The legend of Dracula may be a work of fiction but the foundations of the story are based around real people and places from Transylvania in Romania.
The Peles and Bran castles are a few hours drive outside of Bucharest, therefore making a great day trip to our Romania travel plans. Since we were traveling without a car, I chose to book the Castles of Transylvania from Bucharest Private Tour in order to discover the true history of the region.
Our guide Sebastian picked us up in Bucharest in the morning and we made our way to our first stop for the day at Peles castle.
Close to the Transylvanian border, Peles was a summer retreat for the first kings of Romania. The wooded foothills of the Southern Carpathian mountains providing a respite from the aggressive summer heat of the capital, Bucharest.
In 1873 that construction of Peles castle began. The King who commissioned it had, by invitation, succeeded the throne of Romania. A German architect, Johannes Schultz, submitted the winning design–a regal, alpine villa with classic German style.
The castle has white walls with brown wooden beams, and grey tiled roofs tapering to a spike. There are detailed carvings and colored murals of historic characters placed all around the exterior walls and the 66m central clock tower.
With more than 170 rooms to explore, I was simply overwhelmed by the variety of styles. The armory features a dizzying display of weapons from centuries past, including a fully armored knight and his stead – weighing 265 pounds (120 kilograms).
In complete contrast, the Shisha Room, where the king could relax and smoke among intricately designed Turkish furnishings, toned in red and gold.
Romania was a very modern country during the early 20th century. Peles castle featured a movie theater and even the first electrical elevator of any castle in Europe – added in 1903.
The luxury is obscene. Walking the halls certainly gives you a feeling of just how different the life of a King was to those of his subjects.
But what about Dracula? More investigation would be needed. It was lunch time. We chose to forgo a banquet of blood sucking in favor of more palatable, traditional Romanian food.
We had the option to make a slight detour to visit the local restaurant of Hanul Domensc. Here they offer a complete menu of affordable classics. For less than $4 I enjoyed the “Sarmale”. Cabbage rolls filled with minced meat and sausage. Served with a side of polenta, sour kraut and bacon.
I held the thought that perhaps there was enough garlic in my lunch to protect me from the vampires we were soon to encounter…
Bran castle was built in 1377 and operated as a fortress overseeing the toll road that led in and out of Transylvania’s interior. Transylvania is naturally bordered by mountains. This protected it against repeated invasion attempts by the Ottomans.
Bran castle is cited as an inspiration for Dracula’s castle but one of its real life guests also had a sinister reputation… As we visited the engagingly morbid torture museum inside Bran, our guide, Sebastian explained the story.
Vlad the Impaler left a gruesome mark on history. He was known for preventing an Ottoman invasion in the 15th century by capturing hundreds of soldiers and impaling them, alive, along the road towards Transylvania. On seeing the horrendous cruelty inflicted on the slowly dying men, the Ottoman leaders turned their army around and left.
The Word “Dracula” actually translates to “Son of the Devil”. This was a nickname that was attributed to Vlad. When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula he did so with an intention of revenge. Vlad the Impaler had also been cruel towards the Saxons, an ethnic group Bram Stoker was descended from.
The Saxons were not required to pay taxes at the time of Vlad. The mythical character of Dracula was perhaps designed as a metaphor. The cruelty Vlad enacted upon the people was like sucking the blood from them, instead of money.
A short drive from Bran castle is Brasov, the last stop of the day. This was a gateway city to Transylvania. As such it was heavily fortified after being founded in 1234. Much of the architecture still reflects the styles of its German rulers, the regular Romanian people mainly living outside of the walls and being required to pay a toll to enter.
Walking through the old town we visit many remnants of Brasov’s historic past. One of the most striking is the Gothic-style Black Church. Seemingly more grey than black, its name came after a terrible fire that engulfed much of the city. The Church survived but the walls were blackened by the fire.
Transylvania has always been more myth than reality in the popular imagination. But this region saw a long history of wars and rulers. Persecutions and changes of power.
The Castles of Transylvania tour is just the start. It was a great introduction to the rich cultural landscape of Romania and a chance to visit some its best preserved architecture.