Tro-kay (everything is alright)

Truckee, California remains true to its namesake “everything is alright”. Spending time there in the sun and snow, it’s easy to feel like everything really is alright with the world. From the Paiute word Tro-kay, it was named for the Native American Trojukai who guided John Frémont in 1849 on his expedition looking for a rail route over the mountains. Although for early European settlers, everything didn’t turn out quite according to the optimistic namesake - the Donner Party did not make its name by living happily ever after, it does all point back to one defining factor – snow.

The Ski Museum, buried on Donner Summit, January 2017. 

The Ski Museum, buried on Donner Summit, January 2017. 

A history defined by snow, this year fit the mold, record breaking snow fall for the month of January, storms that blew up the news, closed post offices, lost power, and brought over 10 feet of snow in just the week we were there for races, one of which was canceled from too much snow. In years more and more defined by abbreviated race courses and venue changes from lack of snow, this was a new one.

As a stubborn Vermonter, I’ve always enjoyed validating eastern weather to my western friends; the ice makes us better skiers, the rain makes us tougher. The perfect days complemented by rainy ones make more resilient, more appreciative of the nice days. Despite my pride, my argument does automatically imply that the nice (snowy, sunny) days are more enjoyable, and that the rainy ones are worth it in their ability to heighten my enjoyment of the nice ones.

Hard to beat this perfect pre-race training day at Auburn Ski Club. 

Hard to beat this perfect pre-race training day at Auburn Ski Club. 

That in mind, on face value, Truckee, California fits perfection, with (historically) predictable huge snowfall in the winter, combined with dry sunny summers. I won’t go as far as to admit that that is better than Vermont weather, but the cynic in me wonders how this is possible, to be perfect all the time there. Why doesn’t Anchorage or Houghton or Salt Lake or Craftsbury get this weather, why is it unique? Turns out there’s a lot of science behind it, no surprise there, and after too much research, I now have a lot of respect for meteorologists and climatologists and people who understand weather.

The North Pacific High Pressure System, which resides west of California over the Pacific Ocean, determines the seasonal changes, causing the wet winters and dry summers. The High moves in closer to California over the summer, creating a block against the weather systems coming in from the west (jet stream), redirecting them north to hit western Canada. In the winter, the High sinks south west towards Hawaii, allowing the jet stream to blow right in, dropping snow on the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The location of the Sierras are a big player, forcing the stormy air upward. As the air cools over the higher terrain, the moisture condenses (adiabatic cooling), dropping precipitation on the crest of the mountains (Truckee, Donner Summit) and leaving a rain shadow to the east (Nevada is mostly desert).

Enjoying the Sierra rocks (running in near Emerald Bay, summer 2014). 

Enjoying the Sierra rocks (running in near Emerald Bay, summer 2014). 

(Quick geology moment side track- 100 million years ago when the Pacific Plate subducted under the North American Plate on the west coast, granite metamorphosed deep in the crust, the hot magma rising and cooling. (At this point also, gold and other minerals crystalized, which then washed up in streams and sparked the California Gold Rush). Then 4 million years ago, faulting and uplift began, building the Sierra Nevada mountains, glaciers eroding down to the granite, a cycle that continues today.)

That too seemed like enough of an explanation, the Pacific High bringing precipitation in the winter and not the summer, dropping the moisture over the Sierras due to adiabatic cooling. But then, why is Truckee the one that’s always in the news for snow records, why not somewhere a couple hours north or south?

Shoveling is hard when the only place to put the snow is 5 feet over your head. 

Shoveling is hard when the only place to put the snow is 5 feet over your head. 

La Nina/El Nino (phases of the El Nino- Southern Oscillation, ENSO) play a big role in determining the winter variation and snowfall amounts. ENSO is dictated by the Trade Winds which move NE to SW in the Northern Hemisphere and SE to NW in the Southern Hemisphere, bring cooler upwelling towards the equator. When the winds slacken, the water stays warmer in the Pacific; the cold water does not get pushed north.

