This blog will be about our recently started, ongoing series of short marionette films – if you want to watch the series so far before reading the post so you can watch it ‘cold’, then you can do that here:
I can’t remember the very first time my Dad sat me down to watch Gerry Anderson’s series ‘Thunderbirds’, but I can remember spending hours watching that series, as well as ‘Stingray’ and ‘Captain Scarlett’.
We had all of the toys – my mother made Thunderbirds outfits, and we were given toys of the Thunderbird craft (Thunderbird 2 was always my favourite). One of the first toys I remember saving up to buy myself was a toy vehicle from Captain Scarlett (I actually remember after getting it that I kept waking up in the night and checking it wasn’t a dream!).
Most of all though, I remember watching the series, and enjoying seeing the puppets. It’s not that we were young and didn’t mind seeing the strings – the strings and the puppetry were all part of the magic.
That was over a quarter of a century ago. I grew up (an arguable statement, I acknowledge), to become a showman and performer, and I always had those Thunderbirds lurking in the back of my head, but I could never quite figure out how marionettes would fit into my shows and so while I looked at them often while looking for something new to add to the shows, I never actually ordered one.
I came close in 2019. I had found a company in Prague named Czech Marionettes, and I had been looking through the marionettes on their website. So many marionettes leapt out at me – a marionette you can buy to assemble yourself named ANY, a beautiful Charlie Chaplin character with moving eyes, an absolutely incredible dragon called Spike and… well I could go on for a long time (I have a large ‘wish list’ tucked away in my head). I very nearly bought a skeleton marionette named ‘Baby Bonnie’ to dance around at my shows, but that was just as we were on the verge of releasing our first travel video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’, and our funds had to go towards booking our travels, so that we could build up our travel films and make that the focus of our career.
I ought to point out at this point in time that the Czech Marionettes company have not asked us to write this blog, nor have they paid us to promote them – so although they are being incredibly supportive of our entry into the world of marionettes, any gushing about their work here is all my own!
This brings us to this year and the arrival of Covid-19, which, as well as leading to the tragic loss of so many lives, has also been a game changer for so many people. For us that meant that live shows disappeared, at least until the autumn, and so I moved my shows online to create a fortnightly comedy and magic show.
Suddenly with the need to create a lot of new material, and a lot of that in the form of new short films, it felt like it was finally time to realise the idea which had been hovering in my mind for the last twenty-five years and take my first steps into the world of marionette filmmaking. We weren’t looking to make the Thunderbirds – this would be something smaller in scale and more intimate feeling – but would be an ongoing series of short films starring a marionette. All we needed was a star.
I got in touch with Czech Marionettes to speak to them about their marionettes, and they understood what we were planning to do in our series and were really supportive of our ideas. Not long after that our first marionette arrived.
The first marionette which we received from the people at Czech Marionettes was a wonderful creation. Named ANY, it is a hand-crafted wooden marionette designed to be ‘neutral’ – no gender, no specific personality features, a blank slate to fill with a personality. To make it more interesting, he came in kit form, which meant that I would be able to assemble him myself.
***As an aside, an interesting point here. You’ll notice that I said that the ANY marionette arrives with no gender, and yet I refer to him as ‘him’. I have done so since I first mentioned him in an email to the company, and they asked me why. This took a little thought, and then I realised that I was already giving a little of my personality to ANY, and our ANY was male.
Assembling ANY felt magical. This is no doubt part of my personality, and may seem strange to some, but I hope that from the comments I have received about ANY and his adventures that most of you will understand, that from the first moments putting him together it felt like we were bringing him to life.
While the kit was relatively simple to put together, it felt deeper than just putting parts in place. Many of the parts need sanding down, and especially as we were sanding down the face, on which you could see the chisel marks from the craft person who had made it, it felt like we were part of a team who had been involved in making this little piece of puppet art.
Once we had ANY pieced together and strung, the joy of letting him take his first steps in the world began. With strings controlling his arms, legs, head, body, and even when we want, his nose, there is a lot to think about each time we move him, and the simplest of actions or gestures for ANY can require a fairly complex set of movements from the strings. What I found amazing, however, was how intuitive and natural it felt to be working with him. I could immediately sense his personality shining through – he is, like us, an adventurer, and he is clever and quick at problem solving.
We started filming with him straight away – because ANY is waking up and finding his feet during the first episode, and I therefore wanted it filmed while I was still starting to learn his movements myself. If you watch through the series (four episodes have been released so far) you will hopefully see that as ANY’s confidence grows, so too does our confidence working and filming with him.
We have a long way to go to become expert marionette filmmakers, but we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved so far, and I am very grateful to my wife, Felicity, my sister-in-law Jenny, everyone who watches and comments on our YouTube videos and to Czech Marionettes (whose work you can see here), all of whom have helped this 35 year old man (and the eternal ten year old Thunderbird fan who lives inside him) to start achieving his marionette dreams. Thanks also, of course, to ANY – for bringing our series to life!
Thank you for reading – please take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other!
P.S. This week I released my second audiobook – ‘The Ever So Slightly Exaggerated Tales Of Mr Greg Chapman Volume 2: Losing The Lost World’. For more information and to get a copy, click HERE!
I consider myself very fortunate in that most of the things which always interested me as a child still have some significance or place in my adult life. My love of animals and the sea, my fascination with seeing the world, seeing different cultures and delving into ancient ones where possible – through making our travel documentaries and with Curios Aquatica, those things are still very much present in my life.
I do still share one passion with the majority of children though, a love of dinosaurs. My sister has always been intrigued with geology. Her gemstone collection started at a young age and has since grown not just to take up a considerable amount of wall space in her home but to her now owning a gemstone and fossil shop called Island Gems.
My sister and I started working for Island Gems as soon as we each moved to the Isle of Wight. She quickly became a manager (and when the owner was ready to retire some years later, the new owner of the business) while I became the head fossil tour guide.
Some years later, a certain Greg Chapman worked next door to Island Gems and would often pop in for a chat. A few more years passed and I found myself training him as our fill-in tour guide. . . later I found myself exchanging marriage vows with him while stood beside a life-sized replica triceratops. . . as you do. . .
The Isle of Wight is the best place in Europe for finding dinosaur fossils. Many places can boast of fantastic marine fossils such as ammonites, belemnites (fossilised squid shells), ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs (marine reptiles). To find actual dinosaurs (land living reptiles with the hips placed underneath the body rather than to the sides like crocodiles or the Dimetrodon which is often wrongly mistaken for a dinosaur), the Isle of Wight is the place to visit. This does not mean, however, that dinosaurs can’t be found in other places too. They are usually found in a museum rather than walking along a beach like we regularly do on the Isle of Wight.
Whenever we start researching a new destination to make one of our adventure documentaries, I like to have a quick check to see what (if any) fossils can be found in that place.
When we visited the Isle of Man to make Railways, Castles and Seals, Greg was in charge of everything. The research, organising, booking, everything. For someone who over-organises to the level I am known for, that was quite an experience for us both! Even then, however, Greg knew to check for fossils and the main fossils found on the Isle of Man- crinoids (sea lilies)- feature briefly in that video.
During our most recent travel adventure in Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle, the video, as the title suggests, was less about seeing what the country has to offer in general and focused more on one specific thing there.
Despite this we couldn’t resist a quick dinosaur and fossil related search and discovered that Romania has its fair share (by this I mean about six different species) of dinosaurs, one of which, the Magyarosaurus Dacus (‘Magyar lizard’), is incredibly both the biggest dinosaur found in Romania and yet it is also (one of) the smallest sauropod species (long neck) found in the whole world.
While most of the dinosaurs found in Romania can also be found in countries like Austria, France and Spain, they do also have one species also found on the Isle of Wight – Valdosaurus (Wealden Lizard), as well as two species Zalmoxes (Dacian Deity) and the aforementioned Magyarosaurus which are unique to Romania.
I realise for those of you who have sadly grown out of your dinosaur-obsessed days, I probably lost you for a moment there. For those of you who love dinosaurs still or are happy to walk around a beautifully presented park which demonstrates the majesty of these long dead (or evolved if you are one that accepts each time you see a bird you are looking at a dinosaur) creatures, there is such a park (Dino Parc, Rasnov) in Romania which doesn’t disappoint.
