Bram Stoker has never visited Transylvanian setting for his best-seller Dracula but he loved the legend about the bloodthirsty Vlad Tepes related to him by Armin Vambery.
Armin was born in Svaty Jur, Slovakia, the same Svaty Jur I wrote about in my blog Six Degrees of Separation that happens to be my hometown. Vambery, whilst of modest Jewish background, studied at Svaty Jur Piarist Lyceum. Able to speak multiple languages at young age he became a language tutor to distinguished Ottoman families and later known as a great Orientalist and a useful spy for both the Ottoman and English courts. The story has it that he dropped the vampire legend into a conversation with Bram Stoker at the London Beefsteak Club in 1890 and thus became a ‘consultant’ for the most gothic story of all times.
The story of Bran Castle that inspired Stoker is one of power struggle for economic dominance of the region where clashes of religions were often used only as instruments. On the land given to Teutonic Knights by Pope for their services in Jerusalem, the permission for building was issued by a Hungarian king in Zvolen Castle in Slovakia in 14th century. For a great part of its existence the Castle and surrounding land was in Teutonic and German-Saxon ownership. Situated in an ethnically mixed Transylvanian region inhabited by Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, it was an important fortress against Cumans and Ottomans. Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler (our inspiration for the infamous Dracula) and his family were connected to the Castle only during a relatively brief period. They were used for handling numerous conflicts – anti-Ottoman and other – in border regions and were remembered for their use of unprecedented force.
It is very obvious that curators at Bran Castle have only very reluctantly included the Dracula story into their exhibits and those who expect to see artefacts of Vlad’s everyday life will be disappointed. There is more information relating to the Queen Marie of Romania (Grand-daughter of Queen Victoria) who took the Castle over from the Forestry Commission after it had fallen to terrible disrepair at the end of 19th century. Marie forged a skilful image of being in touch with rustic, peasant life – posing for photos wearing folklore blouses, aprons and other attributes celebrating Wallachian culture. But she was also an opinionated and beautiful woman – an astute politician, fighting a cause for united Romania after the break up of Austro-Hungarian empire.
Today, the Bran Castle tour is a miscellaneous collection of historical facts and antique furniture rather than a curious insight into Vlad’s life or Romanian folklore. It is hard to say if the current owner Dominic von Habsburg has any input into the marketing strategy. Despite this missed opportunity (certainly in the eyes of foreign tourists), one feels that physical features of the castle – hight on the rock, surrounded by mountains hosting wolves and bears and overlooking traditional wooden cottages selling sheepskin coats and honey – very much live up to the expectations.
The rooms, even though small, are connected by secret passages and multitudes of squeaky staircases. Rooftops are visible practically from every angle and sounds of bats are never too far away on an afternoon tour. If you visit on a windy day like us you’ll have your kids keeping to you very close and you’ll start being suspicious of every other visitor with a mustache or blood-shot eyes.
Quite unintentionally and without any major commercial effort, the Bran Castle remains unexplored, keeping its secrets well within its walls and rooftops. Situated in one of the most rugged and haunting mountain ranges that you can find in Europe it is worth a visit – whether you’re a vampire fan or not.