El Nino corresponds with a warmer ocean current flowing north in the Pacific, which correlates with a lower pressure system; when El Nino is in effect, the precipitation comes straight in from the west and hits Southern California. La Nina is the yin to El Nino’s yang, corresponding to colder water temperatures than normal, and a high-pressure system. La Nina creates a similar “block” to that of the Pacific High during the summer, forcing weather north, dropping precipitation on the Cascades and Northern California. Truckee is right on the line between these two areas (Southern and Northern California), sometimes getting greater precipitation from La Nina, sometimes from La Nino.  

The pressure systems of El Nino (top) and La Nina (bottom). 

The pressure systems of El Nino (top) and La Nina (bottom). 

This year we’re currently in La Nina, transitioning to ENSO neutral, which typically is better for Truckee, as demonstrated this past January. ENSO swings every 3-7 years, but we also have to bring into account a greater cycle, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) which is like ENSO, but in longer phases, 20-30 years. PDO can intensify or diminish ENSO; when they’re in the same phase (i.e. PDO is warmer and El Nino is happening), El Nino becomes stronger, while when they’re in opposite phases, they can cancel each other out to a degree.

Zeroing in, we’ve established that the location of Truckee between the La Nina and El Nino affected regions can give the extra snowfall boost, and on a greater scale, it’s location near the Sierra Crest brings the precipitation. But still, why does Truckee get 10% more snow than Tahoe City, just 20 miles south, even though its elevation is 400 feet lower than Tahoe City? 

This is where Lake Tahoe comes in, as the second deepest lake in the US, at 1645 feet, with proportionally very little surface area to its depth, it does a remarkable job at conserving heat (and cold), making the surrounding area that much warmer in the winter and colder in the summer, holding on to stored heat (or cold) from the previous season. That’s why it never freezes, the stored heat prevents it from ever getting to freezing conditions. So, in the winter Tahoe City, and the other towns directly around Lake Tahoe see temperatures enough warmer than those areas without the lake proximity (Truckee) that the snowfall is less. 

All of these patterns make sense, but then of course there are the anomalies. In 2013-2014, “The Blob” (a warm spot in the Pacific), combined with unusual currents, along with the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” caused an enormous dry spell, as if the normal block of the North Pacific High was there permanently through winter and summer, causing drought, massive forest fires, and record-low snow winters. It’s unclear whether these two (the blob and the ridge) are causally related, but it is clear that anomalies like this are likely to become more frequent and more intense as climate change heats up.

A perfect Lake Tahoe day (Tahoe XC, Kait Miller photo)

A perfect Lake Tahoe day (Tahoe XC, Kait Miller photo)

My conclusion: it is incredible how reliable these patterns have been! Mother nature is really quite amazing. The effect of the Blob and similar anomalies are also quite concerning in the face of climate change. A warming ocean means lower pressures, changing how weather patterns move. Changing temperatures at the poles will change the trade winds, and therefore also the predictability of La Nina/El Nino.  

As far as the East vs West argument, I still stand behind my Eastern weather rationale. I like enjoying the highs in context of the lows. But the Truckee weather is pretty awesome, and not just a fluke in the system, and as climate change rears its head, it seems to only makes sense to enjoy these natural phenomena while they last. 

Until next time, Truckee. (Kait Miller photo). 

Until next time, Truckee. (Kait Miller photo). 

On Vacation

Among skiers, SilverStar is known for its endless terrain of impeccable skiing and tall snow laden trees resembling a fantastic North Pole. Even though I'd never been there until racing brought me there last month, I could picture the snow, the trees, the skiing, as they have inundated my Instagram feed since forever, from friends and teammates traveling there for races or training camps. The snow charm never gets old.

Skiing at Sovereign Lake. 

Skiing at Sovereign Lake. 

While no one ever posted photos of their rental houses, they were nearly as iconic in the imagination, as each would also report back about the colorful houses they stayed in, remarking on which color they got this year. The (vacation) residential landscape is punctuated by a lot of color, vibrant against the clean hues of snow and sky and trees. In some ways they did resemble gingerbread houses, matching the North Pole vibe, but they looked like something else, too. Although constructed in the late 1900s, they had a little more going on than a typical 20th century ski condo, they looked like they had some element of Victorian influence. 