If you are also like me and lean more towards the old fashioned feeling museums rather than the often too sterile, state of the art, ‘gadgety’ museums, there is a great National Geology (and fossil) Museum waiting for you in Bucharest too. As well as having some old-fashioned, Victorian feeling model displays, it had some genuine fossils (I always get a little thrill whenever I see some fossils from the Isle of Wight included and have rarely been disappointed. This Museum was no exception!) as well as a fantastic room ‘full of rocks’ as Greg so eloquently put it. In truth it was a room I felt would have had my sister practically drooling, the gemstone specimens were so fine.
One of the things I like most about the world of fossils, of palaeontology, is that it is always changing. We are forever finding new specimens, new species. The regular advancement in science means we are always learning more, changing and adapting past theories and ideas regarding these prehistoric creatures and the world they lived in. It does mean that you think you know what you are talking about, you have all your ‘facts’ straight and then yet another scientific paper is published and you have to change everything you thought you knew (don’t get me started on Brontosaurus/ Apatosaurus or Seismosaurus/ Diplodocus!).
It does also mean that likely in ten years time, I will re-read this blog post and find some inaccuracies, either in what I have written or in what I believed to be the truth at the time of writing this. That’s palaeontology for you!
It’s wonderful though. In many ways the dinosaurs are gone but their remains are still being discovered, their life and world is still fascinating and surprising scientists each year, they live on in children’s imaginations and in mine. I will always be grateful to these long ago creatures for the role they played in my imagination as a child and, more recently, the role they played in me finding my husband. I hope to see the world, to see and learn so many more incredible things, there is so much out there but everywhere we go, if it makes it into our travel documentaries or not, I suspect I will always at least check for dinosaurs and fossils in every country I visit.
As you can probably tell from the title, this post may, I fear, get a little dark. I can fully understand if you choose to give this one a pass (although I will avoid going into too many details about the torture methods). The reason that I can understand this the most is because we nearly made the same choice with the exhibitions.
When we arrived at Bran Castle as the first castle in our ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ video, which you can watch HERE, we saw a sign for the ‘Torture Exhibition’, a display of torture implements which had a small extra charge.
This led to a discussion. We were here outside of a beautiful castle in the sunshine, and we were ready to enjoy exploring it. We had already been in the castle grounds that morning flying our drone for the first time in one of our travel adventure videos, and had managed to get some amazing shots. All in all we were in high spirits.
When we saw the signs for the torture display, my first instinct was to give it a miss. I knew enough of the history of torture that I felt I was unlikely to learn anything useful, and as a general rule I would have little interest in looking around a display showing some of the ways that the human imagination has been used to create tools and machines built purely for the purpose of causing as much pain as possible to another person. That is not to say we don’t enjoy visiting somewhat creepy or macabre places on our travels sometimes, but torture devices are not something which I would normally feel the need to see.
Felicity pointed out, however, that a major part of our goal here in Romania was to try to find the castle of Vlad the Impaler, and, in so doing, to try to reach an understanding of the man and the legend which surrounds him. Part of his story involves torture. Most famously he used the method of impaling people on wooden spikes, but it is suggested that while he was held as a hostage of Murad ll, the Ottoman ruler, as a young man, that he may have been ‘trained’ in various methods of torture, methods which, according to many people, he would not have been squeamish about using when he thought it necessary.
We reached the decision that on this occasion we should go into the torture exhibition, so that as we visited the beautiful castles and locations in our search for Vlad Dracula, we would also have forefront in our minds some of the horrors which he enacted in his reigns.
Immediately on entering we saw an Iron Maiden. This object I was most familiar with from what is possibly one of the most famous moments from the ‘Paul Daniels Magic Show’, where he ended an episode with an escape apparently going wrong with him slammed inside – which may sound quite tame for a television magic show these days, but back then sparked complaints and required him to return later in the evening’s schedule to announce that he was alright.
As this item was fixed in my mind as part of a magic trick, my brain didn’t immediately link in to its original purpose, and I couldn’t help making a ‘Two Tickets To Iron Maiden’ joke based on the song by Wheatus (a fact I include as it is one of the few semi-modern, almost-popular music references I know).
The mood changed almost immediately, however, as we turned around to face a chair completely covered in wooden spikes.
The purpose and use of this chair, known as an ‘Interrogation Chair’ or a ‘Witches’ Chair’ was immediately obvious, and immediately drained any levity from the air. This was an implement which had clearly not only been carefully designed by somebody, but would also have been intricately crafted, each one of the spikes individually made by hand. Several people would probably have been involved in the making of this chair, from the design, to the wood-crafting and the metal work, and they would all have known the purpose of what they were creating. Added to that you would have needed at least two people to restrain the person being placed in the chair (lest we forget that those accused of ‘witchcraft’ were usually innocent of any crime), and someone to sanction the punishment or interrogation (unlike Vlad, most rulers or heads of ‘justice’ would not get their hands dirty themselves), and you have a good half a dozen who needed to be involved in order for this chair to come into being and be used. Added to that a society which allowed such things to happen, and this single object becomes a poignant symbol of the evils of torture.
I don’t feel the need to go any further into describing any of the apparatus on display. The exhibition itself was well put together. As you walked through multiple rooms, seeing dozens of devices from the simple to the complex, it was quite sparsely laid out. The castle rooms were the perfect setting for such a display, they felt like rooms which the devices fitted into, rooms where you would not be surprised to hear devices like these had once been used. Most of the devices were accompanied by a short explanation of their use, and sometimes examples of when or where they had been used. Many of them had old fashioned ‘woodcut’ style images of the devices being used (similar to the illustration we used to show the impaling during the ‘Vlad Dracula’ introduction section of our video).
As we went around, and moved from room to room, it seemed an endless display of devices. In the final room we came face to face with a wooden spike (pictured at the top of this post), used for impaling. Of all of the intricate mechanical devices on display in the exhibition, I don’t think any made me feel as cold, disgusted or sad as this item as, owing to our research into Vlad the Impaler, it was the one whose use I was most familiar with. Having seen it, we had, I felt, fulfilled our duty to the video we were making, and could get out of the torture exhibitions. At that point in time I just wanted to get out into ‘fresh air’.
On the way out of the exhibition we went through a squeaky door, which amused me (partly I think this was enhanced by the joy of leaving the oppressive atmosphere created by the devices), and started to bring us out of the melancholy of seeing all of the equipment and images in the room – a lighter moment as we sought to bring ourselves out of the darkness of the torture exhibition so that we could get back to filming with a lighter tone through the rest of our visit at Bran Castle. For eagle-eyed viewers of the travel video, you will notice that in the edit we decided to separate out the ‘squeaky door’ from the ‘torture exhibition’ sections of the film, because we felt the tone of the two pieces didn’t fit in the final edit – yes, occasionally we do make minor tweaks to the order of events when it is necessary to keep the pace or tone of the video!
Which brings me to the end of this post. Like our decision to visit the exhibition in the first place, my decision to write this blog was back and forth to start with, but I eventually reached the same decision we made outside Bran Castle. This blog series, the same as our ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ video, would have felt incomplete without it being included.
If I went back to Bran Castle, would I go back into the ‘Torture Exhibition’ again? I don’t think I would, not unless we were going back to film something which made that room necessary to include. It is a very well put together exhibition – it lacked the gory ‘waxworks’ style models which I have seen in some museums which feature one or two torture instruments, and which I personally find makes them both more graphic and at the same time less poignant. Nothing competes with seeing the objects, reading a description of what they were used for and how they worked, and then trying to stop your brain conjuring up the images. So as the exhibition it was, it was done very tastefully, very informative and very well put together. I would recommend it if it is something which you think you would be interested in seeing, but if I were visiting the castle purely on holiday, I would have passed it by.
Next time I write a post, much like the squeaky door, I will be writing on a much happier, much funnier, and much lighter subject.
Thanks for reading, and please take unbelievably good care of yourselves and of each other.
P.P.S. While we aren’t able to travel, we are performing new ‘(Almost) Live’ online magic and comedy shows – and you can see one of our favourite parts featuring the adventures of a marionette named ANY right here:
If you have read any of our previous blog posts you will have noticed that I am usually the one to write about animals. If you have read my blog about whales (here) or Sharks (here), you will have likely realised that I am a bit lovingly obsessed and fascinated with the sea. Always have been.
I have always been likened to a mermaid, even by strangers on occasion. My long hair added to the fact I have always swum my own version of the butterfly stroke, which heightens the resemblance further. I loved swimming so much my family even had a pool installed in our garden when I was a kid. We lived on the outskirts of a city, far from the sea… yet the obsession was there anyway. Documentaries, films, anything about the sea, I couldn’t get enough.
My Mum can’t swim, so on every family holiday my Mum would watch like a hawk as my sister and I dragged our Dad into the sea.
