Staking Out Castle Dracula
Transylvania’s Castle Bran is only the fictional home of Count Dracula, but Bram Stoker used it as a direct model for his novel, which grants it an awkward place in Romania’s history. The government would rather remember Queen Marie than a British pulp author, but the image stuck in the public consciousness, and therefore it’s the most visited place in this extraordinary country – a shame because it has much more to offer.
In 1920, the castle became a royal residence and the favourite home of Queen Marie. The castle was inherited by her daughter, who ran a hospital there in World War II. It was seized by the communists, who expelled the royal family in 1948. In 2005, the Romanian government passed a special law allowing restitution claims on properties illegally expropriated, and a year later the castle was given to Dominic von Habsburg, the son and heir of Princess Ileana. In 2007, the retrocession of the castle was declared illegal, as it broke the Romanian law on property and succession.
The argument between royals and the government went back and forth. In 2009, the castle administration was transferred again to Archduke Dominic and his sisters. The Habsburgs opened it to the public as a private museum to help safeguard the economic base in the region. It now appears to be up for private sale, so who knows if it will be safeguarded or closed?
The journey to the castle couldn’t have been more atmospheric – driving through the Carpathian mountains in a snowstorm was a delicious day-long experience, the black firs rising all around as we passed through tiny villages with black-hatted woodcutters on carthorses – so the arrival at the castle was a little bit of a let-down as the area is rather more suburban than anything in the surrounding region of Brasov, and the castle is beset with huts selling some of the tackiest (and therefore most brilliant) Dracula tat, with a properly scary haunted house. It doesn’t matter – shouldn’t castles always have peasant huts at their base?
The inside of the castle is lacking in grandeur, and none of the fixtures are original. Everything has been painted white, which makes for a clean look but removes the atmospheric feeling – still, this isn’t a film set, merely an inspiration for a novel. Re-reading the book while I was there, I found myself disappointed with the earnest prose (as with HG Wells) but still excited by the sense of dread that accumulates. There are details I’d forgotten – Harker realises the castle has no staff when he spies Dracula making the beds!
In the courtyard, the castle is criss-crossed with narrow open-sided corridors and winding staircases, angles and spires, turrets and a well that conjure up the right atmosphere. If you want a more outrageously decorated and situated castle, then head for Peles, with its long walk through the mountains and its cluster of perhaps a dozen astonishing baroque buildings surrounded by streams in the forest. We would have gone inside (by all accounts it’s incredible) but the queue was long and the day was cold and short.
Back in Sighisoara, Vlad’s birthplace is easy to miss – a room tackily decked out with red swagging, candles, portraits and a coffin, but the entry price is about a quid, and there’s not exactly a queue. About that Dracula tat – a snowglobe of the castle with swirling bats, and a 3D render of Christopher Lee’s snarling face and a leather-bound copy of Stoker’s novel worked for me. Quality tat helps support the local economy!