Our rental house in SilverStar. We got the Pink One. 

Our rental house in SilverStar. We got the Pink One. 

Across the street. 

Across the street. 

A bit of research confirmed my hunch. The Victorian Period of architecture (named for Queen Victoria’s reign) considered to have lasted from 1840-1885 in Europe, with influence in North America during that period too, thanks to Andrew Jackson Downing's pattern books. The style started in England as part of the picturesque movement, a reaction to classical ideals from Italy and Rome. Specifically, the Italianate style (of the Victorian period) is characterized by low pitched or flat roofs, balanced rectangular shape, wide eaves with brackets and cornices, porches with balustraded balconies, tall windows with decorative moldings, bay windows, arches above the windows and doors, and the fancier ones with towers and cupolas.  The exterior embellishment was frequent and ornate; the “expense and craftsmanship lavished on exteriors offers testament to the prosperity and optimism of the era”. While the rental houses populating the "knoll" didn't match all of these exactly, the deep, bracketed eaves, bay windows and detailing where enough to claim influence. 

A typical Italianate home. http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~infocom/scndempr/bedbreak/west/Cali01.jpg

A typical Italianate home. http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~infocom/scndempr/bedbreak/west/Cali01.jpg

While walking around the housing development the day we got there, my teammate Kait and I remarked on the distinctive aesthetic, likening it to houses in Barre, Vermont. Some quick research on Barre found it's economic boom in the 1880s parrelleled the height of the Italianate period. As granite quarrying brought in new money and immigrants, population skyrocketed, and a housing boom ensued. 

An 1880's Victorian home in Barre, Vermont. http://www.picketfencepreview.com/buy-a-home/view-property/id/8994

An 1880's Victorian home in Barre, Vermont. http://www.picketfencepreview.com/buy-a-home/view-property/id/8994

SilverStar matched many of these characteristics, with one major exception, the color. Victorian homes originally were painted in red, green, gold, or purple. In addition to those colors, these in SilverStar appeared in nearly every color of the rainbow. A bit more research found that repainting Victorian homes is actually quite popular, specifically Alamo Square in San Fransisco is a famous spot known for its old Victorian homes that escaped urban renewal, picturesque against the sky scrapers.

Alamo Square, San Francisco. http://ruthkrishnan.com/sf-alamo-square-neighborhood-feature-the-painted-ladies/ 

Alamo Square, San Francisco. http://ruthkrishnan.com/sf-alamo-square-neighborhood-feature-the-painted-ladies/ 

So, back to SilverStar, why the Victorian look in their vacation rental housing development?  It is as if it’s a third impression of the original Italian influence. First came the Italian in the 1600s, then the Italianate in the 1880's, now the "Italianate-ate?" of the late 20th century. The houses in SilverStar definitely give off the picturesque feel, matching the Italianate, and I’d guess the developers were aspiring for the affluent feel, too of that period. It definitely was intentional, the Victorian theme consistent throughout the entire housing development and ski village.

Built entirely as vacation homes, it makes sense they’d try and subconsciously market them as luxurious, economically booming, the feeling of prestige; an effort to give off quaint and old-timey feel despite cheap construction and gaudy colors. It gives an otherworldly transport. Even without knowing anything about architects or styles, the uniformity amongst them, even among different designs, the deep eaves, the bracketed flat rooves, the tall narrow façade, the bay windows, give a feel that is distinctly there. The colors add to the picturesque feel, fitting in the North Pole aesthetic. Along with the trees, the landscape, giving you the feel on your Christmas vacation, or ski trip, that you have been transported. If not back to the 1880s, they have successfully become a place that is distinctly there, a reminder that you are away from where you came. If I was a vacation home designer, that’s exactly what I’d be going for, too.  

Happy Winter! 

Happy Winter! 

Campanile

While racing in Toblach, Italy, now nearly a month ago, I was surprised by the prevalence of churches with free standing bell towers, rather than the roof-born steeple I’m accustomed to as a symbol of a Catholic place of worship. What to me looked like an afterthought, as if the steeples “had been taken off and put next door”, is clearly a design choice made hundreds of years ago upon original construction.

