A Tale of Two Citadels

He was the best of figures, he was the worst of figures. Vlad Dracul the Impaler, illustrative figure from Romanian history, and Hollywood cliche. The man himself deserves another post, but where do you go if you’re in search of his story?

The advertised answer is Bran Castle, half an hour from Brasov. “Dracula’s Castle!” Navigate the souvenir gauntlet and serve your time in line, and you can ascend the slope to this meticulously restored fortress that gives you a good idea of what such fortifications were like. It is kin in both form and function to many of the iconic castles of Europe (think the Rhine and Loire), built to secure taxation of a trade route and protect the local populace in an age of interstate violence. That part is real, and ensures beautiful valley vistas from the ramparts.

From there though, marketing takes over. Dracula’s Castle? No. Vlad Tepes, the man behind the legend, passed through the valley below, but that’s as close as he got to Bran castle. He didn’t build it, live in it, attack it, defend it, or even visit it. It doesn’t match Bram Stoker’s description from the book, and the old story that Vlad was imprisoned here has been widely discredited.

That doesn’t mean the castle isn’t worth visiting, just that it isn’t exactly what the ads say it is. Instead, it is a juxtaposition of information about the genuinely interested last Queen of Romania (who actually lived there, and was the reason for the restoration in the 1920s), alongside kitschy depictions of vampires that sustain the profitable Bran(d) name. (Amusingly, this quite capitalistic marketing began in the 1970s under the Communist government. Nobody can resist a money making tourist attraction!) Dracula is a fascinating character, so Bran is filled to the brim with tourists. I heard and talked to more foreigners there than anywhere else in Romania, including the airport. Which can be nice, since travelers are often my favorite people, but one of the things Romania has to offer are remarkable places without the tourist crowds. Vlad Dracul is no exception.

A hundred kilometers west of Bran, perched atop a much higher hill to accomplish the same fortress tasks, is Poenari Castle, arguably Vlad’s most important home. Instead of an extensively restored building packed with tourists, in the afternoon mist I found a much more atmospheric remnant of shattered bricks, modern walkways to cover the caps, and mildly macabre installations.

This pairing perfectly illustrates one of the reasons I love Romania: there is something for everyone. If you prefer more comfortable spots, with safe walls, climate control, and good multi-language signage (plus the chance to meet other travelers), go to Bran Castle, easy to reach from a city that offers lots more to see. Or if you prefer a more historically authentic and rugged spot, there is Poenari. Did I mention it’s at the top of 1,480 stairs? Vlad must have had buns of steel. You will too, after climbing the lushly wooded slopes.

And then there’s the best part. Romania is wonderful for things you’d like to go see, like Bran or even Poenari, but it’s even better for surprises. My favorite medieval castle (as opposed to neo-Baroque) was one I’d never even heard of before I crossed its ramparts…