  • Despite the best efforts of my traveling companions and I, our search for the best donor (Turkish form of the Greek gyro or Arabic shawarma) ultimately wound up being found in Budapest. Really. I know of a fantastic shop in Pest with literally the best donor/gyro/shawarma you will ever eat. Seriously. You will eat and then mourn the rest of your life the bland, tasteless, dust that passes for food ever after.
  • The shopkeepers of the Grand Bazaar universally appear to speak a minimum of twelve to fifteen languages. We would walk by and they’d start trying to guess your language, in the process peppering out half a dozen or so before the end.
  • As a secondary statement on the Grand Bazaar, I apparently don’t really get this whole “haggling” thing, but in the end both parties seemed to be happy as I got what I was buying for less than I would have expected to pay, and they more than they were prepared to settle for.
  • It’s true what they say about the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia; the Blue Mosque is stunning on the outside, but kind of disappointing on the inside (particularly with the forest of wires depending from the ceiling to hold up the various lights), whereas the Hagia Sophia shows its age on the outside, but it is jaw-droppingly beautiful on the inside. It also has seraphim angel depictions and, bizarrely, the burial site of the Christian commander who looted Constantinople on the crusaders’ way to the Holy Land. Like, uh, you apparently do.
  • Don’t say “um” or use the “ok” handsign in Turkey. Trust me.IMG_9555
  • The trolley announcer on the main T1 line isn’t really making a comment about “probable incidence of blasphemy”.
  • The Turkish police appear to focus their recruiting efforts on sixteen year olds. The sight of kids – and I mean it when I say “kids” – carrying military rifles is a little creepy. I mean, come on, at least have a scimitar as your primary weapon.
  • Did I mention all the stray cats already? Oh, right. Sorry.
  • The Istanbul metro system makes the Budapest, Romanian and San Francisco mass-transit systems seem like a sick joke. I think I’m in love. With a train system. How the hell did that happen?
  • It’s true what they say about ninjas in large numbers being relatively harmless.
  • The Grand Bazaar really does resemble nothing so much as Robert Aspin’s Bazaar on Deva.
  • Turkish coffee is definitely a thing, but I swear, the Turks take their tea more seriously than the English.


All in all, well worth the trip from a historical perspective and even if, as one Turkish woman told me, “The Old City isn’t really Istanbul”, since I was looking more for Constantinople I think it all more or less worked out for me.

Until the lamb intestines started appearing in the gutters, but that’s a story for the next and final article of this little series. Don’t worry. I am almost done with this and will be ready to go back to more game design material and werewolf sonnets.

Next Article: Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia

The Princely Court of Târgoviște and the Sunset Tower

IMG_9026Leaving Transylvania and northern Wallachia we entered into Romania’s lowlands.

From the mountainous terrain of the Carpathians to the south the land quickly turns flat. As in, Midwest Chicago-style flat. One minute you are looking at an autumn panoply of steep hills and the next you are barreling down a highway dodging horse carts (oh yes, just being on a highway doesn’t mean you don’t see horses on the road there) with a carefully laid out grid of square farmland in every direction.

Before the Wallachian court was moved to București (something that we can actually thank Vlad Ţepeș himself for – Vlad was always uncomfortable with Târgoviște’s poor strategic location) the princely court was in the town of Târgoviște (pronounced TAR-go-veesh-teh).

The old court in Târgoviște lies in a central palace complex hosting the Chindia Tower – also known as the Sunset Tower – built by Vlad Ţepeș’ father Vlad Dracul, the remains of Vlad Ţepeș’ palace and several other, mostly post-Vlad buildings, most impressively an old church with some remarkable wall paintings.




The Sunset Tower sat on one end of the complex, mobbed morning and evening with magpies taking their due from the spread of green surrounding the tower and otherwise acting like the true lords of Târgoviște. The tower itself is now a museum to, predictably, Vlad Ţepeș, with a number of documents signed by him as well as a fair number of interesting maps and contemporary paintings.

Târgoviște is, first and foremost, a town that knows what it is famous for.

An idyllic park and – no joke – “Vlad Tepes Beerhouse” – is studded with busts of the various princes of Wallachia, but even there, Vlad Ţepeș gets top billing with a half-statue of him, sword drawn, sitting in the middle of the park.


After the death of his hated brother Radu the Handsome in 1476, Vlad made his third bid for power in Wallachia with Hungarian support. Vlad succeeded, seizing power and for the third and final time claiming the voivodeship of Wallachia.

