Why Halloween started – and why celebrate it in Romania?

by Michael Gimm Holdensen

Halloween is held every year on 31 October. The reason why Halloween started goes back some 2,000 years. Back then, it was a tradition by the Celts. You probably know a few ones by names like Asterix and Obelix. 

Geographically, this area was then Ireland, Great Britain and northern France.
A thousand years later, when Christianity took over, the Church adopted the tradition and merged with the Church’s “All Saints” Day.

In the 1800s, scary faces began to be carved out of potatoes and turnips in Ireland and Scotland – also known as “jack-o-lanterns”. This was based on an Irish myth where the carved out heads were placed in the windows to scare away evil spirits.

We often say that Halloween is an American commercial tradition that has come to Denmark from the USA. So did the commercial part in the late 90s, but the tradition first came to the US in the mid-1800s. It was brought here by Irish refugees.

Our family has celebrated Halloween by decorating, carving pumpkins, and eating pumpkin muffins and pumpkin soup in recent years. The kids have been visiting neighbours and classmates on the day itself and doing a little “Trick & Treat” dressed in spooky costumes. But this year was different.

Facts about Romania

  • The capital is called Bucharest.
  • The number of inhabitants = Approx. 21.5 million.
  • Currency = Romanian Lei (RON).
  • Romanians are Romanian Orthodox (Christian).
  • Romania’s total area is 237,500 km2.
Halloween party with friends

Archive photo. The photo is from a Halloween party in 2016 with our friends, when we went a little extra crazy with blood and make-up.  Emma and Liva went all the way!

The reason why we celebrate Halloween in Romania and the way to get here

The reason why we celebrate Halloween in Romania is apparent! There aren’t many places on earth where the mysterious and occult thrive, like in Romania. Here, tales of vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters and Dracula, to paranormal events in the haunted forest of Hoia Baciu, are cultivated on a grand scale. 
As we approached Romania and the end of October, it was only natural to celebrate Halloween here. But we had to get there first.

The road from our Budapest apartment to Romania was not a perfect paved road but supplied with bumps, holes, and many winding mountain roads. Here we experienced something different from what we had seen so far. There were many small villages with decayed houses everywhere and a cloud of thick smoke in the air from various fires. It tickled the lungs a bit.

Driving in Romania was a bit special, and it seemed like you could go as fast as you wanted everywhere.
On the first part of the stretch towards Cluj-Napoca, I followed the traffic rules to avoid being stopped by Romanian police. But after having created a convoy, for I don’t know how many cars, and being passed by one big truck after the other, I stepped up the pace a bit.

Halloween in Cluj-Napoca

View of Cluj-Napoca from the slightly wealthier part of the city. Here, huge villas were built on the hillside.

Cluj-Napoca

Coming to a new city always makes an impression, but the first night in a new country is associated with many feelings.

We arrived at our first overnight stay in Cluj-Napoca around 19.00 on Monday evening. Luckily, our Airbnb host was there to receive us, and we were quickly settled into our Airbnb apartment.

The neighbourhood we lived in seemed safe enough, and it was a significant change from what we experienced in the villages on the way there. From shabby “houses” with foul smoke from chimneys and lawns to apartment buildings with garbage sorting and clean drinking water. It was quite the contrast.

Hoia Baciu forest by car

An almost impossible task to get into the forest by car. But our VW managed it very well.

Hoia Baciu

Following the fantastic TV programme on Danish television (DR) “Nul stjerner” with Jan Elhøj and Morten Kirckhoff, I wanted to experience Europe’s version of the Bermuda Triangle for a long time. Namely the paranormal forest of Hoia Baciu. It is said to have sent a shepherd and 100 sheep to another dimension through a portal in the woods.

It is also said to be home to all sorts of unnatural creatures and is supposed to be particularly “amazing” to visit at night. Either alone or as part of a guided tour.

Unfortunately for me, there was no actual mood for a night visit, so we had to go during the day instead.

We couldn’t get there either by bike nor on foot with Carla, as the climb up to the forest from where we stayed was too steep. So we decided to take our yellow bus. But it was almost hopeless to find a way into the site without driving into big ditches, mud or being blocked by trees. On the other hand, we had the road to ourselves…

Despite the almost impossible terrain, we managed to get there in the end. We were rewarded with the most beautiful panoramic view over Cluj-Napoca. A perfect starting point for the lunch we brought.

