Contrary to popular belief travel writing – as I spent years trying to tell anyone who would listen before taking up gainful employment at Emerging Europe – is neither a glamorous nor a lucrative occupation. In fact, most of the time it’s a grim, lonely existence which barely covers the rent.
As such, and with more than a hint of confirmation bias, it’s difficult not to consider the best bits of Backpacking With Dracula: On the Trail of Vlad the Impaler and the Vampire He Inspired, a book by former Lonely Planet author Leif Pettersen, to be those in which he recalls his research trips to Romania and describes – often in rather vivid terms – just how awful the job of travel writer can sometimes be.
It is not all bleak of course. Indeed, at this stage I should probably point out – in the interests of transparency – that I know Pettersen reasonably well, having on a couple of occasions shared far-from-reasonably priced cocktails with him on the terrace of Athenee Palace Hilton in Bucharest (memory fails to recall if Lonely Planet picked up the tab).
As such, you will need to take my word for the fact that I intend this to be a thoroughly objective book review. So I’ll start with what I didn’t like, namely the Bill Bryson-esque desire to shoehorn a joke into every paragraph.
Beyond that, it is one of the most entertaining reads about Romania I’ve enjoyed for some time, not least for the sheer extent of rollicking historical research which has gone into it. I caught a couple of tiny factual errors (Queen Marie was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, not daughter), but the historical content is generally sound. What’s more, there’s a ton of it, including a whole host of vignettes about which I had no idea.
Who knew, for example, that in the summer of 1462 Vlad Țepeș (the book’s protagonist, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler) gathered together peasants suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis, syphilis and bubonic plague, dressed them in Turkish uniforms and sent them to mingle with and infect the Turks?
Or that Radu cel Frumos (Radu the Handsome), younger brother of Vlad, was apparently considered so handsome by the Sublime Porte (where he and Vlad where held captive as young lads) that half the Ottoman court found him irresistible.
Backpacking with Dracula is a historical travelogue which interweaves (rather well) visits to those places in Romania where Vlad Țepeș lived, fought, fornicated, impaled and tortured with the stories behind them. The chapter on Targoviște is very good, made all the better for a brief yet accurate and compelling telling of the last days of 20th-century tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu, who met his end in the town.
From there Pettersen travels through southern Transylvania (he really likes – quite rightly – Sighișoara) before clearing up once and for all the mystery as to whether or not Țepeș ever lived at Bran Castle (pictured above; and no, he didn’t).
Bucharest is given a decent hearing, and the description of the now sadly closed Count Dracula Club is wonderful, and will no doubt bring back fond memories for anyone who ever ate there.
I also couldn’t help agreeing with Pettersen’s assessment of the guides who conduct the tours of Bucharest’s parliament building, Casa Poporului, as being “Romania’s most charm deficient, least-gifted English speakers.”
After a recap of the Dracula novel (and how it came about: Bram Stoker did not invent the vampire genre), we swing briefly through the Borgo (Tihuța) Pass which we discover is not a bit scary: “Quite the opposite, in fact.”
We then get our man’s thoughts on why (and how) Romania should be milking the Dracula myth to death, pointing out that other places have none of its hang ups (purveyors of kitsch crap at the entrance to Bran Castle aside) when it comes to cashing in on myths and legends: “More than one million dipshit tourists per year spend a combined 38 million US dollars to stare blankly at a lake,” he says of visitors to Scotland’s Loch Ness.
By book’s end I couldn’t help but think that Pettersen has something of a grudging, reluctant respect for Vlad Țepeș (unquestionably more than he has for people who go Nessie spotting. And rightly so). And while it can hardly be said that he tries to rehabilitate the barbarian, and certainly leaves out no gory details when it comes to his horrific crimes, he does (not unreasonably) point out that the Wallachian tyrant was not without equal in his medieval brutality.