strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
This is the second in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania, drawing his descriptions of the country and its history entirely from library-based research. But that doesn't mean you can't trace the footsteps of his characters through the actual landscape if you do go there - and that, of course, is exactly what the Dracula Society likes to do. The relevant parts of our holiday are shown below, in the order in which they occur in Stoker's novel (though that wasn't the order we did them in).

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker in Bistritz (nowadays more usually spelt Bistrița), writing up his diary from the Golden Crown hotel, where he is staying overnight before travelling up the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula's carriage. The Golden Crown is an invention of Stoker's, but in the early 1970s, an enterprising local businessman built his own 'Coroana de Aur' to capitalise on the western interest in Dracula tourism )

Bistritz is Bistritz, though, and we had plenty of time to wander around it before our lunch. This is what it actually looks like )

In order to reach Castle Dracula, Harker travels up the Borgo Pass from Bistritz in a stage-coach, through "a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road". Stage-coaches weren't available to us, but from time to time Harker's coach also passes "a leiter-wagon - the ordinary peasants' cart - with its long, snakelike vertebra, calculated to suit the inequalities of the road". These are still in common use in Romania, and enterprising local farmers are very happy indeed to earn extra money transporting parties of Dracula-obsessed tourists through the Borgo Pass, just like Jonathan Harker. Thus it was that on our seventh day, we did this:
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More horseyness )

Dracula failed to meet us at the top of the pass, no doubt because it was still daylight, but his castle awaited:
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More castleyness )

Stoker's novel ends with a wild chase back to Dracula's castle, which sees the party of vampire hunters catching up with the gypsy cart carrying the count back home just as the sun sets. As Mina puts it in her journal:
The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.
The count's triumph is short-lived, of course, but still there was something about watching the sun set over the Borgo Pass from the terrace of the Hotel Castle Dracula which momentarily brought him back to life, and will stay with me forever:
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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
This is the first in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

We begin with the historical Dracula, because while Hammer's Dracula and Bram Stoker's Dracula are both very exciting, and their imaginative use of the Romanian landscape certainly shaped the way I saw it (see future posts on this), still in truth they are the products of Britain and Ireland respectively. It is direct encounters with the historical Dracula and his world that Romania has to offer, and that was my number one reason for wanting to go there. This isn't to say we visited every possible site connected with him while we were there. In practice, our trip was focused on Transylvania and Moldavia, whereas he was Voievod of Wallachia - the southern part of the country, between the Carpathians and the Danube. So we only spent a single day in the part of Romania which he actually ruled, which means there are still plenty more historical-Dracula-related sites for me to discover on a return visit. But between our day-trip to Wallachia, the fact that he spent a lot of his life in exile in Transylvania anyway, and the wider cast of historical characters who also have a role to play in his story, we did pretty well.

The highlight of our visit was Poienari castle, which we visited on our second day )
SAM_1856.JPG

Many more Poienari pictures )

On our third evening, we arrived at Sighișoara, where we proceeded to stay for the next two days. It is a medieval fortified town, with its centre very little changed by the march of history, and it contains this house:
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More of the house, in which the historical Dracula may or may not have been born )

After those two sites, we were done with the historical Dracula himself, but there were still plenty of places on the itinerary where we came across various of his political allies, enemies and relatives )

All in all then, traces of the historical Dracula were never too far away, and of course just being able to explore the geography and settlement structure of the landscape in which he operated helped me to understand him far better than I did before I went. There is more to learn, as ever, but this was a very satisfying historical Dracula field-trip.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
So, I went to Romania. And it was completely amazing! Too amazing for one LJ post, actually, so what I am going to do is type up a sort of overview here, and then follow that up over the next few days and weeks with a series of themed posts, complete with pictures, about particular aspects of the holiday. Those will cover roughly:
  • The historical Dracula
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Hammeresque architecture and scenery
  • Health and safety gone (not 'gone mad' - just... gone)
  • Flora, fauna and topography
  • People
  • Misc other awesomeness
I think those are the main categories, but if I think of anything else I will add it in.

