It might not be the real Dracula castle, but it definitely looks the part. Perched atop a 200-foot-high crag, the medieval castle of Bran sits above a valley that cuts through the Carpathian Mountains. Its imposing towers rise high above the trees, piercing the sky with their spiked turrets.
In fact, this 13th-century fortress could very well be the refuge of a much-feared monster were it not for the cluster of souvenir shops at the foot of the hill and the thousands of tourists visiting the castle every year.
Bran Castle is one of Romania’s star attractions and the most visited landmark in Transylvania. Enshrouded in mystery and intrigue, the castle hooks tourists with its connection to the Dracula myth – but was it ever the real home of the most fearsome figure in Romanian history?
Bran Fortress was erected during the rule of King Louis I of Anjou, who wanted the castle to be strategically positioned on one of the most important trans-Carpathian passages in Transylvania.
Built at the entrance to the Bran Gorge by the Brasov Saxons, the castle served the role of customs for merchants using the pass, while it also guarded the southern border of Transylvania against a possible Ottoman invasion.
Although the Walachian ruler Vlad Tepes, son of Vlad Dracul, never resided in the castle, the notorious Prince made several journeys through Bran Gorge. In 1459, his army marched through the gorge to attack the nearby city of Brasov and its suburbs, burning houses to the ground and murdering hundreds of Saxons.
The real home of Vlad the Impaler is Poenari Castle, which lies in ruins on a cliff in the southern Carpathians.
Contrary to popular belief, Bram Stoker never set foot in Romania, and he probably never heard of Bran Castle either. The Irish writer based his descriptions of Transylvania and Dracula’s castle on illustrations that were available to him at the time.
Although Stoker was the first to associate the name ‘Dracula’ with vampirism, he does not suggest a link between his character and the historical figure of Vlad Tepes. Instead, the writer draws heavily on local myths and superstitions on vampires, some of which are still prevalent in Transylvanian villages.
Bran Castle suffered substantial damage during the Revolution of 1848 and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, after which it fell into decay for nearly 30 years.
When Transylvania became part of Greater Romania, the deserted fortress was offered to Queen Maria of Romania by the council of Brasov. The castle underwent extensive repairs and renovation works, and served as a royal summer residence between 1920 and 1934.
When Queen Maria died in 1938, the castle was bequeathed to her daughter, Princess Ileana, who built a hospital in the village of Bran to treat wounded soldiers.
The hospital remained open after the Second World War and Princess Ileana continued working as a nurse in the village until the Communist regime came to power, when the royal family was forced to leave the country. The castle was subsequently seized by the Communist authorities, who turned it into a museum.
In 2006, ownership of the castle was legally returned to Dominic von Habsburg, the son and heir of Princess Ileana.
Two years later, von Habsburg put the castle on the market for £40 million, but eventually decided to keep it open to the public as a museum.
The castle harbours a priceless collection of old furniture and artwork collected by Queen Maria. In fact, it’s very easy to feel transported back in time as you step inside the castle’s furnished rooms, climb up its spiral stairwells and walk through dark, secret passages. It’s almost as if you’re actually venturing into Dracula’s lair, anticipating his sudden appearance at every corner, but you’ll probably just end up bumping into a selfie stick instead.
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