Stepping down, down, down into a subterranean labyrinth beneath the calm and pleasant streets of old town Buda, one bitterly cold morning in February, two years ago, my husband and I had just made the rather questionable decision to take our then one-year-old son on a quest to see the prison where Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was detained for an indeterminate amount of time at His Majesty King Matthias Cornivus of Hungary’s pleasure.
This gentleman had had the good fortune to rule over Transylvania on three separate occasions. Sadly, Transylvania had had the misfortune to be ruled over by him on three separate occasions. With hobbies that included the indiscriminate impaling of people at the stake (where, with a refreshingly enlightened attitude no-one was considered beneath his personal attentions, regardless of gender, class, age, ethnicity, or even such superfluities as a pulse), I imagine that his neighbours heaved a collective sigh of resignation each time he seized power, muttered something along the lines of “Iar începem…”*, unpacked their most effective disguises and endeavoured to blend into the background. I remember my history teacher fascinating us with the gruesome titbit that the body part through which the hapless victim was impaled depended on how much he or she was liked by Vlad. (Whether or not there is any truth to this legend, Mr. Drew was not my school’s most beloved teacher for nothing.) Notorious in his own lifetime, this blood-thirsty villain has since been immortalised in popular imagination – most unfairly in my opinion, since his memory would have been better punished had he been left to rot in historical obscurity – and popular nightmare, as providing the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s eponymous fiend in Dracula. Naturally I was more than a little curious to see the place where the self-styled Vlad Dracula** was once detained, abandoned and helpless, in the dark.
I had read Dracula. I had been appropriately terrified and had slept with my Grandfather’s rosary beads next to my pillow for the duration of the novel. I do not advise anyone with an active imagination to read that particular work of fiction during the summer months, when the accumulation of heat necessitates leaving open a window at night. As I know from experience, bats can fly through the smallest of cracks. My Dracula nightmares were long over by the time we were invaded, one hot summer night five years later, by a small, flying cousin of the wicked count, but had I still been lost in the story I wonder if I should ever have slept again. As it happened I was around five months pregnant with my Chou so I was sent to hide in the bathroom (on fear of rabies) whilst my gallant husband chased the pest around the house until it admitted defeat and withdrew into the night.
Yes, I had read Dracula. I knew exactly what may have been lurking around each corner of the dank darkness. I knew what to expect. Luckily our Chou has not yet had that pleasure, which may account for his total lack of concern throughout the entire experience, which had been thoughtfully stage-managed to present as chilling an atmosphere as possible for the diversion of its guests. He was unfazed when, reaching the bottom of the dark, winding staircase and entering the six-mile network of caves, we were greeted by sinister, echoing music and cellar upon cellar of staring waxwork figures, whose unseeing eyes followed our solitary progress through the gloom. He barely murmured when the way before us was plunged completely into darkness, causing us to place all our hope and trust in a rope attached to the wall, which became our guide through the uneven, twisting passages and our only protection against resurrected vampires who may have been in stealthy pursuit. Similarly he remained unimpressed when, stumbling at last into a shadowy twilight and still descending, we entered a final cavern, shrouded in thick, green mist, at the end of which was a cage just large enough for a man to stand up in: we had reached Dracula’s erstwhile crypt. I was petrified.
Sometime later, despite my fears to the contrary, we emerged once more into cool, fresh daylight, unbitten and alive. My Chou had been remarkably unaffected. (The Budapest tourist board may want to rethink its strategy if its famous ‘house of horrors’ attraction is unable to produce so much as a whimper from a little baby – frightening a twenty-eight-year-old wimp can hardly be considered a triumph.) Little did we know that he had been quietly picking up ideas…
It occurs to me now that during our visit to Budapest my husband and I, like Vlad III, were held captive within a labyrinth of our very own, and unjustly condemned to a fate similar to that of a psychopathic monster – aside from a slight indiscretion involving the ‘Whirlpool Ant Massacre’ of ’93 I wouldn’t impale a fly. As inmates of a most luxurious detention centre, the magnificently imposing Gellert Hotel (complete with glamorous, Secession Movement architecture and decoration), we were fortunate enough, at least, that our maze was easier to navigate, with little possibility for getting lost along the vast, straight corridors.