Deeper. I always wanted to go deeper. Big waves? Even better!
I wanted to travel the world, see every country, its culture and wildlife and particularly its oceans and marine life. I was the only one in my family with this passion and it took Greg to really make it start to happen.
I am big on wildlife and conservation. Since I moved to the coast I see the sea almost every day. I walk on the beach and I usually end up finding and taking litter away with me. The days you find creatures (fish, dolphins, sharks, sea horses, jelly fish) washed up on the beach are sad. When those creatures are tangled up in nets and plastic rubbish… it’s actually gut wrenching for me.
I remember one day when I was leading a fossil tour along the beach with a school group. Usually something I thoroughly enjoy but on this morning some fisherman had been to work. They had caught small sharks and gutted them, throwing back the parts they didn’t want. Those ‘bits’ had washed onto my beach. Hundreds of shark heads and stringy bits of flesh littered the beach. It was everywhere. The kids ranged from fascinated to horrified. Some started trying to pick the bits up… It was horrible. If you did read my post about sharks (here) you will understand a bit more how truly devastating I found this.
I was desperate to make a difference. To stop, or at least improve, the levels of pollution finding its way into the worlds oceans, to clean up the sea and beaches for all that beautiful marine life that people rarely get to see (and as a result, it seems, so often don’t really care about). Surely if people saw, knew and understood they would care!?
It was during one of my (likely too many) passionate talks (ok, maybe rant is the right word) with Greg, after I had hauled up a particularly large amount of rubbish from the beach, that he suggested maybe he knew a way that we could make a bigger difference.
Greg is an entertainer. It is a world he knows and understands. It can also be a platform on occasion. Perhaps together we could come up with a show that educates while also entertaining.
Curios Aquatica was born:
Curios- linking to fossils and mythology. Before people knew what fossils were, collectors would sell them to tourists as curiosities. The ammonite, for example, was a prehistoric squid with a shell which people even now sometimes mistake for a fossilised snail shell. In Victorian times this curiosity was sold as a petrified snake, cursed by an abbess. It is also where we get one example of a fiji mermaid- the remains of a monkey combined with those of a fish. . . there are all sorts of fossils, myths and weird and wonderful things that fell under the banner of ‘curiosities’.
Aquatica- pretty obvious, ‘of the water’.
Curios Aquatica therefore- Mysteries of the Water. Perfect.
Next was to develop our show and its characters. Next came Fliss the Mermaid.
Fliss is not the ‘Disney princess’ style mermaid most people expect. This was very important to me. Fliss is real and in real life you don’t (or certainly shouldn’t!) approach a wild animal and assume it is your best friend. It may be beautiful, it may look cute and friendly, but that doesn’t mean it is safe and it certainly doesn’t mean it feels ok with you forcing an interaction onto it.
Fliss the mermaid represents marine life but also wildlife in general in my eyes.
Fliss cannot speak ‘human’. Greg has joked that this is due to her not wanting to learn lines for shows and events (also true!), but it is down to her being a wild animal. What animal (aside from some birds) can verbally speak to humans? Yet that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate. If you have read my whale blog (here) you will already know how complex their brains are, that they have their own unique language just as evolved as ours. Doesn’t mean we can speak ‘whale’.
How many people have come into contact with other people that don’t speak the same language as them and yet, through gestures and expressions been able to understand each other anyway?
How many people have a dog or cat which they can’t speak with (ok, I know most owners speak to their pets anyway but I mean have a two way conversation with… I don’t count my cat meowing back!) and yet communicate with and understand anyway?
Animals communicate, it’s just we are usually not used to ‘listening’. If we learn their signals, indicators, habits, their ‘language’, we can better appreciate, understand and, in some cases, communicate with them.
This is part of what Fliss teaches people, with the help of Greg.
Fliss is of the sea. She can understand some things, many creatures can, but she needs understanding in return. Fliss is about linking humans and animals in a sympathetic way. She is beautiful and wild but still willing to interact with you if you respect her.
This was very much how I felt about the whales in Mexico. When people hunted the whales, they killed the people. Now that people go out in boats peacefully, the whales approach the boats and interact with people in a beautiful, peaceful way. It is an amazing experience and something to cherish. You compare that to dolphins and orcas forced to live in a tank and interact with you, or be starved and punished. . . who would want that kind of interaction!? Yet that is exactly what happens and what I am desperate to stop.
My thought is that people must just not realise that this is the reality. So I aim to educate them. Through Fliss. Through our shows. Through our travel documentaries. Any and every way I can, I will spread this message. Captivity, certainly for some species such as cetaceans, is torture and should be stopped.
This respect, understanding and appreciation for nature and wildlife is a big part of our message but there is more to it. There is the detrimental effect we are having on it with our pollution (both physical with plastic, oil, etc but some is noise pollution too), our over fishing and the way we feel towards some species.
An example of this is sharks. People fear them, eat them, use bits of them in ‘medicines’, there is very little respect for sharks. The closest most get is pure fear. It doesn’t help that things like the movie Jaws have made people so afraid of sharks. Again, if you read my shark blog you will know there is so much more to them than this poor reputation – an unfair one too which Greg makes clear in this short video:
It goes the other way too, sometimes people like an animal, yet still have no respect for it. For example there was a news story about a curious dolphin which approached some people paddling in the sea. The people lifted the dolphin from the water and passed it around so they could all get a ‘selfie picture’ with it. This killed the dolphin. Nature, animals, they not only deserve respect but need it too.
I hope that people on the whole are not evil, that these terrible things are usually done as a result of ignorance and by accident rather than due to malice, greed and soullessness.
So we created a school and scout show with Curios Aquatica. We take a beautiful set, we include puppets and magic, we have fun with the children but we also teach them what is wrong and get them thinking about ways to improve things.
We perform at events, interacting with the public while still encouraging people to think, learn and change the way they perhaps look and interact with the world around them.
We also fundraise for marine charities, helping those that are already trying to improve things and make a difference. Our current marine charity is The Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit. If you would like to support them, please click here to donate.
You may have noticed that there is not a lot of travel in this particular blog post as with Greg’s post about magic recently. We have plans to discuss more aspects of what we do between posts about our travels – especially as our travels are on pause until the world reopens. There will be more travel in next weeks blog but let us know whether you like these posts which take you into other aspects of our work.
Thanks for reading, stay safe and please help save the sea.
I must say that when I suggested to Felicity that we visit Romania for our next travel adventure (which would become ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’ which you can watch HERE), that I knew the only real image I had in my mind of the country was over a century old, highly stereotyped, and created by a man who had never visited the country.
Despite knowing how ridiculous that was as the basis for forming an image of a country, I did actually find myself very much wanting to find the fictional ‘Castle Dracula’ created by Bram Stoker for his 1897 book.
To get to the point where we can discuss looking for Dracula’s Castle in Romania, however, it is worth us taking a little diversion to Whitby in Yorkshire. We took a little pilgrimage there in March (see the short video ‘Seeking Dracula in Whitby’) to the location where Bram Stoker is supposed to have come up with many of the ideas for the book, and to the spot where he is supposed to have sat writing much of it. I’ll be going into a little more detail about that particular visit and Bram Stoker’s time in Whitby in a later blog post, but suffice to say that the closest that Bram Stoker ever came to Romania (which at the time he wrote the book was not the unified single country that exists today) was finding the name ‘Vlad Dracula’ and some more details within books in libraries in Whitby and London.
It is very hard, therefore, to know which real castle, if any, Stoker used as the basis for the castle where Jonathan Harker travels to at the beginning of the novel to meet up with the mysterious Count Dracula. In the small town of Bran, near the old Transylvanian/Wallachian border, however, is a castle which claims to be the only one in all of Romania which fits the description of the castle in the book. They even have the source that Stoker could have looked at when he was writing his description in ‘Transylvania: Its Product and Its People’ by Charles Boner published about three decades before Stoker put pen to paper.
The historian in me had to point out that there is a level of conjecture and guesswork in this… but the travel adventurer in me has no qualms in confirming that Bran Castle is Dracula’s Castle (at least in terms of Stoker’s book – to begin learning about the other part of our adventure and Vlad Dracula you can read Felicity’s blog post here).
As you pull into the quaint little town of Bran, the castle looms above you, standing tall above the other buildings in the area on it’s rocky hill, dropping on one side into a precipice down from the castle.
