Transylvanian town sees gold in Dracula Land

A plan to build a theme park starring the infamous count has some wondering if the profits are worth it.

Ancient spires and towers soar above the steep roofs of this dreamy medieval town. Perched on a hilltop, the castle of Sighisoara is a monument to gothic architecture, but like many other sites in Romania, it is crumbling from neglect.

For centuries, the town has slumbered in the heart of Transylvania, a region most outsiders would associate with bats and vampires. Now, the Romanian government, searching for new sources of revenue, has decided to capitalize on the region's most infamous son: Officials hope to draw a million tourists a year to a Dracula Land theme park.

The project is proving controversial, however, and pits a need for economic renewal against fears that the town's image will be blemished. Critics, most notably a Lutheran pastor, are questioning the soundness of the project, as well as its theme.

Links between the town and Dracula - whether the historical or fictional character - are tenuous. For some residents, however, historical accuracy pales beside the need to create jobs in the area and restore Sighisoara's landmark. "The castle is dying. If nothing is done, in 50 years it will look like the Acropolis," says Olimpiu Langa, a local entrepreneur and booster of the Dracula Land project. "Nobody has any money. You can't just stand there with folded arms and watch how the walls crumble."

Mr. Langa boasts that the theme park, projected to open in two years, will generate 3,000 new jobs in the community of 38,000. The project has an estimated price tag of some $35 million, which the Romanian government hopes to raise from European investors. In developing the concept, planners are consulting with the operators of a Wild West theme park in southern Germany.

The blueprints for Dracula Land are still on the drawing boards. Langa says plans include using a hill next to the castle to build a sort of parallel town with up to 800 beds for guests, including castle-style structure offering two dozen rooms. While planners are close-mouthed about the attractions, they would include medieval guilds demonstrating their trades.

Langa stresses that Dracula Land is part of a larger tourism project, which includes renovation of the old castle, infrastructure improvements, and construction of a golf course and a hotel school. There is talk of opening an "International Dracula Center" with an archive of everything written on the legendary figure.

Sighisoara's actual connection to Dracula, as the medieval Romanian count Vlad Tepes was called, is rather thin, however.

Tepes, a bloodthirsty ruler known for impaling his enemies, is said to have been born in Sighisoara in 1431, and a house in town, now a restaurant, bears a plaque claiming the house as his birthplace.

Local historian Ioan Fedor Pascu is skeptical, however: "We don't have any documents to prove that he was born here." Mr. Pascu quickly adds that he sees nothing inherently wrong with commercializing the historical figure, who in the popular imagination has since morphed into the villain of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. Yet Pascu worries that the end product runs the risk of becoming kitsch.

The confusion of fact and fiction doesn't seem to bother Langa. "Dracula, who was he? He's a myth," says Langa, "and if people want it, shouldn't I sell it? One thousand books and 250 films were made about him."

But the Rev. Hans Bruno Fröhlich, pastor of Sighisoara's oldest church, says that by building Dracula Land, the town would be glamorizing evil. The name Dracula derives from the word draco, meaning either dragon or devil.

"As pastor and a practicing Christian, I don't think the idea is good. You can build a theme park, but not one that attacks Christian values," says Mr. Fröhlich.

The Lutheran clergyman is also worried about what visitors the park might attract. He says that the town's medieval festival, which attracted 30,000 people this summer, also brought drugs and satanic sects into Sighisoara's idyllic, cobblestoned lanes.

Fröhlich opposes the project on other grounds, as well. For one, the project would mean the destruction of a nature preserve with centuries-old oaks to make way for the hilltop city.

He also questions the rosy economic forecasts for the town, which is located in the middle of Romania and served by a transportation infrastructure lagging far behind international standards. Even if busloads of tourists were to descend on Sighisoara, Fröhlich maintains that most of the town's residents would merely feel an increase in the cost of living.

Lastly, the pastor claims that a theme park would create the impression that Dracula actually built the town, while in reality it was constructed in the Middle Ages by settlers from Germany, the ancestors of Romania's dwindling ethnic-German minority, to which Fröhlich belongs.

"For what price do you give up your culture?" he asks. "I'm a simple pastor. I can't reverse government decrees or projects that have the backing of influence and money. But I do have common sense."

Fröhlich recently made a last-ditch appeal to Sighisoara's mayor, and he says he will try to rally support from the town's other churches.

In the meantime, preparations for Dracula Land continue. The final plans are expected by the end of September, followed by international bidding for building contracts. Construction of the project is projected to begin next spring.

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