Bran Castle, in Transylvania, modern day Romania, conjures up one name in most people's minds. Dracula!
In actual fact, the castle isn't quite as closely linked to Dracula as you might imagine (or the tourist-touts might tell you). Dracula, of course, is a fictional vampire created by Bram Stoker in 1897. The castle depicted in the novel Dracula matches some parts of Bran Castle - but it's far from being an exact match.
The character of Dracula was, however, based on a real individual - Vlad the Impaler. Vlad's cruelty and bloodlust was truly inhuman - stranger than fiction. This was a man who gained infamy for impaling his enemies upon spikes - whilst they were still alive.
The peaks and turrets of the castle, poking up over the tree-tops. Credit: Horia Varlan CC-BY.2.0
Vlad - the 'real life Dracula', as some have dubbed him - may well have stayed in Bran Castle during the 1400s; and also fought battles in the area. But Bran Castle certainly wasn't his main residence, meaning that the castle can't claim to be 'home of the real life Dracula'.
All in all, Bran Castle is closely linked to Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and the life of Vlad the Impaler. But it's not the centre-piece of either story. Even so, it's a interesting place to visit, and there're some interesting things to see - despite all the tacky Dracula gift shops.
Like many other castles around the world, Bran Castle was born at a point of huge strategic significance. The castle sits upon a cliff within the narrow Bran Gorge - a dramatic rocky passageway linking two counties in modern Romania, Brasov and Arges. It's a spectacular setting, and the Bran Pass quickly became an important road for trade and a route for military manoeuvres - linking mainland Europe to the people of Asia.
As you can see, the setting of Bran Castle is absolutely spectacular. Credit: Horia Varlan CC-BY.2.0
The foundations of Bran Castle were laid in 1377, with a two-fold ambition - to develop important customs-points into Transylvania (and so to collect more taxes!); and to strengthen the Southern borders of the emerging state. It quickly became 'the guard-post of Translyvania'.
Bran Castle was built at breakneck speed. In less than five years, it was completed - in part thanks to the will and support of the people of neighbouring Brasov, who viewed the fortress as a tool to cement the importance of their town.
Another sight of the castle interior. You can see everyone clustered around the well, which used to be a place to cast coins and make a wish. Credit: Kyle Taylor CC-BY.2.0
It's strange for local people to have had such a keen interest in a neighbouring castle, but it's a theme that re-occurs throughout the history of Bran Castle. In 1438, Brasov was aggressively plundered by invading Ottoman Turks, and, in response, the townspeople set about fortifying the castle to prevent further attacks. Their efforts paid off - in 1441, an invading army was defeated at the very castle gates.
Another view of the castle rising, spookily, from the trees. Credit: Henri Sivonen CC-BY.2.0
The strength of Bran Fortress was directly linked to the wellbeing of the city of Brasov: and vice versa. In 1500, King Wladyshaw of the Maygar, then owner of the fortress, effectively mortgaged it to the town of Brasov - if he couldn't repay money they loaned him after 25 years, he'd grant the fortress to them. He couldn't pay up, so the fortress became Brasov's.
View across the castle courtyard, giving a beautiful glimpse of the surrounding mountainside. Credit: Erwan Martin CC-BY.2.0
The people of Brasov used the fortress as a customs-house, exacting tolls and taxes for the use of the pass. In exchange, they received vast sums of money: enriching the town and enabling them to pour money into the structure and defences of the castle.
Indeed, in the main, the castle remained the property of Bran town until about 1920 - when it was made over to Queen Marie of the new, enlarged, Romania.
If Bran Castle had been a fortress in the years before 1920, Queen Marie used a feminine touch to transform the place into a fairytale home.
The Queen converted arrow-slits into light windows; furnaces to fire-places; and built new towers of spiral steps. There were also bizarre, fashionable technical additions: such as telephone lines; an elevator; and a mechanised system to deliver 5'o'clock tea.
The internal courtyard of the castle has an unexpected, fairy-tale like quality. Credit: Brandon Atkinson CC-BY.2.0
Queen Marie added many aspects to the castle - including the stables; the tea-room; the children's play room; and a rather gaudy chapel. She also developed extensive castle gardens filled with extravagant plants and animals. The Good Queen's handiwork didn't stop there, however - she was involved with notable charity work in the surrounding community.
