Sunday, September 26, 2010

Movie Idea

Hello everyone, I am in Cajarmarca, Peru, and I've just had an interesting idea for a movie. See what you think.

Here’s the first scene.


A cold wind is blowing from the Polish forests. Another trainload of European Jewry has arrived at the grim and brooding portals of Auschwitz Two.

The train, steaming in the snowy wind, pulls to a halt. Crowds of Hungarian Jews are quickly forced from the cattletrucks. Women are weeping, children wailing. The bedraggled men stare up the tracks in despair.

The Germans are waiting. Fierce dogs bark at the frightened prisoners. Gestapo officers shout Schnell!! Schnell!! Schnell!!

Now the Jews are being forced along the platform, down a cold grey slope, and into a strange darkened chamber. The crying and howling increases, the hysteria is unbearable.

They are packed inside the chamber. A metal door slams behind them. The last lights go out and the chamber is pitch black.

Suddenly the lights go on again - and they’re disco lights! Red and yellow lights, complete with spinning disco mirror ball, flash and strobe across the room.

The Jewry realise that they are in a cleverly concealed underground disco! A smiling SS commandant is on the decks, spinning some discs - rap and trance, drum n bass, maybe some old skool sounds. The delighted Jews begin to shuffle, then they start boogying.

A previously terrified rabbi from Lodz starts breakdancing in the middle of the dancefloor. Several goldsmiths from Buda blow their rave whistles and perform The Hustle.

The dancing concludes. A genial Ukrainian guards explains to the Jews that they are part of Hitler’s “Vinyl Solution” - a daring but secret bid to unite all of Europe under the banner of disco grooves and the Balearic beat.

I am open to any interest from Hollywood producers.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Toffeewomble Redux

Is this the weirdest church in the world? Quite possibly. It's a church made out of dolmens, in remote St Dinis, central Portugal - which I visited last month.

Why am I posting this superb photo by myself? No reason - other than to celebrate Ye Offycialle Toffeewomble Refurb.

Is there anything more to add? No! But I hope to be posting a few more photos very shortly, and generally synching my blog, website, and twitterstream in an exciting and almost sexual way, from now on.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Window, Majorca

So I went to Palma Majorca to do an article last week. Here is an interior shot of Palma cathedral; the sun was streaming through the modernist rose windows, scattering light, as you can see.

OK, not the most exciting blogpost in history, but I've been busy as F: I'm writing the third Tom Knox thriller. Hence no blogs for a while.

More anon. Hasta la V.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

A Poem I Wrote. On Twitter

Regent's Park, today

So I was walking in my local park, Regent's Park, this afternoon. It was a beautiful Spring day and I took the photo of the fountain, above, and I also composed a poem in bits, which I posted on Twitter, as I walked.

Here it is, slightly polished. My twitter poem. Maybe it will be the first in a new genre, or, then again, maybe not.

The Cycle of Rebirth in Regent's Park

Suddenly. In sunlit Regents Park,
A blaze of purple crocuses.
Like a busload of kids in school uniform
No longer afraid of the dark.

The park is full of girls, as well
Russian, Spanish, royal Khmer,
Tartan miniskirted; Japanese
Like unexpected, visiting divinities.

The pure apsaras of Primrose Hill,
Devatas of Delancey Street
Rusalki, sea-nymphs, nereids,
The sirens of St Katherine's Gate.

Young women are always young,
They make death look quite forlorn.
If this is samsara, in old Marylebone
Then amongst these girls you smile: reborn.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

It's here!!!!

Yes, it's here!!

Play the trumpets of joy!

Toot the horns of jubilation!

Parp the cornets of gladness and delight!

Run your fingers up and down the xylophone of general euphoria!

Take out the moog synthesizer, plug it in, stare at in confusion, then vaguely fiddle with some knobs and finally produce a thin eerie squeal of unbounded happiness!

My new website is LIVE.

