Get ready to answer your doorbell bearing bowls full of candy and other treats because the kids are coming in those colorful and sometimes strange outfits. These trick or treaters will have their loot-bags at the ready. Halloween means the younger ghouls and goblins will be working their neighborhoods in search of a treat while their older counterparts will be settled in at home around the big-screen TV watching the usual spate of Halloween movies that feature an extra measure of blood and gore. Michael Myers, for instance, who murdered his sister in 1963, manages to escape from the mental hospital and return to the small town of Haddonfield to kill again – always, it seems, on the last night in October. So with Halloween upon us, I have decided to write about my visit to a genuinely scary place–Dracula’s Castle near Brasov, Romania.
It was a cloudy November day when I boarded the train at Bucharest Central Station for the two-and-a-half hour journey to Brasov. With the chaotic scenes of the capital city behind, the train began its northward journey meandering through beautiful landscapes that are typically Romanian: flat plains, light green rolling hills, dense dark green forests, and of course, the Carpathian Mountains – the second longest mountain range in all of Europe and easily one of its most beautiful.
My seat was in a compartment I shared with a young Romanian couple and their small son. The three seemed a bit fascinated and inquisitive about the tall, lanky foreigner who was obviously NOT an experienced Romanian train traveler seated across from them. After a few minutes, just as a light snow began to fall, the mother opened a bag and offered cookies all round. That kind gesture, together with the snow diverted their attention away from their foreign seat mate.
After more than an hour, the train approached the beautiful Carpathian Mountains and the snowfall became heavier. The houses along the tracks were covered in a blanket of snow adding to the their old-world beauty. In fact it seemed to me the weather was befitting this place as the train crossed into Transylvania – a location associated with the dark side! Transylvania is home to some of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns, most notably Brasov, featuring Old Saxon architecture, citadel ruins, cobblestone streets and pastel-colored houses. Tiny shops offer antiques and fine hand-made products by local artisans. Nearby are stunning Gothic fairy-tale castles from long-ago centuries. As the largest region in Romania and certainly its best known, Transylvania reflects a diverse mixture of cultures and history, and is a place where these rich traditions converge. Here Romanians, Hungarians, and Saxons cohabit in peaceful solidarity .
As I stepped off the train in Brasov I was immediately struck by this rustic and beautiful little Romanian town. I was quite surprised that a place of such unspoiled beauty still existed in Europe. One traveler who visited here in 1934 noted that he spent “a blessed and happy spell” in Transylvania which was “the very essence and symbol of remote, leafy, half-mythical strangeness.”
Together with its surrounding countryside, this small Romanian town forms an idyllic setting right out a travel guidebook! Here, baroque, gothic and renaissance architecture are combined in striking ways that betray a simple beauty. Even the modern-day buildings impart an understated, yet bright charm. In the afternoon I boarded a cable car that lifted me 3000 feet to the top of Mount Tampa. Here I witnessed a spectacular, panoramic view of Brasov which sports it own diminutive version of the “Hollywood” sign. I strained my eyes in an attempt to see the Bran Castle, but it was out of range from Mount Tampa.
This region is also rich in myth and misty medieval sites. There are about 100 castles and fortresses and about 70 fortified churches in the area. But for me, the castle I was most interested in was the one often associated with the mythical figure known as Count Dracula: The Bran Castle. This castle I traveled almost 6,000 miles to see is the traditional site of the residence of Count Dracula who is the leading character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published 1897). As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bran Castle has become a national landmark in Transylvania. Millions of tourists flock here to take the tour that is heavily oriented around Stoker’s novel. In truth, Bram Stoker never visited Romania, let alone Bran Castle. He wrote about the castle utilizing a description of it that was available in turn-of-the-century Britain. His vivid depiction of the castle may be seen in the etching in the first edition of “Dracula.” Many historians have noted the strikingly similarity of the Bran Castle (to the exclusion of all other Romanian castles) in Stoker’s work. Dracula – as he is perceived today – is a fictitious character whose name derives from the appellation given to Vlad Tepes, the ruler of Wallachia from 1456-1462, who for political reasons was often depicted by contemporary historians as a blood-thirsty and ruthless despot.
In Stoker’s story, Count Dracula is a 15th-century prince who is condemned to live off of human blood taken from the living. A young lawyer named Jonathan Harker is sent to Dracula’s castle to finalize a land sale, but during the course of his visit, the Count sees a photo of Harker’s fiancee, Mina, who appears to be the doppelganger of the Count’s wife who is now deceased. The Count immediately imprisons Harker and departs for London to track her down. The story revolves around the Count’s attempt to claim Mina as his bride.
Perched atop a 200-foot rock, Bran Castle is steeped in an aura of mystery and legend. It was built on the site of a Teutonic Knight’s stronghold dating from 1212. The castle was first documented in an act issued by Louis I of Hungary on November 19, 1377, giving the Saxons of Brasov the privilege to build the Citadel. Its fame arises not only from its imposing towers and turrets but also from the myth created around Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Bran Castle has been well maintained over the years. It boasts many winding staircases and rooms with appropriate items from the centuries long gone by. It has the usual secret staircases, court yard, extraordinarily thick walls, and excellent views from its large balconies. This castle is easily the best maintained of the ancient castles that I have ever visited.
In some of the tiny villages near the Bran Castle there exists a deeply held belief in evil spirits often referred to as “ghosts” or “vampires.” Many villagers believe that there are regular, completely ordinary-looking people living among them who are anything but normal. At night while these “ordinary-looking” folk are asleep, their souls leave their bodies and torment others who are really normal. These evil spirits haunt their prey from midnight until dawn, when their power to harm people disappears. These “undead suffer from the curse of immortality,” wrote Stoker, and “they pass from one period to another, multiplying their victims, augmenting the evil in the world.” The Dracula character derives from these local myths.
So yes, for those of you who like Gothic horror novels, Transylvania is definitely thought to be the playground of Count Dracula; however, not all of the local population agrees. My taxi driver, for instance, said to me with great feeling: “We don’t like all this stuff about Count Dracula. It’s nonsense.” Of course it is, I thought. You could say “there is really no need for Dracula” because there are real-life counts, castles and crags, towers, turrets, bears and bats, not to mention mist-wreathed valleys and more folk legends than you can count. But should you really wish to connect with your “inner” vampire, there is no better place on this earth to do that than Bran Castle which most likely inspired Bram Stoker’s blood-hungry creation.
Next time: “Along the Silk Road and Over Torugart Pass”