Unlike Vlad’s second reign, his third reign would prove to be short – barely more than two months – before his death.

Appropriately for such a posthumously famous individual, Vlad’s death was as mysterious as his legacy. Innumerable stories exist for how he died – in battle, betrayed by his own men, assassinated – the details are myriad and contradictory.

What is firmly documented is that his head was sent to the Ottoman Court in Edirne, so that Mehmed II, Conqueror of Constantinople, might finally know that his lifelong enemy was, at last, dead.


Târgoviște is a sleepy town for its size, so two days after our arrival we took off for Snagov Monastery, built by Vlad’s predecessor and by folklore the site of Vlad’s burial, though modern Romanian scholars are highly skeptical of this, preferring the site of Cormana Monastery instead, though even that is speculative given that Cormana was leveled and rebuilt in the intervening years.

Next Article: Istanbul, the Pearl of the Ottoman Empire. Also, the City of Cats.

The Werewolf Pack of Poenari


Just over twenty-four hours after we had arrived, the Vlad Țepeș World Tour expedition left Sighișoara from said town’s solitary train station for Sibiu.

Ironically, the only reason we were slated to go to Sibiu was because we were unable to find an appropriate car rental agency in Sighișoara, and the next closest were Sibiu or Brașov, but since Sibiu was a slightly closer hop to the expedition’s next target, Sibiu it was.

This was ironic because, as it turned out, the subject of our quarry, Vlad Țepeș, had both taken refuge in Sibiu at one time and later had harsh words with the denizens for supporting one of his two rival claimants at the time; as one can easily imagine, Vlad was not the type to be forgiving to those seeking to displace the authority he had paid so much to gain.

IMG_8805We arrived in Sibiu a few hours after we had departed, with no few stops and considerable confusion later, confusion somewhat ameliorated by commiseration with a young German woman who had about a similar command of Romanian as did I and was about as confused as we were by the Sighișoara to Sibiu trainline which featured the amazing rubberbanding train (don’t ask).

The Sibiu train station was unremarkable, and after haggling in horribly broken English and Romanian we procured a taxi to the airport where we picked up a rental car and one of my two companions, Kristina, found herself elected as the driver, being the only one of us who could drive manual – that being all that was available. (Hey, don’t judge; seriously, when was the last time you saw a manual transmission that wasn’t a truck, bus or your own car, for those who are aficionados of such?)


Sibiu is a fairly well-known tourist destination in Romania; it is certainly larger than Sighișoara. We wandered around some of its historical sites – most notably the awesomely nicknamed “Gate of Corpses” at the Haller Bastion where plague victims had been pushed through holes drilled in the walls during an unfortunate siege.


This is, too, where we encountered one of our first Romanian-isms: the word “cafe” in Romanian does not actually imply food. Nor, in fact, does the word “restaurant”. Seriously.

IMG_8825Oh, yeah – we also hid from dinosaurs. True story.

Once we had satisfied ourselves that we had properly absorbed any lingering necromantic energies from said Gate of Corpses we took to the road, making a dusk trek from the heart of Transylvania and through the Carpathians into Wallachia.

Our target? Poenari Castle.

Poenari Castle was arguably Vlad Țepeș’ most important fortified redoubt, perched high in the Carpathian Mountains and serving variously as prison, refuge, treasury and watchtower. Vlad didn’t build it; he did, however, rehabilitate it and considerably expand upon it, efforts continued by his brother Radu when Radu pushed Vlad out of power.

IMG_8994We made our way through winding country roads that reminded me of nothing so much as the Santa Cruz Mountains of home, save with a lot more stray dogs and regular incidents of the road being obstructed by horse-drawn carts. Despite this and an occasional disconcerting absence of street names, we found ourselves in a well-appointed pension (basically, a bed and breakfast) named the Pension Irina (the road to it is a bit harrowing, but it is very high quality at a surprisingly reasonable price).

The next morning we made our way up the road towards Poenari Castle itself. And its 1480 steps. I did mention that, right? Yeah, one climbs a stupid number of steps to get to (eventually) a gatehouse manned by a single watchkeeper for the site, and then the “castle” itself.


I use the term “castle” advisedly; Poenari is tiny and functional. Perched on the top of the ridge it is on, it commands an imposing view of the river valley below and would have been absurdly difficult to take. In truth, its standard garrison was five or six men, not surprising given that aside from its walls and battlements, the actual main keep consisted of a single tower, maybe twenty feet on a side, going up three or four levels depending on the era (in Vlad’s time, I believe it was just the three levels).