Yes, is up and running.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Road Untravelled: Laos

I haven’t done a Toffeewomble photo essay in a while, so here’s a new one, describing the weekend I just had, and from which I am now recovering.

You can click on the photos to get the detail, they are quite high-res.

What I Did This Weekend in Laos

So it’s Friday and I’m driving through the remote Asian country of Laos, to one of the remoter parts OF Laos: the so-called Plain of Jars. This plateau in the rugged centre of the country is famous for two things.

Firstly, strange and large Neolithic jars, carved from single boulders, that are scattered around the meadows near the provincial capital of Phonsavanh. The jars date from maybe 2000BC, maybe later - no one is quite sure. Absolutely no one has any idea why the jars were fashioned.

The second reason this sequestered part of a sequestered land is famous is because of bombs. To put it bluntly.

Per head of population, tiny impoverished Laos is the most bombed country on earth. Some of these bombs were dropped by Russia, China, and Vietnam; the vast majority were dropped by the Americans. Between the mid 60s and the mid 70s the Americans spent $2m A DAY, every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - bombing Laos. The Yanks dropped more bombs on Laos than they dropped in the entire second world war on Japan and Germany combined.

And most of these bombs fell on the Plain of Jars, which is why the local peasants now use shell cases and old mortars as gateposts. Or flower pots, or pillars in rice barns.

The bombs – especially the millions of cluster bombs, “bombies” – kill hundreds of Laotians every year: even now. A walk in this countryside can very easily be lethal.

The bombingness of the Plain of Jars adds to its mystery, its air of troubled menace. As I drive along the horrible roads, I am starting to regret the fact I left backpackery Vang Vieng, where my hotel room had precisely this view.

The place I am headed is much colder, higher, darker, foggier.

Night is falling and some of the people here are so poor they don’t have running water, let alone electricity. So they have to wash in gutters, or from parish pumps. Also, they don’t have chimneys in their wooden huts - so to keep themselves warm they light fires outside.

It’s thus a Dantean scene as I cross the darkling plateau. The flat and lethal countryside is twilit and smoky and speckled with thousands of tiny fires, occasionally I glimpse a half naked crone, garishly lit by red flames, bathing herself at the roadside. It could be a Hieronymous Bosch painting, but hard to capture on camera: so here are some more bombs.

The yellow ones are the bombies. Laotian children think they look cute - like toys - so they pick them up when they seem them in the maize fields. And they lose a hand, or an arm.

In the morning I go into town and take in the market. I like Asian markets, the exotic foods in particular. This one is a doozy: you can have rat. Porcupine. Dried rat. Living guinea pig. More rats. Fermented swallows. Insect grubs. Toads. Polecat. And hornets pickled in vinegar.

As I wander the market, I am offered a big fat juicy bee larva by the friendly bee man. Once he has scraped off the wax and bee exudation and bits of hive he hands it over. I take the little bee larva, and eat it. It is cold and squidgy.

I head for the main street to buy a bucket so I can puke. But the first thing I see is a girl in a black and white turban. Then I see another. And another. There are girls in white stilettos and the most outrageous hats wearing costumes that jingle with silver piastres on strings.


A quick visit to the Museum of Unexploded Ordnance tells me why: the helpful man there explains that these are Hmong women – the Hmong are an ethnic minority, possibly immigrated from Yunnan or Tibet, or (some say) Lappland, now scattered across northern Indochina.

They are animist and highly traditional. They are also fiercely independent, even now some of them are still in the mountains near here, refusing to surrender to the communist Laotian government – three decades after the end of the Vietnam war.

And, it seems, this is their Lunar New Year, a chance for all the Hmong in the world to wear their finery and party on down.

The man directs me to a disused airfield at the edge of town – “you’ll see a few more of them there”. No kidding. Five minutes in the car and I find there are fifty thousand Hmong gathered, in a big big space with lots of tents and fairground rides and impromptu dried rat restaurants, enjoying the biggest weekend of their calendar. There are no westerners apart from me. In fact there are no non-Hmong apart from me. The girls are fabulously overdressed.

