Bran Castle in Transylvania has two personalities – the delightful abode of Queen Marie of Romania,
and the ghastly hangout of the world’s most famous vampire. Bernard O’Shea is smitten but not bitten.
They call it Dracula’s Castle because it was here in the mountain forests and swirling mists of Transylvania that author Bram Stoker imagined his bloodthirsty vampire character Count Dracula lived, amid other horrors and terrors.
But the historical figure that is most linked (tenuously) to the Dracula legend, Vlad III (a.k.a. Vlad Dracula, Vlad Tepes/Vlad the Impaler), never lived in the castle, and indeed the Dublin-born Bram (short for Abraham) never visited Romania. Not that you would ever guess from his extraordinary novel Dracula, written in 1897, which is rich in local colour and geographic detail, and amid all the nail-biting suspense is surprisingly funny in parts – the bit where Lucy receives three marriage proposals in one day is hilarious.
It’s probably a good thing that Bram never got to see the castle, for it is really a pleasant place, and he might have toned his book down if he had. Still, as tenuous as the Dracula link is, if you have ever read the book or enjoyed a Dracula film, once you have visited Bran Castle you can at least boast you have entered the fictional Dracula’s abode.
If, on the other hand, you think the whole Dracula thing is silly, be assured that Bran Castle is worthy of appreciation for its non-fictional merits.
It’s a strange place, somewhat cramped and confined, perched as it is on the top of a crag, and probably the scariest thing about it for modern-day visitors is the steep and narrow staircases that have to be mounted as you explore all its towers and turrets – expect to do a lot of stooping and ducking and peering into odd nooks and crannies. The castle itself is only about 60 metres tall, but thanks to its elevated perch, its views over the forest canopy are superb.
The exterior may seem austere but inside it is surprisingly cosy. It was the favourite residence of Queen Marie (1875-1938), a grand-daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria who became Queen of Romania in 1914 until the death of her husband King Ferdinand I in 1927. Somewhat bizarrely (the royal family history is complicated), he was succeeded first by his grandson then his son, but by 1947 the Communist Party was in power and the king was forced to abdicate. Bran Castle, like many royal residences, was badly neglected during communist rule, even though it did become a museum, but today, however, it has been restored much in the way that Queen Marie styled it. Consequently it’s what you would expect a royal summer residence to be – bright, breezy and homely. Indeed, some say it has the appearance of a Spanish hacienda. Most of the information provided throughout the castle is in English as well as Romanian.
Still, not surprisingly, the local commercial operators milk the Dracula legend for all its worth. In the village of Bran, the souvenir market stalls are full of Count Dracula paraphernalia, and more than one of my travel books on Romania guide books note that a favourite joke local tour guides tell visitors to the castle is “Count Dracula drinks the blood of young virgins, but you will be safe”, haha. I presume my youth makes me a borderline case, haha haha.
Bran is about 30 kilometres from Brasov, one of Romania’s most striking cities, in a gorge in between the Bucegi mountain range and the Piatra Craiului mountains (both part of the Carpathians). It was built by Saxons from Brasov in 1382 to defend the pass (well, Brasov itself actually) against the Turks, and perhaps Vlad III did spend a couple of nights in the castle in the 1460s – some say he hid here while retreating from the Turks, others say he was trying to besiege it during a regional territorial dispute.
Vlad was the Prince of Wallachia, one of the three main regions that make up modern Romania) and a member of the House of Draculesti; his father, Vlad II, was known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon, and Dracula means “son of Dracul”. (You can see where Bram Stoker, whose research for his book was comprehensive, got the name from.)
The castle belonged to the Saxons of Brasov for a good 500 years until 1920, when it was presented as a gift to the royal family (Marie had been much admired by the people for her nursing and caring of injured soldiers during World War I).
The main part of the castle is circular in shape and includes the original 15th century walls (prior to that was a wooden structure), in the centre of which is a gothic church. There are 270-odd habitable rooms on four levels, but there are other wings that were added in the 19th century.
Many tour operators do Bran Castle as part of a day trip that also takes in nearby Rasnov Castle and Peles Castle at Sinaia (see Up on the ramparts at Rasnov and The splendours of Sinaia) even from as far afield as Bucharest, which I find extraordinary. The beauty and charms of the Carpathian Mountains really need to be absorbed at leisure, not in some mad dash. Still, if you are really strapped for time, at least it is possible. Just make every second count!
The village of Bran is small (population of about 5000) but pleasant – the kind of place, I imagine, that people would escape to for a romantic getaway or weekend break. Below the castle is an open-air village museum that includes a typical farm dwelling and peasant house and adds to the rustic ambiance.
Because the castle can get congested with day trippers, it’s a good idea to arrive the night before, basing yourself in the village or at one of the nearby alpine guest houses, and get to the castle when the doors open – usually at 9am – and then stroll around the village museum afterwards.
The castle was handed back to the descendants of Queen Marie in 2006, and at times there have been reports that it has been put up for sale. This always causes anxiety because the Romanians quite understandably don’t want to lose public access to what is in many ways a national treasure.
Incidentally, the “real” Dracula’s castle, the bastion of Vlad III the Impaler, is to be found at Poienari, some 120 kilometres to the south-west. near Curtea de Arges. However, much of it was ruined in an earthquake and mud landslide in 1888, and you have to climb 1480 steps to get to it apparently. In contrast, the approach to Bran Castle is a breeze.
In the courtyard of the castle is a wishing well. At a friend’s urging, I tossed some coins into it and made a wish. I won’t say what I wished for because that apparently ruins the chances of it coming true. However, I can say that right now, looking at my photographs, my notes and my guide books, and reviving my memories, I wish I was back in this amazing part of the world. I could spend months there. TTW
Bernard O’Shea travelled to Romania at his own expense. For Bran Castle’s opening hours and admission prices, click here.
Photos © Bernard O’Shea.