“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.
Like it? Why not PIN for later?
While I didn’t visit this castle when I was in Romania (twice), I remember what my friend told me who studied Romanian literature there: that Vlad Tepes was not nearly as bad as depicted. He did plenty for his people. He seemed to be the first victim of a publicity smear that sadly has stuck and nobody remembers his good deeds any more.
That is interesting. We did a tour by a local Romanian and she went into very descriptive detail about his methods of impaling people. It sounded pretty brutal. I have not heard much good about him in all that I’ve read but then again I’ve never studied Romanian history. 🙂 I do know that he impaled a lot of his enemies though hence the name. It would be interesting to learn more!
This is what I know. The methods of punishment that Vlad Tepes used at that time were very common in many parts of the world. Because the country was getting hit by the Turkish Empire quite often, Vlad’s father made a pact with them to secure peace. As part of this understanding, he had to send Vlad and his brother to spend a few years with them. Vlad witnessed a lot of “barbarian” methods of torture while he lived there. A few years later, he escaped and returned to became the leader of the country. I think it was when he father died but I am not sure. The country was unhappy with the treatment of the poor people by the exploiting rich people. Upon his return, the first thing he did was to get rid of as many of them as possible. All the methods Vlad used he learned from the Turks. We are talking about events that happened about 500 years ago that people interpret according to our times. Even though he lived a short life because of betrayal, he loved his people and did a lot a good deeds for them. Actually he was one of my favorite historical persons. I have a lot of respect for him. It is so so sad how tragic the end of his life was. It is always very irritating and degrading for the Romanian people when true facts about an important historical figure are being distorted just for entertainment reasons.
Thank you so much for this thorough information! I wonder why our Romanian guide from the Walkabout Tour didn’t tell us this. She was very knowledgeable on so much but didn’t give us the full story. Even when you search the Internet it is hard to come by. I am sure you are right that it makes a better story to tell. Thank you so much for this excellent comment!
It is also interesting that the author of Dracula had never even been to Romania. I have an interesting book on Vlad at home that I hope to read. I am curious to learn more.
You really wrote greatly. I searched over net on this but I finally got from you. Nice work.
Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed the information. There are a couple of movies made about Vlad Tepes. I don’t remember which one, but there is one that shows his life since he was a child. You may be able to find them on youtube. If you really want to know more about him you may need to look at different sources.
Hi Anca, thanks for the comments. I have just went from the YouTube but it is kind of complicated to me because I am new to some of the words like “Ottoman Empire”. It is really great to know you and your blog is great. Keep it up. 🙂
“Ottoman Empire” or the Turks used to be where Turkey is now. If you are looking for the movie with Vlad Tepes type “turci”. This is the Romanian name for “Turks”. I made some changes to my blog. I realized that it had to be written in English. What a mess! Thank you for your words of encouragement!
Thanks so much for sharing all this information Henriette! Appreciate it!
Thanks Anca. I will be looking about “turci”.
O.K. Let me know how that’s going. Thank you again.
Bran is touristy and tacky now, I much preferred out-of -the-way Rassnov…but that’s nearly a decade ago now…..
Yes I felt the same way. I was very disappointed but I’m still glad I got a glimpse of the castle as it is impressive. We then went to Rasnov and I LOVED it. That was the highlight of the day and made up for the disappointment of Bran. That post is coming next.
Excellent, I look forward to your post!
There is very little known about Vlad Tepes. Actually, there was a period of time when he had to leave the country to seek military assistance to retaliate against the Turks and there is not a lot of information about what he did during that time. I guess it is all politics. Romanian are very cautious when they talk about other countries even though there have been centuries since unfortunate events took place between them. It depends who tells the story. I found this excerpt in Wikipedia. It happened around his time. “Siege of Constantinople” -The Ottoman Empire used impalement during, and before, the last siege of Constantinople in 1453. For example, during the buildup phase to the great siege the year before, in 1452, the sultan declared that all ships sailing up or down through the Bosphorus had to anchor at his fortress there, for inspection. One Venetian captain, Antonio Rizzo, sought to defy the ban, but his ship was hit by a cannonball. He and his crew were picked up from the waters, the crew members to be beheaded (or sawn asunder according to Niccolò Barbaro), whereas Rizzo was impaled. In the early days of the siege in May 1453, contingents of the Ottoman army made mop-up operations at minor fortifications like Therapia and Studium. The surrendered soldiers, some 40 individuals from each place, were impaled”.
Thank you. This is fascinating. I did see his statue while in Bucharest. Wish our tour guide spent more time discussing him. Most of the time was spent on Communism.