I notice many of them are playing a strange and boring game: lobbing tennis balls at each other. There are long lines of girls and boys, slowly, laboriously, chucking tennis balls at each other. That’s it. How exciting is that? No wonder they look forward to their big New Year knees-up, when they get the chance to slowly toss a Chinese-made tennis ball at someone else, for seventeen hours.

I’ve had enough Hmong, now it's time to see the jars (I’m gonna speed up the narrative here cause I’m bored so you must be too). I jump in a car and rattle along horrible roads to "Jar Site 1". It turns out the jars are sombre, dignified, large, enigmatic, and slightly dull.

I like them. And yes that's me by the jars, just to prove I made it.

Another hour brings me to Jar Site 3. There are only 3 jar sites you are allowed to visit because the rest are all too dangerous, because of unexploded bombies. Thanks, Uncle Sam. Here’s a photo of a man taking a photo of a bomb crater at Jar Site 1.

Even at the designated jar sites you have to tread carefully between small blocks marked MAG – Mines Advisory Group; step over the blocks and ka-boom. Possibly.

Jar Site 3 is the most remote and the prettiest. I nearly get lost on the dirt roads home but the views are serene.

When I hit town I unearth an old book about the Hmong.

Ah. It turns out the boring tennis ball game is in fact... a mating ritual. This is how the Hmong choose their husbands and wives: there are ways of catching a ball and/or deliberately dropping it and then singing a song which all means, apparently, you have accepted the marital overtures of the person chucking the ball at you.

Sweet. No wonder they are taking their time over it all.

So, where was I? Getting lost. Yes.

The fact I nearly get lost on the way back from Jar Site 3 should maybe provide me with a warning but, fuck it, next day I decide to drive back to lovely warm not-so-weird Vang Vieng on a more “adventurous” route. My Lonely Planet guide to Laos deliciously claims there is an eastwards loop to Vieng from Phonsavanh, “but we haven't tried this route yet”.

I always like to try something that the Lonely Planet people have been too pussy to attempt themselves. So this it. I’m going to take the back route home. It looks like it should take five hours or so, judging by the map.

All begins well. The roads are dirty and rubbled but I am in a four-by-four. I feel intrepid but safe. The countyside is gorgeous. The sun is out. Hmong people are standing in fields playing their tennis ball mating game.

Look: that guy playing the game has got a crash helmet on, maybe he expects to get balls HURLED at him.

Then the road deteriorates. Then it deteriorates further. The hours pass. I experience fog, dust, traffic jams of loggers trucks, and washouts.

The countryside is staggeringly remote. Here are three children carrying wickerwork baskets home to their Hmong village on the hill. The kids are the dots.

As I drive past, people stop to stare at me – kids and adults alike. They seem stunned, astounded, wholly gobsmacked. They gaze my way, mouths hanging open. I guess they are all Tom Knox fans, literally amazed and gratified to see that the famous thriller writer is passing through their tiny electricity-less Laotian hamlets.

Then the road ends: it is blocked by serious people making a better road (hurry up guys) – it will be closed for two hours.

As I wait here I learn several things from a friendly Laotian English teacher on a tiny motorbike. He tells me that I am going the wrong way: and have been for several hours. He tells me that I have a lot of jungle to go through to reach civilisation – he adds that the road is ”quite dirty”.

He also explains the faces of the villagers. “They have never seen a foreigner before, ever”.

That’s quite something. How many places in the world can you still get that experience? So I’m not just the first slightly famous Cornish thriller writer to traverse these rugged trails, I am the first non-Hmong.

Wow. No wonder the Lonely Planet guide says this route is "untested".

It is also about to defeat me. The road finally reopens but night is falling, cold and dark and chilling, like a sickness. The jungle shivers.

Where the fuck am I going to sleep? I have hopes of the “provincial capital”, Tha-Thom, this turns out to be a series of teak-stilted shacks, and a pig.

Now I am worried. My car nearly gets stuck in deep mud. I have never driven myself really offroad before, in a 4WD – I am learning the hard way. A friendly bunch of Hmong locals in a muddy minibus help me unfuck my car. Their driver keeps insisting we should drive on “together”. As I have no fucking idea where I am, or how I’m going to get out of this mess, or where I’m going to sleep, I’m cool with the notion of collaboration. But what’s in it for them?

Over the next few hours, as total devil-black darkness descends on the misty jungle, I realise why they are keen to have me along for the journey. The “road”, such as it is, disappears altogether under THREE FEET OF MUD. At this point I forget to take photos for a while cause I am freaked, and also concentrating on Not Dying.

I have never experienced mud like this: literally waist deep in the big muddy. My car skids and veers all over the jungle, in the darkness, sometimes nearly tipping over cliff edges. But at least my brand new 4WD Ford pick-up “moves”. Their minibus is vanquished by the mud.

So I have to tow them out. Again and again. Every few hundred metres I have to chain my car to theirs and tug them free, in the blackness. Half of them jump in my car to even the load. I now have a load of giggling Hmong girls and nervous Hmong women watching a guy who has never really driven a 4WD before try and pull the minibus with their menfolk through the squidge in the darkness and the jungle at night in the mountains of one of the most remote countries in Asia.

I try not to panic. The ordeal goes on for hours - and hours. Grinding, reversing, swearing, despairing. More mud. Then another entire Hmong family emerge from the dark. What the?

Yes, that's them, packed in my car like Hmong sardines. Hmongous sardines. Hmongdines. They jump in the back of my pick-up, granny and granddad, baby and all.

I am now rescuing half of Hmong society it seems – but of course they are rescuing me, too. There is no way I would have been able to make it out of these mountains and forests alone. At night.

But are we ever going to get out? I have now been driving for twelve hours solid. TWELVE HOURS. Here’s my Hmong friend Pow, he seems cheerful despite it all.

I drink whisky to “stay awake”. The baby cries. The car complains. The chain snaps. I am rechained. The fireflies twinkle in the dark.

Without warning, the misery suddenly abates, and concludes. The road returns! The air warms. We are descending to the riverplains of the Mekong. Thank God.

At one mosquitoey dark sultry corner everyone hops off my pick-up. My friend the Hmong man Pow tells me he “loves” me. I think this is his way of saying thankyou. The girls laugh and smile and wave. The old granny salutes me. I an touched. We have been through all this together. *sob*

I drive on alone. I miss them already. At midnight I pull into a Vietnamese hotel in the seedy frontier town of Paksen, and a yawning but amiable receptionist makes me Pot Noodles. Because I haven’t eaten all day. I just forgot.

Monday morning. The sun is out. I have Bach and Moonbabies on the car stereo. The road back to Vientiane is GOOD. I feel about 120 years old, I look 156.
But who cares - I fucking did it. I DID it.

Yes, Lonely Planet people, you really can “take the eastwards loop from Phonsavan”. But if anyone out there plans to do it, I’d advise you to bring a good car, a bottle of scotch, a lot of time, and an entire Hmong family to help.

Kharb jai.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bathory Redux

[a number of readers have asked me to repost this essay, as the photos were bust for some obscure reason. Here it is, with images reinstated]

Weird stakes in the Bathory marshes.

Greetings. I'm in Asia right now, on the hunt for... babyrat wine. This is proving difficult, hence the hiatus in blogging. To make up for the lack of info, here's a longish piece I did for the Fortean Times, this winter, about my hunt for one of the most notorious murderesses in European history - Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the Tigress of the Carpathians.

The Truth About Countess Dracula

As nondescript places go, this one takes some beating. It's a muddy little town, in the corner of a forgotten swamp, a dozen miles from a remote section of the Hungarian/Romanian border. I'd guess the locals don't see many foreigners like myself: one farmer is staring at me so hard he's almost fallen off his bicycle.

But I'm not here to astonish the peasantry. I'm here to trace the lifestory of the most notorious murderess in European history. Elizabeth Bathory. A woman whose name was once so fearsome, the people of her native Hungary were banned from mentioning it for a hundred years. A woman, it is further said, who inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.

The tiny town in which I'm loitering is called Ecsed. According to historians Ecsed is where Elizabeth grew up, in the 16th century, in a large castle belonging to her illustrious family.
Yet not a trace of a castle can I find. Dowdy bungalows, yes, scruffy bus-stops, sure. But no ancient buildings. In desperation I head for the town hall, where, using my schoolboy German, I explain to a secretary what I'm seeking. 'Ah ja!' She says. ''Erzsabet Bathory!'

Soon we are joined by an amateur local historian, Zoltan, who "teaches theology and English" in the Ecsed school. We get in a car and drive past a yellow church to a concrete shed. Inside this shack I find a desultory display of stone coffins, bits of cannon, and a broken coat of arms - featuring a dragon-like creature strangled by its own tail.

Between the shed and the church is a flat swampy field. This chilly expanse of mud is, Zoltan tells me, the site of the great Bathory castle. The edifice was levelled when the Bathory family fell from grace in the 17th century. And these few dismal relics, collected in the shed, are all that remain of Elizabeth Bathory's childhood home.

There is a picture of Elizabeth Bathory on the wall of the "museum". Zoltan shakes his head.
'You know,' he says. 'They say she killed many people. But I think she was just an intelligent and independent woman - who would not kneel to men. Maybe they made up those stories to destroy her?'

Zoltan, it seems, is a Bathory Revisionist - he belongs to that school of thought which claims that Elizabeth Bathory, the infamous "Blood Countess", was really the victim of a lordly conspiracy.
This contrary perspective has been around for some time. During the 20th century it was promulgated by Hungarian scholars, keen to cleanse the national record. At the same time, a feminist perspective on Bathory has seen her as a smart and spirited woman condemned by a misogynist patriarchy. A new film, starring Anna Friel, and due out this summer, reiterates this feminist take.

Meanwhile, many writers, artists and historians have gone to the opposite extreme, citing Bathory as the quintessence of female evil. A cannibalistic lesbian who slaughtered hundreds of virgins.

They can't all be right. So my job is to sort the revisionist wheat from the hysterical chaff. And to do that I need to follow Bathory's trail across three countries.

Climbing in my car I bid goodbye to Ecsed. As I set off across the lonely marshes I go over what we already know - what is historically undisputed - about Bathory's background.

The gory tale begins in the mists of the Dark Ages, when a clan of German warriors settled in these Hungarian fenlands, between the towns of Nyirbator and Ecsed. The family was known as the Gutkeleds.

Through the medieval era the Gutkeleds distinguished themselves in various battles and repressions. As a result their name was officially changed to Bathory, which means "brave" in Hungarian. For centuries the Bathorys claimed their name was given to them because they slew the last dragon in the swamps. Hence that dragon - actually a "wyvern" - in their coat of arms.

Of course this is myth, the name probably derives from the name of the nearby town:
Nyirbator. But the conceit does reflect a violent streak in the Bathory character (a psychological flaw which might have resulted from inbreeding - the Bathorys were keen on marriages between noble relatives).

Elizabeth's uncle, for instance, was the ultra-violent Prince of Transylvania: he once roasted a rebel on a red-hot iron throne, then had the man's charred corpse force-fed to his followers. Other Bathorys were drunks and rapists, one was accused of devil-worship. Yet the Bathorys were not entirely rotten: amongst them were bishops, cardinals - even a King of Poland.

It was into this brutal but remarkable family that Elizabeth was born, in 1560. She was first raised at the ancestral manor in Nyirbator, next to the fine Calvinist church built by her Protestant great uncle.

After a few years she was moved to that Bathory estate at Ecsed, in the middle of the marshes. By the age of six she was afflicted by epileptiform seizures: perhaps a hint of the madness to come. Yet she was a very intelligent child, learning German, Greek, and Latin.

Elizabeth Bathory was also quite beautiful, with hair the colour of "sumptuous ravens", and a milk-white, northern complexion, inherited from her Gutkeled ancestors. Her fairness would have stood out strongly in a land of swarthy peasants. Even today the Hungarians I can see from my car - as I drive towards Budapest - are darker than the European average.

In the late 1550s, Elizabeth had her first encounter with real savagery. A gypsy musician was caught stealing by the Ecsed guards. The thief was dragged into the forecourt of the castle, where he was sewed inside the stomach of a horse. The screaming gypsy was left to die as the horse decomposed. Elizabeth witnessed this before her tenth birthday.

In her fourteenth year Elizabeth appears to have had an affair. The details are obscure: Elizabeth was highly sexed from youth, so she might have instigated the romance herself. Other stories claim she was raped by a serf. Whatever the truth, the resultant pregnancy was concealed and the scandal hushed up. Elizabeth's parents decided that their brilliant but troubled daughter needed a husband. And quick.

A match was duly arranged. Count Ferencz Nadasdy de Nadasd of Fogasfarold was the groom.
The couple seemed a perfect fit. The 26 year old Nadasdy came from a clan of warlike Hunnish nobles, who were almost as distinguished in lineage as the Bathorys. Nonetheless the 15 year old Elizabeth kept her maiden name, in recognition of her superior ancestry.

Following the splendid wedding, Elizabeth moved into one of her husband's castles: Sarvar, near the modern Austrian border.

It's a long way to Sarvar from Ecsed - even today, on EU funded motorways, I have to stop off three times for petrol and goulash. By the time I arrive in Sarvar it's very dark, but I still can't miss Sarvar castle. Large, brooding and severe, the castle dominates the little spa town.

Next morning I linger in the castle, sheltering from the wintry drizzle. These passageways and halls, now converted into offices and gallery spaces, are where Elizabeth Bathory spent her early married life. This castle is also where the newly-wed Elizabeth first showed her tendency to sadism. At least, that's what most believe: it's at this point that we reach the disputed evidence.

According to witness statements, at Elizabeth's trial, the young countess had a portfolio of special punishments for "erring" castle servants. One of her supposed methods was to jab pins under her serving girls' nails; on a different day she might have the young women thrashed with stinging nettles.

In some of these acts she was apparently abetted by her husband. Count Nadasdy also had a taste for violence, as he proved in his many wars against the Muslims. After battles the "Black Bey", as he was known, was seen to juggle the severed heads of his enemies in the air.

When he wasn't soldiering, or juggling, Ferencz apparently chose to pass the time at Sarvar by teaching his eager young wife more ingenious methods of "punishing" the staff. One involved smearing a naked girl with honey, then leading her out into the castle grounds. There the girl would be endlessly stung by insects, to the amusement of the chortling nobles.

That the couple shared an interest in witchcraft is inarguable. In one letter to her husband, when he was away at the wars, Elizabeth said of her spells: 'Thorko has taught me a lovely new one. Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane. Keep the blood and smear it on your enemy.'

"Thorko" was a manservant. During the long absences of her husband, Elizabeth had begun to surround herself with some very strange people. Within her own family there was her bisexual Aunt Klara, supposedly a sorceress. Elizabeth and Klara became great friends at this time.
Other accomplices were even odder. Amongst the Countesses servants there was a demented crone, a lesbian witch, and a dwarf called Fizko. This motley bunch helped with Elizabeth's household affairs, and her childcare (the Countess was by all accounts a 'good mother' to her several offspring).

Accompanied by these bizarre friends and underlings, Elizabeth began to travel. She specially liked to visit the other castles her family owned, like Forchtenstein, Lockenhaus and Kerezstur. It would of course have taken weeks to tour these places in the 16th century; today the castles are just an hour's drive from Sarvar - as I discover.

At Kerezstur, just across the Austrian border, I find the castle overgrown with vines, and practically derelict. Twenty miles west is famous Forchtenstein: this is still a grand edifice, inhabited today by the Esterhazys, distant relatives of the Bathorys. My last stop is Lockenhaus, high in the gloomy forests of the Burgland. It's here that I experience a truly sinister frisson.
On my arrival at the Dracula-esque castle gates, the place seems deserted, apart from a taciturn woman running a bizarre Christmas market in one of the towers. She lets me roam the empty dungeons and hallways. At one point, with the winter twilight encroaching, I am startled by a strange figure standing in a shadowy corner. Panicked, I turn the light on.

It turns out to be an iron maiden.

This is weirdly fitting, as Elizabeth Bathory was meant to have used iron maidens on her victims - in this very castle. Somewhat shaken, I retreat to my car and get out my notes. It seems the iron maiden story, despite the fine coincidence, is probably a legend. Yet there is firm evidence from Bathory's trial that, wherever she went on her travels, the Countess sought out young girls to abuse.

According to the allegations, one of Bathory's favourite tricks was to press red hot coins into the hands of girls she accused of stealing; alternatively she would iron the soles of the girls' bare feet. In more severe moods Elizabeth would cudgel her servants until she was so drenched in blood she had to change her clothes. On another occasion, she was seen to rip open the jaw of a maid with her hands.

Early next morning, I leave Sarvar, to trace the last and bloodiest part of Bathory's peculiar life. In 1602 Count Nadasdy died; some say he was poisoned by an unpaid harlot. Elizabeth was now rich, alone, untrammelled, and obsessed with her fading looks. She moved full-time to her favourite castle of Cachtice (it's pronounced Katch-teet-say).

Cachtice is quite hard to find. A good seven hours from Sarvar, its across the Slovakian border, way up in the Carpathian foothills, surrounded by enormous pineforests. When I reach my destination, and survey the silent ruins, I realise it's a suitably isolated place for anyone intent on murder.

If reports are to be believed, it was at Cachtice Castle that Bathory's crimes became truly insane - and homicidal. For instance: one wintry day at Cachtice Elizabeth ordered a wench stripped naked. The girl was led out of the keep into the snow, where she had water repeatedly thrown over her until she turned into a pillar of ice. Elizabeth watched.

On another occasion, Bathory demanded that maids be brought to her room: the girls were forced to lie unclothed on the floor: then they were tormented so viciously the blood had to be soaked up with ashes. The wildest rumours claim that this blood was used to fill Elizabeth's baths: as a cosmetic remedy for her ailing beauty.

There is an obvious sexual element in these and other alleged crimes. One of Elizabeth's penchants was, it is said, to have her girls do their chores nude. Elizabeth also liked to burn her maid's pubic hair with a candle-flame. During a stay in Vienna, Elizabeth supposedly had a naked housemaid put in an iron cage, which was then hoisted into the air; the girl was speared to death by Fizko the dwarf, while Elizabeth shouted obscenities from below.

Is this believable? Surely not. Yet the inhabitants of the monastery next door were so disturbed by the screams they threw pots at the adjoining wall.

Back in Cachtice the local villagers had, understandably perhaps, begun to hate and fear the Countess. When Bathory travelled she needed armed guards to protect her from the mob. Priests refused to bury all the mutilated corpses emanating from the castle; local girls refused to work within the castle's sinister walls. But Bathory was unabashed. As the supply of local serving-girls dried up, Elizabeth attracted aristocratic young ladies from further afield, with offers of patronage: these young women were, it's claimed, attacked in turn.

In these last desperate months Elizabeth was allegedly so deranged, when she was too tired to rise, she would have girls stripped and brought to her bedside - so she could bite them, ripping out chunks of bare flesh with her teeth.

Whether these rumours were true or not, the authorities had to act. Bathory might have been one of the noblest names in the country, but such inflammatory behaviour risked a peasant rebellion, and the disappearance of blue-blooded girls was unignorable.

