“What comes to your mind when you think of the word Transylvania, if you ponder it at all? What comes to my mind are mountains of savage beauty, ancient castles, werewolves, and witches – a land of magical obscurity. How, in short, am I to believe I will still be in Europe, on entering such a realm? I shall let you know if it’s Europe or fairyland, when I get there. First, Snagov – I set out tomorrow.” ― Elizabeth Kostova
When you think about Transylvania, there is no doubt your head is filled with childhood fantasies of Romania’s medieval castles, lush green mountains and of course the myth of the famous bloodsucking vampire, Count Dracula. Thanks to Irish writer Bram Stoker’s legendary book “Dracula” – which was published in 1897 and loosely based on the medieval ruler Vlad Țepeș or “Vlad the Impaler” – the lore of Transylvania has been captivating people ever since.
One place that has certainly received its fair share of Dracula-induced hype is the Bran Castle, located only 30 kilometers from Brasov in the heart of Transylvania. The Bran Castle has a long history given the fact that Transylvania was ruled for thousands of years by the Hungarians and also constantly had to ward off invaders. The location of the castle was ideal given its strategic perch up on a rocky bluff affording a panoramic view of the neighboring hills and valley. Furthermore, its multitude of turrets, lookout windows and dramatic stone facade enabled its residents to protect themselves against Ottoman expansion into Transylvania.
The first fortress was built on the impressive site in 1211 by Teutonic Knights who were driven away by invaders in 1226. It wasn’t until 1377 that the plans for the future Bran Castle were made as a gift to the people of Brasov from the Hungarian King Louis the Great. Construction of the Bran Castle was completed in 1388.
Ironically enough despite the Dracula tourism shops lining the outskirts of the Bran Castle and the myth that Bran Castle was once Dracula’s castle, it remains simply a clever marketing tool. Vlad the Impaler never lived in the Bran Castle nor did Dracula exist. Yet the town of Bran still relishes in this notoriety and is filled with kitschy vampire trinkets and souvenirs such as the vampire beer mugs, Dracula’s Red Wine, and tons of gory Dracula t-shirts, hats and dolls. For some it adds to the mystique of the place.
From Brasov, it is about a half an hour drive through Romania’s lush countryside to reach the town of Bran where the legendary Bran Castle stands. Leaving the cities and getting out into the countryside is always my favorite part about traveling, and the Romanian countryside is breathtakingly lovely.
We passed through a few towns before reaching the turn off to Bran. I loved seeing the farmer with his traditional horse and carriage being pulled through the streets of town. This is a common sight throughout rural Romania along with the sheep and shepherds.
For many centuries Romania’s economy was based on agriculture, producing so much wheat and corn that it became known as the bread basket of Europe. The focus of Romania’s economy dramatically changed after WWII and the advent of Communism which introduced heavy industry in the 1950s. Factories began to pop up all throughout the outskirts of the villages throughout Romania and you can see several of them on the way to Brasov. Agriculture still employs about one-third of Romania’s economy so rural Romania offers nostalgic views of pastures, sunflower fields and maize.
Romania also produces delicious wine which is relatively unknown outside of Romania. I enjoyed several glasses of Romanian wine while I was there but didn’t have the chance to visit one of many up and coming vineyards outside of town.
We arrived in Bran a little before noon and I could tell it was going to be quite busy with tourists. We found the last spot in the car park and headed over to the entrance of the castle where we waded through stall after stall of Dracula souvenirs and also passed some lovely farm stands with fresh produce and Romanian cheese for sale. The tomatoes were in season and absolutely the best I’ve ever had.
After purchasing our tickets, we headed up to the castle which loomed on its perch almost threateningly. I took a few shots of the castle from the garden below. This was indeed my favorite view of all.
Once we arrived at the main entrance to the castle, we realized our mistake. We should have arrived right when it opened. The line to get into the tiny rooms was out the door and it was unfortunately so mobbed with tourists inside that we couldn’t see anything at all. I confess that we raced through the castle so fast that I didn’t have time to read a thing. My impatience with the crowds made me focus instead of taking photos of the dramatic views outside of the castle which I found more interesting anyways.
The large Gothic structure is quite impressive as it stands high above the medieval town of Bran affording stunning views of the gorgeous countryside that Transylvania – which means “the land beyond the forest” – is known for. It was worth the visit and admission price just to get these nostalgic shots.
I can only imagine what life would have been like standing here in medieval times watching the Habsburg, Ottoman, Hungarian and then Wallachian invaders come from off in the distance. Such a peaceful landscape with such a fierce past.
Thankfully the earlier gray weather and clouds were lifting and it was turning into another beautiful day. Our next stop was to the Rasnov Fortress which I adored. Stay tuned.