To approach the castle gates you walk up through a small market selling a combination of Bran Castle, Count Dracula, and Vlad the Impaler themed merchandise, as well as a small open air museum showing the old village houses which the people of Bran used to live in. Finally you arrive at the castle gates and head in, making your way up a castle path. At all times I could hear echoes of the book in my head – even on a beautiful sunny February morning I could imagine the castle in the dark of night, almost hear the wolves howling in the distance, and almost see Count Dracula crawling out of a window…
Of course, aside from its links with Count Dracula, the castle does have its own fascinating history.
The first fortress built on the site goes back to 1211 when the Teutonic Knights, a catholic religious order formed of German crusaders to help defend the southeastern border of Transylvania, which they managed until they were forced out of the region in 1226.
It was between 1377 and 1388 that the castle itself was built, to form a dual role of a ‘customs house’ and a fortress to defend against attempts at Ottoman expansion, and in fact it is these roles which likely saw Vlad the Impaler (our ‘other Dracula’) pass through Bran Castle on his way to solve a dispute between the Wallachia Voivode and the Saxons about tax rates.
The castle changed ownership a number of times, until in 1888, not long before the book Dracula was written, the City Administration of Brasov handed the castle over to the forestry department, and although until 1918 it was inhabited on and off by foresters and woodsmen, in general the castle fell into decay, and could easily have ended its existence as a slowly crumbling ruin if not for the unification of Romania!
After Transylvania became a part of Greater Romania, Bran Castle was gifted, on December 1st 1920, to Queen Marie of Romania. For the next twelve years the castle was restored to the Queen’s requirements, and in 1932 it became a famous royal summer residence – including her own ‘Tea House’ in the grounds which today has become the Casa de Ceai Restaurant, which we would definitely recommend!
I found that from the outside, and in the courtyards of the castle, it felt every inch the Castle Dracula of the books. Inside though in the music room, study and bedrooms, this was a home treasured by a Queen.
All in all the castle is well worth a visit, and marked a wonderful introduction to the Romanian castles on our adventure!
When Greg suggested we go to Romania to film our travel adventure video ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle (which you can watch here), I was instantly excited. If you have read my previous blog post you will already know of my interest not only in the fictional Dracula, but particularly in the man behind the myth, Vlad the Impaler.
Research into the various locations in Romania with a significant link to either Dracula began immediately. I also like to make sure we see the best of whatever country we visit, however, even if it doesn’t necessarily tie into the documentary’s main focus. We discovered some interesting dinosaur, fossil and geology related places which we touch on in the video, but one of the big things I wished to include was the country’s bear population.
Romania is estimated to have some 6,000 brown (aka grizzly) bears living in its forested mountains. Last year (2019) there was an increase in bear attacks on people, with some proving to be fatal. Many of the locals living in small villages near the bear’s habitat in the mountains wished to cull the bears’ numbers while conservationists push for the bears to be protected. Trying to balance this, it was finally decided that a license would be given to hunters allowing a set number of bears to be killed each year. Tourists pay a lot of money to go out with these licensed hunters to shoot the bears.
The idea was to kill the bears coming into contact with people, but these are usually the small, undernourished, starving bears that seek food scraps from bins and campsites. Hardly a ‘decent trophy’.
The hunters go into the mountains and kill the larger grizzly bears that likely never leave their own habitats. This result satisfies neither the villagers living in fear of the bears, nor the conservationists trying to save them. I think that most people could see this dilemma from both sides. My love of animals means I would never wish for any animal to be harmed, but I can easily understand not wanting to be lunch for a hungry bear!
When I read a bit more about some of the bear attacks I discovered that one of the key places we would be visiting (Poenari Fortress) was a hot spot for bears coming into conflict with humans. So much so that a lot of our research indicated that the access to Poenari Fortress, with its 1,480 stairs through forest leading up the mountain, (if a bear doesn’t kill you the climb just might!) is regularly closed.
Since a mother bear with her two cubs recently attacked some tourists, it had been closed while they tried to figure out a way to prevent this being a problem in the future and reportedly would not open till the issue was resolved. We found a few conflicting dates as to when the access would reopen and so in the end Greg emailed Visit Romania, who indicated it had just reopened.
During my research I discovered that in the summer months it is possible to go into the forests with the conservationists. As well as visiting schools to raise awareness and understanding regarding the bears with the locals and the younger generation, the conservationists try to encourage this positive attitude towards the bears with the tourists too. I loved the idea and was disappointed to discover we would be in Romania during the bears’ hibernation period, so no tours would be running. On the one hand I was relieved that it was therefore unlikely we would have a potentially dangerous encounter with a bear during our visit, but it also meant it would be unlikely we would be able to include the bears in our documentary.
As our visit to Romania neared, we discovered one holiday maker had encountered a bear near Poenari Fortress about two weeks before we were due to visit. It turns out the weather this winter is warmer than usual and heating up each year. This plays havoc with the bears’ hibernation. Some still sleep while many have a shortened hibernation or don’t seem to bother at all.
Excited and rather nervous, I longed to see a bear in the wild but preferably from a safe distance! I even went so far as to drag Greg to the area along the river beneath Poenari where bears are often sighted in an attempt to encounter one. Though we did this twice, we were unsuccessful. Seeing my disappointment, Greg went for plan B.
The LiBEARty Bear sanctuary.
Ordinarily I am dubious about so called ‘sanctuaries’. So many of them sound so good, rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing animals wherever possible. They sound perfect and some of them truly are. Many, however, cross a line. Once they start breeding non-endangered animals rather than rescuing injured or ill-treated ones, they cross from sanctuary towards zoo in my mind. Some have ample land with lots of space for the animals while others have tiny enclosures. There are different levels of sanctuary but no animal should be forced to spend its life in a small cage.
We spent the evening in our hotel room researching the sanctuary, making sure we could find nothing to suggest it went against our beliefs and morals regarding animal welfare. Once satisfied we booked a tour with them. This process in itself was an indicator as to what the bear sanctuary is like. You can only enter the sanctuary on a guided, one-hour tour, which has limited numbers per tour as well as running only at set hours. They only run a few tours a day (in English and Romanian) and children under 5 years old are not permitted. Straight away this felt right, focusing more on the animals in their care rather than on having as many tourists, and therefore profits, as possible.
The LiBEARty bear sanctuary is the largest animal welfare project in Europe. In 1998 a Romanian woman, Christina Lapis, saw 3 bears in tiny cages outside Romanian restaurants. Later she discovered more bears in similar conditions such as outside petrol stations. The bears in each place were kept to attract customers and they all lived in terrible conditions.
Her aim was to stop this cruel and illegal exploitation of these incredible, native animals. Reporting these places with their captive bears to the police did no good- the bears could be confiscated but having lived their life since infancy in a cage they could not be returned to the wild. For one thing they would not survive, and for another they were too used to people and would either seek people out for food or because they were traumatized and therefore now aggressive towards people. No safe place existed for them – if confiscated they would be shot.
Christina Lapis created an organization- Milioane de Prieteni (Millions of Friends), which is based in Brasov, Romania. In 2005 the Millions of Friends Association signed a public-private partnership with the Town Hall of Zarnesti, through which they received a 49 year concession for the necessary land to build the ‘LiBEARty’ sanctuary.
WAP (World Animal Protection) joined these efforts in the ‘Save the Captive Bear’ project. It is now the largest project in Europe for the rescue, care and welfare of the brown bear. Millions of Friends also created a school education program teaching about animal welfare.
The sanctuary has 69 hectares of oak forest containing trees for the bears to climb and swimming pools to cool off and splash in, as well as appropriate food according to their natural diet and medical needs.
The tour started with a video giving the history and a brief overview of the sanctuary. The video only lasted a few minutes but those minutes had me in tears.
The sanctuary doesn’t want healthy, wild bears. That isn’t the idea at all. Those bears should be in the wild where they belong. No, this sanctuary is for the bears that have been captured and traumatized by people. The introduction video showed some of the bears in the cages where they had spent their whole lives up till the point the sanctuary saved them. One bear was kept in an elevated cage so that the bears’ waste would drop to the ground below and be easier for the ‘owner’ to keep clean. This meant that for years the bear had nothing but large metal grids on which to stand, sit and lay upon. The bear lived for years in agony and now it has comfort in the sanctuary but the damage is done, both to her feet and her mind. Seeing people distresses her and she can barely walk. We do not see this bear in the sanctuary- any bear that finds it too traumatic to see people is protected from visitors. If we wish to see these bears there is a link on their website which takes you to a live camera feed. They are looked after but are kept as wild and peaceful as possible.
