Bran Castle

Bran Castle

July 19, 2012, Thursday/ 18:07:00

The morning after our Raşnov adventure, we actually took a little break. After eight days on the road (more for the three Californian visitors) our clothes were feeling a little stiff; one can only carry so much in a backpack and little pull-along, and there was barely enough room for a week's worth of clean underwear.

Before we fell into bed the night before, our beautiful Olympian-police-officer-landlady gathered up our musty old clothes and promised to wash them in the morning; when we got up, after breakfast, there she was, with a basket of clean, wet clothes and directions to the clothesline. We spent a happy 20 minutes on a lovely grassy hill, surrounded by wildflowers, singing birds and lilacs in full bloom, hanging out our now-fragrant clothing. What a relief!

Shortly thereafter, Dana's little friend Mimi showed up in her nice new car, and once again we all piled in, this time to go see what everyone calls “Dracula's Castle” but which is really called Bran Castle, located in a the neighboring village. We had done our homework and already knew this was not anywhere that the count had actually lived, but he had, by some accounts, besieged it and by others visited it. Whatever its provenance, there was no way we weren't going to see something that may have, even by the slightest chance, been the location of a Vlad sighting.

Along with his younger brother, Radu the Handsome, Vlad III of Wallachia was a “guest” at the Ottoman court of Sultan Murad II, father of the future Fatih Sultan Mehmet. Radu ended up quite the little Ottoman, becoming good pals with the young future sultan and eventually converting to Islam and taking a position in the court; he was with Fatih Sultan Mehmet at the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Meanwhile, our Vlad was not on good terms at all with his former “hosts” (the boys were part of a hostage deal with Murad and the boys' father, also a Vlad, to ensure his good behavior for help with regaining his throne). Vlad the father, Vlad II, had been inducted into a chivalric Christian order called the Order of the Dragon, invented in 1408 for selected noblemen friends of the founder, Sigismund, king of Hungary and later Holy Roman emperor. Members promised to fight all enemies of Christ, especially the Ottoman Turks, which was a helpful promise for King Sigismund to have gained, given emperors' penchant for not using their own troops to fight with if they can help it. To lock members more tightly into the deal, really flashy dragon-themed bling was made for them, like saddles with real gold dragons worked onto the leather, nice big gold chains with dragon pendants, etc. Vlad II got so into it he started calling himself “Vlad Dracul.” His given name, Vlad, is another form of Vladimir, which translates to “king of the universe” (think Mr. Putin and Mr. Lenin, both Vladimirs), and Dracul means “Dragon,” so Vlad means “King of the Universe Dragon.” This was such a great name that little Vlad called himself “Vlad Dracula,” or “King of the Universe Son of Dragon.”

What distinguished Dracula

Back in those days, as now, there were a lot of dirty politics, fighting and killing. Vlad III, aka Dracula, distinguished himself not for the really quite effective military walloping he delivered to the hated Ottomans on several occasions, but for his cunning methods of execution. On at least one occasion, he nailed the turbans of some Ottoman emissaries to their own heads because, he said, they wouldn't remove their “hats” to him. Most of the time, though, he loved to just impale people on stakes. To be fair, we get most contemporary accounts of him from his enemies, so he might not have been as bad as all that; in fact, he is a folk hero to many Romanians because of his tireless (and, admittedly, brave) fight against the Ottoman Empire. So when a 19th century Irish author named Bram Stoker needed a name for the hero of his soon-to-be classic Gothic novel, he settled on not only naming him “Dracula” but gave the count some of Vlad's history, namely his “betrayal” by his brother (Radu the Handsome) and his bloody forays into “Turkey-land.” In the novel, Count Dracula has a castle in Transylvania, and that's about all we tourists have to know. Wallachia is on the border of Transylvania, and so is Bran, so there you go, and there we went.

The castle sits on a rocky mount, high above the village of Bran, although it is surpassed in turn by much higher mountains, the fabled Carpathians. Even though the sun was shining on the beautiful forest that seems to cover this part of the world, it looks satisfyingly spooky, looming over the village from its stony height. Little Bran is pretty, with a touristic slash through it as one approaches the castle, which is to be expected. What is not expected is the casual presence of real villagers, many of whom were more than a little disdainful of all these foreigners in their modest home. As it turns out, the castle (according to Wikipedia) was only opened in its present incarnation as Romania's first private museum in 2009, which would explain why the locals still found us a bit of a novelty. There was even a sweet little old lady selling last year's apples, from her root cellar no doubt, on a street lined with Dracula coffee mugs, T-shirts, monster masks and other less nutritious souvenirs of Transylvania. An old man with his old cane and a new one rested at a Coca-Cola snack table, staring suspiciously at passers-by. Beverly met a real monster who tried to flirt with her.

History of the castle

Briefly, a wooden castle was first built here by our old buddies the Teutonic Knights, in 1212; that version got demolished by the Mongols 30 years later. In 1377 a nice stone castle was built at the order of King Louis of Hungary; that is, he ordered the local Saxons to build it at their own expense. The reason for building it was the ongoing problem with those rascally Turks. From then on, the castle was used for defense, customs collection and trade route guarding. Finally, when it was pretty much in ruins again, it was given to the queen of Romania, Marie, in the 1920s. Marie it was who rebuilt the old castle into the version we see today, and she lived there for many years. Fortunately, she didn't live to see it confiscated by the Communists in 1948, when the royal family was exiled. She had left the castle to her daughter Ileana, and in 2005, Romania gave it back, to Ileana's heir, Archduke Dominic of Austria-Tuscany, and his sisters. It is they who prepared this latest version of their grandmother Marie's favorite castle. All that historical drama almost puts the Dracula connection in the shade.

However, it is Dracula who brings the tourists there today, even though with the exception of one apologetic little room with some pretty fascinating stuff about historical local legends of the “strigoi,” who are not specifically vampires but share some of the count's aversions, such as garlic and sunlight, and must be killed with a stake to the heart, there is nothing related to Bram Stoker's exotic “revenant.” In spite of that, I don't think there was one tourist there who was disappointed or who didn't believe Dracula might have been there, after all; it is just that terrific a castle. There is a secret tunnel or two and an old elevator, which we didn't see, but we didn't care: Bev, Chantel and I were too busy picking out our bedrooms, and Lütfü and Craig were too busy looking at coats of mail and suits of armor to worry about tunnels and shafts. Queen Marie had perfect taste in castle decoration, and the success of her grandchildren, one of them, anyway, is the way they have set up the castle to look perfectly lived in, yet to move people along without their really noticing how many rooms and levels are not accessible. What a fun place to live that must have been! Gorgeous ceramic stoves, massive wooden furniture carved with exquisite detail, family photos on the walls, funny half-levels and terraces popping out of nowhere with spectacular views -- it is like floating above the clouds in Sleeping Beauty's castle. Still, the old, bloody stones under it all exude just a whiff of the castle's history and the bloody events of the surrounding region, just enough to give one a frisson if one falls behind one's group. If you don't believe me, just ask that guy over there with the cape…

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