Bucharest and indeed most of Romania were blanketed in snow on the mid-winter day when I headed out of the city to satisfy a long-held ambition to see Bran Castle, the setting for Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel Dracula.
The Carpathian Mountains embrace Transylvania in a gentle curve. The hillsides were covered in snow-frosted trees and harbour the second largest population of brown bears in Europe, as well as wolves, deer, and wild pigs and black goats.
Of course Bram Stoker never actually visited Romania. A true fiction, Dracula was composed entirely sitting at a desk in the British Library in London. The inspiration for the name came from the family name of the descendants of Vlad II of Wallachia, who took the name “dracul” after being invested in the Order of the Dragon in 1431. The word dracul meaning either “dragon” or “devil”.
Bran Castle rises in a highly strategic position in a cleft between two thickly wooded hills overlooking the Transylvania –Wallachia border. For many hundreds of years this was an important revenue gathering point and a series of battles were fought to control the border.
Stoker may have chosen Bran castle by coincidence but upstairs you’ll find an information board drawing some completely spurious connections between this castle in Romania and the Dracula story.
Fortunately the real history of the castle and the region are far more interesting. When the borders changed in the 19th century the castle lost its importance and it was used for a time as a summer residence for Romania’s royal family but for the most part it is still authentically very medieval; all narrow stairways, thick doors and archers’ windows. There’s even a secret passage for escape in case of attack.
Vlad III’s famous moniker was ‘The Impaler’ and it is thought this was another connection to the vampire legend. In fact impaling was a common punishment at this time and Vlad was mainly famous for perfecting the cruel torture to keep victims alive as long as possible.
His life is a long history of war and betrayal. He was known more for being a great general who other European rulers regarded as an effective shield against the Ottomans and he was good to his people, improving the lives of the peasants of what is now Romania.
At the market outside the castle gates you find evidence of the tourism appeal that has grown up around the Dracula connection, for example in the bottles of ‘vampire wine’ on sale. But Transylvania is still a very traditional region, with many people living in ways that have not changed for centuries.
The best views of the very romantic Bran Castle in Romania are to be had from across the valley at a restaurant called Vila Bran up on the hillside behind the town. Here they serve hearty helpings of goulash and stuffed cabbage with polenta and sour cream – all good!
By Natasha von Geldern
I stayed at the comfortable boutique Hotel Moxa in Bucharest, Romania.
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