As we walked around the sanctuary with our tour guide (there were only about eight of us on the tour) she went into details about the bears we saw, their past, their rehabilitation and personalities now. We learnt a bit more about the sanctuary, how it is run and how they deal with various problems with the traumatized bears. Her love and sympathy for the animals was clear and she was happy to answer my many questions.
Some of the bears come from zoos. Since Romania joined the EU many zoos were either closed or had to raise their standards to meet with the EU animal welfare regulations. One example of this will always be with me. One bear aged about 15 had spent her life in a tiny cage in one of these zoos. When the zoo enlarged the enclosure to meet with the new regulations they got two more bears.
The original bear was picked on by these other two and was too afraid to leave her cage and move into the new enclosure. Someone visiting the zoo reported it to the LiBEARty Sanctuary and they rescued not only the bear but some wolves who were also kept in substandard conditions in the zoo. EU regulations may have improved things but they are still, in my opinion, still so far away from good or right. When we saw this bear we had to keep our distance so as not to agitate her further. She is now in a large enclosure though she doesn’t seem to realize it. She spends her days pacing back and forth along one small section of fence and each time she reaches the corner she bashes her head into the wall. Normally the enclosures have a line of electric fence to deter the bears from climbing out but they couldn’t do this with her. She has smooth metal sheets at the top of the enclosure to stop her scaling them. Like most of the rescue bears, she is smaller than she should be. Being kept in small cages and fed largely human scraps rather than their proper diet, they have stunted growth amongst other issues. Watching this beautiful girl pace in stress and agitation, knowing it was a zoo that had done this to her, caused irreparable mental damage… it still makes me tearful now, just the memory of her.
Some of the bears we passed seemed happy, content with their lot in life, but the fact they seek us out and walk along beside us as we tour the sanctuary indicates the damage. Bears do not seek people out if they are healthy and happy.
It was at this point I felt a little bad for my wanting to see one in the wild when visiting Poenari Fortress. We learned from our guide of a location not a million miles away where wild bears are almost always present. Tourists park there and feed the wild bears. This encourages more bears and it encourages them to approach people and their cars. Some bears are hit by the cars as a result and some people get overconfident.
It seemed crazy to me but one lady was apparently so confident after feeding this bear from her car, she actually got out and turned around to take a selfie picture with the bear! She got more than she bargained for when the bear gave her more than a hug! Who would be crazy enough to turn their back on a grisly bear stood an arm’s length away!? This woman, apparently, and she is not the only one trying to get too close to these large, wild animals. My wish was to see bears in the wild but when people start to interfere and tempt them closer to roads and villages, no good can ever come from that.
A line from Jurassic Park which I love, ‘These creatures require our absence to survive, not our help”. I too wanted to see them but not when it changes their natural behavior and endangers them as well as people. A tourist can leave, what about the locals that live nearby and now have bears seeking out human scraps once tourist season is over? I believe that these people meant no harm, it is their ignorance that does harm. Visiting the bear sanctuary, hearing the stories, seeing the damaged bears, the ignorance is not an excuse. People need to see, learn and respect the life around them.
From bears that pirouette whenever they see a person as this was how they earned their food, to bears that think they are human and want to be close to us, to bears that can’t stand the sight of humans, the sanctuary has it all. They have so far rescued over 125 bears from what was an abusive nightmare of a life before finding as much comfort and normality as the sanctuary can provide. The mission is expanding though. A true animal lover struggles to draw the line at one species and now the park is also home to some wolves and deer that needed the help too.
On a separate site to the LiBEARty sanctuary they have created ‘Victory’, a dog shelter dedicated to the care of stray dogs, as well as offering help to dog owners in the community. The shelter has a veterinary clinic where they neuter people’s dogs for free. They rescue, treat, house and re-home stray dogs and help owners with their pets too. Driving around Romania, so many stray dogs are in need of help but places like ‘Victory’ are now working to improve this. Slowly, people are learning.
Education is such an important step and those steps are slowly but surely happening. One story from the bear sanctuary had such hope. A hunter visited the sanctuary and has since stopped hunting. He explained he had never seen the bears in this light before. They were a way to make money, nothing more. After seeing them at the sanctuary, he couldn’t kill them anymore. It changed his life.
The bear sanctuary is a true sanctuary. It isn’t about money – they borrow rather than own the land. The animals are neutered not bred and if they ever run out of bears needing help they would happily close, mission accomplished. If a billionaire gave them enough money to mean the need for tourist donations was gone, they would likely close their doors so the bears never had to see a tourist again. As it is, the sanctuary does the very best for the bears that it possibly can.
If you ever plan to visit Romania (when the current world crisis has passed and we are all able to travel again!) I highly recommend it but most of all I hope people will visit the sanctuary, support their cause, donate, ‘adopt’ a bear, watch their live camera feed online… even if you don’t visit Romania much of this is possible from the comfort of your own home so long as you have an internet connection and a warm heart.
I know that with the way things currently stand in the world and the crisis we are going through this year, a lot of people are comparing themselves to caged animals. They have no idea. Not really. But we do all miss freedom and safety. In that we are all alike.
Back in January (2020) Greg and I had finished editing our Turkish adventure (which you can watch here) and were pondering where to go for our next episode. We bounced ideas back and forth, all of which had merit, but when Greg suggested Romania and a film about Dracula, all the other places were instantly filed away in the back of my mind for later. Romania had my full attention (and if you want to watch our travel adventure video before reading on, you can do that here).
The country occurred to Greg because he knows I enjoy my fictional books and have a hoard of fantasy books, many of which indulge in mythological creatures of all types. I know a lot of teenagers go through that stage and I think I started younger than most! I remember when I was at primary school, we had a day where you could take a favourite toy into school with you and I chose to take my deck of tarot cards with me, passed down from my mother’s youth.
My childhood reputation amongst my class as a witch and then, due to my pale skin and long, dark hair, a vampire, was born. I didn’t mind, though my mum was quite shocked when the class bully took one look at her, went a shade of white and ran in the opposite direction when she was waiting in the playground at the end of the day to collect me. Even back then I had a creative imagination and hinted at what the mother of a vampire witch might do to naughty, tasty children.
Much to my Nan’s discomfort, my Mum understood my fascination and indulged me. My collection not only of fantasy fiction but particularly reference books relating to myths, legends and their origins. I loved history and became intrigued with old religions, their beliefs, gods and monsters. My collection of not only books but ornaments, models and decorations grew over the years too. It amused me when I met my sister-in-law, a golden blonde with a love of Disney collectables, me standing beside her with my pale skin and dark hair and my collection of swords, statues and pewter dragons back home. Then you add Greg beside me and I have my hairy, werewolf companion!
This interest has never waned and my enjoyment of fantasy fiction remains strong too. My favourite writer, Karen Chance, features some genuine historical figures in the fantasy world she has created and I love that combination. It was the fact that Karen Chance features Dracula and his brothers in her series which inspired Greg to suggest Romania and Dracula’s Castle.
While Greg’s mind jumped to Bram Stoker’s famous novel, ‘Dracula’, my mind instantly went to the arguable origin of that book and Vlad the Impaler. Thus our documentary title was decided – ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’.
Greg would take me in search of the fictional Vampiric Dracula while I would search for the Wallachian Warlord, Vlad Dracula.
I must admit I confused my best friend when I was talking about Vlad. There are many variations to his name, and he has a number of different titles.
Sometimes he is referred to as Vlad Dracula or Vlad III of Wallachia. He is also known as Vlad the Impaler – in Romanian that is Vlad Tepes – while to the Ottomans it was Kazikli Voyvoda, meaning ‘Impaler Lord’. I am aware I switch between all of these names for him throughout the documentary and it can cause confusion.
Over ten years ago I first read a book called ‘Vlad: The Last Confession,’ a novel by C.C Humphreys. This was a historical adventure novel and the author did much research into Vlad Dracula, including much of what he learned in the story to create a realistic feel for this historical ruler (if you’d like to read the book, it is available here).
The thought of doing our own research into Vlad Dracula and walking in his actual footsteps had me so excited that we booked our flights to Romania that very night!
Vlad Dracula is a controversial figure, and that is probably putting it mildly. I will explain…
Vlad was born in 1428 in the town of Sighisoara. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad ll of Wallachia (Yes, I know that his father having the same name also doesn’t help with the confusion and it is about to get worse!)
His father, Vlad ll of Wallachia became a member of a chilveric order known as ‘The Order of the Dragon’ in 1431. Thus he became known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon. He, like his son, had a complicated reign and was Voivode aka ruler of Wallachia from 1436- 1442 and again from 1443-1447. With me so far? Good.
