Bran Castle

August 5. I had my camping place mostly to myself, and awoke and made my way toward Bran Castle. On the way, I stopped in Râșnov to admire an old church which had centuries-old paintings on the outside.  An old woman said something to me and I spoke in Spanish, asking her if it was closed.  She seemed to say that it was.  I was intrigued by a citadel on the hill and made my way towards it, parking in a maze of cars.  There was a train to the top, but I decided to walk.  Despite the heat, it was nice to walk, and I got to the top a bit breathless and glistening with sweat. The citadel was built as part of a defense system for nearby villages exposed to invading armies coming from the Bran pass on their way to Burzenland. Villagers sought refuge within its walls, and built dwellings to ease living conditions.

I was surprised to see tourist shops selling mood rings, plastic animal figurines, and other assorted trash from China.  Romanians have gotten capitalism down, at least in terms of selling objects built with planned obsolescence as the goal.  I was surprised at the hoards of people swarming the heights. I guess heat doesn’t keep a good Romanian down.  I descended and made my way to Bran. Little did I know the traffic I’d be in for. There were 4 or 5 sections of one lane road where lights controlled the flow.  Because it was a Sunday, everyone was headed to Bran. At some points, drivers charged the barriers and risked a head on collision.  People were desperate.  Gypsies kept trying to convince me to buy raspberries and blackberries.  I finally did, and would show them my new purchase when they presented me with more.  That didn’t seem to convince them, however, and they would try to haggle with me.  Not reduce the price, just guilt trip me to buy theirs.  I felt badly because several indicated they wanted water, but I only had one container and was afraid that they would think I was giving it to them and take it. So I felt like I was killing them as I shook my head and held onto the bottle.

I finally got to Bran Castle.  I had a feeling it would be a let down, though I didn’t know why.  Perhaps it was because there were so many tourists that it took hours just to get in the door, then hours to get through the castle.  I could barely see anything as it was full of people.  No joke.  I needed a break.  I was interested in learning more about Bram Stoker and the legends that he drew from in creating the Dracula character.  It turned out that Vlad III Tepes was not the inspiration of the character, rather a Hungarian queen who was imprisoned within four walls and left to die as punishment for her crimes.  The fortress has had a long history, changing hands from those of the Teutonic Knights to Wallachian rulers (like Voivode Vlad Țepeș, or Vlad the Impaler), Transylvanian villages, Ottomans, and the Austro Hungarian empire.  Bran pass was a very important route between Transylvania and Wallachia, and guarding it was extremely strategic.

In the late 1800s the castle was briefly used by the Transylvania forestry department. After 1918, Transylvania became part of Greater Romania. On December 1st 1920, the citizens of Brașov, through a unanimous decision of the city’s council, led by Mayor Karl Schnell, offered the castle to Queen Maria of Romania, who was described in the deed as “the great queen who (…) spreads her blessing everywhere she walked, thus wining, with an irresistible momentum, the hearts of the entire country’s population”. The Castle became a favourite residence of Queen Maria, who restored and arranged it to be used as a residence of the royal family.

But thanks to Bram Stoker, Bran Castle is inexorably tied up with the personality of Vlad Țepeș, meaning Vlad the Impaler.  I had the feeling Vlad III had been received a lot of bad press and been scapegoated.  It was just a feeling, but turned out to be correct.  I got the following information from an interview with Florin Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida. Vlad III was given the name Dracula because his father, Vlad II, had been inducted into a knightly order, the Order of the Dragon, by King Sigismund of Hungary in 1431. This earned Vlad II a new surname: Dracul. The name came from the old Romanian word for dragon, “drac.” His son, Vlad III, would later be known as the “son of Dracul” or, in old Romanian, Drăculea, hence Dracula. In modern Romanian, the word “drac” refers to another feared creature — the devil. The Order of the Dragon was devoted to a singular task: the defeat of the Turkish, or Ottoman Empire. Situated between Christian Europe and the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire, Vlad II’s (and later Vlad III’s) home principality of Wallachia was frequently the scene of bloody battles as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces repulsed the invaders.

When Vlad II was called to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, he brought his young sons Vlad III and Radu along. But the meeting was actually a trap: All three were arrested and held hostage. The elder Vlad was released under the condition that he leave his sons behind. “The sultan held Vlad and his brother as hostages to ensure that their father, Vlad II, behaved himself in the ongoing war between Turkey and Hungary,” said Elizabeth Miller, a research historian and professor emeritus at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. Under the Ottomans, Vlad and his younger brother were tutored in science, philosophy and the arts. Vlad also became a skilled horseman and warrior, according to Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, former professors of history at Boston College, who wrote several books about Vlad III — as well as his alleged connection to Stoker’s Dracula — in the 1970s and 1980s.

“They were treated reasonably well by the current standards of the time,” Miller said. “Still, [captivity] irked Vlad, whereas his brother sort of acquiesced and went over on the Turkish side. But Vlad held enmity, and I think it was one of his motivating factors for fighting the Turks: to get even with them for having held him captive.” While Vlad and Radu were in Ottoman hands, Vlad’s father was fighting to keep his place as voivode of Wallachia, a fight he would eventually lose. In 1447, Vlad II was ousted as ruler of Wallachia by local noblemen (boyars) and was killed in the swamps near Bălteni, half way between Târgovişte and Bucharest in present-day Romania. Vlad’s older half-brother, Mircea, was killed alongside his father.  Not long after these harrowing events, in 1448, Vlad embarked on a campaign to regain his father’s seat from the new ruler, Vladislav II. His first attempt at the throne relied on the military support of the Ottoman governors of the cities along the Danube River in northern Bulgaria.

Vlad also took advantage of the fact that Vladislav was absent at the time, having gone to the Balkans to fight the Ottomans for the governor of Hungary at the time, John Hunyadi.Vlad won back his father’s seat, but his time as ruler of Wallachia was short-lived. He was deposed after only two months, when Vladislav II returned and took back the throne of Wallachia with the assistance of Hunyadi. Little is known about Vlad III’s whereabouts between 1448 and 1456. But it is known that he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict, giving up his ties with the Ottoman governors of the Danube cities and obtaining military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary, who happened to dislike Vlad’s rival — Vladislav II of Wallachia. Vlad III’s political and military tack truly came to the forefront amid the fall of Constantinople in 1453. After the fall, the Ottomans were in a position to invade all of Europe. Vlad, who had already solidified his anti-Ottoman position, was proclaimed voivode of Wallachia in 1456. One of his first orders of business in his new role was to stop paying an annual tribute to the Ottoman sultan — a measure that had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Ottomans.


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