Toblach, Italy, March 2016. 

Toblach, Italy, March 2016. 

Despite lots of googling and wracking my art-history-buff-Dad’s memory, and books, I have yet to pinpoint a definitive answer as to why some churches are built this way. I found a lot of descriptions of very nice campaniles (the term for a bell tower of this free standing type), but nothing ascertained as to why in conjunction with a church, they remained autonomous, as seemed to be prevalent in Italy, but as I'd never noticed anywhere else. (You might recognize the most famous of such campaniles, the leaning tower of Pisa, built in 1360, the bell tower of the cathedral of the city of Pisa).  

(google)

(google)

So, without any concrete findings as to why these bell towers are not connected to the church, I’m left with some common sense speculations. (If any of you out there have more information, please do enlighten me!).

1) The church in Toblach, Italy, specifically was completed in 1803, at the tail end of the Baroque period, a time most easily earmarked by ornate decoration in artwork, including churches such as this one. Although beautiful, this church is not extravagant by any means, especially on the outside, and the separate tower would have nothing to do with its conception during the Baroque (also as Pisa was built long before that). Maybe it is looking to make a link to Pisa, but then I wonder where the freestanding tower comes from at Pisa. 

Inside of the church in Toblach. 

Inside of the church in Toblach. 

Looking up. 

Looking up. 

2) The tower as an architectural note, sparks my memory of learning about triumphal columns in my own art history classes. These columns erected by Roman emperors in the early A.D.’s, Italy falls into the area influenced (and marked by) these. Trajan’s Column, in Rome, was built in 113 AD to commemorate Trajan’s victory in the Dacian wars. It is particularly well known for the depiction of the war between the Romans and the Dacians engraved into the column itself. Emperors built these columns as an exhibition of their power, and a mini-arms race of triumphal columns ensued in the coming years after Trajan.  The detached bell tower made a connection in my mind to these triumphal columns, maybe a marker of the strength of the town, or region, or religion? This tower in Toblach (and similar ones at other small churches) clearly were built with their paired churches, not as a mark of power on their own. But, given the history of construction of triumphal towers unique to Italy from a much earlier date, I wonder if this design could have been inspired by the existing “tower” architecture.

(google)

(google)

3) A more straightforward guess, maybe the church tower was built separately so that the tower could be used for more secular purposes as well, the bell ringing for the town, which could be easily done on a steeple on a church, but by being physically detached, it could be less symbolically related. Some places used belfries to store political documents, so maybe it represents a separation of church and state, but one that still is innately tied via the design.

4) Maybe they built the church first and then the tower, or vice versa, as it would take less money to complete one, and the construction might inspire more funding for the second.

5) It is definitely logistically and structurally easier to build a tall tower from the ground, rather than on top of a building that already has a vaulted roof. At this time, the technology was there to build a tower on a church, so it wasn’t a factor of not having technology. But it definitely is easier and less expensive to simplify the construction by making it two separate parts. 

My conclusion:

Although the dominant religion of this region matches the dominant religion of a lot of Europe (Catholic), its churches do not reflect as much similarity, and I think there's something specific to the region that is Italy. I saw the clear change when we drove from Germany (where churches had steeples upon the roof) to Italy, where the churches predominantly had bell towers that stand beside them. What changed in the few hours we spent in the car? I could be missing a lot of clues here too, as I only saw a very narrow slice; maybe there are towers like this outside of Italy totally unrelated, of which I'm unaware. From what I did see, I can only surmise that the campanile has to do with a history or practicality that is unique to that region (or Italy, or the Roman empire), one I have yet to understand. I do know that it looks very nice, and was different, and therefore caught my attention, enough that I was inspired to pull out my sketchbook and draw.

My take away from this one, is that it is alright to understand the church, and tower, for their face value on a visual level. I can be satisfied in appreciating them without needing a philosophical reason for being. I am confident there is a “real” reason out there for why the campanile is an unattached bell tower, but the more important lesson for me on this one is that it is okay, and even good, to sit and draw the church tower and enjoy it for being just that.