Poenari is also the site of two great stories:

[Vlad’s] first major act of revenge was aimed at the boyars of Tirgoviste for for not being loyal to his father.

On Easter Sunday he invited all the boyar families who had participated at the princely feast. He asked them how many princes had ruled in their lifetimes. They said they had lived through many reigns.

Shouting that this was their fault because of their plotting, Vlad the Impaler had them all arrested on the spot. He impaled the older ones on stakes while forcing the others to march from the capital to the town of Poenari.

This fifty-mile trek was quite grueling and no one was permitted to rest until they reached destination. Vlad the Impaler then ordered boyars to build him a fortress on the ruins of an older outpost overlooking the Arges River.

Many died in the process, and therefore Vlad the Impaler succeeded in creating a new nobility and obtaining a fortress for future emergencies. What is left today of the building is identified as Poenari Fortress (Cetatea Poenari).

Vlad the Impaler

And, later:

It’s said that [Vlad’s] first wife, Jusztina Szilagyi of Moldavia [whom he met and eloped with in Budapest], flung herself from the towers of Poenari during a siege by Vlad’s muslim brother, Radu Bey [Radu converted to Islam during his and Vlad’s mutual captivity as teenage hostages to their father’s good behavior many years before].

Before flinging herself into the Arges River below, she exclaimed she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish than to be a captive of the Turks.

Atlas Obscura


The river (you can see it mostly dried up at this time of year in the accompanying photo) is now sometimes called “Lady’s River” or “Maiden’s River” in recognition of Jusztina’s voluntary tumble from Poenari’s battlements.

But the way up the steps to Poenari Castle was itself not without incident. We were accosted from the base by probably the most pathetic example of canine doggy-ness I have had the misfortune to see.

(I actually maintain my suspicions that it was at least in part a cultivated act for tourists – the rest of his pack appeared later up the steps, and he wasn’t actually that ill-fed for all the remoteness of the location and his masterful act of beggery. As distinct from buggery. There was no buggery. Just to be clear.)

IMG_8897He followed us up all the way to the top, soon joined by the rest of his pack. Naturally, we rewarded the castle’s resident werewolf pack with a healthy percentage of the sausages and bread we had brought up for ourselves for lunch at the top.

With the amount of slobbering, I am fairly certain at least one of us, if not all, walked away with either lycanthropy or rabies. Possibly both.

Upon our descent, we made our way down towards the town of Curtea de Argeș, also the site of “The Royal Church”, Biserica Domnească, which is itself the site of a great piece of folklore:

Master Manole, the best mason of those times, had a dream in which he was told that, in order to build the most beautiful monastery, he had to wall in someone very beloved by him or by his masons. He told his masons about it and they agreed that the first wife who came there on the following morning should be the victim.

Manole’s wife, Ana (who was pregnant) came first and she was told that they wanted to play a little game, building walls around her. She accepted and soon realized that it wasn’t a game and implored Manole to let her go, but he kept his promise.



The monastery itself is a beautiful piece of workmanship, featuring the bizarrely twisted towers that you sometimes see in Romania and that remind me of nothing so much as a paean of homage to Cthulhu. In other words, I really, really approved of the aesthetic.


Poenari is not a vast fortress, but as one of the three primary sites I wanted to see on this trip, I was not disappointed. It is a haunting and lonely place, yet with the unbridled beauty of the Carpathians in autumn spread out beneath it like a picnic basket it is a sight that is difficult to purge from the memory.

Next Article: The Princely Court of Târgoviște and the Sunset Tower

The Train of Terror to Transylvania

IMG_8375No, the title doesn’t mean what you think it does.

After witnessing first hand the horror that is the mass confusion of the Budapest train system, little did I know that my train experience was about to get worse. Much, much worse. Being the canny, paranoid world travelers that I and one of my two traveling companions aspire to be (my other friend who came along doesn’t count as paranoid, so I am leaving her out of this), we thought ourselves clever when we ordered from Rail Europe nice, comfy sleeper train seats on a night train out of Budapest into Romania.

Tickets in hand, we locate the correct train, wait patiently for the departure time, file on, and pick out a nice sleeper cabin. Well, actually kind of crappy, but I wasn’t inclined to be too picky, hell, I was actually on a night train to Transylvania, which has to be worth some world traveler points, right?

At last, the train grumbles to a start with me carefully following along on GPS to make sure we did, in fact, get on the right train, or at least were going in the right direction. Train Conductor #1 arrives, takes our tickets, looks confused. Turns tickets one way, then another. Finally, he tells us we need to move up three cars, so we grab our packs and move up three cars.

