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.
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.
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.
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.
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.