Before going on holiday there are people who do a great deal of research into the country of choice: what there is to see, to do, what the place is famous for, its wines, its food, its history, its population etc. etc. Well, I’m not one of those people!
I simply wanted to go to Transylvania because it is one of the settings in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel I adore and have read at least four times. (I went to Whitby for the same reason, but that’s another story!). I like to discover things when I’m in a place, and I’ve since found out that Stoker did not visit Transylvania, but he did read about Bran Castle and the local superstitions involving the living dead, which may have provided inspiration for the fictional vampire.
Stoker describes Dracula’s castle as being:
“on the very edge of a terrible precipice… with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm [with] silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests,” which pretty much sums up Bran Castle.
It is one of the most popular sites to visit in Romania, thanks very much to the popularity of Dracula, but it dates back to 1377 when it was originally built as a fortress for strategic and economic reasons. It is not a very large castle and not one that is particularly opulent, although it was transformed into a summer residence in the 1920s by Queen Marie of Romania who viewed it as the setting of a fairy tale. (I can only conclude she mustn’t have read Dracula!). Bran Castle has been restored to her specifications rather than those of an earlier period.
The corridors are low and narrow, with steep staircases in places. The stone walls have been plastered and painted white and the rooms are relatively small, quite cosy in fact, as there are fireplaces and decorative stoves in many. It is sparsely, but tastefully furnished but with almost a million visitors a year passing through there wouldn’t be room to accommodate them if the castle was too cluttered. There are however exhibits of its medieval past with flags, shields and weapons on the walls, as well as a crown and sceptre – the Romanian crown jewels.
The magnificent red tiled roofs and turrets, and the views from the terraces at the top of the castle are quite spectacular and possibly a reminder of tales such as Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty. I could easily imagine sitting in these suntraps enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of Romanian wine which, by the way, is delicious. It is then understandable why Queen Marie decided to make the castle a holiday home
On a much darker, note displayed in a three storied tower of the castle, is a collection of instruments of torture, which is most repugnant, but at the same time macabrely fascinating. Collected by a Polish professor these artefacts are a desperately grim reminder of man’s inhumanity to man throughout the ages and how sleep deprivation, waterboarding, humiliation and mutilation are not new phenomena. It is not an exhibition for the faint hearted and is not open to those under the age of 16, although some may argue it shouldn’t be open to anyone under the age of 60. I wasn’t surprised at some of the names of the pieces as there are always people with a sense of humour much blacker than my own. (Warning: the next paragraph and photograph may be upsetting to some so quickly scroll down.)
The Nuremberg Maiden and the Alsatian Boot sound innocuous enough until I saw them and learned that the former imprisons the victim and impales them on spikes so they slowly bleed to death, and the latter was used to manacle prisoners to each other in submissive positions.
As I was making my way to the exit I hoped my memory of Bran Castle would not be sullied by what I had seen and learned, and it wasn’t. A one way system is in operation and to return to the ground floor I had to go down a narrow, steep spiral staircase. I was prevented from descending by a woman, like myself in her sixties, who was standing stock still on the top step frozen in fear. She plaintively whispered, ‘I can’t go down, there is nothing to hold onto,’ and indeed, like many castles, the spiral staircase did not have a banister or handholds, just sheer stone, whitewashed walls.
Showing some humanity to my fellow man, I edged passed her and told her, ‘copy me’ and I took the first few steps one by one, holding out my arms gently touching the walls to maintain my balance. The woman thankfully did as I instructed and we slowly, slowly made our way down the stone steps out into the early evening sunshine. She thanked me profusely before returning to her tour group and I suggested she take up Pilates, something I have recently done. After only a few lessons I have relearned how to keep my balance, stretch without doing myself a mischief and improved my flexibility. It’s worked wonders for me, so I hope she takes my advice and, if there is anyone reading this who feels that growing old is a physical challenge then Pilates may be something for you too!
I zigzagged my way down the steep laneway towards the car park, another trick I have learned to soften the impact on my ageing knees, and at the foot of the castle enjoyed the view of the small lake bordered by autumnal trees. I then looked up at the castle “on the very edge of a terrible precipice” and was reminded that the novel Dracula is celebrating 125 years this year. First printed in 1897, I was later told a black and white print of Bran Castle was used to illustrate early editions. I’ve no proof of that, but I bizarrely love the novel, have enjoyed many of the TV series and films, even though, unlike vampires, I cannot read it or see them after dark!
For more about my trip to Romania please go to:
And for anyone who has an interest in literature please visit these blogs where famous writers and their families are celebrated:
Robert Louis Stephenson, JK Rowling, Rabbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott
The terrible tale of Oscar Wilde's half sisters