Anyway, the holiday came about in the manner which I have described here. Basically, I noticed that a London-based group called The Dracula Society which I'd been following on Twitter for a while was planning pretty much my dream trip to Romania, calculated that I should just about be able to fit it in time-wise even during the exam-marking season, and so joined up, paid my deposit and waited excitedly. As I said in the linked post, it was obviously a calculated risk committing to a 12-day holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know, but I'm very glad to say that my calculations were correct. On the basis of their website, I'd concluded that they were "a bunch of moderately-eccentric middle-class people having fun being a bit geeky - exactly like me", and this was confirmed when I arrived at the airport to meet them, and found one of them carrying the same Hammer Dracula bag as me. They were also extremely generous and welcoming to a stranger in their midst, which I felt very touched by and which made it easy to slot smoothly into the group dynamic. So it was lovely to be part of this vibrant and enthusiastic team pursuing excitement and adventure through the Carpathian mountains, and I have come back glad to have acquired a new circle of friends.

One thing I hadn't actually quite realised before I set off is that travel is actually the true raison d'être of the Dracula Society. I'd assumed they had grown towards that from a foundation based on monthly talks and meetings, but actually I discovered on chatting to some of the longer-standing members that the group had come together in 1973 precisely so that they could travel together to Romania - obviously not something that you could very readily do as an ordinary tourist at the time. They went for the first time in 1974, and again in 1975, and although they have since broadened out their travelling interests to include a range of other places of Gothic interest, they still return there on a roughly 6 or 7 year cycle. This is great news for me, because basically it means that I have now discovered an awesome bunch of people who organise holidays to awesome places on a regular basis, and will be very happy for me to join them on future ventures. Next year, they're planning a trip to Geneva to hang out in the general area of the Villa Diodati and celebrate the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend which gave rise to Frankenstein and The Vampyre - and assuming the timing fits in OK with my work commitments, I am totally going to join them!

The exact itinerary for our holiday can be seen here, and was basically generated by members of the Dracula Society sketching out all the places they wanted to visit, and then a company called Travel Counsellors pricing it up and handling all the logistics. We had a dedicated bus, driver and guide for the duration of the holiday, and toured around from location to location, staying in 8 different hotels over 11 nights (so no more than two nights in any one location). That made for a very busy holiday, especially since we packed a lot into every day, and some of what we did was quite physically demanding too - especially climbing hills to castles and steps inside medieval bell-towers, both of which we did a lot! So it was not exactly a chill-out holiday. In fact, it was so busy that I genuinely struggled to find the time to buy postcards or stamps, and at least twice we didn't arrive at our intended accommodation for the night until 10pm. But then again there was plenty of time spent sitting on the coach gazing out over beautiful mountainous landscapes, and the occasional morning or afternoon free for wandering round lovely medieval towns, sitting in cafes, or simply curling up in our rooms. Maybe it was just the sheer excitement of being there, but I never felt as tired out as I'd feared I might, especially after the rather epic efforts required to get my dissertations marked before leaving, and certainly arrived home feeling refreshed and invigorated - which I think is rather the point of holidays, isn't it?

Guided bus tours can be hit and miss, of course. I haven't been on many, actually, but I learnt enough about both historically ill-informed and boring guides on an eastern Mediterranean holiday with my sister in my early 20s to be aware of the dangers. Happily, though, the guide we had on this holiday was absolutely excellent. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, incredibly well-organised, unfailingly helpful and patient, really knew his stuff and was a delight to listen to and talk to. His name was Stefan, and he was so central to the success of the holiday that although this isn't really a picture post (that's what the follow-ups are for), I'm going to include a couple of pictures of him in action here, telling us all about the the baroque Banffy Castle in Bonțida to (as you can see) rapt attention:

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The pictures encapsulate pretty accurately both the weather we enjoyed and the types of sites we visited, too. Beautiful early summer sunshine for the most part, though with occasional wind, rain or oppressive heat, and an endless succession of incredibly interesting and beautiful historical monuments and landscapes. The monuments in particular would be difficult to visit in the way we did without an experienced local guide, because a lot of them weren't open on any kind of regular schedule - you had to know who the local key-holder was, and Stefan spent a lot of his time while we were travelling phoning ahead to arrange meeting up with that person to collect the key and let us in. But from our point of view it was impressively seamless, sweeping up in our coach and straight in through the gates to discover the wonders behind - and that is of course the real benefit of going on an organised tour. There are some places which weren't on the itinerary for this holiday which I'd like to visit (mainly sites in Wallachia connected with the historical Dracula), and I think now that I'm familiar with the country I would feel happy enough to do those myself, equipped with a hire car and a willing friend, and probably on a rather more leisurely schedule than the DracSoc tour. But I'm really glad I got started this way, with such incredible privileged access to the absolute best places Romania has to offer in the areas we visited.

As for the particular places we went to on this holiday, though, they were absolutely stupendous and consistently surpassed my expectations. I knew I would find the Dracula-related locations exciting, of course, as well as the general feeling of being in the real landscape which inspired both Stoker and so many of my favourite films - and I did. But although I was quite willing to mosey about the various fortified churches, monasteries, non-Dracula-related castles, towns, villages and landscapes also featured on our itinerary, I didn't expect them to be quite as spectacular as they were - or so easily relatable to the wider imaginative world of the Dracula story, either. More or less every medieval tower, every mountain valley and every local person walking by in traditional costume could be related back to one of the Draculas (historical, Stoker's or Hammer's) somehow or other. And all of them were just beautiful and awesome and exciting in their own right anyway. I'll save the details for my photo posts, since they're better shown than told, but in summary I cannot praise Romania's sites and landscapes highly enough.

Indeed, I would now recommend Romania very strongly to anyone as a holiday destination. I found all the people we encountered extremely polite, friendly and helpful, and in the contexts where we were operating (hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist sites) they almost all spoke very good English - though they also patiently appreciated my halting attempts at phrase-book Romanian too! Those two classic tourist banes - pushy traders and pick-pockets - were utterly absent (though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city). And though once or twice I was approached by plaintive-looking gypsy children whose parents watched from a short distance away, they weren't pushy either - and hey, begging also happens in the UK. A lot. Meanwhile, by UK standards everything there from a cup of coffee to a hotel room is incredibly cheap, costing typically I would say about 1/4 of what it costs here. The entire 12-day holiday, including flights from Luton, entry to all the sites we visited, the dedicated service of our bus, driver and guide, at least two meals a day, and accommodation in what were clearly the best hotels in each location cost me £1,376 in total - i.e. about £100 a day once you take out the cost of the flights. You just couldn't begin to get what we got for that money as a tourist anywhere in western Europe.

Obviously, countries which come across as cheap to western European tourists are also those with comparatively weak economies. Many parts of Romania are still barely touched by mechanised agriculture, many of the city apartment blocks put up in the Communist era are in serious need of structural repair work, and the country definitely took a hit during the credit crunch. But it's also very obvious that life has changed a great deal in Romania from what my parents experienced when they visited in 1987 - everything falling apart, barely anything in the shops and children begging for biros in the street because they had nothing to draw with. Standing at the top of a medieval tower in Sibiu, I could see around me three very distinct rings of construction - a sizeable medieval / early modern market town, an actually relatively narrow band of Communist-era blocks, and a vast explosion of post-Communist construction beyond:

