Bran Castle is counted among Europe’s most storied and mysterious castles. Located in the heart of Romania near the edge of the Carpathian Mountains, Bran Castle is the legendary heart of the region known as Transylvania. Certainly that it is how it is promoted by the local tourist industry. In reality, Bran is one of the finest and best preserved castles to be found in Southeastern Europe. It also briefly served as a royal residence during the first half of the twentieth century. But Bran Castle will always be best known for its association with Vlad III of Wallachia, better known as Vlad the Impaler. More precisely, it will always be known for its association with the alter-ego of Vlad created by Bram Stoker: Count Dracula. This will continue as long as the local tourism board continues to promote the site as Dracula’s Castle.
Bran Castle is a relative newcomer as European castles go. It was originally constructed as a temporary wooden stockade constructed by the Teutonic Knights to guard trade routes through the Carpathian Mountains. This first castle stood barely three decades before it was sacked and destroyed by Mongols rampaging through the region in the 1240s. A permanent stone castle was erected in the 1370s at the behest of Louis I of Hungary, who sought to improve the kingdom’s defenses against encroachments from the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans showed up even before the castle was completed, and Transylvania became a frontier region and battleground between Hungary and the Sultanate. Except for a brief period in the 16th century, Transylvania remained free of Ottoman rule, and the strategic Bran Castle was key to keeping the Turks out. The nearly impregnable castle withstood sieges and served as an advance post for European soldiers in offensive operations.
The most colorful figure to arise from this period was Prince Vladimir III of Wallachia. Vlad the Impaler, as he was nicknamed, was a champion of the European cause against the Ottomans in the 15th century. He seized Bran Castle in 1459 and used it as a base for his war to liberate nearby Wallachia. Vlad the Impaler was a particularly vengeful man, and slaughtered countless Ottomans and other enemies during his endeavors. According to legend, he had upwards of ten thousand people put to death on spikes, thus earning his nickname. It is from this legend that the now-famous vampire legend arose.
After the threat of the Ottomans receeded in the 1600s, Bran Castle’s strategic importance waned. It eventually fell into the possession of the royal family of Romania. In the aftermath of World War I and the breakup of the Austrian Empire, Bran Castle was restored and refurbished for use as a residence by the royal family. It was so used until 1948, when the ancient royal family was removed by the post-World War II communist government. After the collapse of communism, possession of the castle was returned to an heir of the family. Bran Castle is now maintained as a national treasure and is the most popular tourist destination in Romania.
Bran Castle conjures up images of a dark, brooding fortress shrouded by dark clouds and silhouted by lightning strikes. The reality is much different. Structurally it is a classic, Gothic castle that perfectly fits the role it is famous for. However, this is offset by the brilliant, white-washed walls and red-tiled roofs that give the castle a more festive appearance. One of the noteworthy exterior features is the lack of outer walls. The entire castle consists primarily of the massive keep and other interconnected buildings, with only a relatively small courtyard between them.
The interior is a labyrinth of rooms, halls and stairwells that do help the castle live up to its mysterious reputation. However, most of the keep was renovated in the early 20th century to accomadate the royal family. The rooms are now preserved as they were. Although only a century or so old, the furnishings look as they were created in the Middle Ages. This is a nice change from the gold-gilt, baroque-soaked palaces of western and central Europe. Apologies to Dracula enthusiasts: there are no coffins stashed away in the castle dungeons.
Bran Castle hovers majestically, or ominously, over the red-roofed houses of the town of Bran, about fifteen miles south of Brasov and approximately sixty miles north of Buchrest. It is somewhat off the beaten path, but improving tourism infrastructure has made the castle more accessible from Brasov. It is open daily May through October from 9:00am-7:00pm; and November through April (except Mondays) from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is L20. Web: www.bran-castle.com (official website).
Bran Castle is not the only castle which vies for the title of Dracula’s Castle. Other contenders include Poenari Castle, which was a principal fortress of Vlad the Impaler, and Hunyad Castle, where he was imprisoned for seven years after being deposed. For those interested in other Gothic horror sites, the ruins of Frankenstein Castle can be found in Darmstadt, Germany. Also near Bran are the Fagaras Fortress, Rasnov Fortress and Sighisoara Citadel.