At the foot of the mountain pass, tips of Gothic turrets and towers loom into sight above the stretch of dense evergreen which nestle between the Bucegi and Piatra Craiului Mountains. Having driven, (and survived!) through the Romanian winding roads since early dawn, the clouds now reveal a dramatic backdrop of ancient forests and mountain peaks. When the castle finally comes into view, distant memories of late-night films fill the impending atmosphere and we know our destination is close by in the search of Dracula.
It’s easy to find our bearings in the centre of Bran and we obediently follow the large groups of tourists all heading in the same direction. The lively market below is animated with elderly ladies dressed in headscarves and aprons who exchange goods with weather-worked hands. Their voices compete with each other to sell Dracula souvenirs and traditional crafts to the gaggles of tourists determined to bargain them down. Being as their ancestors fought against the aristocracy many times, it may prove to be a futile task. In the background, near the castle’s gates, live sounds of traditional music can be heard amongst the thrust of market life. Tourism is flourishing in this little Romanian village.
Arriving at Bran Castle, commonly known on the tourist trail as Dracula’s Castle, we dodge aside the other day-trippers and snake our way to the beginnings of a well kept track. This will lead us straight up the large steps to the main entrance doorway, which I hoped would creak very loudly as we entered. Centuries of history and legends hide behind these darkened windows and stone walls of this silent giant. It first opened in 1947 as a museum when Queen Maria of Romania received it as a gift from the people of the nearby town of Brasnov.
At the base of the Castle grounds, which itself it situated on top of two hundred feet of rock, the views of the time-honoured village and the mountains are quite mystical. Once inside the castle, there is a labyrinth of rooms, staircases and towers that house weaponry, amour and art; many of which have been inspired by Romanian crafts and skills. Each room is dedicated to different eras of history and the furniture is laid out in pristine finery and has a modern feel as opposed to the mythic aura one might expect.
Its subsequent fame through the Dracula legend is adorned by huge Perspex posters in tiny darkened quarters. Clusters of tourists cram their necks to read the only information made to the fictional celebrity. The whitewashed walls are often the only source of light to guide you up and down the many narrow staircases that curl around the building. However, it is the fortress itself which transfixes the fear with its angular entrances guarded by security; the artifacts inside merely play host to the period of Queen Maria and the complex history of her country.
The first documentation of Bran Castle dates back to 1377 and has notably helped to fight many battles from its defense against the Ottomans to later housing royalty. More recently, it’s transformed from Communism rule to its current role of luring tourists for its archetypal imagery of a Gothic fairy tale. However, it is most famous for nurturing the myths and supernatural tales of merciless cruelty spurred on by Vlad Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. He ruled Walachia 1456-1462 to which the Castle still honours to despite him never residing there. Similarly, Bram Stoker had never visited Romania, yet his tales of Dracula were inspired by Vlad and his writings are steeped in the country’s folklore which continues to stoke mystery to this day.
Gazing over one of the many the balconies that surround the inner castle walls onto the courtyard it is hard to imagine the horrors of wars and macabre of folklore that breathe through the walls. But behind the shadows sits eerie silences: the fountain below, as rumour has it, hides a maze of secret underground passages which would be more in tune with the castle’s legend than the decor of the rooms which lie above it.
You may not leave the castle with a lingering fear, but you can instead, depart with a bottle of Chateau Bran and savour the memory, away from the Dracula branding.