Spending the night in Dracula’s castle

You may be wondering why I have a bulb of garlic in my top pocket. Let me explain.

Some many years ago when the world seemed to lie open and gorgeous before me, wide and bright and filled with wonders, constrained only by my capacity to imagine them and my enterprise in seizing them, I started to draw up a list of things I want to do. I don’t mean career goals or chores or material ambitions, I mean things that seemed so splendid and improbable that unless I wrote them down and pinned myself to them they would fade away like dreams.

I think I knew, even then, when I was young and knew nothing, that those ideas would represent and preserve the best part of me – the part that hadn’t yet become weary or wary, the wide-eyed part that valued adventure and delight above achievement or comfort.

Whenever I encountered something in my reading that made me put down my book and stare off starrily into space, thinking, “Ooh, imagine doing that!”, I would reach for my pen and my list. Some of them were decided long-shots: “Watch a tennis match at Wimbledon with Peter Ustinov”, for instance, was always a little too weirdly specific, even before Peter Ustinov died, and “Solve a crime on the Orient Express” was a little too reliant on chance and other people’s cooperation.

But some were achievable. You just needed some perseverance and application, and you needed, with the passage of years, to maintain the same motivation you had when you wrote it down. For instance: “Spend a night in Dracula’s castle.”

Now there are many castles that try to pass themselves off as the real item, but there is only really one that counts: the ruins of Poenari citadel in the Carpathian mountains, the last stronghold of Vlad III, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula.

To reach the ruins from Istanbul you first have to drive up through Bulgaria and into the forests of Romania, along rutted tracks on which leather-faced peasants wearing straw hats and red gypsy headscarves drive creaking donkey carts piled with hay. You have to find the Transfagarasan road that runs across the Carpathians between Wallachia and Transylvania in switchbacks and hairpins so tight the road looks from above like a tangle of dirty string. At a point on the road, in the Arefu area, you can park on the shoulder and look up at what remains of the castle.

The ruins are high on a mountain ridge in a forest that has never seen an axe, overlooking a sheer-sided canyon of the Arges River. There’s no way to reach it except up 1480 steps hacked into the side of the mountain. Near the top, in a small slope-roofed wooden cabin, protected by a small hand-made wooden shrine to the Virgin Mary, there is hunchbacked, toothless caretaker whose sole job it is to extract 6 Romanian lei from you and to make sure that you leave at 6pm, because no one is allowed on the mountain after dark. There are bears up there – more than 6000 spread across the range – and you sometimes hear the howl of wolves.

In order to spend the night in Poenari castle you would have to make the long trek up during the day, carrying a backpack small enough to attract no attention from Igor the caretaker. You would have to wander alone through the ruins, including the ramparts where Vlad’s wife threw herself to her death rather than be captured by the besieging Turks, and then slip away into the forest and hide yourself as the sun starts to dip, keeping your head down and attracting no attention until the ruins are empty and the way up the mountainside is blocked off for the night. Then you could emerge from the green shade and find yourself a place to huddle in the ruins, as night falls and the long yellow arc of the moon rises over Cetatea Mountain.

You would have to sleep on the cold 600-year-old stones, with just your rucksack under your head as a pillow. It’s hot in Romania now, but on the mountain it becomes damp and chilly at night. The night would be long. You would hear things in the forest in the darkness. The night would be very long.

Obviously, this is an impossible scenario for a grown man who likes his sleep and creature comforts. “Spend a night in Dracula’s castle” was an unreasonable item for the list even when I was twenty-one, but no one, not even me, could hold it against me for not at this stage of my life sleeping rough on a roofless bear-haunted mountaintop.

I know all that, but this week as I sat staring at a map of central Europe, realizing that there’s nothing to stop me but myself and my ideas of how much effort is sensible and what is and isn’t worth the effort, I thought of how disappointed my young self would be to see me. If you can’t keep your promises to yourself, what promises can you keep? If you don’t do what you can to keep alive the best parts of yourself, what of you is worth preserving?

So that’s why, as I write this, I have a rucksack beside me containing a rolled-up jersey, and penknife, and a headtorch my friend Henrietta gave me when we went hiking to Boomslang Cave, and a bunch of tea-light candles I found in a garage shop just across the border from Bulgaria, and a bottle of cheap red Hungarian wine and a string of Greek worry beads and a long length of spicy garlic salami. I don’t have a sharpened wooden stake, but there are plenty of trees up there, and I’ll have plenty time to whittle one.

The Times, 22 July 2019