Sibiu bands.jpg

I was also struck by how many property plots in the predominantly rural area of Maramureș had new-build houses either recently completed or under construction next to what was clearly the old cottage / farm-house, and how marked the upgrade was from the one to the other. Basically, people are replacing their 3-4 room traditional houses with 8+ room palaces - according to Stefan, partly on the basis of the local agriculture but also by going to do seasonal work in the construction industry in Italy. Good for them. Meanwhile, the shops and markets are bustling, the food (bar one or two disappointments) is good, and people seem to be really enjoying their lives. All in all, then, Romania comes across as a busy and growing country, and I'm not surprised to see from Wikipedia that, recent blip aside, they are doing pretty well on the whole. It's just that these things are relative, and of course an economy can grow a lot when it starts from a very low bar and experiences vastly improved access to prosperous neighbouring markets over a short period. Still, what can western European tourists like me do to help Romania keep on moving upwards? Go there, spend money, and have a brilliant time. I was happy to do my bit!

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I was planning to write about my holiday to Romania today, but then I woke up after a much needed lie-in to the news that Christopher Lee had died, and the truth is it would probably never have occurred to me to want to go to Romania at all if it hadn't been for him. So I will write about him instead.

I've long known that I first saw him in Hammer's Dracula (1958) when I was eight years old, and thanks to the Radio Times online archive I've recently been able to pin that down a little more precisely. On 28th December 1984, BBC Two broadcast a late night double-bill of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. My Dad recorded it on our at that time very new and exciting home video recorder, and soon afterwards (I don't know exactly how soon, but within a few days or weeks, I think) decided that these X-rated films would be suitable viewing for his eight-year-old daughter.

He knew what he was doing. Dracula in particular struck a chord with me which has resonated ever since. Within a year, I had bought and devoured the novel. Within two, I had moved outwards into the wider world of vampire fiction. Within three I had bought my personal horror bible, and was busy working my way through its Vampire chapter with a particular focus on Hammer's other Dracula movies. I have carried on in much the same vein ever since - and it was absolutely definitively Lee's performance as Dracula which started it all.

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If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have spent my teens steeping myself in Gothic fiction and horror movies. As a result, I would probably never have felt inclined to drift into the Gothic sub-culture in my Bristol days, or have made all the friends I did then and later as a result. I could never have watched The Wicker Man when I got to Oxford, might never have felt the same resonances in the city's May Day celebrations, and would never have had the Wicker Man holiday which [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos and I enjoyed two years ago in Scotland. Indeed, I would never have watched any of the awesome movies on this list - or any of the rubbishy second-rate ones, either, which I have hunted down and sat through (often accompanied by the ever-patient [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan) just because he was in them. Nor would I recently have bothered reading all about the real life Vlad III Dracula. My parents going to Romania in 1987 would have meant nothing particular to me, and nor would I have joined the Dracula Society and gone on the holiday there with them which I have just got back from.

While we were in Romania, Christopher Lee had his 93rd, and sadly we now know his last, birthday. We happened to be in Sighișoara, where the real life Vlad III Dracula was (probably) born, so I marked the day by nipping out of our hotel early in the morning, crossing the town square and tweeting this selfie from outside the house where he grew up.


Little did I know that the man who had sparked off my interest in Dracula in the first place was already in hospital. Little did I know how few days he had left.

I won't try to claim that I have always considered Christopher Lee to be the perfect human being. I've said plenty of uncomplimentary things about him in the past on this journal. There's no need to repeat them today. But he brought such wonderful stories so powerfully to life - not indeed just by acting in them with such presence and professionalism, but by doing it to such an inspiring degree that already by the mid-1960s people were writing roles and producing stories so that he could inhabit them and bring that magic to them. There is no question that the whole world of fantastic drama and fiction has been immeasurably stronger for his contribution to it. So I am truly, truly grateful for the wondrous worlds those prodigious acting talents have transported me to, and for the real-world doors and pathways they have opened up to me as a result. And though I never met him, and now never will, it felt good to share the same planet with him for the past 38 years. I am very sorry now that that time is over.