After her death, she left instructions for something quite extraordinary - she asked for her heart to be separated from her remains, encased in a silver casket, and held elsewhere, for others to approach whenever they needed for advice and support. After some conflict, her heart remains encased in a cliff in Bran - fit for visitors today to pay wishes.
One of the turrets of the castle - a more modern addition from Queen Marie's modernisation of the castle. Credit: Henri Sivonen CC-BY.2.0
Sadly, many visitors are slightly underwhelmed by castle's innards. That's a real pity, because they contain the paintings, furniture and fixtures of Good Queen Marie (or at least, they did, until many were plundered during Romania's years of communist rule). Many people are expecting vampiric exhibitions: instead, the small, relatively homely rooms come as a bit of a shock.
The interior of the castle is a bit of a disappointment - those saggy sofas nether capture the 1930s refurb, nor the Medieval heritage of the castle. Credit: Espino Family CC-BY.2.0-SA.
There are some fun areas of interest: for example, there's a brief, deep dungeon, which was added to the castle about 1625 and is now an exhibition on torture (if you pay a bit extra). You'll also encounter a 'secret' passageway (hmm, not so secret, evidently) and the 57m deep well in the centre of the courtyard - sadly now covered, as it used to be used by tourists tossing coins and wishing for good luck.
The views from the castle - as you wind from one spiral staircase to the next - are undeniably spectacular. There's also an interesting Romanian market on the pathway up, selling all manner of Dracula tat, in addition to good quality local food - the cheeses are a must-buy, I've been told.
There's a lot of Dracula tat which you can buy in the market adjacent to the castle. Not quite sure I'd want a morning cuppa out of any of these. . . Credit: Martijn Munneke CC-BY.2.0
The link between Dracula and Bran Castle is, sadly, more than a little bit tenuous. Vlad the Impaler, who was said to be the inspiration behind the fictional Dracula, did fight a number of campaigns in the area around Bran Castle, during c15th. He had particular distaste for the residents of Brasov, who were still trying to unseat him from his throne - hence his preoccupation with the neighbourhood.
A more traditional, spooky sunset over the castle. Credit: Kyle Taylor CC-BY.2.0
However, old Vlad didn't really have much of a connection with Bran Castle. There're no documents I know of which explicitly link him to the castle; the best we really know is that he fought a few battles close by.
The relationship between Bran Castle and the fictional, vampiric Dracula really blossomed from the 1970s onwards. The 1890s novel had enjoyed phenomenal success, spawning movies, theatre productions, other novels, and an entire genre of vampire fiction. English speaking tourists began to flood to Romania - and the first thing that most Westerners think of when they hear Transylvania is, well, vampires.
There's lots of occult and spooky imagery surrounding the castle, including this cross - shaped like a stake, to slay a vampire. Credit: Luke Addison CC-BY-SA-2.0
So who made the connection between Bran Castle and Bram Stoker's Dracula? Stoker had visited Transylvania; but there's no record of him visiting Bran Castle. He never explicitly stated that the castle was his inspiration (or otherwise); however, the castle depicted in his novel could well be Bran. See if this sounds like Bran Castle to you...
"[We] pulled up in the courtyard of a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the sky... the courtyard looked of considerable size, and several dark ways lead from it under great round arches..." (p24)
"The castle is on the very edge of a terrific precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!" (p42)
"The castle stood as before, reared high above a waste of desolation" (p601)
All these quotes could well describe Bran Castle. But the problem is that they could describe a lot of castles around the world - or a lot of castles depicted in literature, even before Stoker's novel. As the novel Dracula says itself, "I was not able to light on any map or work giving the exact locality of the Castle Dracula" (p4). My interpretation is that Dracula's Castle is a work of the imagination - inspired by castles like Bran, but not based upon it.
The castle looks more sizeable from the outside than it is inside. Note the modern additions in the gatehouse at the forefront. Credit: Kyle Taylor CC-BY.2.0
One of the reasons for Bran Castle's popularity is that it's extremely easy to reach. The village of Bran is an easy 45m-1hr drive from Brasov, one of Romania's largest cities. You'll easily find public transport and organised tours departing from Brasov, if you haven't a car. Alternatively, the castle's a possible day trip from Bucharest, the capital (about 2.5hrs each way) if you're feeling a little more ambitious.
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