Now, Vlad the Dragon (our Dracula’s father) had three legitimate sons, Mircea ll, Vlad Tepes (our Dracula) and Radu the Handsome.
Being ruler of Wallachia always seemed to require help and originally Vlad the Dragon seized the throne with Hungarian support. After the death of the Hungarian ruler, Hungary’s position weakened, resulting in Vlad the Dragon having to pay homage to Murad ll, the Ottoman ruler. It all gets rather involved, convoluted and complicated at this point, and if I am not careful I go off on a tangent about all the other rulers too. There were invasions and power struggles between various lands, some of which now make up the country of Romania.
All of this affects our Dracula as his father basically got caught in the middle of a power struggle between the ruler of Transylvania and the Sultan. Vlad the Dragon was captured in 1442 by the Sultan and later released, but our Dracula and his younger brother, Radu, remained with the Sultan as hostages to ensure Vlad the Dragon’s loyalty. Meanwhile the oldest brother, Mircea, remained in Wallachia as the heir.
Mircea ruled Wallachia in his father’s absence and was also caught in the conflicts between the Ottoman Sultan and the ruler of Hungary. In the end he only lived to the age of 19, only ruling for three months from September to December, 1442. He was actually captured by his own boyars from Targoviste who blinded him with a hot poker and buried him alive. His father, Vlad the Dragon, was captured and killed shortly thereafter. A sad state of affairs for Mircea and The Dragon.
Meanwhile Vlad III (our ‘Dracula’, meaning son of the Dragon) and Radu were also having a difficult time. It is said that so long as their father remained loyal to the Sultan, the boys were taught and well looked after. They were educated in logic, the Quran, the Turkish and Persian languages and literature. Radu also became friends with the Sultan’s son, Mehmed ll.
Once their father’s loyalty moved away from the Sultan, things changed for the hostage princes. There are rumors of torture and brain washing. Radu converted and became a puppet for the Ottomans, while Dracula resisted and was treated accordingly.
With Vlad the Dragon and his eldest son dead, the ruler of Hungary invaded Wallachia in 1447 and installed Vlad’s second cousin, Vladislav ll, as the new Voivode (I know – too many Vlads, too many Dracul/ Draculas and now a Vladislav too!).
Hungary then launched a military campaign against the Ottomans alongside Vladislav. It gets complicated again now, with our Dracula sneaking into Wallachia in Vladislav’s absence (and with Ottoman support), then being forced to flee when Vladislav returned. There was much moving around for Dracula until relations between Hungary and Vladislav deteriorated. In 1456 Dracula gained Hungary’s support and invaded Wallachia, killing Vladislav and retaking what he felt was his rightful place as ruler of Wallachia.
As I said, all rather messy and complicated. However, so far our Dracula has only been known as Vlad Dracula- the son of Vlad the Dragon. This is about to change.
Dracula is now in charge of Wallachia and he knows it was his own boyars who killed his brother and father. He has also seen and learnt some unpleasant things from his time as a hostage. Things such as torture methods… and impaling in particular. He began a purge among the boyars, as well as plundering the Saxon villages as they had supported his opponents (Vladislav’s brothers as well as Dracula’s own illegitimate half brother, Vlad the Monk!). His enemies were impaled. Peace was restored in 1460 and with it we have his new names: Vlad Tepes and Kazikli Voyvoda.
Vlad the Impaler had arrived.
Now we have Vlad the Impaler in charge of Wallachia and a new Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed ll. When the new Sultan ordered The Impaler to pay homage to him, Vlad instead captured the Sultan’s two envoys and impaled them. Dracula had not forgotten what was done to him or his younger brother during their time in Ottoman hands and the conflict his family was dragged into.
In February 1446, Vlad the Impaler attacked Ottoman territory and massacred tens of thousands of Turks and Bulgarians. The new Sultan tried to replace Vlad with his younger brother, the Sultan’s puppet, his beloved Radu the Handsome. Many Wallachians switched allegiance from The Impaler to his brother as Radu promised the surviving boyars that he would restore their privileges and promised that defectors from his brother’s camp would not be punished. Radu preached of lasting peace and a gentle reign with no revenge for any past wrongdoings. He approached the Saxon villages punished by his brother, converting them with talk of advantageous trade regulations.
Once the Ottomans secured Radu’s place as the new ruler of Wallachia he chased his brother, The Impaler, to his mountain stronghold in Poenari Fortress.
In desperation in 1462 The Impaler fled to the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus) for help, but Corvinus had him imprisoned on what were likely false charges of collusion with the Sultan. It is said that there were incriminating letters found, but these are believed to be a forgery by Corvinus himself.
The Impaler was held in captivity from 1463-1475. Stories of his brutality spread in Germany and Italy. The neighboring Moldavian ruler requested his release in 1475 and he was allowed to fight in Corvinus’s army against the Ottomans.
Radu (thanks to Sultan Mehmed ll) was ruler of Wallachia on and off for thirteen years (1462-1475) and by the time Vlad the Impaler was ready to try again to reclaim rule over Wallachia, Radu had been dethroned by another- Basarab Laiota.
Radu was born in 1437/ 1439 and died in 1475. (Aged 36/37)
With the help of Hungarian and Moldavian troops, Vlad the Impaler forced Basarab Laiota to flee but he soon returned with Ottoman support. Vlad the Impaler was killed in battle in January 1477.
To our knowledge Dracula was born in 1428 and he died in 1477. (Aged 49)
He ruled for one month (October-November) in 1448. His second reign was from April 15th 1456- July 1462. His third and final reign started in 1476 and ended with his death in 1477.
Thanks to the new invention of the printing press, books describing Vlad’s cruelty were among the first best-sellers in German-speaking territories. These tales spread to Russia and were even adopted by Romanian historians in the 19th century. This was largely the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’.
Despite all of this he is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. A ruler who looked after the people rather than making the rich boyars richer. A ruler who protected the people from invaders and was such a strong ruler, theft and aggression disappeared from Wallachia while under his rule.
During our time in Romania and throughout all of our research we were constantly faced with these conflicting impressions of this Wallachian Voivode. Facts were hard to find as so much was propaganda by his enemies or wistful stories from his supporters. At the end of the day I decided that there is no black and white, pure good or pure evil. Vlad Dracula, The Impaler lived in a time so unlike my own that I cannot judge his actions or fully comprehend his reasons. I will always be fascinated by him and enjoyed my time in Romania, walking in his footsteps. All I think it is safe to say is that he was a hugely important figure in the history of a beautiful country which he dearly loved.
Thanks for reading, I hope it wasn’t all too confusing!
This blog post, while mentioning one of our travels, is not a ‘travel blog’. It is something about the other part of my life, something which I felt the need to write and share, and something which didn’t seem to fit anywhere else…
I never used a wand when performing magic shows – I wasn’t that kind of magician. For as long as I can remember, performing magic, I worked on a simple theory and style of performance:
“The audience know I am using tricks. I know I am using tricks. Why not just admit that I am using tricks?”
This led to my persona when performing magic – I was a trickster, I was playing a game with you. My greatest joy performing magic was when I managed to leave you entertained and befuddled by what I knew to be a simple secret and a big risk taken on stage, to know that you had entered my game and I had ‘won’. Not, I should be clear, in an adversarial kind of way – my ‘victory’ only had meaning to me if it brought you joy – but it was a game clearly laid out at the start. I would usually admit in my patter towards the start of the show that ‘I’m going to keep lying to you all evening, it’s basically my job’.
Then, last year, things started to change. There was a big upheaval behind the scenes in my personal life (don’t worry, everyone is fine!) which left me for a few months in quite a difficult place psychologically. During this time a change started to come over my performing style, and my attitude, with one really odd symptom.
I stopped caring about applause.
This is an odd thing for a performer like me to say. As someone who is used to doing large outdoor shows the sound of applause was a great way to know I had done a good job, entertained a crowd. In the state of mind I was in, however, that suddenly felt a little bit hollow.
You see, false modesty aside, I know I am good at my job. In the situation where my job is to gather a big crowd, entertain them and gather applause at the end, I can do that. I have learnt over the course of more than a decade doing that kind of show how to build to an ‘applause cue’, to offer up subtle body language and ways of speaking that lead to applause. This sounds more cynical that it is – this wasn’t a planned and measured thing, it was something which naturally developed, but I knew it was there. I enjoyed the big shows, and I enjoyed the applause which meant I had done my job.
