With years as a travel writer under his belt, Leif Pettersen made it his mission to unpeel the layers of mystery away from one of Europe’s most enigmatic countries (Romania) through tackling one of its most controversial subjects (Dracula). However, this may not be the Dracula you’re thinking of. Pettersen’s new book, Backpacking with Dracula, chronicles the life and times of Vlad III Dracula (a.k.a. the Impaler), a Romanian monarch upon whom the fictional vampire is based. Below, Pettersen shares his view of the oft-overlooked country and the many misconceptions about its most well known figure.
1. Why do you think Vlad the Impaler has become the inspiration for so many stories, mythical or otherwise?
I believe it’s largely his classic heroic bad guy duality. Vlad and his ragtag assembly of mercenaries and Wallachian fighters single-handedly defended Christian Europe from the overwhelming forces of the Ottoman Empire when all other countries declined to pitch in. He was the toast of Europe, besties with the Pope and a hero in Romania. On the other hand, he was a genocidal, unpredictable jerk.
2. What kind of status does Vlad hold among modern-day Romanians? Based on your book, would it be accurate to say that they’ve chosen to capitalize on the Dracula myth?
Vlad Dracula is still considered to be among Romania’s greatest heroes of any era. There are numerous surviving sites associated with him (ruins, churches, castles) and monuments everywhere. The vampire Count Dracula, conversely, is a divisive subject. Most Romanians dislike being associated with this flamboyant, fictional character, especially considering Bram Stoker never stepped foot in Romania. It’s akin to everyone’s first, and sometimes only, association with England being the Spice Girls.
3. In your experience, has it surprised people to learn that Dracula was based on a real person? What have reactions typically been like to the premise of your book?
Escalating levels of amazement. People are first amazed by the fact there was once a real life, not to mention terrifying, guy called Dracula. When they dig a little deeper, their amazement grows knowing that Vlad Dracula was far more interesting than a supernatural vampire. He probably killed more people in his lifetime, too. Finally the amazement peaks when they learn there’s still so much surviving physical evidence of this personified force-of-nature that one can visit given the requisite determination.
4. What were your overall impressions of Romania during the many days you spent there?
I started traveling Romania pre-European Union membership. It was rough around the edges, to put it mildly. I also lived there for a cumulative 16 months and, for innumerable reasons, living in Romania is far less enjoyable than traveling in Romania. While the country has made astounding progress in the past decade, I think there’s still work to be done before it becomes a mainstream travel destination. In the meantime, those who appreciate a little adventure and enjoy straying from the beaten path are having the time of their lives.
5. Describe your most memorable experience as a travel writer, positive or negative.
This is a difficult question to answer. One of my top experiences was my first trip to Myanmar (Burma) in 2005. It had been effectively closed off for so long that virtually everything I saw was new, weird and wonderful. After so much travel, I didn’t think I’d ever come across something so alien without leaving the solar system.
6. As a person who has traveled so extensively, why have you chosen to keep Minnesota as your home base?
The more I traveled the world, the more I realized how truly special Minnesota is. We’ve always excelled at music and theater and now we’ve caught up and surpassed many other major cities in terms of food, art, cultural diversity and public transportation. Where else can you get all that plus the lakes, parks, and ceaseless friendliness with a reasonable cost-of-living? We’re like the Denmark of the U.S., except for the reasonable cost-of-living part.
7. What do you most want readers to take away from your book?
Romania is arguably the last unspoiled, fascinating place in Europe. Get there while the gettin’s good. Also, Vlad Dracula was a badass, brilliant psychopath.
Photo courtesy of the author.