COVID-19 has without changed our lives forever and equally placed us in a world where for at least the last year or so for many of us, a holiday has been out of reach or simply not allowed. Which is why I feel remarkably fortunate to have been able to get away recently with my girlfriend and visit a country that if I am honest has been somewhere I wanted to go, but equally thought it would never happen.
However, with Romania on the green list for quite a while my girlfriend made the arrangements for us and we began our long journey to the less travelled to country it would seem. I say less travelled to, as most people I told, pulled a face and seemed somewhat confused by our choice. For us travelling means heading off to somewhere new and doing our best to experience the local culture, food and place as a whole.
The thing about Romania is that it is also place full of folklore and stories, which have some interesting connections with the paranormal. The most famous likely being that of Bram Stokers Count Dracula from Transylvania. So, I instantly knew we were in for a treat on this journey, as we were likely to stumble upon some local myths and legends that became inspiration for Stoker’s gothic tale. Suffice to say my paranormal thirst would be very much taken care of on this trip, but there is so much more to the country of Romania that must equally be considered. As this would not only be a trip to look into some interesting tales, but also to discover a country that neither of us had ever been. It is important to remember that much has occurred in this country in recent times too and not just hundreds of years ago.
Suffice to say we embarked on our journey to Romania.
Our Journey to Transylvania
Sunday 19th September – Unlike Jonathan Harker’s account of his journey to Transylvania within Bram Stoker’s classic ‘Dracula;’ our journey would only take us hours to make our way to the place that we were staying in Brasov. In these modern times the world appears a much smaller place thanks to our ability to fly internationally.
Our flight landed in Romania during the early evening at Bucharest Airport, where we met our driver. Similar to Stoker’s account of Harker’s journey to Castle Dracula in way, where the final part of the journey is by a local coach and horses. However, for us the coach was replaced by a rather nice Mercedes car, not at all similar to Stoker’s gothic tale. That said I couldn’t help wonder if in today’s world, would a German made car not fit the part within the modern tale.
The first part of our journey north to Brasov from Bucharest was dominated by straight roads and flat landscapes, something that I wasn’t quite prepared for when coming to Romania. Bearing in mind that I began my reading up of the country through Raymond T. McNally & Radu Florescu’s revised version of their book ‘In Search of Dracula : The History of Dracula and Vampires’ and a small pocket travel book on Bucharest, which hardly mentioned in detail the areas of Transylvania. Although we did begin to become a little concerned for our lives as our driver appeared to be doing his best to drive well beyond the actual speed limit and where possible overtake the slower moving traffic at every opportunity. However, with a raised eyebrow or two we were confident that this was common place in Romania and our fear soon subsided.
As we approached the Carpathian Mountain range the scenery began to evolve greatly and at speed. The straight roads we were previously used to, began to continuously wind up the mountains, finding their way through the Carpathian’s like an old friend. Although the roads were modern and many of the cars were also very modern, there was something particularly old country about the journey. As we passed through villages and towns, each littered with various designs of what appeared to be Alpine lodge style inspired homes (I am no architecture expert), it certainly began to feel as if we were heading somewhere a little less modern than we were used to. This was the journey of Harker, described by Stoker, albeit slightly modernised of course.
The mountains were actually amazing as the closest we probably get to them are located in Wales or Scotland in the UK. Even though there were small towns and villages dotted along our path; and even though there was quite a bit of traffic (heading in the opposite direction though), it felt remote and as if it had jumped straight out of Stoker’s novel. I guess its not often that we stumble on such scenery that is so similar to the original horror story that Stoker wrote. However, from my understanding Stoker never actually visited Romania to experience the country for himself before writing Dracula. That alone establishes how much detailed research the man done before embarking on delivering such explanation.
As everything that goes up must come down, so did we eventually; snaking downwards towards Brasov. Apparently as quickly as possible and using both sides of the road, even with a little oncoming traffic too sometimes. That said, by this point we had become accustomed with the driving style and took it all in our stride.
Passing through the newer parts of Brasov first, we were initially a little disappointed as the city was very modern and not quite what we were looking for in a city break in Romania. However, this was soon evaporated as we entered old Brasov and even more so as we entered what was the original walled town of Brasov. The majority of this area was pedestrianised with shops, bars and restaurants in the old buildings. There were also the odd historic building such as the Black Church dotted around too.
We thanked our driver and tipped him accordingly; then made the walk down the street to our home for the next few days. This was a room (with bathroom en-suite), but also access to a Kitchen and seating area too. All of which was above a restaurant below, which was situated above a few shops. The restaurant even had a seating area on the pedestrianised street below. Not only was the whole thing lovely it was both welcoming and comfortable; not at all like Harker’s experience where he had trouble sleeping.
