Contrary to popular belief travel writing – as we have spent years trying to tell anyone who will listen – 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. Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but we think that the best bits of this new book by former Lonely Planet author Leif Pettersen are those in which he recalls his research trips to Romania, often in rather vivid terms as to awful the job can be.
It is not all bleak of course. Indeed, at this stage we should probably point out – in the interests of transparency – that we 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 or In Your Pocket picked up the tab).
As such, you will need to take our word for the fact that we intend this to be a thoroughly objective book review. So we’ll start with what we didn’t like, primarily the Bill Bryson-esque desire to shoehorn a joke into every paragraph. There’s no need Leif, really.
Even with the jokes (some which work, some which fall rather flat) this is one of the most entertaining reads about Romania we’ve enjoyed for some time, not least for the sheer extent of rollicking historical research which has gone into it. We caught a couple of tiny factual errors (Queen Marie – whose beach house at Balchik we visited this weekend, coincidentally – was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, not daughter), but the historical content is generally sound.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 we had no idea about.
Who knew, for example, that in the summer of 1462 Vlad Tepes (the book’s protagonist and Dracula of the title) – 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 Tepes was apparently considered so handsome by the Sublime Porte (where he and Vlad where held captive as young lads) that half the Ottoman court buggered him senseless.
Backpacking with Dracula is a historical travelogue which interweaves (rather well) visits to those places in Romania where Vlad Tepes lived, fought, fornicated, impaled and tortured with the stories behind them. The chapter on Targoviste is very good, made all the better for a brief yet accurate and compelling telling of the last days of 20th-century tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu, who of course met his end in the town.
From there Pettersen travels through southern Transylvania (he really likes – quite rightly – Sighisoara) before clearing up once and for all the mystery as to whether or not Tepes ever lived at Bran Castle (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:
We also laughed at Pettersen’s assessment of the guides who conduct the tours of 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 (Tihuta) 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 crap at Bran Castle aside) when it comes cashing in kitsch myths and legends: ‘More than one million dipshit tourists per year spend a combined $38 million to stare blankly at a lake,’ he says of visitors to Loch Ness.
By book’s end we couldn’t help but think that Pettersen has something of a grudging, reluctant respect for Vlad Tepes (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:
He also makes a rather good point about the beatified Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare):
(Yes, he does use the word ‘guy’. Not necessary, we know. Neither is the word ‘dude’, which also crops up a few times: ‘John Hunyadi was an ambitious, power-hungry dude.’ Again, there’s no need Leif, really).
You can buy a copy of Backpacking with Dracula (and you really should) here. We also understand that Anthony Frost English Bookshop in Bucharest is stocking copies too.