The most interesting times of the Romanian history were up to the 15th Century. In order to understand them you need to link them to other events that took place in Europe at that time. The biggest threats had been the Ottoman Empire for about 500 years and the Hungarians. The frictions with the Hungarians still exist in our modern times. Transylvania has always been interesting to people because it represents such a unique blend of history and culture. Over the centuries. there have always been very long disputes over this territory.
Yes I would love to learn more! Thank you so much!!!
Let me know if I can be of any further assistance.
Thank you so much Anca! Will do.
I visited Bran Castle with my mom when I was a little girl. I didn’t like it. The rooms were so small inside and there was not much to see. At that time, I didn’t understand the purpose of this castle. It is situated so up high because it was built for defensive purposes against military attacks. Building castles at high elevations was a strategy that people of those times were using to defend themselves against attacking enemies. This castle doesn’t really have a history. I know that Vlad Tepes made a stop there to regroup when he got defeated by the Turks. He asked the Hungarians for military reinforcements and I think that was when they betrayed him to the Turks. He then hid himself from the world for a while and that was the time when very little is known about his life. I think he managed to put together an army but he lost again against the Turks that captured and killed him in a very brutal way. The Ottoman Empire was very powerful during those times and wanted to expanded their territories past the Danube river but the Romanians from Wallachia were always in their way and geographically located between them and the Hungarians. You may want to double check some of this information.
Yes the inside is not very interesting. I thought the outside is quite impressive though. What I really enjoyed seeing was the Rasnov fortress nearby. I am hoping to post my photos on that next. The view from there was magnificent.
I don’t remember visiting it or maybe I forgot how it looks like. I am looking forward to seeing your pictures.
So inquisitive minds want to know if you bought any Dracula souvenirs for Halloween. Haha I read the comments about Vlad and it makes me wonder how many of the tales are true in the places we visit or are they historical fiction to increase tourism? That would be an interesting post.
Very true! I bought a book from a writer on the myth of Dracula and the inspiration behind it. I haven’t read it yet but look forward to reading it. I did not buy any Dracula stuff but was very tempered at the airport to buy the Dracula brand wine!
I am glad to hear that you liked the tomatoes! I miss them. They are the best that I’ve ever had.
Romanians finally realize that they have something to sell and they will do it with no regrets. I can’t believe that they are O.K. with mixing history with fiction and accepting the stories only to attract wealth! Romania has so many beautiful places with rich history that not a lot of people heard of but it seems that Romanians express interest only in those that could become a money maker business.
Thanks for all the comments and info. It has been fun to get more firsthand knowledge!
You DO get around, don’t you Nicole! Thanks for the lovely tour 🙂
Yes I guess so! 😌
Ein wunderschöner Reisebericht über Siebenbürgen (Transsylvanien). Die Zeit ist hier stehen geblieben.
What a wonderful castle. Too bad about the crowds, but I think you at least got some of the feel for it, and definitely did for the beautiful setting. Romania’s on the list!
I enjoyed your initial post for the country scenes; it’s such a beautiful place! I then enjoyed the comments for the mini-history about Vlad. It is always fascinating to compare (his)stories when traveling. In Mongolia this summer (and in the reading I did in the months before), Genghis Khan night as well have been two different people, depending on the source! Don’t you wonder how some present-day leaders might be depicted in the future?
Isn’t it interesting Lexi? I actually have a book on Dracula and Vlad. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet!
I’ve always wanted to visit, your pictures are beautiful and make me want to go all the more!
Romania is on our list as well. I have always been drawn to the vampire lore and Dracula. Bran Castle looks wonderful but I would have been turned off by the crowds as well. We have been trying to get to many sites when they open for that very reason. The Louvre and Versailles were difficult for me due to the huge crowds. The Romanian countryside is appealing to me.
Yes I can’t stand crowds LuAnn. It is so unfortunate isn’t it. All the wonderful things to see but then the crowds ruin it!
I totally understand others wanted to experience a place like I do. It’t the pushing and shoving and lack of respect for others’ space that bothers me.
Pushing and shoving sounds darn right awful!
I also find it hard to enjoy a visit to Bran when it’s crowded. The same goes for Dracula’s house in Sighisoara, the house were Vlad Tepes supposedly lived as a child. Now it’s a mix between a museum and a restaurant, but mostly it’s just fiction to attract tourists.
I didn’t make it that far but have heard that Sighisoara is pretty. I would love to go back to Romania and see the villages more and of course do more hiking. A lovely country.
Wonderful photos .. pity that places like this are so overrun with tourists (of which we are all ‘tourists’ if not local to the area) that you can’t enjoy it as much as you would have liked.
Yes but the good thing is Romania still is no where near as touristy as so many other European places. But yes it is hard when there are crowds and you can’t enjoy it as much.