Friday, June 3, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Searching for Dracula In Transylvania

Our guest this week is Alina Barbu, a radio journalist in Bucharest, Romania. She is a contributor to and a reporter for Carpatair Airlines in-flight magazine. She’s also a passionate gourmand and traveler.

I've been thinking lately about the tremendous success of the Twilight Saga (novels and movies) around the world and how quickly vampires, legends, and stories about the immortals of the dark captured our attention. As far as I remember, the Breaking Dawn book mentions a Romanian vampire, and I was not surprised reading that  because Romania, especially Transylvania, has been the cradle of vampires in the imagination of many writers. Romania has an old lore about those who rise nightly from the grave to drink the blood of the living. This might be one of the reasons Bram Stoker chose the Carpathian Mountains as the setting for his famous Dracula novel.

Count Dracula was inspired by one well-known historical figure from Romania, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who ruled Walachia (a province that later united with Moldovia to form the Romanian principalities) between 1456 and 1462. While the character in the book is based entirely on the author's imagination, the facts about Dracula, including how he meets his end, are based on popular beliefs about the existence of evil forces, widely accepted by locals. The fame of vampires attracts travelers from around the world, who come to Transylvania in search of Dracula myth, expecting perhaps to find the locals terrified by the bloody count. They might be disappointed because they will not find grim crypts, werewolves, or ghosts. Instead, they can discover where the legends started and who the real person was that stood behind the myth that inspired Bram Stoker.

One of my foreign friends, excited about legends, asked me while visiting Romania,“Where should I go if I want to feel Dracula’s spirit?” Well, my friend, it depends on what you want to discover: the legendary places behind a famous novel or the true stories linked to a historic ruler?

Bran Castle (Photo by E rulez)
If you are planning a journey to Romania to retrace the footsteps of Dracula, it should start at Bran Castle, dubbed Dracula’s Castle three decades ago by the American tourists who came in search of horror film atmosphere. Standing at the entrance gates of Transylvania, this castle resembles the one described by Stoker’s novel.

Visitors, though, do not make a distinction between the story behind the character of the novel and the legends about Vlad Tepes, also know as Vlad the Impaler. The legends show him as a ruthless ruler who required honesty and diligence from his subjects and harshly punished theft, laziness, and cunning by impaling them. Each year, crowds of tourists gather at Bran Castle and follow their guides in the spooky narrow stone staircases, the dark rooms, and the massive dungeon, as they listen to the old legends.

Bran Castle at night
(Photo by Julian Nitzsche)
The end of November is one of the better times of year to visit Transylvania. On the night of the 29th of November, the towns celebrates not just Saint Andrew, the Christian apostle, but also an ancient god whose name is lost to history but who was venerated by the people who lived in Dacia, a country under the Roman Empire. Those who live in the villages still keep alive the centuries-old traditions.  You’ll have the chance to see garlic ropes hanging on front doors and housewives turning cups and pots upside down to scare evil spirits away.

There is also a belief that, on this particular night, that one can discover a criminal or a thief in their midst. A magical ritual takes place in the cemetery at midnight, using candles, holy water, a jar, and some silver coins, which are placed over an old grave. Legend has it that after the practitioner utters certain prayers, he can see the mysterious events and their main characters in the candlelight.

Poenari Fortress (Photo by L.Kenzel)
If you follow Vlad the Impaler’s footsteps, you would reach Poenari Fortress, hidden in the Carpathian Mountains, about 200 km (124 miles) from Bucharest. Not many people know about these old ruins that stand high on a cliff overlooking the Arges River, but it’s worth the visit. Legend has it that when the army of the Ottoman Empire attacked and captured this castle in 1462, Vlad the Impaler escaped via a secret passageway leading north through the mountains.

Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler
In my opinion, you should begin your journey in the medieval town of Sighisoara, right in the heart of Transylvania, where Vlad Dracula was born in 1431. The home of his birth still stands there but now hosts an antique-style restaurant. It’s worth seeing. The building is unique and hosts some beautiful sixth-century frescoes. Tourists can have lunch or dinner here, tasting traditional Romanian dishes and the local booze, palinca. Sighisoara is a popular spot for tourists searching for Halloween fun, because local amateur actors reenact a witch trial.

The Bistrita region as seen from Borgo Pass
If you’re interested in Dracula, the character, you should keep the best for the last part of your tour: Bistrita and the Borgo Pass. Bram Stoker mentioned both places in his novel, but they have no direct connection to Vlad the Impaler. Bistrita was the first stop of Stoker’s protagonist, young Jonathan Harker, in Transylvania. Harker is an English  solicitor, traveling to Transylvania to provide legal support to Dracula for a real estate transaction. He spends a night at the Golden Krone Hotel, and even though the place didn’t exist at the time Stoker wrote his novel, a hotel with the same name cropped up later for tourists visiting the town. Don’t expect much because Bistrita has a rural landscape and few medieval attractions to visit. It can be a good stop-over, though, on your way to the Borgo Pass (Tihuta Pass), which became famous worldwide after Dracula was first published in 1897. 

Borgo Pass, also known as Tihuta Pass
(Photo by Vberger)
The pass is 3,840 feet high and gives visitors a breathtaking view of the region. Many people say they find the most beautiful landscapes of the Carpathians here: on one side, valleys with green meadows, and on the other, dense pine forests. Even for those who aren’t passionate about the Dracula story, Tihuta Pass can be a delight. The villages around are an opportunity to discover local traditions, customs, and folklore.

Prepare yourself for a whole week of adventures if you wish to see all these sites and spend some time exploring the local treasures. However, don’t limit your trip to Transylvania to find Dracula. You should include a stop to Bucharest to see other places where Vlad the Impaler lived and ruled the country. In fact, his name is linked to the city’s official certification by an official act signed in 1459. In the Old City Center, tourists will find the ruins of the Old Princely Court, built by Vlad the Impaler. Legend has it that he held his prisoners in massive dungeons under the  city. You can visit the ruler’s own grave at Snagov Monastery, 25 miles north of Bucharest. The monastery is located on an island on the far side of Snagov Lake and can only be accessed by boat.


  1. I haven't yet made it to Romania, but the next time in Europe in late November that sounds like a great time to go! Thanks for the fascinating information.

  2. Being vampire illiterate, I had no idea Dracula was based on a real character, Alina. So fascinating!

  3. It's interesting how Christian saints and pagan gods often share holy days.

    I love history that you can not just read about in books but also see and touch in a real place. So some day I hope to trace old Vlad's footsteps too. What a fascinating character (though I'm quite happy he's no longer around). :)

  4. Great piece, Alina! It sheds a lot of light on who Dracula really was and hopefully influences foreign tourists' perspective when they will next visit our country, particularly, Transylvania. :)

  5. Well every medieval city has ghost tours – London, Prague, even New York now offers them. I think it totally makes sense to have a Vampire tour of Romania. I’m game and I don’t even believe in Vampires :)