A Volunteer's life in Romania

by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

Romania Themepark Mania

Pennsylvania has Hersheypark in the namesake chocolate city. Southern California has Knott’s Berry Farm where fruit was harvested before freeways existed. Houston, home of the space program, boasts famous roller coasters at AstroWorld. And Disney, after years of success in California and Florida, built theme parks in France and Japan.
So how about “Dracula Park” in Romania?
     This is no joke, but first, a short history lesson about the legendary, blood-sucking vampire. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, was set in the real Transylvania, a beautiful and mountainous region in central Romania, but the Irish author never bothered to visit. And the “real” Dracula on whom the character is based was Vlad Tepes, cousin of Stephen the Great and a 15th-century prince of Wallachia, part of present-day Romania. Vlad’s father was Vlad Dracul (Dracul means “the devil” in Romanian). Like his dad, he was a tough guy indeed, known as “Vlad the Impaler” — but no vampire. He remains a national hero to Romanians for fighting off — and impaling on stakes — thousands of Turks during the Ottoman Empire’s northward expansion. Wallachia united with another Romanian-speaking territory, Moldovia, in 1859 and the state was named Romania in 1862. Austro-Hungary occupied Transylvania until 1918, when it too joined Romania.
     Tepes was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, a jewel of town that is now a tourist draw for the Transylvania region of Romania. Sighisoara, settled by Saxons in the 12th century, is one of only a handful of United Nations-designated World Heritage Sites in Romania. It is a gorgeous example of medieval architecture, has a preserved old town, and is surrounded by the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
    I had the pleasure of visiting it last fall, as well as Bran Castle — a couple hours to the east — popularly known as the “Dracula Castle,” though it really has nothing to do with Dracula or even Vlad Tepes. The castle was built to protect the area from invading Turks and legend has it that Vlad Tepes may have spent a couple nights there.
     Sighisoara, though its cobblestone core is relatively unspoiled, already is seeing early stages of touristy kitsch, including a Dracula restaurant in the house were Tepes was born (a Bela Lugosi-looking cut-out greets you outside), a similarly themed bar nearby and stores selling bottles of blood-red Vampire wine, which is available throughout the country.
     Until earlier this year, land just outside Sighisoara was the proposed site of Dracula Park, an ambitious dream pursued by Romania’s Tourism department and its gung-ho chief, who seems to be in the news all the time, from peddling Dracula to importing expensive palm trees on the Black Sea beaches in time for the summer rush. I say Sighisoara “was” destined for Dracula Park because after a swirling storm of criticism, including protests from international environmentalists, historians and preservationists, including Britain’s Prince Charles, who visited the area and denounced the project, the plan was scrapped and moved 175 miles away to Snagov, a small town near the capital, Bucharest, and its international airport. Snagov is a country-lake-and-picnic place, a weekend retreat for Bucharest residents, and it’s supposedly where Vlad Tepes is buried, underneath a church.
     The Tourism department’s promotion of this myth reminds me of when I was a reporter in Kansas in the early 1990s and developers wanted to build a “Wizard of Oz” theme park. Kansans get tired of the Dorothy and Toto jokes, and it made sense to try to turn the story into something profitable for the state, which has little else to draw tourists. Here in Romania, a poor country with high unemployment, tourism is increasing slowly but has a long way to go. The country has much to offer but suffers from major infrastructure problems and a downtrodden image. The government’s rationale is, hey, Dracula is known throughout the world and associated with Transylvania, so let’s get a piece of the profits. Although purists were delighted with the project’s relocation, Sighisoara locals were hugely disappointed, as thousands of the area’s unemployed were salivating over jobs at the park or the ripple effect of tourism spending.
     After the Sighisoara debacle, the government hired PricewaterhouseCoopers in London to conduct a feasibility study. The firm concluded that Romania could indeed benefit from the theme park, but needs more than $30 million to build it. Romanian media, which have followed this step-by-step, report that Coca-Cola and a major beer company already have sponsorship deals. The park’s size is undetermined but estimated at about 40 to 100 hectares, or about 100 to 250 acres, and plans call for a castle, lake, rides and lots of spooky Dracula stuff. Construction is slated to begin later this year with the first phase open in 2004. The government continues to solicit investors and dream of Dracula dollars.
     I’ve heard about expensive, packaged “Dracula” tours from the United States and other parts of Europe, luring Vampire junkies and other gullible tourists who don’t know — or don’t care about — the real story of Transylvania. Thousands flock to Sighisoara and Bran Castle every year, despite a bogus Dracula connection. Now, Dracula Park could complete the picture.
     Having visited Sighisoara, I’m glad the proposed park was moved. I have not been to Snagov but the more-accessible location near Bucharest probably will draw more visitors and is less controversial. No matter how cheesy, Dracula Park is an opportunity. Let’s face it, Romania needs the money, people need jobs.
     Carpe diem, Romania!

Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. Next month, Andy has his mid-service conference. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July next year.