Despite its relatively cheap currency and astonishing nature, Romania is often dropped out of most tourists’ travel lists. This is partly due to the insufficient popularization of its attractions by Romanian resorts and partly due to the lack of available information in comparison to other countries. In truth, Romania is full of history and beautiful nature, which is likely to intrigue most travelers. Maybe one of the most interesting stories is that of the mystic Count Dracula. We are facing the difficult task of separating myths from facts surrounding that notorious figure so that we can plan a journey in the steps of the most famous vampire in world history.
Vlad III Tepes, as the real name of Count Dracula is, was born in the town of Sighisoara in 1431. This romantic place, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, would be attractive enough even without the house, which the Count was born in. Whether he was born in the particular bright yellow house, turned today into a hotel, restaurant and a museum is a debatable question. Sighisoara, on the other hand, is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in Transylvania. The town is situated among several hills, there is an old town, from where amazing panoramas reveal the Tarnava Mare river, which divides the town in two. The old town is where all the sightseeing attractions are concentrated. The 64-meter-high clock tower rises above the fifteen-century fortress, whose walls, approximately a kilometer long, surround the old town. The clock of the tower is made by the same Swiss designers, who made the famous clock in Prague, whereas the tower itself houses a museum. There are also several cathedrals in town, the most noteworthy being the Gothic “St. Nicola”, situated upon the hill. To get there you have to climb all the 200 stairs of the covered wooden passage, known as “the school staircase”. At their bottom lies the central square with all the cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Vlad Tepes left Sighisoara at the age of 4, when his father, Vlad Dracul decided to leave for the heart of Walachia to conquer its throne. “Dracul” in Romanian means both “dragon” and “devil” – a nickname that the father earned as a warrior. This is where Dracula comes from, “the son of the devil”.
The Poenari Fortress, Romania
Vlad Dracul succeeded in conquering Walachia and he ruled in the period from 1436 to 1447. After his death, his son, Vlad III Tepes struggled to remain in power and he established himself as a ruler in 1456. The very first thing he did as a new ruler was to take his revenge on the disloyal boyars, who instigated his older brother’s murder. Part of them he impaled and the rest he sent to walk on foot all the way to Poenari (more than 100 km) without pausing. Those who survived rebuilt the fortress. From there, Vlad III lead his campaigns against the Ottomans. Eventually, he had to flee the fortress in one of the attacks and sought help from the Hungarian king, who betrayed him and beheaded him.
To get to the fortress today, you need to climb all 1850 stairs up to the hills above the Arges River on the Transfagarasan way. There are several resting places along the climb. There are also information signs where you can read about the history and the legends while catching your breath. And the view from the top is inspiring. As you approach, fake torture machines and impaled corpses try to scare you. While children might truly get frightened, the setting contributes to your full submergence in the story of Dracula.
Vlad Tepes built the Old Court Palace in the old town of Bucharest in the 15th century. According to the legend, he kept his prisoners locked beneath the Court. Today all you can see from the building is a part of the walls and arches, a few tombstones, and a Corinth column. Next door is the Old Church – the oldest building in the city, which still houses frescoes from the 16th century. The traces of Dracula in Bucharest are scarce because he ruled from there in a very short period of only six years.
Bran – the most famous castle in Romania
From a historical point of view, Vlad III may have spent only a single night at the Bran castle. However, the castle inspired Bram Stoker to write the novel, which popularized the Romanian ruler all over the world. Stoker himself was a member of an occult lodge, which explains his fascination with vampires. Thanks to the Irish writer, nowadays the Bran castle is the leading tourist attraction in Transylvania. One of the chambers in the castle is therefore devoted entirely to his life and work. Bran is relatively small, as it stands upon the foundation of a medieval fortress dating back to the 13th century. Back then it was guarding the mountain passage. Due to the small size, the hundreds of visitors have to walk in line, especially through the narrow staircases and corridors – those who are prone to claustrophobia might not feel at ease. It is worth the try because the chambers are filled with costumes, weapons, furniture and machinery from several centuries. In the first half of the 20th century, the castle used to be a royal residence. Later, in the Communist regime, it was confiscated. Today Bran remains a necessary stop for horror fans.
When you decide to go on a vampire hunt and to enjoy the beauty of Romanian nature, plan a bit more time to do it, as the mountain pass slows down the traffic significantly, whereas the high mountain roads are filled with sharp turns. Whichever route you pick, you are to set off on a memorable adventure.
My original article in Bulgarian, along with more photos, is available here.