This last part actually deserves a sidebar:

Up until now we’d been in Hungary, and for those of you unfamiliar with the language, Hungarian is kind of a special snowflake in terms of European languages – it isn’t really related to anything, and trust me, it shows. Someone speaks German to me, for example, and I can usually pick out a few words and garner a meaning from it.

Hungarian? Not a chance.

In this case, I actually did understand, but ironically it wasn’t until about an hour later (and hearing a couple of others of the crew speak) that I realized they were speaking Romanian. (I had taken a couple of months or so of Romanian before leaving – not enough to hold a real conversation, but at least enough to stumble through certain basic communications).

So an hour or so later a little light bulb lit up and I realized why I could understand a little of what he was saying.

But back to our story. We move to another car. A little while later, Train Conductor #2 comes along. Rinse and repeat the earlier performance, and we start to wonder if we’re going to even make it to our destination on train or if backpacking on foot is going to come into this. Grabbing our packs, again we move cars, this time to the cut rate seats which are basically one step above metro seats. But at least we’re going to get there, right?


Train Conductor #3 comes along. I honestly felt sorry for her; we realized at that point that the other conductors had simply passed the buck, and when #3 came along, she was left between a rock and a hard place with three Americans whose collective command of Romanian rated disfavorably with an average three year old child from Romania. After a certain amount of agonizing, she just asked us for what I assume to be the equivalent fare for the train car we were in. I still have no idea if she was supposed to do this; I suspect not.

End of the tale? Oh no. See, remember the part about it being an international night train? That meant crew shift changes at a couple of different stations. Friendly Train Conductor #3 got off, leaving us with a receipt, and Train Conductor #4 and company got on. Our collective linguistic capabilities again failed us, and after another fifteen minutes or so #4 rewards our diligence with the universal expression for, “Screw it, I don’t get paid enough for this,” throwing up his hands and letting us stay on the train.

Then came a stop near the border, and Hungarian border police came on board, checked our credentials and stamped our passports. Time passed (the train was agonizingly slow) and my reliable GPS indicated we had crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border. Cautious optimism that was about to get brutally trampled underfoot rose in me. Could it be, perhaps we were going to make it without further incident after all?

Another stop, and this time Romanian border police hopped on board, checked my friends’ credentials, then came to me. The poor guy took my passport, opened it. Looked at the picture. Frowned. Glanced surreptitiously up at me. Looked back at the picture. Called his partner over.

Then followed the most awkward half an hour of my adult life as the Romanian border police tried to determine if I was who I said I was.

Let me back up a couple of years and explain why I was, actually, a little sympathetic to the Romanian border police at this point in time.

A few years back my passport was expired and I was heading up to Canada, so arranged a photo to be taken on the following Monday. That weekend, however, I was hanging out with a couple of female acquaintances (no, nothing like that, trust me) who after one too many drinks managed to convince me to shave my sacred goatee of some seventeen years off. Just to see if I indeed might look better without it (I didn’t).

So, back to the Romanian border in 2013: They’re looking at a passport photo of me with a two-day growth of beard, maybe fifteen pounds heavier and, oh, did I mention I had LASIK/PRK on my eyes about a year ago? Yeah, so the photo also had me in glasses. I really did sympathize with their efforts, especially given the almost tragicomic expressions on the poor guy’s face.

Finally, he asks me for supplementary ID. I hand over my California driver’s license, suddenly glad I had decided to bring it. He glances at the signature, and then gives me a slip of paper to sign my name.

Thank you, Dad, for displacing the traditional physician’s inscrutable scrawl one generation from yourself to me. Because of my absolutely indecipherable, unmistakable signature, the Romanian border police gave a giant sigh of conclusion, handing said paper back to me (it’s still in my wallet) and stamped my passport.

That, then, is the story of how I almost got thrown off a train and detained by the Romanian border police in the middle of the night on the remote edges of Transylvania.

IMG_8634With that, we had only a few more hours to wait in pitch darkness for our train to arrive in Sighișoara (pronounced: sih-gee-sho-ah-ra), birthplace of Vlad Ţepeș, the subject of this entire illustrious expedition. Arrive the train did, about fifteen minutes after dawn crashed over the mountainous terrain of Transylvania, drenching the desolate rural landscape in pinks and reds.