Monday 20th September – We spent the day in old Brasov making the most of the restaurants and exploring old Brasov a little. Oddly it was some wildlife photographs and an information board on the edge of the nearby forest that quickly brought into perspective the area that we were now exploring. These explained how there are Bears, Wolves and even large Cats in the nearby dense forrest. Something you don’t often consider these days when you come to the edge of a city and begin to take in the vast wilderness ahead of you. However, this did begin to bring the narrative of our trip back into perspective with that of Stoker, as he described Harker’s experiences.
The old Brasov locals were actually lovely; warm, welcoming and helpful. Whilst we tried snippets of Romanian here and there, with me often failing due to pronunciation, pretty sure my accent made me hard to understand; those that looked after us in old Brasov spoke fantastic english (thank god). Whilst it made the experience better, I couldn’t help feeling a little like a lazy tourist, so I continued to try throughout our stay here and there.
Tuesday 21st September – We woke up particularly early and walked to the square near the Black Church to meet our guide that would be taking us to both Bran and Rasnov Castles. As we were a little early, we grabbed a Starbucks coffee to help wake us up. Thought I would mention that, as I know one particular reader would appreciate knowing there was a near by Starbucks.
Our guide – Charlie (nearest to his actual name he told us) actually found us on the square and then guided us, two other couples and a guy travelling alone; to our mini bus for the day. We then quickly made our way out of Brasov and headed towards Bran Castle. If you’ve never heard of Bran Castle before then don’t worry, you are probably more familiar with it being associated to being Castle Dracula. Although this is not entirely correct, but may have certainly been a part of the inspiration for Stokers description of Draculas castle home. A little more on Bram Stoker in a later post.
The trip to Bran Castle was a little less related to Stoker’s description of Harker’s journey and was more aligned with the holiday excursion that it actually was for us. We made our way across the Transylvanian Plateau towards Bran.
When we arrived in Bran, our guide took us into a holiday complex and to a lookout point where you could get an excellent picture of the castle from a good distance. This was actually one aspect that reminded me that sometimes, not all is as it seems. The town of Bran itself was extremely commercialised towards the castle and a little towards the Dracula legend too. In all honesty I am not sure why I was a little surprised by this, as it makes perfect sense considering the popularity of the castle; not only as a landmark for Romania, but also as a location seen to be connected to Dracula the world over.
The castle itself has a greater history beyond that of Dracula alone and as such deserves to be recognised in its own right. Its history reaches back over a century beyond the time of Vlad Tepes (AKA Dracula or Vlad the Impaler), with many prominent individuals in Romanian history being associated with the location. However, it was the influence of Queen Maria of Romania that was responsible for todays representation of the castle, as it was her that had it restored in the 1920’s. As Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in 1897, he’s vision of the castle would have been somewhat different to todays version. Today the castle has been softened greatly into a home rather than its original purpose of a fortress.
However, that said the place is inspirational beyond belief and even now I can see how it may provide some fantastic ideas to any writer or indeed film maker. The castle is positioned in the Bran Gorge, which through history has been one of the most important trans-Carpathian passages. Its position commands both sides of the border it used watch over. It dominates the local landscape and I have to admit it presents itself as exactly what we may believe to be a spooky haunted castle hidden in the dark mountain range of a far off land.
That said, it’s also beautiful and compliments the scenery surrounding it. There is no longer anything cold or truly creepy about this castle. Its renovations in the 1920’s by Queen Maria have managed to achieve exactly what she wanted, to turn the location into another home. A gorgeous home that provides an amazing space within it and stunning views across the local Romanian countryside. I am sure our guide mentioned that she used to enjoy sitting and looking out of one of the windows, and I can see why to be fair.
Our tour of the castle covered much of the castles stunning rooms; and we were fortunate to have Charlie with us to provide us with information throughout. He even touched on a few of the folklore stories of the land that could potentially provide some understanding to the vampire stories and also some other supernatural creatures like the werewolf.
Bran Castle was an amazing place to visit, within its walls there is certainly an abundance of history and it may have very well provided some of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s description of Dracula’s castle; but in reality it was not! Stoker didn’t even visit Romania and might have taken his inspiration from an illustration from Charles Boner’s book ‘Transylvania: Its Product and Its People.’ However, it’s also very likely that Stoker took other inspiration to create Count Dracula’s castle.
That said the style of the castle presents itself as everything we would imagine from a gothic horror story. Well on the outside! Inside its small, tight passageways, low ceilings and not the huge spacious location you would expect of Count Dracula. In fact, as it is today, I found it quite welcoming and somewhere I would happily spend the night. I wonder if its on AirBnB?
However, as we entered some of the final rooms in the castle on our tour, we were once again reminded of the supernatural forces and their stories, which had brought us to this place in the first place. Interestingly, even though many of the stories and names were different, there were distinct similarities to other folklore stories from the UK and other parts of the world. Perhaps amongst these varying stories we could find where Count Dracula’s thirst for blood came from or maybe there was more truth to that than we care to realise. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.
Perhaps the folklore stories we encountered had some answers.