By Evelyn Kelly, PhD
Bran Castle is an atmosphere, a home, a place of horror, and the setting that Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula.” It is also the destination of thousands of tourists each year, thanks to Hollywood.
Our guide Sophia sets the atmosphere, as we traverse the dark Carpathian Mountains where dense spruce forests are the hometown of brown bears, wolves, and folklore. We see the white mists rising from the forest supposedly spirits that come out to dance and play. “If you are seduced by them, you may disappear forever without a trace,” she warns.
Perched precariously on a high rock is massive Bran Castle, a mass of caramel-colored stones. The thick limestone fortress walls are pock-marked from many battles and capped by round towers called donjons. We are breathless. It is as awesome as the first sight of the Acropolis, Red Square in Moscow, or the Egyptian pyramids.
To get into the first floor, we must climb 100 steps. To move up, we navigate a secret passage that is so narrow and twisting that only one person can pass. A strong rope is connected to the sides to pull ourselves up with – not an easy thing task on uneven steps. We reach a lookout that enables us to see miles of the surrounding country. It has a large opening. We could pour hot oil on attackers who are scaling the wall. These were not warm and fuzzy times; in fact, cruelty to enemies was the game of the day.
Have a passion for the morbid and grotesque? The torture room is full of inventive instruments. There is the Iron Maiden, a solid iron cabinet with a hinged door fitted with spikes on the inside and the Cradle of Judah, a pyramid-like chair designed to create tremendous pain. Displayed are all kinds of tools of barbarism with explanations of how they worked.
Folklore long before Bram Stoker spawned tales of bloodsucking creatures called Strigoi, who nightly roamed the shadowy halls. Stoker modeled his predator after a real-life person: Vlad III, son of Dracul, prince of Wallachia. He is also known as “Vlad the Impaler” and “Vlad Tepes.” He was a mighty hero who fought to protect the area against the invaders from the Ottoman Empire. And yes, he did impale enemies, positioning them along the roads to show what would happen to you. (He learned the technique when he was imprisoned by the Ottoman Turks).
Bran Castle’s walls could tell many tales. It has many battle scars. The royal Romanian Hapsburgs bought and lived in it. The Germans used it as a hospital during World War II. Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, seized it from the Hapsburg family, who later got it back. Now it is a museum dedicated to Queen Marie of Romania and displays her art and Gothic furniture. Some historians do not think Vlad lived in this castle but might have been imprisoned here; others disagreed and believe this is his castle.
On the way back, my daughter Sophia asked, “Do you think it really was Dracula’s castle?” We pondered the question as we returned to Bucharest that night and ate in the Count Dracula Restaurant. Ultimately, I think it’s up to us to decide.