For those few nights we found ourselves in a sad predicament. We knew exactly how Vlad III must have felt. Granted we were not left to languish in the dark for a period of up to ten years (the precise dates having been either lost in the mists of time, or never officially recorded), and our ‘cell’ was admittedly far roomier than Vlad’s human-sized birdcage – through booking at the last minute, on a whim and during the low season, we were actually accommodated in the grandest room in the hotel: a suite with a balcony overlooking the Danube – yet still we knew the torment of watching our freedom forsake us and flit off into the night whilst we remained captive within.
We had two wardens – our very own King Matthias, and enfant roi, by day, and a spectre surely ascended from the very depths of hell by night. Our crimes? I am still at a lost to account for them exactly: perhaps, like the relationship between Vlad and King Matthias there was a sudden change in allegiance and we were to be subject to a hostile takeover from an ambitious Chou. Or perhaps, like Vlad’s reputation, imprisoned by Bram Stoker’s supernatural creation and forever denied true recognition for its own depraved behaviour, we were the victims of a force more powerful and more hypnotic – I have long been of the persuasion that our son took possession of my soul at the moment of his birth. So far he has shown no intention of giving it back.
We were benevolently released from our cell, under supervision, each morning on day release, and permitted to follow a course of extensive exercise, comprising walking tours around the exteriors of stunning feats of architecture including the Parliament building, the Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church (we were unable to linger long indoors owing to King Matthias having just learned to “hoot” and to appreciate the echoing effect that this had inside large edifices demanding silence of its visitors). Provided he felt entertained, had ample opportunities for riding on the nineteenth-century funicular railway to the top of Castle Hill and was sufficiently supplied with delicious Dobos Torta our guard was amiability itself. He cooed at every susceptible female who crossed our path, from fellow hotel guests to a chef peeping out from behind the restaurant’s kitchen curtain. A leaflet at the airport had warned us not to expect an abundance of smiles from our Hungarian hosts, yet I have rarely met friendlier people, and we were warmly welcomed wherever we went. Perhaps this is further evidence of some darker, supernatural power at work? The only victim of his charms from whom he refused to accept a kiss was a catholic nun in the Cave Church, which, in light of Count Dracula’s own aversion to crucifixes, seems oddly telling. The only other hint of some veiled policy of psychological manipulation was the fact that we were twice taken to inspect other imprisoned creatures – the inmates of Budapest’s beautiful zoo – no doubt to remind us of what lay ahead.
At night, whilst he slept, we were placed under house arrest, and guarded by a pale and red-eyed fiend, who sat winking at us, unmoving, as the hours wore on, transformed, from whatever its original state, into a being more terrifying by far than a mere bat. Parents the world over shudder at its very existence and recoil with horror at the sound of its cry. Its hypnotic powers captivate grown men and women and compel them to obedience, as, night after night, with an inflexible regularity one reluctantly turns to the other and whispers “Is the baby monitor turned on?”
This device, with a malignant delight, tantalisingly allowed us to creep just far enough along our personal labyrinth to reach the doors to the hotel’s restaurant and then to issue a shriek of warning that we had ventured out of range. We therefore had no choice but to return, beaten, to our room and appeal to the charity of the kindly staff below to bring us sustenance. We dined magnificently each night on Hungarian delicacies, seated on the floor at a small coffee table in the entrance hall of our suite, not wishing to rouse the sleeping overlord within.
At least our warden allowed us a ‘post-prandial’ at the lobby bar, where we spent the evenings enviously watching the comings and goings of those whom I can only assume were either ‘trusties’ or beneficiaries of some type of open prison system. Then, with a lingering gaze at the main doors and a forlorn sigh we accepted our fate, accompanied our guard back along the maze of corridors, and returned to our dark and solitary cell to await the coming of a new day. Our confinement was, thankfully, of short duration, but, knowing now how Vlad III must have felt, still long enough to cause me almost (but not quite) to feel a fragment of pity for Count Dracula’s only real-life victim, whose true (yet just as evil) nature will remain forever imprisoned by Bram Stoker’s wonderful imagination, if only because I am certain we had far better room service…
**Meaning ‘son of Dracul’ (or the ‘Dragon’), so-called after his father, Vlad Dracul, who was a member of the Order of the Dragon
*Romanian for “Here we go again” (or so I am assured by Google Translate)
Mots du jour:
enfant roi – ‘child king’, or, more accurately, tyrannical offspring Dobos Torta – multilayered Hungarian sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel.