Known far and wide as 'Dracula's Castle', Bran Castle overlooks a densely wooded mountain pass in Transylvania. I had long wanted to visit this 14th century gothic fortress for myself. The more I learnt though, the further the truth grew from the fiction; and yet the true story of Vlad Dracula is at times equally macabre.
The Dracula Myth
In 1897 Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist and short story author, penned what was to later become one of the enduring classics of the horror genre - Dracula. In his search for inspiration, he turned to Romania; a land rich in folklore and superstition, combining an often bloodthirsty history with endless mountains, pine forests, and a penchant for gothic castles.
Stoker became fascinated by Romanian folklore, and after consulting maps he eventually decided to choose a mountain in the northern Transylvania region as the setting for his novel. The 'Castle Dracula' in the book is situated on Mount Izvorul Călimanului, not far from the former border with Moldavia... in reality, no more than a barren, craggy peak.
For many years the Romanians themselves were oblivious to the mythology created by Stoker's cult novel. It wasn't until the Romanian Communist Party was dissolved in 1989 that the story of Dracula finally returned home, and was met largely with bafflement.
Nevertheless, the newly-democratic Romanian people were quick to grasp the concepts of capitalism - and it was primarily for the purposes of tourism that Bran Castle became known as 'Dracula's Castle'.
The choice of location may appear unwarranted. After all, there is no evidence that Bram Stoker had even heard of Bran Castle, and his fictional lair was imagined many miles north of this site. The connection can be traced however, from the historical figure who provided much of the inspiration for Stoker's vampiric antagonist.
Vlad the Impaler
The figure in question was Vlad III Dracula. Born to the House of Drăculești in 1431, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, was renowned across Europe for his cruelty. Posthumously dubbed 'Vlad the Impaler' (or 'Vlad Ţepeș' in Romanian), this three-time Voivode of Wallachia is reported to have impaled tens of thousands of his enemies, during his reign from 1456 to 1462.*
The House of Drăculești was so named by Vlad the Impaler's father, and comes from the Romanian word 'dracul'; translating to 'dragon'. Vlad II Dracul took the dragon as the symbol of his house, and a sign of his allegiance to the Order of the Dragon. This chivalric order was founded in 1408 with the purpose of defending Christianity against its enemies... most notable amongst whom, at the time of Vlad II, were the Ottoman Empire.
However, the word 'dracul' is also sometimes interpreted as meaning 'devil'; and following the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church during the 11-12th centuries, Vlad II Dracul's Catholic enemies soon began referring to him as 'Vlad the Devil'.
It is possible to argue that Vlad the Impaler, at least to some extent, was similarly a victim of bad press.
Right up until his assassination in 1476, it is well documented that Vlad III Dracula took great pleasure from impaling his enemies on long wooden spikes.
It is even reported that he hired master surgeons to help guide the thick shafts - from insertion at the anus, up through the intestines and forming an exit point on the upper back - in order to prevent damage to the vital organs. Provided victims didn't die of shock or blood loss, it was possible to keep them alive for up to several days.
However, it is worth noting that a good many of these victims were Ottoman soliders; the same Ottomans who had just raped and pillaged their way up through Bulgaria, leaving a trail of slaughter and wanton cruelty in their wake. As ruler of Wallachia, it was Vlad's duty to defend his people. He chose to do so by torturing invaders, on Romanian soil, in order to mount their impaled corpses along the southern border by way of a deterrent.
It's difficult to name many notable figures from the 15th century who weren't guilty of shedding copious amounts of blood - even amongst the good guys. Vlad the Impaler is remembered by many Romanians and Bulgarians as a folk hero; a brave leader who stood defiant in the face of an evil empire. While this much at least may be based in fact, it does seem as though perhaps he took a little too much pleasure from his work.
One thing that is known for sure, is that Vlad III Dracula spent most of his adult life in Târgoviște: the 15th century capital of Wallachia. His reign was interrupted twice - the first time by exile, the second with imprisonment in Hungary. It was during this earlier period of exile from Wallachia that Vlad III spent some time as a guest at Bran Castle, in the northern region of Transylvania.
While the connection between Vlad the Impaler and Bran Castle is tenuous at best, Bran does nevertheless serve as the perfect example of a Transylvanian castle; and so it won the title ahead of other potential candidates such as Hunyad Castle where Vlad was imprisoned by the Hungarians, or the ruined Poenari Castle.
Teutonic Knights had built a wooden fortress on this site near Braşov (then known as 'Kronstadt') in 1212, but it was later destroyed by the Mongols.
Bran Castle appeared here in the 15th century, built by the Saxons. For its early years the castle acted as a defensive position against Ottoman invasions, but later it became an important customs checkpoint. This mountain pass offered the perfect passage from Wallachia into Transylvania - though the often harsh taxes set by the Magyar Kings led to folk stories about them actually drinking human blood.
A century later Bran Castle was repossessed by the city of Braşov, when King Vladislas II was bankrupted. It remained in military use until 1920, when it was adopted as a residence of the Romanian royal family. Queen Marie (grand daughter of Britain's Queen Victoria, wife to King Ferdinand of Romania), fell in love with Bran Castle, and filled it with fine furniture and artwork from her own collection. The royal family was eventually expelled in 1948, at the behest of the Romanian Communist Party.
It is easy to see just how well Bran Castle lends itself to the mythology. Dark, wood panelled rooms open into arched white corridors, while numerous balconies and walkways offer spectacular views over the forested mountains of Transylvania.
There's even a secret passage, now open to tourists, which leads between rooms on the first and third floors. This steep, narrow stone stair was discovered relatively recently, when the castle was undergoing restoration work.
Some rooms around the castle are arranged with furniture and fittings, as selected by Queen Marie. Others are given over to museum-style exhibitions... covering everything from royal family trees, to detailed accounts of folkloric traditions in Transylvania. There is even one room in the tower, which charts the increasing popularity of vampires on screen - from Dracula to Twilight.
It wasn't a busy day compared to the holiday season, but still there were a good number of tourists in attendance. By the time I reached the central courtyard, I could see faces peeking out of every window, or hear tour groups crossing balconies high above.
A stone well stands in the centre of the cobbled yard - merely a convincing fake. The old well, apparently, has now been transformed into a lift serving the former wine cellars. The room above is filled by an archaic winch mechanism, although it seems the lift itself is kept under lock and key.
While Vlad the Impaler merely visited Bran Castle in passing, this beautiful gothic fortress really does look the part; so much so, that some people come expecting more. My guide told me of one Brazilian woman, who had abandoned the tour in disgust once she realised they wouldn't be seeing real vampires.
It's not uncommon for people to have trouble separating the facts from the fiction, he told me. "The only blood suckers we have now," he said, "are the politicians."
Exit Through The Gift Shop
Bran Castle features less a gift shop, more a gift town.
A series of market stalls have grown into a festival of tents and tourist attractions, gathered in the shadow of Bran Castle. Here you can buy everything from t-shirts and other Dracula-themed memorabilia, through to fresh local produce.** The influx of tourism to the small village of Bran seems to attract farmers and entrepreneurs alike. There's even a garish haunted house ride, that you can visit on your way out of the site.
Some visitors expect more from Bran Castle, or come here looking to find something mystical and untouched. While the connection to Dracula is almost entirely down to clever marketing however, the castle itself is undeniably impressive; boasting enough history and intrigue of its own, to justify its choice as an example of how a Romanian vampire's castle might look.
More Dark Tourism...
*A Romanian 'voivode' is the equivalent of an English duke... or depending on your translation, a count.
**I wasn't tempted by the rubber masks or Dracula-head mugs, but I did however buy some delicious smoked cheese - a Transylvanian specialty apparently, which comes wrapped in tree bark.