*4/11 edit: Mystery solved: separating the tower from the church allowed for bigger bells, as the reverberation goes through the whole structure, thus limiting the size of bells on towers connected to buildings. They're also common in London and Sweden. Thank you Susan Woods for the enlightenment! http://googlesightseeing.com/2012/10/churches-with-detached-towers/

Zwiesel, Glas-Stadt

              The dense forests of Bavaria didn’t lend well to agriculture, so early settlers found its relative strength, glass production. Along with a strong timber industry, the surplus of wood provided the raw materials for building glass factories, and more importantly, the fuel to burn in the glass furnaces, to reach melting temperatures over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, quartz was abundant in this area, providing another key ingredient, as well as potash, a waste product of the timber industry, so glass production was nearly self sufficient. Only lime and clay (for crucibles) had to be outsourced. With production starting in the early 1400s, Poschinger glass was one of the first (1411) and still operates as the oldest family glassworks today. The fine glass produced in Zwiesel and the regions around supplied the courts of Bavaria and the French King. Even the Czar’s court in St Petersburg had drinking glasses from the Bavarian forest.

Behind the scenes at Zwiesel Kristallglas (their showcase store for tourists). 

Behind the scenes at Zwiesel Kristallglas (their showcase store for tourists). 

                  Visiting Zwiesel today, this heritage is apparent through the ongoing production that carries the economy. A glass sculpture walk wanders through the town, headlined by the Glass Pyramid outside of one of the factories and showrooms. The tallest in the world, 8.09 meters (93,665 glasses), it is a spectacle similar in appearance to I. M. Pei’s entrance to the Louvre. Built in 2007, the Louvre definitely preceded it (1989), but I believe this is mostly coincidence. The glass pyramid was built as a symbol of the glass industry in Zwiesel, and the form is fitting, building upon the foundation of the natural resources abundant in the area.          

Glaspyramide. 

Glaspyramide. 

                 Zwiesel isn’t extraordinary per se, but in doing this one thing, glassblowing, that it is suited for, in a way, it is. Technology today allows anyone to do anything anywhere; there are infinite possibilities. In this way, there’s a particular value in those places that hold true to an innate resource and purpose.

                 Mirroring the question “what did you want to be when you were ten?”, I want to ask the same of a place.  But when is a place “10 years old”? When is the pure moment when the essentials are there, but aren’t blurred and confused by analysis, or big shiny opportunities in the world? Zwiesel seems to have stuck to its 10-year old calling, with its first glass production starting up nearly immediately along with its first non-native settlers, and for that, it is inspiring. 

The glass is literally "in the trees" in Zwiesel. 

The glass is literally "in the trees" in Zwiesel. 


Bran Castle

Aside from driving by a couple castle-like fortresses on previous trips to Europe, the closest I had come to a castle previous to this trip to Romania was in my imagination, in the fantasy books I loved in middle school. Without any true castles in the US to have a physical basis off, visiting forts in Quebec came close satisfying the mystery around a castle, with turrets and secret stairways, a dungeon, queens and kings.

Bran Castle. http://thewondrous.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Eerie-Bran-Castle-In-Transylvania.jpg

Bran Castle. http://thewondrous.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Eerie-Bran-Castle-In-Transylvania.jpg

Driving from the airport in Bucharest to our hotel near Rasnov, we got a glimpse of the Bran Castle, as we drove through the same valley soldiers, merchants and countrymen frequented centuries ago. Snaking beneath a foreboding castle upon a cliff above us, speculation flowed around the bus, “that must be Dracula’s Castle!” and sure enough, one way or another, it was.

We didn't waste time in taking a trip to the castle, the next day we were there we took the afternoon to follow the guided tour throughout the castle. With no design “order” I could surmise, winding corridors, multi level chambers, many stairs, no specific floor levels that I could figure out, I successfully lost any direction of where I came from or how to get out of the castle, left to follow the path laid out for visitors. I wonder whether this was intentional, to make it harder to invade, intruders getting lost trying to storm the castle, or if it was an organic result of its location or a lack of serious engineering plans (although given that it remains intact today, I have to believe some serious forethought went into its construction). Regardless, the mystery of physically experiencing the castle perfectly mirrors the myths around it. We spent most of the rest of the time we were there trying to figure out how exactly the castle was related to Dracula. 