Hoia Baciu portal

There is supposed to be a place with two trees next to each other, forming a portal. We found only one place with this tree. It looks like it’s growing around something, though…

Looking for the portal to another dimension

After lunch, we walked around in the beautiful forest. Liva, Emma and I ended up taking a long walk while Carla and Rie went back to the car. We spent some time looking for the portal but only found half of it at best. In the end, we agreed that it was probably more important to get out of the forest with the car before it got dark than to find the portal.

The way out of the forest was by a somewhat different route. On the way, we were stopped by a Romanian who had driven up here in his Jeep. He waved his arms a bit and suggested that we not go back that way. But he had no idea how to get back. He ended up saying, “good luck”…

After we “escaped” the forest, we could see that our route choice was not the smartest, but we didn’t have a choice. Luckily our yellow bus made the tour without getting stuck, and we didn’t disappear in a hidden portal.

Before we went to Dracula Castle, we had to go to a Volkswagen service station in town to get the yellow bus serviced. They helped us find an available service station and sent us to a Volkswagen dealer in Targu Mureș. We went there before the trip continued to Dracula Castle in Bran. It was an outstanding experience with VW, from the service we received to what we paid for it.

Halloween with Dracula on his castle?

Dracula’s castle in Bran is world-famous as the castle Dracula lived within. It’s a good story, but perhaps not entirely true.

Dracula’s Castle

Yes, it IS a tourist trap, and we knew that in advance. Still, we just had to visit it since there was a relation to Dracula, and Halloween was just around the corner.
The castle is magnificent and well maintained, but with around 800,000 visitors a year, there is probably some money left for renovations.

We arrived in Bran, where the castle is, in the evening and was able to see it illuminated by the moon. The next day we went there in daylight and enjoyed the whole experience. They celebrated Halloween at the castle, and it was well decorated.

If you consider visiting it yourself, you can purchase tickets online, so you don’t have to queue.

Vlad the Impaler

Liva and Emma on a photo with Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Also, some torture devices.

Vlad the Impaler 

There was a man from 1431-1476 named Dracula (surname). He is also known by other names such as Vlad Țepeș and Vlad the Impaler. He got the surname “Dracula” from his father, Vlad II Dracul, as Dracula means son of Dracul. His father was named after his enlistment in the Order of the Dragon, which a Roman emperor established to defend Christians against the Ottomans.

Vlad III Dracula was a warlord who ruled in Wallachia, about 120km south of “Dracula Castle” in Bran. In fact, he never lived in the castle, but it is believed that he was imprisoned there for two months around 1462. He was then taken to Hungary by King Matthias Corvinus, as described in our Budapest post.

Dracula was a brutal, bloody and sinister prince. The story goes that he held large feasts with his friends, whereas his enemies were served for dinner. He would also invite beggars and sick people to feasts. As soon as they were full, they were burned. Another tradition was impaling his enemies. It was done by drilling a stick through the buttocks up through the body and out of the mouth. Afterwards the stick would be raises. Hence the name “The Impaler”. In this way, people died slowly, and the show was used to frighten other enemies.

It is believed that Vlad III Dracula killed around 80,000 during his reign, in the bloodiest of ways.

Bram Stokers Dracula

That Vlad Dracula should be a vampire only came many years later. In 1897, the English writer Bram Stoker needed a fictional character for a horror novel. The castle of Bran was the only one Bram Stoker could find in Transylvania, and Vlad Dracula fitted the description of the bloodthirsty Count Dracula. One can now easily see the similarities between the fictional and the historical Dracula.

Romanian mountain hut

Romania as seen from a mountain road. Fantastic scenery and one of the many houses we saw in those areas.

Goodbye Romania – maybe we will see you again

Our trip through Romania leaves us with mixed feelings. We had too little time to form an accurate impression, and we must give it another chance at a later occasion. By then we will spend a little more time in the beautiful natural areas there. We will also prioritise it being during a warmer period.

The people we met were friendly and welcoming, and the few places we visited were also a good experience. Still, it was probably the trip through the many dirty areas with thick smoke in the air and “rest areas” filled with garbage that left us with the biggest impressions. 
Maybe it was the route we followed. Although our impression was that there are huge differences between country and city and rich and poor.

In some ways, we were glad to be “done” with Romania by the time we left. A lot of what we saw wasn’t that nice. Hopefully, the longer we’ve been travelling, the more we’ll be liberated from our fancy feelings.

That being said, it was exciting to experience the Hoia Baciu forest. Also, it was enlightening to understand the story of Dracula a bit better.

From here we head for Greece, where we will stay for a month at the same address. We need to slow down a bit and practice the concept of “slow travel” a bit more.

Hoia Baciu panorama

Panoramic views of Cluj-Napoca from the edge of the Hoia Baciu forest.

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