Suddenly, however, as I say, that was gone. I could still perform, and I could still get the applause, but now it felt empty. There was a crowd who enjoyed what I was doing, but I wasn’t feeling connected to them like I had before. Something had changed.
Between my bigger shows, I usually performed odd bits of magic here and there. As the applause seemed less important to me, however, I began doing more and more of the close-up magic, one on one, in what would normally be my breaks. It also became less and less about playing a game, about trickery, and more and more about finding a moment of ‘magic’. Finding a genuine connection with someone, and seeing a moment of awe – just a tiny moment where they forgot that we both knew it was a trick, and for a fleeting moment they lived in a world of pure magic again- flash across their face. That suddenly became the meaning in performing magic to me, and began to inform the way I performed more and more.
Fast forward to March this year. Felicity and I were in Whitby, a few days before the lockdown started in the UK. My friends in Italy were already in lockdown, and we were all getting daily reports of a growing death toll across the world.
From a more selfish point of view, I had just had my first show officially cancel, but the writing was on the wall – I could see that my shows would be cancelled for months to come, and my career and financial outlook were bleak in the foreseeable future, and I knew that many people would be facing similar prospects. Pandemic and recession were looming over us all.
Yet I was there, in the sunshine, with the most truly magical thing that has ever happened in my life, Felicity (in fact it was a running joke at our wedding two years ago that I had never performed a greater piece of magic than getting Felicity to marry me).
I told Felicity that weekend in Whitby that I didn’t want to ‘get through’ the next few months, I wanted us to come out in some way better that we went in. A big goal considering what the world was facing, and still is, but one which has helped me a lot more than just trying to get through.
I also wanted something else, and Felicity agreed that we would find the right one in one of the shops in town and that she would buy it for me.
It was time for me to get a magic wand.
The magic of Felicity, and the little reminders of magic in the faces of people as I had performed close up for them, had got me through hard times the previous year. I knew that going forward into what was to come that people wouldn’t need a ‘trickster’, and they wouldn’t need me to tell them that I’m going to ‘lie to them all evening, it’s basically my job”.
But they just might need a few magical moments. A few child-like seconds where the world is alive with possibilities, hopes and dreams. Felicity bought me a magic wand that day, in a little shop which also contained a number of mermaids, a good omen for us, and it felt right.
I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know if one day the wand will be put on display and I will return to being a ‘trickster’ again. Right now I simply know that what I need, and what a lot of other people need, is a little bit magic in their lives. So for as long as it feels right, I will perform ‘magic’, and I will wave my magic wand, and see if we can all share some magical moments together!
If you’d like to see some of my magic, you can see my ‘(Almost) Live’ show on Sunday at 3pm here.
If you would like to support my magic and keep me going, you can ‘drop a few coins in my hat’ at www.ko-fi.com/greg. Thank you to everyone who can support us in this way.
Stay safe, and, to borrow a phrase, ‘Stay Alert’ for the magical moments all around us.
Hasn’t the world changed since I last sat down to write one of my blog posts?! Many of us are now in various levels of isolation and lockdown – and Felicity and I both wish you all well, and hope that you and yours are managing to stay safe!
On to happier things – since we last wrote we have also released a new travel adventure video with a lot of history included all about Romania, and our attempts to find ‘Dracula’s Castle’, dealing with both the fictional Count Dracula, and the Wallachian warlord Vlad the Impaler. It was an amazing journey, and will be the subject of future blog posts – but in the meantime you can watch the video here! For now, however, I must finally finish up our three-part blog post on Calakmul, and our first travel adventure video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’!
It seems a long way from not leaving our house at the moment, to being halfway around the world last March, deep in the jungle, and headed deeper towards the Mayan ruins at Calakmul. Isolation is a word that applies to both situations, but there was a real beauty in the isolation that we found in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and particularly when we arrived with our guide to the entrance of the site and went in.
The three of us probably accounted for about a third of the people in the site for most of the time we were there – a far cry from the fifty thousand people who would have called the vast city their home at its peak! This was truly reclaimed by the jungle – only three structures breached the canopy of trees and when sat atop them, it was a sea of green as far as the eye could see. In fact, after the city had dwindled and was finally abandoned in the 10th Century, it was so thoroughly overwhelmed by jungle that it took the invention of flight before, in December 1931, the site was rediscovered from the air when these temple tops were spotted.
What added to the magic for me was that from the ground the centre of the city is still remarkably well preserved.
Here you can see some of the genius of the Mayan culture at its very finest – there are pairs of temples on opposite sides of one square which align with the sun on the solstice and equinox, and other buildings built to line up with the movements of planets. The feel is that there is no random building going on here – the city, and especially the city centre, was a planned layout which joined together to create an intricate whole. At least, that is how it appears when you look at the significant astronomical markers like the solstice. A few of them where the line of planets and dates seem a little more random do make you wonder whether sometimes a combination of archaeologists and tour guides may just have wanted to find intricate connections a little too much and are stretching them just a little bit. The people here at Calakmul were clearly very advanced in their use of astronomy and their charting of stars and planets, and they were clearly very skilled at charting these in such a way that two connected perfectly. Some of the buildings, however, I would dare to suggest, just may have been put in locations without necessarily taking into account where Neptune and Jupiter on the third full moon after the sun shone through the left temple after midday … you get the idea!
When we set off to climb up the first of our three temples that day our guide, who had been there many times before, wisely opted to head for the shade and wait for us to return. We would later find out that after our early start into the jungle with him leading us on our animal trek, and then the long drive into the site, he would then return to the hotel with us before he set off for his other job, donning full protective gear in the heat and going to work as a beekeeper! Suddenly I felt quite feeble for having struggled so much in the heat when the air-conditioning had packed up for a couple of hours in the cabin the day before (if you haven’t done so already, you can read about that here).
For this couple from England, climbing those pyramids in over 32 degrees with the suns rays on us was hard work. The steps are all a lot steeper than you might expect, and we had spent most of the last fortnight climbing up and down similar steps all across the county. We had been taught to climb on a slight diagonal to protect our knees, but I think it is fair to say that, although we would miss being among the temples, we were both looking forward to bidding farewell to the temple steps for a while – at least until our legs had been given a rest.
When we reached through the tree line and stood atop the first temple we looked out over the treetops and saw another temple rising above us. It was the most ‘Indiana Jones’ that I think I had felt in the entire time we had spent in Mexico – we had been edging closer and closer to it and here we were, atop one temple hidden in the trees, and looking out at another temple rising above us and aiming to get to it. Once we had our breath back we went back down to the courtyard, and worked our way through the trees towards the second temple.
As we went along our guide made us particularly jealous as he explained that he had been inside this temple, known simply as ‘Structure II’. This is particularly impressive as this is the highest and largest pyramid yet discovered in the Mayan world, and is currently sealed off. He only managed to see inside as he was part of the team working there to excavate the site, which has had two excavations since the turn of the century – one in 2005 and one in 2008. When he told us, the idea of going into those temples immediately struck me as an incredible experience to have. Since we were lucky enough to get a look ‘behind the curtains’ at the dig on a Greek site at Laodicea (see our Turkey travel adventure video here for details on that one), I can’t even begin to imagine how special it must have been to be one of the few who had the opportunity to explore inside the pyramids!
We made our way up past the stelae (large inscribed stones), of which there are 117 in total around the site, although many of these are so warn by time and weather that the information which they were built to preserve has long since been lost.
Finally we made it to the top, and once again looked out above the trees. We could see the slightly lower pyramid which we had stood on last, and one more we had yet to climb. We paused there, high above the ruins, high above the Mayan city, and tried to picture for a moment a city below us, the trees cleared, fifty thousand people living their lives beneath us. To imagine the people leaving as the city dried up, to imagine the first trees starting to take route among the buildings left behind. The rains returning, the water rolling over the stelae which such care had gone into making, washing away the writing and images which had been recorded there. Finally the trees covering the site, wildlife running freely through the ruins as they fell silent but for the sound of the animals and the breeze in the trees.
Finally the sound of a plane flying overhead in 1931, and the first people returning to the site to discover a monument to a great city which had stretched too far, and ultimately disappeared – not with a dramatic clash of swords and annihilation, but with a slow fade into history.
All of these images and thoughts were what flashed through my mind as we stood atop that pyramid, which left room in my head a short while later as we sat atop our final pyramid for a moment of reflection on our journey so far.
The Mayan stage of our adventure had been truly incredible. There was a real tinge of sadness that this was the last time we’d be standing atop a Mayan pyramid, certainly for the foreseeable future. As I said at the time, however, if one has to have a last Mayan pyramid to stand on (or indeed a last Mayan ruin to visit), then Calakmul is a wonderful choice!
