We had come to Transylvania to discover its rugged landscape and rich heritage, not out of a sole interest for the legend of Dracula. But of course, we couldn’t ignore the myth. It was all over our paper guide and all over our imagination too. Whether we liked it or not, Dracula was forever linked to this wild region of Romania and we just had to go visit the castle that had supposedly inspired Bram Stoker into writing his masterpiece.
Yet, we chose to start the day with another castle. The Rasnov fortress was much closer to Brasov, the city we had decided to use as our base for a few days. Plus, the Bran Castle, otherwise known as Dracula’s Castle, wouldn’t open until 12PM on Mondays.
There wasn’t much traffic up to Rasnov but we had to stop the car many times due to road renovations, which seemed a bit of a national sport throughout our trip. Painstakingly, we still made it to the small town of Rasnov though, only twenty minutes later than expected.
The air was still a bit chilly in the morning and when we first saw Rasnov, it was capped in mist and fog, only adding to the character of this medieval fortress standing atop a hill. We tried to drive to the parking lot but quickly figured that the two-digit price we’d have to pay was more than the entrance fee to the fortress itself so we backtracked and decided to walk to the castle instead.
We had two choices. Either we could walk all the way up on a winding path leading to the gates of the citadel, either we could ride some sort of shuttle, which was actually just a vintage tractor truck pulling a wagon. When we saw that the shuttle stopped at a dinosaur themed park, just a few miles ahead of the citadel, we just knew that walking was the best option.
The walk wasn’t too steep and it only took us about fifteen minutes to reach the fortress, where we were welcomed by a man playing the violin, whose tune stayed with us for the entire day. As expected, the price to access the inside of the monument was a bargain.
Indeed, there wasn’t much left to see within the walls of the citadel, which had been built as a defence system protecting Transylvanian villages against outside invasions in this part of Europe that had been conquered so many times throughout history. Rasnov had kept its outside walls standing and most of the buildings inside were still up too, although its main inhabitants were now stray kittens playing hide and seek and a handful of shop keepers trying to make a buck out of worn-out souvenirs.
What really stole the show was the view from the top of the citadel though. On one side, we could see the colourful houses of the Rasnov village, sitting quietly in a plain. On the other, we could only imagine the depth of the woods covering mountains and stretching far in the horizon. Bears were probably roaming in these woods as we stood watching. Perhaps vampires were hunting there too. This coniferous forest seemed impenetrable, a natural barrier, which was only fit to serve the purpose of the fortress as well as our rampant imagination.
From the ground the fortress was less menacing, and especially so because of the Hollywood-ish sign that had been placed in front of it and diminished its grandeur. Yet it still looked fiery, protecting the village of Brasnov and its tiny houses like doll houses, each one a different colour. Surprisingly, there was no tourist walking down the streets of this charming village except for us and a couple metal heads back from a metal festival that was taking place at the feet of the fortress. Bran castle was a different story.
Once again, it took us a while to get to our destination as we had to stop every five minutes at a red light because of alternate traffic circulation due to road repairs. Thankfully, the rugged landscape in the background was enough to keep us entertained. Other than that, we just stared at a shepherd leading his herd with a stick, almost bought some wild berries to vendors on the side of the road and then eventually, we arrived in Bran thirty minutes later than expected but still at 12PM, at the exact time when the castle would open.
As we could immediately see from the endless line of cars driving by the town’s main street, we weren’t the only ones with that brilliant idea. Tourists had been rather scarce so far but not anymore. On every landmark we had visited, souvenir shops had been pretty scarce too, until now. The line of shops was as long as the line of tourists and we were wondering who would buy these hideous 3D vampire mug cups that were on sale everywhere or go into the haunted house that looked even lamer than the one at my town’s yearly Easter fair.
It was only reasonable for those shops to bank on Dracula’s name though as all tourists were only there because of it. As it turned out, it was also our only chance to actually dig in the vampire’s myth since the Bran castle had nothing to do with Vlad Tepes, the historical character also known as Vlad the Impaler who supposedly inspired Bram Stoker.
In reality, Bran Castle had been first built by the Knights of the Teutonic Order in the 13th century. Later destroyed by the Huns, the castle had then been rebuilt as a line of defence against the Ottomans before being held, in turn, by Wallachian and Hungarian rulers. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the castle had become a royal residence within the newly formed Kingdom of Romania and a residence of choice for Queen Marie specifically.
No historical evidence pointed to the fact that Vlad Tepes had had a significant role in the history of the castle and no historical evidence either showed that Bram Stoker had established Bran as Dracula’s lair.
The artefacts on display within the castle made a point of that by focusing on the actual history of the place, leaving furniture to a bare minimum, which was a coherent but somewhat bold choice, considering almost every visitor on site had come all the way here because of Dracula. One of the only infringements of that rule was an exhibition of instruments of torture and a creepy, barely lit staircase leading from one floor to another.
A common misconception about the place, or perhaps a common delusion, had brought us all here. A myth had turned an interesting but rather peripheral castle into Romania’s most prominent tourist landmark. Or maybe, from a pragmatic standpoint, was it just a wise marketing decision. Either way, we were living proof that this strategy had worked wonders.
Not every castle in the country had the potential to become such a tourist magnet and Bran was exactly the right candidate due to its beautiful landscape and commanding beauty. There were other beautiful castles in the country which didn’t attract half as many tourists since the name of Dracula didn’t shine on them.
As the day drew a close, we decided to visit yet another castle to enjoy sunset views over the city of Brasov. We therefore walked up the Brasov fortress, which couldn’t possibly have what it takes to win the title of Dracula’s Castle.
Yet, the place had a local charm to it and it delivered amazing views on the city of Brasov, both on the ancient town and on the modern part of the city with its concrete buildings and factories. At this moment, we begged farewell to vampires and legends to just enjoy the multifaceted, raw Romanian beauty.