“Did you know Dracula was a real person?” a fellow backpacker asked, instantly blowing my mind.
“What are you talking about?” I replied.
A group of us sat in the common area at a hostel in Varna, Bulgaria, and I expressed my intention to rush through Romania. The young British girl giving me the history lesson explained that the character is partly based on a historical figure and that Dracula tourism is a real thing in Transylvania.
“Sold!” I declared. Later that night, I made arrangements to visit Bra?ov, a picturesque Transylvanian town surrounded by the Southern Carpathian Mountains, where many Dracula tours start.
The Bible takes the grand prize as the first global bestseller, but the second worldwide literary hit was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Released in 1897, the Gothic novel introduces Count Dracula, a vampire who leaves Transylvania for England so he might feast on fresh blood. The author pulled from Romanian and Eastern European folklore, which included the emergence of “vampirism” in the late 17th century. By the 19th century, tales of bloodsuckers and the undead reached Western Europe. Even into the 20th century, villagers near Bran, Romania, still believed in ghosts that haunt the villages after midnight.
While there is a historical Dracula, he cannot claim the original inspiration for the character. Actually, Stoker intended to name the character Count Wampyr, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Stoker changed the name upon reading about Transylvanian-born Vlad Dracula, a 15th-century Wallachian prince and warrior nicknamed Vlad the Impaler after his favorite form of execution. The name Dracula derives from the Crusader Order of the Dragon, a military order founded in 1408 and whose ceremonial black-cloak uniform possibly inspired Count Dracula’s look.
The historic Dracula, a blood-thirsty man in his own right, spent part of his youth imprisoned and whipped by an Ottoman Sultan who wanted a ransom for his release, but when the boyars killed his family, the Turks sent the young man back home. Though still a teen at the time, Dracula proceeded to conquer Wallachia, slaughtered the boyars and then went after the Turks. Legend suggests he impaled (i.e., drove large stakes through prisoners’ bodies and hoisted them up) as many as 100,000 victims. According to one legend, an Ottoman army coming after Dracula came upon thousands of impaled Turks in the “Forest of the Impaled” prompting the soldiers to turn back. Some even suggest his affinity for driving stakes through men inspired the idea of driving a stake through Dracula’s own heart. Either way, the book’s characters refer to Count Dracula as the person who “beat the Turk on his own ground” and “won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land.”
“Tell me about your Dracula tours,” I asked the hostel owner in Bra?ov shortly after arriving.
“Most people just go to Dracula’s Castle, which is nearby,” said Eugene, a thirtysomething Romanian with decent English-language skills.
“But he never lived there,” said a young female working in the hostel. “The real place to go is Dracula’s Castle.”
“Yes,” said Eugene, “but that is much further away, and it would cost more.”
Eugene runs the tours himself, with most people visiting the castle, but he offered to take me to both the castle and the fortress on a private full-day tour for $100. While that might not sound like much in the U.S. or Europe, it was a lot for a city where, per the owner, officials stopped putting up street signs because locals would steal them for scrap metal.
We headed off the next morning. First stop: Bran Castle, a.k.a. Dracula’s Castle.
Vlad Dracula never captured Bran Castle, but in his many conflicts with local Saxons merchants, he traveled through Bran and dealt with the customs house at the castle’s base. Sources also suggest a Hungarian army locked him up in Bran Castle for two months. (Note: other accounts suggest he was held at Hunyadi Castle and others still suggest he stayed at Bran as a guest) That is likely the extent of his history with Dracula’s Castle, and while Stoker never traveled to Romania, some say descriptions of the royal residence inspired the fictional castle in the book.
“The castle is on the very edge of a terrific precipice,” reads the second chapter of Dracula. “A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree tops, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests.”
This aptly describes Bran Castle, which is the only castle in Transylvania and the only Romanian castle that fits the description. Some believe Stoker based the description on an illustration of Bran Castle found in the 1865 book Transylvania: Its Product and Its People. In real life, however, Dracula’s Castle is anything but creepy.
When we arrived, I felt like the only person there on a Dracula trek. Moving from room to room on a guided group tour, I saw various pieces of art and an opulent furniture collection from Queen Marie of Edinburgh, a British royal who married Romanian King Ferdinand I and served as Queen from 1914 to 1927. She was the last of Romania’s queens and reportedly had the king in the palm of her hand… which presumably meant lots of furniture shopping.
“And as many of you might know,” the castle tour guide finally said, “Vlad Dracula once stayed in this castle.”
The guide took us into a Hollywood-style set straight out of a maze at one of the big amusement parks during Halloween. The room included information on Vlad Dracula and various vampiric pieces of artwork, and the castle naturally sold Dracula-themed coffee mugs and other souvenirs for people with poor taste. After snapping a few pictures, we departed the castle.
“Dracula’s fortress is next,” said Eugene with gusto.
Poenari Fortress (or Cetatea Poenari), the so-called Real Dracula’s Castle, is a fortress in Wallachia high above the Arges River valley, and Vlad Dracula did live here. Upon taking the throne, he recognized the strategic potential of the location, and he ordered repairs to the structure, turning it into one of his main fortresses. Years later, Poenari was the site of his epic battle against the Ottomans—who were aided by Dracula’s throne-hungry younger brother Radu—during which his wife committed suicide by leaping from one of its towers, a scene referenced in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With so much death inside its walls, this spooky fortress had a reputation for being haunted well before the Dracula novel was written.
“Are you ready?” asked Eugene at the base of the fortress. “It’s about 1,500 steps to the top.”
And he wasn’t kidding. The relative inaccessibility of the fortress is what made it an efficient military stronghold, and it took us a good 45 minutes to reach the top. Still, despite huffing and puffing like we were being chased by real vampires, I marveled at the view from the perch that was equally breathtaking. Built by Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, Poenari is essentially an eagle’s nest where visitors can look across the land at all the natural beauty. Though Stoker likely never heard of this castle, Poenari is often referenced in popular culture—e.g., Da Vinci’s Demons, The Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew Meet Dracula—in connection with Dracula.
Though his wife did not survive the Turkish siege, Dracula escaped through a secret passageway heading north through the mountains. He sought help from the King of Hungary, who imprisoned Dracula instead. Many years later, Dracula regained his crown, though he was killed shortly thereafter. He was reportedly buried in the Monastery of Snagov, and a 1933 excavation of his supposed tomb did turn up bones, but they belonged to horses. Presumably someone made an effort to deceive people into thinking a man was buried here. Still, even before the excavation, a gypsy legend already suggested that Dracula rose from the dead in the 1600s.
If visiting Transylvania for Dracula tourism, both the castle and fortress are worth exploring, albeit with measured expectations. Another stop worth considering is medieval Sighisoara, the UNESCO-honored Romanian town where Dracula was born. Located in the Citadel Square with a wrought-iron dragon above the entrance, the Vlad Dracul House is now the Museum of Weapons and a restaurant that serves primarily red-meat dishes and drinks with novelty names like Dracula Kiss and Dracula Dream.
And naturally, the restaurant throws one hell of a Halloween party.
Image: Stacy Spensley, CC-BY