Looking up. 

Looking up. 

"Secret stairway" in the wall going from the 2nd to 4th floor. 

"Secret stairway" in the wall going from the 2nd to 4th floor. 

This hallway was 3ft tall. 

This hallway was 3ft tall. 

Bran Castle (bran means “gate” in Turkish) gained more widespread attention via Bram Stoker’s 1897 bestseller "Dracula". The story goes that Count Dracula tries to move from Transylvania to England to find new blood to “spread the undead curse”. Dracula lives in a castle whose description perfectly matches that of Bran Castle.  In real life at the same time, Vlad III “The Impaler”, was a prince of Wallachia (region south of Transylvania, in present day Romania) known for his bloody exploits, and signed his name “Dracula”. Although Dracula the story character lived in a castle that looked like Bran Castle, and may have been based off of Vlad The Impaler/Vlad Dracula, these pieces only have brief historical intersections outside of the fictional synthesis in the book, but enough mystery shrouds it that Bran Castle still gets recognition as “Dracula’s Castle” as we all thought upon our first sighting of it.

Although he never visited Romania himself, Bram Stoker was privy to several historical references pinpointing corners of his book. He saw the illustration of Bran Castle in Charles Boner’s book “Transylvania: Its Product and Its People” and used it as inspirational basis for Dracula’s Castle. (Also, no other castle in Romania fits this description). He did plenty of vampire folk lore research, reading Emily Gerard’s “Transylvanian Superstitions” and even claims that he had a nightmare about a vampire king rising from his grave. Although some scholars say he didn’t know about Vlad III Dracula except that he existed, references point to Vlad as the basis for the character Dracula; the original name for Stoker’s Count was Count Wampyr, as seen in early notes, but he was intrigued by the name Dracula after further research of Vlad III.

Vlad III, prince of Wallachia, aka Vlad Tepes (“The Impaler”) and Vlad “Dracula”, was born in 1431 and ruled Wallachia from 1456-1462 and in 1476. His father, Vlad II was associated with the Order of the Dragon, which fought the Muslim Ottoman empire, and signed his name Dracul, which meant Dragon, as associated with the Order. Vlad then signed his name “Dracula” as “son of Dracul”. He had the nickname “Vald The Impaler” due to his inclinations toward impaling people as his preferred method of killing. At one point, he was storied of stopping the invading Turks with the stench of all the dying people he impaled in his retreat into the mountains. He was also reported that to have occasionally eaten bread dipped in blood. 

Vlad III allied himself with the city of Bran at one point, but then passed through on a pillaging trip to punish merchants in Brasov who weren’t abiding by their agreements in trading in his Wallachian Markets. After burning the city’s suburbs, and murdering hundreds of Saxons from Transylvania, reports of Vlad were that of a “blood thirsty ruthless despot”. Beheaded in 1476 in a battle with the Turks near Bucharest, Vlad's remains were rediscovered in 1931 and brought to a museum, but the contents of his casket disappeared shortly thereafter; his mystery continues. Whether Vlad III was a psychopath, or it was just the political reality of the time, “methodical terror, mixed with irrational cruelty”, his legacy is that of his bloody exploits. Despite this, he still is a Romanian hero, the first to have a known renaissance style portrait preserved to this day.

Vlad III did have a had a castle, on a narrow rock outcropping looking over the Arges river near the village of Poenari, built in 1459 as a place of refuge. (Its ruins are now open to visitors, as well, and include a secret escape tunnel!). Vlad III’s only physical association with the Bran Castle was his imprisonment there for two months.

Bran Castle, en route to the city of Brasov for those invading from the south. Vlad's Castle to the south, in Wallachia. 

Bran Castle, en route to the city of Brasov for those invading from the south. Vlad's Castle to the south, in Wallachia. 