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strange_complex: (Willow pump)
I'm starting to despair a little of ever getting time to write up my recent holiday spent touring around Wicker Man filming locations in Scotland with [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos. It's partly busy-ness, and partly of course the fact that such things are rather more fun to do than to write about. But maybe I can get the juices flowing a bit by writing up my impressions on watching the film at the start and end of the holiday?

3a. Before - moustaches and world-building )

3b. After - location scouts and the hazy line between fiction and reality )

I promise that I'll put up some of the pictures from our holiday shortly in their own post, but for now I will just share my own favourite photo of the week, taken by the lovely [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos. I am sitting on the wall outside Anwoth Old Kirk in bright sunshine, just like the musicians in the may-pole scene from the film. I think it very well captures how vivid the experience of going to these places is - and how much the weather did to contribute to the requisite summery atmosphere! Do feel free to compare it to the Youtube video of the relevant scene, below:

Me on the wall at Anwoth Old Kirk




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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
And now, for my return train journey, let us consider the matter of A Town Called Mercy.

History and past continuity )

References beyond Who )

Kahler Jex and the Doctor )

Weaknesses )

Cool bits )

Future implications )

And now I think I deserve to finally watch The Power of Three...

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Holiday!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010 01:34
strange_complex: (Silver Jubilee knees-up)
There will be no research leave updates this week, because the master plan advises that May is 'probably a good point at which to take a clear, structured week off'. And this week I am taking that advice.

Holiday Tiems actually started late on Friday afternoon, when I set off for the station to catch a train to Tunbridge Wells for the wedding of [livejournal.com profile] swisstone and [livejournal.com profile] ladymoonray. I'd never been there before (and of course its reactionary reputation precedes it), but it is all very idyllic and leafy and Edwardian-looking. I stayed at The Royal Wells hotel, where allegedly Queen Victoria liked to go in her youth, but I expect her room was a little bit bigger than mine.

The setting and the ceremony )

The people )

As for the rest of the week, I have spent today busy doing nothing at all. Well, no - I have caught up on LJ, Facebook, emails and the weekend's TV, in between watching the snooker. That is still going on now, and looks like it could go on until about 2 in the morning. Both players are clearly very tense, and playing quite scrappily as a result. At the time of writing I think all of about 6 points have been scored in the last half-hour - or that's how it feels, anyway. But I do not care! I am on holiday, and can stay up as late as I like!

Snooker spoiler under here )

My main goal for the rest of the week is to de-blue my kitchen. Currently, it has duck-egg blue units, bright blue tiles, a pale sparkly blue floor, pale blue doors and blue walls. Even if I liked blue, that would be a bit much. Meanwhile, for some reason, someone has at some point chosen to paint the door-frames and skirting-boards a shade which the half-empty tin left behind in the shed reveals is called 'urban grey'. It's about as attractive as it sounds. So the blue walls and the grey woodwork are going, in favour of pale creams of the type which will complement the remaining blues without overwhelming the room.

I'm also having some local chums round for an election 2010 all-nighter on Thursday, in honour of which I shall be popping into town tomorrow to buy an assortment of red, blue and yellow sweets for consumption when the relevant parties win seats. It should be a good night - clearly it's going to be a very close-run election, and probably also one which has a major long-lasting effect on the political landscape in this country. It's not like the snooker, of course - it's our collective future at stake, not a shiny trophy. But all the more reason to go through it in the company of friends, I think.

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
And so, welcome to the 'all about my holiday' entry. I'm going to keep it pretty minimal, actually, as I have a lot of work I need to get on with now. But, in simple list form:

This is what we did )

And these are the pictures )

I have, incidentally, submitted both of the purple Sshhh bag pictures shown above to the library's bag travel map, along with the signpost one from Belfast, since that one seems to have been the eventual victor in my poll.

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Holiday snaps

Wednesday, 5 September 2007 15:19
strange_complex: (Hastings camera)
Right - it's time we had this canal holiday in pictures, then.

Warning - there are 86 of them )

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