If you think of Romania, you can’t help but think of Bran Castle or, as it is often called, Dracula’s Castle. This 13th-century fortification is positioned between the Romanian regions of Transylvania and Wallachia and looks across wild mountains forested with tall pine trees, and the plains below that run towards Brasov. More easily accessible by road than rail, it is the number one tourist destination for visitors to Romania, and one of the top destinations for anyone wanting to see the castle that Bram Stoker allegedly wrote about in his classic 1897 novel. Except, of course, he didn’t.
In recent history, the castle was home to Queen Marie of Romania before the Communist Government confiscated it. Some time after Ceaușescu met his messy end, it was returned to the Queen’s surviving Habsburg family and has been open to the public since 2009. If there were auditions for ‘castle most suited to a Victorian, Gothic novel’, then Bran would clearly get the part. It looks right. It is imposing, creepy, and surrounded by mountains. It has hidden tunnels, arches, old stonework and everything you expect a good Hollywood ‘vampire castle’ to have. Everything, that it, except any association with the most famous vampire of them all, Dracula.
Still, the desire to see the place lives as long in the hearts of all Dracula fans as a driven stake in the heart of a dead vampire.
The Dracula Connection
For me, Bran Castle was the number one destination for my 50th birthday trip to Romania. Since first reading Dracula at the age of eleven, I had wanted to see the wild and mysterious Carpathian Mountains. I carried that ambition with me all the way to fifty when, with my husband, I finally had the chance to visit the castle from my favourite novel of all time. By then, I knew that there was nothing that associated Bran Castle with Dracula, and very little connected it to Vlad Tepes. Vlad ‘The Impaler’ was the son of a noble, Vlad II, Dracul, and ruled Wallachia off and on in the 15th century. Dracula was and is fiction.
The old Romanian word for ‘Dragon’, Dracul has now come to mean ‘evil’, and its diminutive, Dracula, is what Vlad II’s might have called his son. That, you may think, is a good enough reason to suppose that Stoker named his character after ‘Vlad the Impaler.’ It’s true, he did read many books from the creaking comfort of dusty old libraries in England, and he did find inspiration in the ruined Slains Caste near Cruden Bay in Scotland, but Stoker never actually visited Romania, and certainly never came as close to Bran Castle as I did. The original name for his character was Count Wampyr. Imagine telling your friends you were going to visit Wampyr Castle; they’d probably laugh at you.
Vlad earned his rather messy nickname, ‘The Impaler’ from a habit he had of slowly impaling his victims (domestic and foreign) on wooden stakes. But Vlad never lived in the castle; not willingly at any rate. The castle guides will tell you that Vlad Tepes was imprisoned there for a short while, but that’s about as far as it goes.
Visiting Bran Castle
I was staying for a few days 30 Km away at Brasov, another ‘must visit’ for anyone heading towards the Carpathian Mountains. Unable to find a guide, in March, willing to drive us to Bran and show us around, we took the slightly dodgy step of hiring a taxi driver and his car for the morning. For a fee of €30.00 each, he guided us to a few interesting places we would not have otherwise have been able to see (as we were travelling Romania by train), and finally took us to Bran to see the castle. A line from the novel came back to me as we raced along flat roads from Râșnov at breakneck speed, “For the dead travel fast.” I advise seatbelts and insurance if being driven in a Romanian taxi.
I was looking forward to seeing the castle in its craggy place, threatening medieval villages and shrouded by mists with a full moon behind it. That is, after all, how Dracula’s Castle is usually depicted. Instead, we drove into a car park attached to a shopping area that was as full of Dracula tat as Van Helsing’s medical bag was full of holy water. I wondered when Disney had taken over management of Bran. It hasn’t, of course, but it might as well have. If you want a T-shirt, fridge magnet, cap, cup, or codpiece with Dracula, Vampires or Vlad emblazoned on it, there’s your first port of call.
The approach to the castle
We left our driver, bought our ticket (Approx €7.50) and walked up the incline towards the front door. That was the first thing that struck me. Bran Castle has a front door, closed, and I wondered if I should politely knock. You’d expect a drawbridge or barbican and the castle did originally have one, but that has long gone. Instead, after a flight of stairs, you are met with double doors and a warm gift shop. We were also met with snow. It blew from the mountain trees on a strong wind that cut through my clothes to the bone. The castle is situated in a somewhat inhospitable place after all. In the old days, you would have been met with arrows and possibly boiling oil; now you are greeted by guide books and some very attractive, handmade, souvenirs, and it’s all much cosier.
Inside Castle Bran
The second thing that struck me was that the castle was a home. Once taken back from the Ceaușescu Government, it was restored to the previous Queen’s glory, or as close to it as possible. Its exhibits show her and her family’s life, with furnished salons and bedrooms. There are displays of armour and Romanian history, and these are all well worth reading as you wander around. There is a vaguely fixed route to follow through the rooms and courtyard. In March, in the cold, it was relatively quiet though there were still plenty of visitors taking selfies among the display of medieval torture equipment. By the way, you should pay another fee of 20 Ron (roughly €4.40) to take photos inside, but no-one appeared to be checking.
In the courtyard, the third thing that struck me was part of the castle itself. The high winds blew a chunk of render from one of the towers, and it caught me a slight tap on the head. At the time, I was wondering how many of my fellow tourists had also come to see a castle that had nothing to do with an imaginary Dracula. Perhaps he was there, throwing pieces of masonry down at me for having such thoughts. If that was the case, I got off lightly, all blood-sucking things considered.
After your visit
A good 90 minutes was enough time to see the castle inside and out, but you might want to leave time for a walk around the neighbourhood. You could also set aside several hours to study each knickknack stall in detail and take a bite to eat from one of the taverns. Visitors to the area will find many places to eat and drink.
Castle finally investigated after 40 years of ambition, our taxi driver raced us back to Brașov. Once again, I couldn’t help but quote Bram Stoker, or rather, the undead man himself, “For the dead travel fast.” In Romania, so do the living, but the undead? Sorry, the undead never actually travelled to Bran Castle.