As we inched closer to our first destination in Romania (I did mention this train was agonizingly slow, right?) I started to wonder if, perhaps, I had made a mistake in coming to Sighișoara – the terrain was unforgiving, and the train tracks were bordered by brutally depressing industrial works. Had I, perchance, led our beleaguered party to the Romanian equivalent of Bakersfield, California?

Suddenly, the terrain changed, the softened morning light shafting off of picturesque churches and tiny villages, and I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps my traveling companions would indeed lynch me during (or after) this expedition, but that day would not be today.

IMG_8639The train rolled into Sighișoara’s tiny train station, and bleary-eyed we hopped off, packs on our backs, to hike through the early morning streets to our hotel. Which I was pretty sure was in walking distance. Mostly sure. (It was). At that hour we couldn’t check in, naturally, but they would hold our packs, so we dropped off said packs and made our way first to the tin-roofed Leper’s Church (a rather mean title, since said lepers weren’t actually allowed inside the church, but were preached to from a platform outside the church) and then to Sighișoara Citadel, a medieval walled guild town built by Saxon Germans supported by Hungary.

I am just going to throw it out there: Sighișoara Citadel is awesome. While it may be out of the way, for the average person without my peculiar Vlad Ţepeș obsession (for me, Poenari Castle, which I’ll talk about in a later post when the account reaches Wallachia, was as good), it was easily the best part of the trip in Romania.


Not only are the fortifications mostly intact, but the town inside is still inhabited with a great collection of outdoor cafes, a cacophony of magpies (which still look funny to me, so used to all-black crows and ravens as I am, but they make some fantastic vocalizations), an old hillside church graveyard and, best of all, the (very significantly rebuilt) house where Vlad Ţepeș was born.

History sidebar time: Despite Vlad Ţepeș’ popular association with Transylvania, he and his family were actually associated with neighboring Wallachia, not Transylvania. So what was Vlad Ţepeș doing being born in a Saxon German guild down in Transylvania, anyways?


In 1431, the year Vlad Ţepeș was born, his father, Vlad Dracul (“The Dragon”, so named to honor his inauguration into the Kingdom of Hungary‘s anti-Ottoman Order of the Dragon) had been appointed Governor of Transylvania by the Hungarians with the goal of stemming territorial encroachments from Vlad Dracul’s brother, Alexandru, current voivode (prince) of Wallachia, to which Vlad Dracul also very much had a claim.

Vlad Ţepeș was born, and a handful of years later his uncle died suddenly, and the Hungarians told Vlad Dracul, “Go,” to which Vlad Dracul without a moment’s delay grabbed every fighting man he could get his hands on and marched into neighboring Wallachia to claim the voivodeship of the principality.

IMG_8745The house that Vlad Ţepeș was born in is a pastel yellow thing sitting next to the neat councilmen’s tower near the old main gates of the fortified town. Naturally, the house Vlad Ţepeș was born in has been transformed…into a restaurant. With a cardboard cutout of Dracula (not Vlad Ţepeș, note) sitting on the walk outside. Featuring a menu full of vampire-themed drinks and food offerings.

To say I was dying inside would be an understatement, though I was somewhat buffered in this by the fact that I had heard rumors about this even before getting on the plane way back in San Francisco. My traveling companions were positively gleeful at my discomfort.

So much for historical dignity.


The food was decent, the bar upstairs cute. Then my companions decided they really wanted to pay the 5 Lei to see “the room Vlad Ţepeș was born in”.

Now, keep in mind my earlier comment about the house having been heavily rebuilt since the 15th century, so I was immediately suspicious, but nobody ever called me a quitter, so I steeled myself and prepared for the worst. After a short delay, the restaurant proprietor took us upstairs to a room bedecked in red and black curtains. And an open coffin. With a wax vampire in it.

IMG_8793Then (naturally) the “wax” vampire jumped up with a loud, “Boo!”, and I discovered that, yes, indeed, it is always possible for any particular situation to decay further.


But, really, Sighișoara was still great. Even if the photos of me with my jaw dropped will probably follow me for the rest of my life.

Next Article: The Werewolf Pack of Poenari

Imprisonment and a Tale of Two Wives

IMG_8545Twenty 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.

This meant that the first leg of the expedition began in Budapest, Hungary.

IMG_8354After 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.

Old palace remains.

Old palace remains.

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)
  • Visegrad
  • 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.

IMG_8453Visiting 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.

IMG_8471So, naturally, we snuck in. It was unguarded and there weren’t any signs technically saying not to, so what could possibly go wrong?

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.

IMG_8598The 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!