Cities / Towns Visited: 65
Countries Visited: 19
Steps Taken Today: 14,055
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,229,695
Awaking ever so slightly worse for wear after our late night of drinking, we reluctantly swung our legs out of bed, grabbed a quick bite of food, and made the 45 minute long trek to the bus station on the other side of town. Although a lengthy walk first thing in the morning isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, I will say that the cool morning air helped to clear the grog induced fog that clouded my brain, and besides, going to a medieval cliff top castle certainly is my brand of fun, regardless of my personal state. We arrived to find my brother and his friend eating the ever so healthy hangover breakfast of pastries and redbull; whatever helps you function I guess. To give credit where its due, they did also have a huge bottle of water to balance it out aswell.
Soon enough our bus arrived, and to say that it was rickety would be showing it a kindness. It looked like it was probably entering into its third or fourth decade of service, but there was nothing else for it and thus we piled into the somewhat cosy and questionable seats, and were away. As the morning sun heated the interior, and with the tiny upper windows offering little relief in terms of fresh air or cooling, it wasn’t long before I was somewhat regretting a few of those drinks, as the mix of heat and tiny bumpy country roads resulted in my overheating and feeling nauseated for a good portion of the ride. The only amusing, and mildly terrifying addition to the ride, was a man casually wielding a scythe boarding the bus and travelling for a few stops before alighting. I can honestly say I can’t think of many other countries where a man toting potentially deadly farming equipment would fly on public transport, but hey, we were in Transylvania after all, home of mysterious and horrific, albeit fictional (I hope), characters.
As we gratefully stepped down off the bus we were greeted by the strange mix of the imposing medieval Bran castle sitting up on its precipice of rock, and the sound of much more modern music coming from a nearby green space, from what I can only guess was some sort of festival. There was something almost jolting about the juxtaposition of old and new. Despite this we took a long moment to admire the castle from afar, drinking in its striking appearance before wandering off to find the entrance. Eventually we found it, after the lack of direction signage found us around the wrong side first, and we joined the throngs of other tourists here to revel in ‘Dracula’s Castle’. Now, if you’ve ever actually seen the castle with its whitewashed walls, and red brick roof, it will be more than obvious that this, in fact, looks exactly nothing like the castle described in Bram Stoker’s famous novel. There is also absolutely no evidence that Mr. Stoker had any knowledge of the castle’s existence, let alone its appearance. The only connection which can be drawn between the story and the country is the fact that some of the inspiration for the character of Dracula comes from the legendarily bloodthirsty Voivode (military commander) of Wallachia (a historical region of Romania in which the town of Bran resides) Vlad Tepes; better known as Vlad the Impaler, for his somewhat gruesome choice of execution method for his enemies of impaling them on spikes. That being said, Vlad never even resided at the castle, and only occasionally passed through the Bran Gorge, as it was the home of Romanian Kings until one of them failed to repay the loans on it and it was taken back into possession by Brașov for military use until the mid 18th century. At this point it was used again by Romanian royalty, and was a favourite residence of Queen Marie. It then passed to her daughter Ileana who used it as a hospital in WWII. During the Cold War years it came under communist rule, when the royals were ousted, but is now back in the hands of the Habsburg decendants. In short is a messy and complicated history, like most old royal castles. It seems almost as though they are simply milking the vague connection to Dracula, but in spite of this, it is a most strikingly beautiful sight.
Once we had ascended we eventually made our way through the interior. Most of it is laid out to represent how it would have looked when it was lived in by Queen Marie, including much of the original furnishing. The gothically carved dark wood furniture compliment the whitewashed walls, and the slightly Ottoman style fabrics give the entire space a unique look. Unlike the grandiose palaces of Western Europe, these cosy rooms look so much more homely and lived in, than the cold stiff feeling of the overly ornate. From many of the windows you can catch a glimpse out over the towers and red tiles of the roof, to the lush green forests beyond, and down into the paved inner courtyard with its wonderfully medieval, and somewhat fairytale-esque, looking well. The rooms deliver an array of information on the intrinsic history of the site, from the Teutonic Knights building a wooden castle nearby in the mountain pass; to Brașov being (and I quote), given the privilege of building the castle at their own expense; through the long history of Romanian royalty, not simply the recent, but back to the separate rulers of the different areas like Wallachia and Transylvania which now make up the modern country.
I will say though, that although most people associate the castle with Dracula, the group who set up the museum didn’t feed into this, and add any tacky vampire nonsense; they simply went for the history angle. In fact, the only vampire related part of the entire museum is a small room with some fascinating text about the Romanian folklore of the Strigoi, the origin of Vampire stories in this country; although there are many different stories across the world. Strigoi were living ‘witches’ who had two hearts or souls, which could be sent out at night to meet with others and feed on the blood of their neighbours, or livestock. There is also a dead version which were reanimated corpses which often fed on their living family members. Like with many of these myths, anyone who was a little different would often be accused of being one, from people born with a tail, extra hair, or any other kind of deformity; to premature babies, or babies who die unbaptised or out of wedlock; to more farfetched cases like the baby of a woman who wouldn’t eat salt or encountered a black cat; or the seventh child in a family if their six older siblings were all the same sex. Even I, with my reddish hair and blue eyes, would have been at risk of being accused of being one. It was so commonly believed that apparently they would even dig up graves five or seven years after burial to check for signs of vampirism before washing and reburying the corpse (or what was left of it at that point).
By the time we went to leave it was absolutely bucketing down with rain, so we hovered in the shelter of the castle until it had eased somewhat before meeting back up with my brother and his friend, who had completed their exploration at a somewhat quicker clip than us. By this point the hangovers had passed as we were all pretty hungry, as we headed back down the hill and stopped at a restaurant in town to grab a quick lunch and weather the storm. A pork fillet and prosciutto dish, a rather delicious bowl of goulash, and a fair amount more quality conversation later and we were both content and tired in equal measure.
We had intended to stop in Râșnov on the way back, to see the fortress, but we reasoned that we had time on another of the days, and decided that given our general state and the fact that the rain was seemingly going to continue on and off for a while we would simply take the afternoon easy. Thus we headed back on the same rickety bus we’d come on, and trundled our way back into Brașov. After we bid farewell to the other two, we made out way home and filled in the remainder of our day with napping, showers, and dinner, whilst simultaneously attempting to get something useful done by way of blogs.
As I lay in bed, dozing, my mind was drawn once more to the myth of the Strigoi. It’s sad to think of all of the people throughout history who were persecuted and mistreated, simply because they were different. People with genetic deformities, who already had a tough time of life, were often hounded with abuse, or even killed, simply because medicine had no explanation for it, and the strong influence of the church in every aspect of life meant that the easiest explanation was the handiwork of Satan. It’s the same sadness I feel when I visit old asylums and consider all of the unfortunate women who were locked away for inane and nonsensical reasons probably only because their husbands did not wish to have them anymore, but were unable to divorce them. These stories, and these places, remind me of how import empathy and understanding are, and how much good you can do with them. To believe someone soulless or lesser because they do not mirror the majority in appearance, action, sexuality or belief is not simply a relic of the past though; we may not create fantastical fictional stories to surround them, but many are still treated poorly due to ingrained intolerance or the unfounded words of millennia old religious texts written during the same times and in the same mindsets that these myths were created. We assign them to some unprovable God, but this does not make them true, right, or unchangeable. This intolerance, cruelty, and lack of compassion is not due to some unmalleable part of our nature, but because society feeds us its fear in our childhoods. It teaches us that it is us versus them, but what if we were to challenge that lesson?