So you’ve just about recovered from Halloween for yet another year – but in 2015, why not celebrate the occasion by exploring Transylvania and seeing if you can get up close and personal with one of gothic folklore’s spookiest characters.
Yes, this place exists, and so did Dracula – better known as Vlad Dracul – with the legendary Bran Castle and the fortress town of Sighasoara the two main stomping grounds of this creepy creature that you can explore at your leisure while staying in the charming town of Brasov.
The train from Bucharest to Brasov is an experience in itself, a visual feast of rural life unfolding before your eyes: farmers working fields with donkeys, men tending to sheep with dogs, continuing construction on endless unfinished houses, middle-of-nowhere stations guarded by surly conductors dressed in soldier-like uniforms, crumbling villages with misshapen streets and pink and yellow paint peeling from house after house and single-platform. All against the backdrop of hills lined with trees the colour of bear and wolf fur, like a camouflaged collage of the animals lurking within – creating a fitting atmosphere for finding Dracula.
Brasov is to Bucharest like Edinburgh to London, the romantic, medieval getaway cradled by a wall of hills to the urban jungle. Life centres on the piazza and the two main streets that stem from it, filled with loitering groups of teenagers, couples walking arm in arm, groups of teenagers eating pretzels and ice creams. Our hotel, Bella Muzica, is a 400 year old building that seems like an old hunting lodge, like Batman’s lair where you expect to find a secret passage if you press against the thick brick walls. The restaurant is an old cellar, a cavernous maze of dimly lit rooms and low rafters. Feast on hearty beef stew and chewy dumplings, fried cheese, corn porridge.
Getting from Brasov to Bran Castle involves getting to the less picturesque outskirts of town and boarding a rickety bus adorned with flags, crosses and a teddy bear. The bumpy ride takes us past grey slabs of apartment blocks, past the fortress on the hill that marks neighbouring Rasnov and on to Bran.
Before we get to the legendary castle, we must first navigate our way through endless market stalls selling countless Dracula mugs, masks, dolls and postcards. Shrouded in trees stripped by naked by the dwindling autumn, Bran Castle can be easily imagined being framed by a full moon and thick grey clouds, with some baying wolves in the background for good measure. With its black and white pictures, bear skin rugs and medieval accoutrement, the inside of the castle feels suitably dark and old but disappointingly not very scary and with little trace of Dracula himself. Sadly there are no wolves howling, just stray dogs barking and crowds of visitors snapping pictures, and crowds of school children shrieking excitedly as they pose on staircases and balconies. It doesn’t take much to escape the crowds though: simply by walking to the other side of the castle you’ll stumble upon a small stone ruin, that you can explore, looking up at the castle’s high stone walls, or over at the village behind. It might not be terrifying, and Dracula’s presence might be more superficial than scary, but the grandeur, beauty and drama of the place makes it worth the visit.
Perhaps Dracula’s birthplace, the fortress town of Sighasoara will provide more answers. Its cobbled streets display many homages to the man/monster, with many suitably themed restaurants, shops, market stalls and artwork claiming to hold the key to the origins of Dracula. While Dracula references are found around every corner, what’s more rewarding about a trip to Sighasoara are its hilltop views, medieval buildings, mechanical town clock and market square. Dracula aside, it’s a tranquil little town that you can while away a good few hours calmly strolling around.
You may have to dig a little deeper to find Dracula in Transylvania, but what we found was a lot more valuable – a beautiful country that takes you a step back in time, away from the rat race to a simpler era.