Transylvania…a destination that strikes both fear and fascination in the hearts of many. The mere mention of Transylvania conjures up images of a blood sucking vampire stalking about a gothic castle in search of victims for his next meal. At least until just before daybreak, when he must hurry back to his coffin lest the first rays of morning light melt him into a shimmering pool of evil goo. I’m talking about Dracula, of course, and make no mistake…Dracula is real. Or at least, he was.
Our recent trip to Transylvania was not something I thought I would be keen to do, nor did I expect to pay a visit to Dracula’s Castle. Yet there I was, in the dead of night with Janet next me (shades of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, except my name isn’t Brad), standing right where Count Dracula once stood, waiting to experience excruciating pain as he sunk his vampire fangs deep into the soft tissue of my neck, sucking the blood out of me to sustain his own immortally evil soul. The mere thought of being there brought goose bumps to my arms and caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end in fearful anticipation.
Actually, that’s all a bunch of crap. I’m not a big a fan of the Dracula legend, never have been. I haven’t even read Bram Stoker’s gothic horror story. Nor, as an impressionable adolescent, did I watch Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows though I must confess as an adult to having enjoyed the antics of Sesame Street’s child-safe version of the Dracula character, Count von Count. The things we do for our grandchildren. The reason I found our recent excursion to Transylvania so interesting was that I discovered the region to be unexpectedly scenic and rich in history. The real kind, not fiction.
If you are one of those for whom the name Transylvania conjures up all manner of evil, it might surprise you to learn Transylvania simply means “beyond the forest” in medieval Latin. That’s an apt description. Transylvania is located in central Romania at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, a scenic area surrounded by forests that are peaceful and idyllic, and well worth a one- or two-day excursion if your travels take you to Romania. But if you go, be prepared. Not for vampires, but for stories about vampires. Romania’s tourism industry has invested heavily in marketing Transylvania’s storied role as home to Dracula the Vampire.
I learned quite a bit about Dracula during my brief visit to Romania, both the man and the macabre legend surrounding him. I learned that he was indeed a real person who lived in a medieval gothic castle, though it was in neighboring Wallachia rather than Transylvania. I even learned that the Dracula of history may very well have consumed human blood, at least on one occasion. But I also learned that he was no evil vampire, rather he was a medieval hero, at least to some.
Today’s Transylvania is a district in central Romania with a rich history dating back to the Dacian civilization of the Iron Age. Control of the area has changed hands too many times to count (pun intended), from its earliest days as part of the Dacian Empire to its conquest by the Huns, then the Goths, the Slavs, the Bulgarians, the Hungarians, the Ottomans, the Hungarians again…well you get the picture.
It seems everyone in that part of the world wanted to control Transylvania, and with good reason. It was rumored to be the secret hideaway of the Dacian Empire’s treasury of gold. Even after the Dacian gold was long gone, if it ever existed in the first place, the region was still an attractive target for conquest because of its strategic location along a key trade route through the Carpathian Mountains. Control of medieval Transylvania meant control of trade into the heart of Europe.
Transylvania is truly idyllic, with the forests surrounding the Carpathian Mountains blending into forested foothills, and eventually the forested mountains themselves. It is striking in its beauty and begs to be explored. The area is also rich with history, which for history buffs is reason enough to visit. But it is most popular with Europeans seeking an escape, at least for a short while, to the peaceful solitude of a retreat “beyond the forest.”
That wasn’t enough for the Romanian tourism industry. They wanted more, so to ensure a steady stream of tourists they embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign seeking to capitalize on Transylvania’s legendary role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula story. Their efforts have been wildly successful. And though vampires aren’t real, Dracula is. And there are just enough elements of truth to the legend that has become Dracula to make his real life’s story really interesting.
The Dracula story, the true part anyway, starts in the late 14th century with Vlad II, Voivode of Wallachia. Viovode was a medieval title used for the semi-independent rulers of the region. Not quite a King but close, and like Transylvania, Wallachia was one of several medieval fiefdoms that still exist today as part of modern Romania. It was strategically located next to the all-important medieval trade routes through Transylvania, making it a highly desirable piece of real estate.
Vlad II was the illegitimate son of one of the early rulers of Wallachia. Illegitimacy aside, or perhaps because of it, Vlad spent his youth sequestered at the court of Sigismund of Luxembourg, then King of Hungary and Croatia and eventually Holy Roman Emperor. As a member of Sigismund’s court, Vlad also became a member of the Order of the Dragon, a monarchical chivalric order founded by Sigismund for selected higher aristocracy and monarchs. Basically Sigismund’s cool kid’s club.
Vlad II’s status in the Order of the Dragon earned him the nickname Vlad the Dragon which, in his native Wallachian, was expressed as Vlad Dracul. You can see where this is going.
Vlad II had several children but his second son, Vlad III, would eventually inherit the title of Viovode of Wallachia, and along with it the nickname Vlad, Son of the Dragon, or Vlad Dracul-a. And that’s where the legend begins.
