IN SEARCH OF DRACULA
Thanks to the enduring tales of Irish author Bram Stoker, some people still believe that Transylvania is a fictional place. In fact, this region of Central Romania is very real, and is home to what are, perhaps, the best medieval towns in Europe. There’s no better time to trek through Transylvania than at Hallowe’en, and no better travel agency with which to liaise than the aptly-named Company of Mysterious Journeys. Paired with the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, CMJ puts on fun-but-educational tours of this mythic—but not mythical—land.
Regions of Castles
Leaving Romania’s capital city—Bucharest—en route to Transylvania, visitors pass through the Prahova Valley and the breaktaking Carpathian Mountains. A good first stop is Peles Castle. It is not medieval, but rather, was an opulent residence constructed in the 19th century for Carol I—the first of the four kings who ruled Romania. Built in the German Renaissanace style, Peles has masses of tooled wooden panelling; it bears paintings by masters such as Gustav Klimt, and even sports a secret door leading to the library, reported to have been used by the king when he wanted to sneak away for a tryst with his wife. Queen Marie, the wife of the subsequent monarch, Ferdinand I, disliked the pretentious style of Peles, however, and preferred to indulge her time at the ancient Bran Castle, which dates back to the 15th century. This medieval fortress is what comes to mind for most peole when they think of Dracula; though, astonishingly, Vlad Tepes—the inspiration for Stoker’s iconic vampyre—might have only spent a handful of days at Bran Castle. Nowadays, it is extremely cosy, with the interior more resembling an English country cottage (perhaps owing to the fact that Queen Marie was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria), than a spooky, vampyric lair. Both Peles and Bran Castle are approximately two hours away from Bucharest, and are near the city of Brasov.
The Saxon Cities
The prettiest towns to visit in Transylvania are those that were built by the Saxons—a mix of Germans and Walloons, who settled in the region during the 12th and 13th centuries following an urgent invitation from the Hungarians to act as a buffer against the Ottoman Turks.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sighisoara is a great introduction to the Siebenburgen, or Seven Saxon Cities; Sighisoara is such a paragon of medieval Europe that you might expect Hansel and Gretel to emerge from one of the cobbled alleys. The Clock Tower was built in 1280 and boasts a timepiece from 1648 that features two-feet-tall wooden Greco-Roman gods and goddesses who march around on the hour. Visitors can climb the tower to see the ingenious clock mechanism themselves, as well as getting a close-up look at the carved deities.
Overshadowed by the tower is the residence where Vlad Tepes is reputed to have been born. The house is now a restaurant, with ancient murals depicting Dracula’s father, Vlad II Dracul. It also features a somewhat campy-but-fun Dracula-themed room, replete with coffin and vampyric count as castellan. Don’t forget to climb the nearby hill via the covered staircase, and visit the spooky graveyard with its vine-covered monuments.
The town of Sibiu, 80 kilometres from Sighisoara and another of the Siebenburgen, is picture-postcard perfect, with its huge town square and the unique presence of Liars’ Bridge—reputed to groan if a fib is told while standing on it.
The nearby city—Brasov—is shadowed by Mount Timpa, on whose slopes, Vlad Tepes impaled large numbers of the city’s more prominent inhabitants. Be sure to take the cable-car up the mountain for a panoramic overview of the city. Mount Timpa boasts a Hollywood-style sign in giant white letters, which spells the city’s name.
Visitors to Transylvania should also try to find the time to visit—reverently—Fagaras Fortress, which lies in wait approximately an hour’s journey outside of Brasov city. Fagaras is particularly encouraged on a sunny day. The museum has some interesting exhibits, including a stove-tile that shows a huntsman killing a werewolf; yet, the real treasure is the view of the castle ramparts, reflected in a willow-lined moat, graced by flocks of swans.
When in Transylvania
Hunyadi Castle, in Eastern Transylvania, is the major sight in the town of Hunedoara, which is studded with abandoned factories that date back to the Ceausescu era of the 1970s and 80s. Hunyadi’s origins echo 15th century masonry, and Vlad Tepes, it is suspected, might have been imprisoned within its walls at one time. The castle belonged to Hungarian rulers John Hunyadi and his son, Matthias Corvinus. Its elegant halls and ramparts make a fabulous venue for the torchlit Hallowe’en costume ball, held annually.
Starting at sundown, the castle festivities begin with drums, bagpipe music and warm glasses of potent Romanian tuica—a plum brandy. Count Dracula (or a reasonable facsimile) greets over one hundred revellers from his lofty position atop the ramparts. Inside the enormous Dieta Hall, guests keep merry with the help of an ample buffet, live entertainment and fountains running with blood red and angellic white wines.
I attended the party in 2014, sporting a pretty natty vampyre costume. I was both surprised and delighted when I won first prize for my outfit.
Let’s just say that, though dressed as Dracula, I was the one bitten…by the Transylvania bug.
This post first appeared in: Life as a Human (lifeasahuman.com)