We’ll be back next week with our first blog about our Romanian travels, but for now thanks for reading, and stay safe!
Calakmul was a very special place. Hopefully by now you’ll have read about our incredible jungle cabin accommodation in Greg’s last blog post (read it here if not) and in the next blog post you will be able to read about the unique Calakmul ruins. Once again I’m here to talk about some wildlife.
As our accommodation was in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, we could listen to the birds and, on occasion, howler monkeys in the distance from the comfort of our bed or hammock, protected from the insects by mosquito net walls.
When booking a guided tour (through our accommodation) for the Calakmul Archaeological Zone we saw that they also offer a guided tour through a section of the jungle to attempt to spot some wildlife. Naturally we jumped at this chance.
This lead to a 4:30am wake up call as our guide met us at the hotel reception at 5:30 and we were pleased to find that he was fairly fluent in English. He hopped into the back of our car and we set off on a 40 minute drive deeper into the jungle.
Our first stop was at a ‘car park’ aka a gravel ditch type space at the side of the road, from which a jungle trail led us away from the road and through the trees.
We soon spotted the rather vocal howler monkeys and, by comparison, beautifully dainty spider monkeys. (If you have never heard a howler monkey before, check out our video HERE – their call is rather distinctive!).
We also saw white-chested parrots, olive-chested parrots, lorikeets, and other similar species of birds whose names I can’t recall. There was also a roadside hawk perched in one tree giving us a bored look as we passed by.
Amongst the trees we saw a flash of white, which was actually the aptly named white tailed deer. We also saw male and female curassows running through the brush (these are large birds, once eaten by the Maya. They are a bit like over-sized, exotic looking pheasants).
Next we made a stop at a drying up swamp area which was home to lots of baby crocodiles and, apparently, the considerably larger mother who (thankfully!) remained buried amongst tree roots and mud.
At one point our guide climbed around the tree to see if it was possible to see the mother in her tree-root den. This put him between the baby infested swamp and the den itself making us somewhat nervous – what if the mother didn’t like anyone between her and her babies!? The guide assured us she has never attacked anyone… yet! Suffice to say Greg and I passed up on his offer to get any closer and try to see her for ourselves, I’ve seen enough nature documentaries, not to mention the film Crocodile Dundee!
On our walk along the road back to our car I spotted an Agouti, the same creature I had spotted in the grounds of our hotel when staying in Palenque. Agouti, or Sereque as they are known in Mexico, are related to guinea pigs and have a similar face but a larger body and much longer legs. I know some people keep them as exotic pets but I always enjoy seeing animals in the wild, even if it’s just rabbits or guinea pig related creatures like these.
We went from our jungle walk to the Archaeological Zone and during our hour plus drive to the Calakmul Ruins along ‘roads’, with more potholes and craters than actual road (it became a bit of a game, with our guide trying to tell us which holes to avoid (and when it was just impossible to avoid them), and which side of the road to drive on so as best to avoid blowing our tyres! Apparently many people get the guide to drive their car as the road is too stressful for them. As you can imagine, this was not the case with Greg who quite enjoys a driving challenge! We also passed many wild Oscillated turkey (one of which decided to attack our car!) and even a wild boar!
The best part of the drive for me was when we stopped as a massive herd of Coati streamed through the jungle on either side of the road as well as across it. They were beautiful!
In English they are apparently known as hog-nosed coon! I can see why, as they do resemble (and are related to) raccoons and have a cute little up-turned nose. They are also double jointed like raccoons. Their ankles can rotate beyond 180° which allows them to descend a tree head first. We saw a lot of this as they flowed through the trees on either side of us. Quite fascinating to watch.
Coati are also known for their intelligence, also like raccoons. I note this in particular as it also links to my interest in spindle neurons. (If you read my blog about Whales -read HERE- you’ll have heard briefly about this) Only highly intelligent species such as humans, great apes, cetaceans and elephants have spindle neurons, but they have actually also found a lesser evolved version of these cells in raccoons. Such a rare thing, it makes me wonder quite how intelligent and emotionally diverse the raccoon and coati actually are.
If you are anything like Greg and myself, if you like the wildlife, the tranquillity, the less touristy, more organic, untouched and more adventurous versions of everything, but still welcome a bit of luxury, Calakmul is definitely a place to visit in Mexico. The accommodation, ruins, wildlife – all of it was brilliant! I highly recommend the guided tours too, although make sure you book early if you need an English speaking guide.
Our guide was clearly passionate and very knowledgeable about his subject. He actually helps the archaeologists still working in Calakmul and he adores the nature too. We told him that on our journey from Palenque to Calakmul, in the middle of the day, we had been shocked to see a small black jaguar slinking across the road (a main road!) and, unsurprised, he explained that it was a Jaguarundi.
Where I had thought it must be a young unusually dark Jaguar, our guide explained they are actually just a bit smaller than a jaguar and have a black to brown/grey coat or in the case of the eyra, a red- chestnut coat. They are also known as ‘Otter-Cats’, and are related to the puma.
They are diurnal- usually active during the day rather than at night, and while they are fine in trees they prefer to hunt on the ground.
Jaguarundis make an unusually wide range of vocalisations, including purrs, whistles, yaps, chattering sounds, and even a bird-like chirp. I wish we had spotted it in the jungle and could have perhaps witnessed some of this but the fact we saw one at all really made our day! I was happy when a toucan flew over our car, let alone when a large(-ish) wild cat crossed in front of it! Amazing!
Our guide didn’t have any pictures of the Jaguarundi but he did show us some stunning pictures of the Jaguars and puma he has managed to encounter through the years.
Our time in the jungle and at the ruins with our guide was fascinating and terrific fun. If we had known in advance to hire an off-road vehicle, there are more ruins in the jungle, even more remote and untouched than the main ones we saw – which we could have visited with him. If we have the chance to return one day, it’s on our next to do list!
On this visit though, we had one more place to visit before leaving this amazing place.
At 3:40pm Greg and I drove though the jungle, returning to the main road. A short stretch along it took us to a little car park. There was just one other car when we arrived but it filled up (about 30 people in total) as we all waited for the sun to set.
A short walk through the jungle took us all to a dried up sink hole cavernous pit with a recessed cave area. In the cave, called Zots Cave, live bats. When we arrived we could see one or two had ventured out of the cave and were circling the pit in front of it.
While we waited for the rest of the bats to emerge we spotted that, feeding from the tree right in front of us, overhanging the sink hole pit, were Emerald hummingbirds. Maybe ten or so.
Hard to film, they are incredibly fast, though we got some good footage in the end. As warm up acts go, they were rather fantastic. So unexpected and delightful to watch.
To the Aztecs the hummingbird was the symbol of strength in life’s struggle to elevate consciousness—to follow your dreams.
At about 5:50 the hummingbirds flitted off and the bats came out to play. About three million of them. They circled around and around the cavern, up into the sky like a funnel or vortex till they found open air and space to filter out over the jungle and away into the evening sky. It is known as ‘volcan de los murcielagos’ meaning ‘Bats volcano’ and that suits it perfectly.
I went prepared with my waterproof coat (much to Greg’s amusement- it was swelteringly hot and he thought that only a usually freezing cold person like me could stand it in such heat), and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. A few of us spectators wore our coats, in my case it was to deter the insects and mosquitoes, I suspect in many people’s cases it was to guard against bat guano (Some people also recommend covering your mouth and nose with a hanky or paper mask in case the bats stir up any cave mould. The air remained clear and odourless while we were there but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t there).
Though the bats flew above our heads, flitted around and amongst us, dark blurs that appeared to be brushing past our arms and legs, Greg and I escaped remarkably poo and bug-bite free.
After about 15 minutes of the amazing spectacle, people started to trickle away. We were the last to leave (after about 40 minutes with the bats), just before it got too dark to see the jungle path back to the car.
I’m glad we stayed as long as we did. The straggler bats flew closer and closer to us as the people left and the area opened up for them. It felt like such a privilege to see them (and the gorgeous hummingbirds!) like that.
Eight different species of bat – seven types of fruit eating bat and one insectivore – live together in this cave, one of the top three caves in the world for bat biodiversity. The part of the cenote pit we can see is dry but apparently, in the cave, there is still a trickle of water for thirsty bats.
It’s a magical place and seemingly untouched by people, but for the gravel path to reach it.
It was a special evening and the perfect way to end the Mayan/ Aztec/ jungle part of our Mexico adventure before moving on to the marine part.