In Search of Count Dracula

By Thom Hickling
Bran, Romania

Myth, legend, history and Hollywood are hopelessly intertwined while searching Romania for the truth of Dracula. Transylvania has become synonymous with the vampires and werewolves thanks to literature and Hollywood. But driving from Bucharest into the Carpathian Mountains as the autumn leaves turn orange and gold isn’t scary at all. It’s inspiring.

The majestic peaks poke into the wispy clouds on the approach to the village of Bran, about 70 miles north of Bucharest. This is the home of “Dracula’s Castle.” Built in 1377 – 1382, it certainly looks like a vampire’s residence with its stark stone towers, ramparts, and fortified walls that reach to the sky from a 197-foot rock bluff surrounded by dense woods and steep mountains. A misty drizzle began to fall that heightened the mystery surrounding this fortress.

As you make the climb to tour Bran Castle, you pass gypsy vendor’s stalls hocking t-shirts, masks, ashtrays, heavy wool sweaters and the most varied assortment of Dracula souvenirs to be found anywhere in the world. But there’s just one small detail that’s been overlooked. Dracula never lived here!

The most famous resident of this important Transylvania landmark was Queen Marie of Romania, wife of King Ferdinand, the most beloved Romanian King. She was true royalty as her paternal grandmother was Queen Victoria of the England and her maternal grandfather was Alexander II of Russia. She called it ‘a pugnacious little fortress.”

Wandering through Bran Castle’s hidden passageways, secret chambers and spiraling staircases, it’s easy to see why this castle has become the centerpiece of the Dracula legend. It’s perfect. Displays of feudal art, weapons, statues, and furniture adorn the castle. The views of the village and the mountains from the castle windows are spectacular

It’s possible that Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), the 15th century prince of Wallachia, attacked this castle during his rule, but he never lived here. The only link between the historical Vlad and mythical Count Dracula is the 1897 novel by Irish writer, Bram Stoker. Stoker created the blood-sucking corpse in a coffin that became animated by nightfall, and terrorized villages with his blood lust. All that Stoker knew about Vlad or Transylvania he uncovered doing research in London Libraries. The rest was his imagination.

Vlad the Impaler was the son of Vlad Dracul, the local governor and a knight of the Dragon Order serving under a Hungarian king that ruled the region. The Dragon Order was a religious military order created to protect Christianity and from invading Turks. The Order minted coins with the dragon on them. The knight’s coat of arms contained a dragon too. The Romanian language is derived from the old Roman Latin and the word for dragon was “dracul.” That’s how Vlad’s father got his name.

In Romanian folklore, the dragon is associated with the devil. The younger Vlad called himself Draculea, the Devil’s son…or Devil Jr., if you like.

Vlad the Impaler in a princely fashion, but his childhood was far from being happy. Both his father and elder brother were tortured and assassinated by the boyars (aristocracy) of Tirgoviste.

The Turks held Vlad as a slave for some years. His family was out of power in Transylvania. But as the irony of the fate, Vlad regained his position as prince with the support of the Turks.

His name was prophetic as he proved to be cruel and controversial. He revenged his father and brother by impaling all boyars who were guilty of their deaths. With his cruelty he secured and consolidated his power.

Under his iron fist order was restored to the region. Crime and corruption ceased; commerce and culture thrived, and to this day, many Romanians view Vlad as a hero for his fierce insistence on honesty and order.

He turned on the Turks, one his allies, and drove them out. He managed to defeat the Turks, once his allies. In the winter of 1462, the Sultan’s sent an army three times the size of Vlads, for retribution. Vlad was forced to retreat to his capital in Tirgoviste. As he retreated, he burned his own villages and poisoned the wells so the Turkish army would have no place to rest or eat. When the Turks neared his capital, they saw the most gruesome sight. Vlad had impaled hundreds (some reports claim as many as 20,000) of Turkish captives on stakes outside the city. The place is now called the “Forest of the Impaled.” The Turks turned and fled in horror.

The Turks won in the end when they hired his younger brother to betray him. He was assassinated toward the end of December 1476.

There are several sites in Romania with more serious connections to Vlad Tepes than “Dracula’s Castle.” You can also visit his birthplace in the 14th Century town of Sighisoara. The home where he was born is now a restaurant with a small museum.

The Poenari fortress was actually built for Vlad in 1459 by Turkish prisoners near the village of Arefu. To get to the ruins, you climb about 1,500 steps. That may be one reason why Bran Castle, which is in great shape and easier to get to, has become the most popular spot for Dracula tourism.

Vlad is said to be buried in the Snagoy Monastary on a secluded island in Bucharest. But his corpse was buried headless, as the Turkish Sultan demanded that Vlad’s head be sent to Constantinople for display.

Near Bran Castle (16 miles away) is the city of Brasov. The Saxon influence is abundant in the architecture of the old part of town, which features well-preserved medieval fortifications and the famous Black Church. Brasov was an important center when Vlad ruled Transylvania. It’s certain he fought battles and impaled enemies in Brasov. Today, it’s a picturesque place to sightsee and enjoy a fine meal.

P.S. Admission to Bran Castle is only two euros and it’s open from 9 am – 6 pm everyday but Monday.