“I want you to believe — believe in things you cannot.”
~ Bram Stoker
By Nancy Van Veen
The villages and woodlands of Transylvania are eerie, haunted places. Traveling through darkly beautiful forests, past abandoned factories and houses towards my destination of Brasov and Bran Castle, I could understand how Bram Stoker drew inspiration (from mere photographs) for his epic tale of Dracula. The area is so steeped in history, legend and bloodlust that even a steely-eyed rationalist like me got goosebumps and felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
The town of Brasov has a lost-in-time, otherworldly ambiance. The surrounding Carpathian Mountains feel like they’re staring down upon you sinisterly, trapping you. The Medieval atmosphere is just so intoxicating here that you quickly fall under its spell. I kicked off my stay with an enchanting evening featuring traditional Romanian food and wines, enhanced with lively folklore music and dancing.
I spent hours meandering through the cobblestone streets and narrow alleys of Brasov. The colourful Baroque architecture, fountains and statues are breathtaking! The Gothic Black Church is among the oldest in Eastern Europe and looms spookily over the town square. Torrential thunder and lightning storms are a common occurrence there in the spring and we got caught in a doozy! The rain pelted so wickedly that we scurried for whatever shelter we could find and found ourselves under a teeny awning with a young Romanian girl. I told her Transylvania was beautiful. She looked at me with melancholic eyes and replied, “Yes, but you cannot eat beautiful.”
The impoverished gypsy children we encountered were heartbreaking and mischievous. Progress creeps forward very slowly there. Horse and cart are still a common mode of transportation. The rural people, by and large, remain simple and superstitious.
On the bucket list of any trip to Transylvania is Bran Castle — aka Dracula’s Castle! The castle was completed in 1382, initially serving as a military fortress defending the border of Romania and Wallachin. In later years Romanian royalty called it home. The nefarious Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad II Dracul, was a brutal Wallachin ruler, yet he is held in high regard for thwarting invading forces. Vlad’s real castle lies nearby in total ruins, but he did indeed have a connection to Bran and there is some evidence he was imprisoned in the fortress in 1462.
Admittedly, the castle is not nearly as horrifying and melodramatic as depicted in countless films. But when you climb the steep cliff, pass the ominous stone cross, enter the threshold and ascend the highest tower to peer down upon on the sweeping fields below — you get why this was such an important stronghold. And being a bona-fide horror flick junkie, I could envision with morbid detail the rotting corpses of would-be marauders impaled on stakes and left on display as a warning, which was Vlad’s trademark — eek!
Bran Castle has been through numerous restorations and now hosts a private museum exhibiting impressive antiquities, art and furnishings collected by Queen Marie. It has many nifty features, including a hidden passage, claustrophobic winding staircases, a dungeon, a wishing well, plus lovely towers and terraces. Our theatrical and comical guide made the tour entertaining and adventurous. The village below has a campy Dracula-themed market. It was hilarious shopping for cheesy vampire souvenirs after exploring Bran Castle.
Count Dracula and Vlad Tepes’ connection may be fictional, but a trippy place like Transylvania and Bran Castle make it bloody easy to believe in things you cannot! It was an atmospheric and fascinating journey, but I fear it left me feeling quite drained…