Serbian village stakes out its own vampire claim

The leering visage of a gap-toothed man with blood dripping down his stubbly chin is an unusual lure for tourists, but in this tiny Serbian hamlet of Zarozje, locals are hoping a resurrected vampire legend will let them bleed a little cash from passing visitors.

Anyone entering the poor mountainous village in eastern Serbia, which lies near the Bosnian border, is greeted by a billboard warning visitors they are entering the "land of the first Serbian vampire", known locally as Sava Savanovic.

Accompanying the warning is a rather clumsy illustration of a man dressed in traditional folk clothes, bearing his fangs as beads of blood dribble onto his chin.

Former local councilman Miodrag Jovetic, 67, has been trying for years to entice tourists to this town of about 1,000 people and drum up custom for local businesses -- including his own petrol station and bistro.

He recently sent out an alert that a roof of the Sava mill, hidden in a dark valley on the bank of a river, had collapsed, leaving its wicked vampire occupant homeless.

He omitted the fact that the roof collapsed last winter.

The warning quickly took on a life of its own. First, local tabloids jumped on the story, followed by foreign media.

Many eagerly quoted Jovetic's supposed municipal order, telling villagers to stock their homes with garlic and carry a wooden cross -- well-known talismans against night-stalking blood drinkers.

"It is only a custom we have inherited from our ancestors that I mentioned. People here are religious, everyone has a wooden cross, while we all plant garlic," Jovetic said.

Milun Prokic, Jovetic's successor at the helm of the village, stresses the local council never issued a decree calling people to buy garlic to protect themselves.

Legend has it that Sava, who cut an imposing figure of more than six feet, six inches, lived alone in his mill and turned into a vampire after his death. Nobody is quite sure of the date.

Ever since, the story goes, anyone who spent the night at the mill met an eery fate.

Defending his tale, Jovetic said the mill should be repaired without delay so as not to anger any unseen forces.

We should have repaired it long time ago. It is better not to defy fate," he said.

Locals in Zarozje have no Internet access, but when they heard of the media reports about panic in their hamlet and runs on garlic supplies, they howled with laughter.

"We should keep the legend alive and, if necessary, spice it up with a tiny white lie to make it a talk of the town," villager Slobodan Jagodic said, while pulling garlic cloves from his pocket.

"It is hilarious! We all plant garlic, we all have it and we have always hung it from the ceiling, under the roof," said another villager, Nikola Jovanovic.

Serbia's Tourist Office has backed off from officially supporting the initiative of Zarozje's villagers, saying it did not "believe this kind of mythology should be" used for official promotion, spokeswoman Danijela Vlatkovic said.

In the traditional Balkans, legends of evil spirits are common and almost every country has its own vampire, dating back as far as the 14th century, US expert on Balkans history James Lyon says.

But he highlights key differences between the Balkan myths and the toothy protagonists of Hollywood blockbusters.

"The vampires in Slavic culture are not sparkling vampires like in (the movie) 'Twilight'. They are not potential boyfriends," like Edward Cullen from Stephanie Meyer's vampire saga, Lyon said.

"If a vampire bites you, you do not become one, you just die," Lyon said.

The undisputed champion among the region's vampires is of course Romania's Count Dracula from Transylvania, whose worldwide reputation was boosted by Irish writer Bram Stokers novels and, inevitably, by the silver screen.

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