From its foundation on the naked rock near the riverbed, the fortress of Bran rises majestically above the valley. An imposing, yet graceful structure that seems to be gazing down upon the hordes of visitors that flock to its entry. The ticket line is about 40 minutes long, but luckily the booth is adjacent to a local market, so people can take turns to stand in line. There are lots of stalls to browse. From food, to folk costumes, to local crafts and all sorts of souvenirs for vampire enthusiasts, you can find almost everything. “Are we gonna see Dracula inside?” jokes a teenager as he hands over his money to the cashier in the ticket booth. For most people, Bran Castle in Transylvania, Romania, will evoke one name only: Dracula! The cashier smiles but doesn’t say anything. She might not know that Bran Castle isn’t as closely connected to Dracula as people think. Or maybe she knows but she doesn’t want to break the spell.
Bram Stoker’s character –Dracula– is a Transylvanian Count who lives in a castle perched on a steep rock, high above a narrow valley in the Principality of Transylvania. Dracula is associated with Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), a Walachian Prince whose castle was in fact at Poenari, now in ruins.
In reality, Bram Stocker never visited Romania, but he depicted Dracula’s castle based on a description of Bran Castle that was available at the turn-of-the-century in Britain. His character’s name –Dracula– derives from an appellation of Vlad Tepes, the ruler of Wallachia (1456-1462), who was also called Vlad Dracul. Dracul was a title from the knightly order of the dragon whose mission was to defend Christianity. Vlad Tepes was a great military leader and a hero to his people, but he was perceived as a bloodthirsty, ruthless despot, because he was very cruel to his enemies (therefore the association of his name with the vampires.)
Bram Stoker drew his inspiration for his story from one of the local legends. Until about a century ago, people in the villages near Bran believed in the existence of evil spirits called strigoi (ghosts). The strigoi looked like normal people leading a normal life during the day, but at night their souls left their bodies haunting the village and tormenting people. They had the ability to transform into animals that would drain the vitality of their victims by sucking their blood. These evil spirits could only haunt at night – from midnight until the first cockcrow – when their power to harm faded. The strigoi are also known as vampires, hence Stoker’s bloodthirsty character.
Struggling Through History
Like many other castles in the area, Bran was established as a fortress in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights –a catholic religious order formed in Palestine during the late 12th century. The knights were brought here to defend the Southeastern border of Transylvania from the Cumans and the Pechenegs.
In 1377 the Hungarian King Louis I of Anjou issued a document granting to the people of Brasov the privilege of building a castle. The castle was built in a very strategic location: up on a high cliff within a narrow gorge, on the passageway between Transylvania and Wallachia (in old Romania).
Over the course of history the castle changed hands many times, passing from King Sigismund of Luxembourg to his ally, Prince Mircea the Elder of Wallachia, then to the Princes of Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler’s only connection with Bran was through an alliance with the Princes of Transylvania, who requested him to handle the anti-Ottoman resistance at the border. However, other than fighting a number of campaigns in the area around Bran, there is not much else that can link him to the fortress.
In 1500, one of the Kings of Hungary borrowed a large sum of money from the town of Brasov mortgaging the Castle of Bran. After the expiration of the term (which lasted for 35 years), the Hungarian King wasn’t able to repay his debt, so Bran Castle became the property of the town of Brasov, which began using it as a customhouse for the merchants crossing the Bran Pass.
Bran Castle in Modern Times
By 1836, after the border between Transylvania and Wallachia was moved to the mountains, Bran lost its military and commercial importance. The Revolution of 1848 left the magnificent medieval fortress in ruins. In 1920, after Transylvania became part of Greater Romania, Bran Castle was donated to Queen Marie of Romania (born into the British royal family) who turned it into her favorite royal residence in the years after the First World War.
Extremely talented and a very astute decorator, the Queen used her feminine touch to transform the place into a fairytale home. She enlarged the windows, built new spiral stairs, installed telephone lines, tap water and electricity and even an elevator. The area around the Castle was turned into an English Park with two ponds and a Tea House. Queen Marie also added a guesthouse, a wooden church, staff housing, stables and a garage.
After the Queen’s death in 1938, Bran Castle was passed on to Princess Ileana, her daughter, now married to Archduke Anton of Austria. Queen Marie was buried next to her husband in the Monastery of Curtea de Arges. In accordance to her will, her heart was kept in a cloister at the Balchik Palace (now in Bulgaria), which she had built. The Queen’s heart was placed in a silver box, covered with a double-faced flag: on one side was the Romanian flag –representing her royal duties, and on the other side the English flag, representing her English origin. The Queen’s heart was transferred to Bran Castle in 1940 when Balchik was returned to Bulgaria. In 1948, the newly installed communist regime in Romania seized all the royal properties, so Bran Castle became again the property of the Romanian State.
In 1956 Bran Castle was transformed into a museum with three departments: Royal Heritage, Medieval Customs and Ethnography. Currently, Bran Castle fully re-entered in the possession of its legal heirs, Archduke Dominic, Archduchess Maria Magdalena and Archduchess Elisabeth, the tree children of Ileana.
Visiting Bran Castle
Bram Stoker’s story brought a lot of fame and glory to Bran Castle. Today Transylvania is not so much known for its stunning natural beauty and medieval towns, as it is for being the home of Dracula. But along with Dracula’s fame came the inevitable vampire themed tourism. English speaking tourists began flocking to Romania in search of, well, vampires. Although Poenari Fortress is the real Dracula castle, it did not raise to fame because of its isolated location. So people continue to come to Bran Castle, which became the preferred tourist destination mainly due to its proximity to Bucharest, just a 2.5 hours drive.