Dracula Forever

In the restaurant Medieval Terasa, in the center of Sighisoara, the menu offers up bloody pork chap. This is not a misspelling. "Chap" is the underside of a pig's neck--not the same as a pork chop. And here it is served seasoned with "Dracula" sauce and a glass of Vampire red wine. But these days, there are few takers; winter is not the most hospitable time to visit this Romanian city where the real-life inspiration for the fictional Dracula was born. And in any case, there is not much to do there. Gift-shop proprietor Aniko Pazsint believes that will soon change. "When Draculaland opens, things will be different," she says, dusting off statues of the demonic count. "Our vampire will bring this town back to life."

Romanians are finally hoping to do a little bloodsucking of their own. Over the next two years, the government plans to build a large theme park dedicated to the legendary vampire. Officials are confident they can lure tourists to the foot of the Carpathian Mountains with a replica of Dracula's castle, complete with "a tall slender tower and lots of doors," says Alin Burcea of the Tourism Ministry. A walk through the castle will reveal many scary surprises, including a torture chamber and poison laboratory. The park will also contain a center for vampire studies with conference rooms, hotels, a lakeside amphitheater, cafes and shops, as well as a zoo and grounds for horseback riding. "Everyone in the world is making a profit off of Dracula, except us," said Tourism Minister Dan Matei Agathon when he announced the plans last July.

Who was Dracula anyway? Irish author Bram Stoker modeled his literary count after Prince Vlad Tepes, who, as legend goes, once ordered 40,000 Turkish prisoners impaled after a battle. "All that we know for certain is that Tepes was born in 1431 in Sighisoara, and that is why we decided to build our Dracula park there," says Burcea.

Romanians everywhere are counting on the tourist windfall to overhaul their country's image. For many Europeans, Romania is still synonymous with backwardness and poverty; Draculaland is supposed to bring in a projected profit of $35 million per year. Mayor Mihai Stoian estimates that the park will attract more than a million tourists to the town annually--more than three times last year's total. "Even this year, with the launch of the Draculaland advertisement campaign, the number of newcomers has doubled," says Ioan Lazar, who plans to open a new hotel on the town square.

To be sure, life in Sighisoara can only get better. The town's stunning medieval citadel remains largely intact, but under Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship, 90 percent of the other buildings fell heavily into disrepair. The town inhabitants do not have the funds for the restoration; after the fall of communism, many of the textile factories which employed local women closed. Now the government is pledging to cover one eighth of the estimated $40 million cost of the Draculaland project--some of which will go toward basics like water and electricity. The rest will come from investors, chief among them German and American companies--including Westernstadt Pullman City, which built a cowboys-and-Indians theme park in Bavaria.

There are many hurdles to overcome. California's Universal Studios maintains the rights to Dracula's image, since it popularized the vampire's likeness with seven films between 1931 and 1960. Now Universal claims that the Romanian Draculaland will have to pay royalties if it uses their version. How much? "We will negotiate with them," says Agathon.

The vision of a profitable Draculaland is slowly becoming the town's obsession. A poll last year found that 99 percent of the population supported the building of the park, says journalist and teacher Mihai Soneriu. Pictures of vampires are starting to beat out all other souvenirs. Legends of unusual occurrences, werewolves and witches are being rekindled in people's memory. In a Gothic church, Soneriu points out a medieval painting of three rising suns. "There is no doubt it is a picture of a UFO," he says. "And here is where the witches are said to have brewed their mixtures, before they were burned at the stake." He points to a small house on the church square.

Sighisoara's inhabitants hope that by mining their past they can build a better future. Mihai Adonis, the keeper of the town's regional museum, proudly points out signs that give the distances separating Sighisoara from Europe's major cities. Stopping in front of a board that reads Roma--1136 km, he says, "We're not that far from the cradle of civilization after all." But it still feels a long way from Draculaland.