While the peasants of Wallachia enjoyed the protection Vlad Dracul-a provided them and considered him to be a benevolent leader, the Nobels of Wallachia and his own siblings did not. Out of jealousy and greed, they turned mutinous and sought to unseat Vlad III as ruler of Wallachia. Rather than soiling their own hands with Vlad’s blood, they solicited support from Saxon settlers in neighboring Transylvania to raid and pillage Wallachia, hoping they would eliminate Vlad Dracul-a in the process, allowing them to take control of Wallachia for themselves. They failed.
To get back at his Nobels, Vlad Dracul-a strengthened Wallachia’s border with Transylvania and launched retaliatory raids into the Saxon villages that had targeted Wallachia, plundering them and capturing Saxon prisoners in the process. Vlad took the Saxon prisoners back to Wallachia where he had them summarily executed by impalement on spikes, after which he put their impaled bodies on display for all to see. It was an effort to discourage his mutinous Nobels from continuing in their efforts to unseat him. It didn’t work, but it did earn Vlad the really cool nickname of Vlad the Impaler, which is how he is best known today.
Impalement was a particularly cruel form of execution in Vlad’s time, but it wasn’t altogether uncommon. Another practice at the time was for the victor to drink the blood of those he vanquished in battle, and it is at least possible that Vlad drank the blood of some of the Saxon prisoners he had executed. Maybe.
Vlad’s enemies used the impalement incident to mount a rumor mongering campaign against him. If they couldn’t assassinate Vlad at least they could bring him down a notch by assassinating his character. That part of their scheme worked….their malicious rumors spread quickly throughout the region and into more established settlements in Germany and Italy. With additional embellishments along the way, the Wallachian Nobels’ rumor mongering gave birth to the legend of Vlad Dracul-a as a cruel, inhuman figure with a thirst for human blood.
Fast-forward a couple of hundred years to the late 19th century, when Irish author Bram Stoker was forming the characters for his gothic horror story. Stoker is believed to have used the now highly embellished legend of Vlad the Impaler as the basis for his Dracula character. By the time of Stoker’s novel, the translation of the name Vlad Dracul-a had morphed from the noble Vlad, Son of the Dragon to the ignoble Vlad Dracula, Devil incarnate. While not historically accurate, it did serve as the inspiration for the more interesting and sinister lead character in Stoker’s gothic horror novel.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula story built on the legend of Vlad the Impaler by setting part of the story in a hilltop castle in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. According to scholars, Stoker’s choice of setting came about after a visit he made to the region, but nothing in his notes suggested he used a real-world Transylvanian castle as the model for his Dracula’s Castle. Rather, scholars believe Stoker used a composite of several castles he was familiar with in England and Ireland, which he then set in Transylvania, transforming the idyllic setting of the forested foothills into basically the most creepy and otherworldly evil place you could imagine.
Fast forward another hundred or so years and Romania’s tourism industry decided to cash in on the global interest in the Dracula story. As part of their marketing campaign, they selected Transylvania’s Bran Castle as the “real” Dracula’s castle. Although historically inaccurate, at least so far as Vlad the Impaler is concerned, Bran Castle fit the bill for their tourism campaign quite nicely. It is a medieval gothic style castle situated on a hilltop in a Carpathian Mountain pass in Transylvania, just as Stoker described. The fact that Stoker’s castle was pure fabrication, and that Vlad Dracul-a lived in neighboring Wallachia was unimportant. Why let reality get in the way of a good marketing plan?
Historically speaking Bran Castle is a valley castle, a castle built in a valley between mountains, usually on a high point of land giving it strategic control over a key passage through the valley. Those features also meant it had a wicked nighttime silhouette. It was built in the late 14th Century by the Saxons of Kronstadt (known as Brasov today) initially to provide protection for German Saxon colonists in the region…the same Saxons that would later invade Wallachia during Vlad Dracul-a’s time as Viovode.
In real life, by the time Vlad became known as Vlad the Impaler, Bran Castle served a more mundane but practical everyday purpose, much in the same manner as valley castles throughout Europe. It was the medieval version of a toll booth on a busy trade route…traders weren’t allowed to pass until they paid a tax levied by the local government. Which I suppose is a different form of sucking the blood out of travelers visiting the castle.
No amount of scholarly myth busting has deterred the Romanian tourism industry from aggressively marketing Bran Castle as the Dracula’s Castle of Stoker’s gothic horror story, and it has become a popular attraction for tourists to the region. Local tour guides wax darkly poetic about vampires and the role this Romanian landmark played in the Dracula story, but it is all just a further embellishment of an already highly embellished legend.
That rather pedestrian version of Bran Castle’s history aside, a visit to the castle is a worthwhile outing if you are into medieval castles, and the surrounding scenery is drop dead gorgeous. But there is nothing sinister or otherworldly about it, so you can leave the garlic necklaces and wooden stakes behind if you choose to visit. Or can you? I survived my nighttime visit, but maybe I just got lucky and visited the castle when Dracula was away on a book signing tour!