One cold night in late 1610, the Palatine of Hungary, Count Thurzo, arrived at the isolated castle. He was accompanied by a platoon of guards. In his hand was a warrant from the king.
Refused entrance at the gate, Thurzo's men smashed the doors down, and marched right in.

According to some reports, they discovered Elizabeth hunched over a prostrate figure: she was torturing another girl. The Countess was arrested and taken away, along with her servants.
Thurzo's original intention may have been quite unambitious: to force Elizabeth to stop her crimes, preferably without the embarrassment of a trial; another motive for the arrest might have been blackmail: the Hungarian King wanted his debts to the Bathorys forgotten. But in the end there was no "hushing up", no backstage deal. A public trial was arranged, in nearby Bytca.

Bathory was actually tried twice. Each time, hundreds of witnesses were called, to testify to her cruelties. Some witnesses were tortured; most spoke freely.

It's here we approach the truth about Elizabeth Bathory. Yes, some of the allegations were clearly concocted. The blood-bathing, for instance, was a lurid embellishment (it only appears in accounts of her life from the 18th century). Many of the other tales were, presumably, embroidered, as is often the case with terrible tales.

But the sheer weight of evidence against the Countess was - and is - overwhelming. Aside from the many witness statements, we have contemporary letters, between priests, civil servants, and other notables, loudly complaining of Bathory's crimes. The fear and loathing the Countess provoked amongst the common people must also be taken into account; likewise the confirmed reports of mutilated corpses.

Finally there is the mortification endured by the nobility, and the Hungarian royal family, following the scandal. If the trial was just a conspiracy to defraud an uppity woman, why the centuries of shame? And why did the authorities feel the moral necessity for a trial at all, given the embarrassment this must have caused?

The answer is simple. Elizabeth Bathory was a brutal and murderous sadist, whose crimes were too atrocious to ignore. This is the only explanation that fits the many facts; any other perspective is incredible.

What we do not know is the true extent of Bathory's savagery. Did she kill 30 or 40, as seems likely? Or did she butcher 600 - as some have wildly suggested? The exact answer will always elude us.

After the trial, Bathory's female accomplices had their fingers torn out, and were then burned alive. The dwarf was summarily decapitated. The Countess herself was, by contrast, sentenced to a kind of living death. She was walled inside her room in Cachtice, with only a small window onto the world.

As I wander around the castle ruins, I see several such apertures. Any one of them is possibly hers.

For nearly five years the elderly murderess rotted away. Then, on August 21, 1614, a guard looked through the window, and saw a figure slumped on the floor. Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the Bloody Lady of Cachtice, was dead.

One mystery abides. Where was she buried? A popular theory holds that she was first entombed in her castle, then moved to the church in the valley.

But this is far-fetched. Would the villagers really have tolerated the body of this hated woman in their crypt? Much more likely is that Elizabeth's remains were taken across Hungary to the ancient family tomb: in the church built by her forebears. In Nyirbator.

My last drive is therefore a return journey: across the Hungarian plains, past Budapest, all the way to Nyirbator. Turns out it's not much of a town, the best thing in it is that church, a fine piece of central European Gothic, with a bizarre wooden belfry. Underneath the church is a sealed family vault. My hunch is that she is interred here.

If so, it is a suitable resting place. Even today Nyirbator has a bleak and eerie atmosphere, partly due to the bitter cold that sweeps in from the marshes. By nightfall the grubby streets of Nyirbator are usually deserted, and all you can hear is the howl of that wind. On a particularly bad night, it sounds like someone being tortured.

Lockenhaus castle - 'Leka'

Iron maiden, Lockenhaus Castle

Forchtenstein Castle. Bathory tortured girls in the dungeon here.

The bizarre belfry at Nyirbator church.

Kerezstur Castle. Now semi-derelict, and owned by an eccentric Austrian artist.

Ecsed Marshes.

Cachtice castle. Where Bathory committed her worst atrocities, and where she was imprisoned, and died.
Me! At Cachtice. Cold and a little spooked.