The Bran Castle was built by the people of Brasnov, as protection for the then-Hungarian rule from the Ottoman and Tartar invasions through the Bucar-Bran pass, from Wallachia. In 1377, the Hungarian King granted the people of Brasnov rights to build the castle, and it was completed only 11 years later. It served mainly for customs, collecting taxes of 3% on goods coming in and out of Transylvania. The "boyars" of castle had also the right to collect fees, and sold cheese and milk, manufacturing wood for extra revenue. The castle changed hands a few times, given at one point as “fief”, “property given in return for loyalty” in 1407 to Prince Mircea (Vlad’s Grandfather) an Elder of Wallachia to escape there in case of Turkish attack, but when he died, it was entrusted back to princes of Transylvania as Wallachia became unstable. Manned by professional soldiers, archers and ballisters, it did earn its keep in 1441 when they defeated a Turkish invasion at Bran. The castle lost its strategic importance though in 1836 when the border moved. From 1888 to 1918 the city transferred the castle to the forestry service, inhabited by foresters and inspectors. 

Team USA saying their last goodbyes before heading into the castle.... 

Team USA saying their last goodbyes before heading into the castle.... 

Shortly after Transylvania became part of greater Romania (1920), the Bran Castle was given to Queen Marie of Romania (1920). She lived there briefly full time, but then had it renovated to become a summer residence for the family. The most notable of these- the 57m deep well in the courtyard no longer was a sufficient water source, so they piped in water, and turned well shaft to an elevator for Queen Marie to lift up and down from the castle to the town and park below, as she became less mobile due to arthritis. Queen Marie died in 1938, but after her death, her heart was transported back to Bran in a fancy sarcophagus, and “placed into a crypt chapel carved into the rock across the valley from the Castle”. We didn’t visit that, had I known it was there we definitely would have! Her daughter Princess Illeana fled the country during communist regime (they turned it into a museum), but it was restored in 1993, and repossessed by its legal heirs in 2009, now open as a museum today.

Upon our visit to the castle, my prior (lack of knowledge) surrounding Romania and the castle consisted of smatterings of the story of Dracula, some vampires, and the mysterious name “Transylvania”. Transylvania translates to “the land beyond the forest”, and vampire mythology and folk lore go a long way back; the most highly developed vampire mythology originates in Eastern Europe . Until just half a century ago in Bran, “it was believed that there existed certain living people – ‘strigoi’ who were leading a normal life during the day, but at night, during their sleep, their souls left their bodies and hauted the village tormenting people in their sleep”. These demons, vampires, can only be “helped to find the final rest of his body and soul like the normal deceased” by impaling the corpse on a stake, decapitating it, or burning it. Thus come the stories of killing vampires with stakes and garlic. I’d risk it to believe that it’s not just a coincidence that Vlad’s preferred killing method was through impaling, and one of the only ways to kill a vampire is via impaling on a stake; Vlad the Impaler’s blood thirsty nature might have contributed itself to the vampire folklore, becoming even further intertwined in the story of Dracula.

All of this on the table, we do know for sure that “what is really true is that Bran castle conjures up the perfect fairy-tale image of a Transylvanian castle”, that Vlad III was imprisoned for two months in the castle when the Hungarian King captured him in 1462, and also that his grandfather, Mircea, was bequeathed the castle for a brief period of time. Other than these brief intersections, the story of Vlad the Impaler and the Castle Bran are separate entities, brought together into a more mysterious existence by Stoker’s Dracula.  

Bran Castle has been my jumping off point to a period of Transylvania’s blood-ridden history, thanks to Vlad III and the associated vampire folklore, brought to Western attention via Stoker’s Dracula. These connections are made all the more intriguing by being able to be transported in person back through the centuries in exploring the castle itself. Although potentially disheartening to learn that Dracula himself didn’t actually live in the Bran Castle, and that he probably didn't exist in real life (besides in a few of Vlad III's darkest moments...), it’s been fascinating to understand how these stories intertwine and shape the ideas we have of this vampire mythology and the points of interest associated with it.

In spite of the lack of the snow in Rasnov, I’m feeling pretty lucky that U23s World Championships plopped us right at the center of such an interesting history, one that is certainly unique to that place.

I wouldn't mind living here...

I wouldn't mind living here...