The Last Stake In 'Dracula' (Part 2)

Christopher Fowler

Transylvania’s Castle Bran is only the fictional home of Count Dracula, but when Bram Stoker used it as a direct model for his novel, it was granted an awkward place in Romania’s history. The government would rather not be remembered for a British pulp author, but the image stuck in the public consciousness, and therefore it’s the most visited place in that contradictory country.

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 of Austria-Tuscany, 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 went up for private sale, so who knows if it will be safeguarded or closed?

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 a bit disappointed with the earnest prose (as with HG Wells) but I still became 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.

My trip around Romania and Transylvania held many surprises – one of the best was Viscri, a 12th century church and fortress still run by a tiny old lady who tore tickets and shared stories. Reaching this out-of-the-way spot along an avenue of mistletoe-covered trees and finding such an untouched and barely visited place was a treat. There was nobody else there. Since then Prince Charles visited it and now it's apparently on the tourist map.

Naturally we visited Vlad the Impaler’s birthplace. Two years ago it had been a bare set of rooms in an old house, but now it had been tackily kitted out with red nylon curtains, a coffin, cassettes of chanting monks and lit candles. For some reason there was a trilby in the coffin. The entry price was about a quid, and there wasn’t exactly a queue.

Obviously no trip was complete without a visit to a graveyard – they’re everywhere, along with hand-painted statues of the Crucifixion, although not as ubiquitous as wood-gathering – in bundles, on carts, chopped and stacked outside houses, being pulled by horses – a national obsession.

Somehow we ended up in Dr Jekyll’s Pharmacy being served drinks in beakers, but I can handle crossover fiction. The day’s big surprise came with my arrival in Sibiu. At first sight the town looked awful in the rain, run-down and decrepit, until we passed into the old town and a whole other world, with wide boulevards and elegant buildings that made the main square in Brussels look like Peckham.

The next stop was Castle Bran. But before that, I managed to get myself cursed by a mad old gypsy woman*. I got lost on the backroads – no wifi in the mountains, therefore no GPS  - and ended up in a scary, run-down, deserted town. In the only café a woman tried to sell me an icon. When I refused to buy it because it was obviously fake (ie. the Madonna was printed backwards on what appeared to be Fablon) she spat and shrieked at me before sitting down to a pizza.

This is not the gypsy woman but my lovely friend Izabella, bringing goulash in a loaf.

The journey to the castle couldn’t have been more atmospheric – driving through the Carpathian mountains in a blinding snowstorm was a fantastic 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 has a small area of huts selling burgers. It doesn’t matter – shouldn’t castles always have weird peasant huts at their bases?

They were also selling some brilliant Dracula souvenirs – a snowglobe of the castle full of swirling bats, a 3D render of Christopher Lee’s snarling face, a vampire in an ornate coffin and a leather-bound copy of Stoker’s novel worked for me. Quality tat helps support the local economy! And there was a properly scary haunted house, slightly falling apart. When a dwarf in a monster mask jumped out on me in the dark I fell through the floor, gashing my leg.

Rarely have I experienced such radical extremes in a country still emerging from a repressive regime. The rural and the urban, culturally well supported and unsupported, rich and poor are paired in stark contrast. Starting in Cluj-Napoca, taking in Sighisoara, Brasov, Viscri, Sibiu and other places it was easy to see the attraction of a country with a phenomenal number of world heritage sites, ranging from untouched villages that remain much as they were one thousand years ago to the astonishing salt mine at Turda, surely a site where the next Bond film must be shot.

Richard Marsh's 'The Beetle' is now forgotten (not by me of course - see 'The book of Forgotten Authors') and Stoker became a theatre manager. 'Dracula' failed to catch fire as a play. There were those who found its obsession with death and decay distasteful. Early film versions were stilted and dreadful (I find the Bela Lugosi version hypnotically dull) until 'Nosferatu' caught the book's true spirit of spreading evil.

*'Gypsy' not in a derogatory sense but in the context of, say, 'Bride of Frankenstein'.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 18:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I am rather nervous of places like Romania (When I was a kid we had some sort of joke involving a recitation of the name "Queen Marie of Romania" but all I know is that for my mother the queen had been rather omni-present) because it is so easy to come across as patronising but you manage a really easy level of comfort and participation. The wood thing probably is explained by a use of wood or charcoal for heating. Were there any charcoal burners lurking in those forests. Just saying "Carpathian Mountains" sends shivers up my back. Too bad about those nylon curtains.

Joel (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 18:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

sounds like a fantastic trip. i was looking online in that area, and was surprised at the tech companies that are moving in. hopefully, the villages and locals won't change that much. it's a shame when someone famous goes somewhere, and the maddening crowd descend, and that quaint little place loses most of it's charm and accesibility. the bread bowl of goulash looked amazing. hope it tasted the same

Bernard (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 18:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Laurie R. King set her most recent, and weakest, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes in Castle Bran (Castle Shade, 2021).

Joel (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 18:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@ helen i am in total agreement...the word carpathian does make me shiver a little...maybe the movies i've seen set in dark, slightly shabby looking forests, with lots of fob, and full of mistrustful villagers and a lost tourist (having gotten lost on the back streets of new orleans, thankfully in the day, was fairly frightenening. i only lost $20 getting out).

Paul C (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 20:08

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Fascinating post - you could have been a gifted travel writer too

Joan (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 22:33

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Snow Globe of Bats works for me! Sounds like an amazing trip, Chris.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 30/08/2022 - 23:28

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, Bernard, I haven't ordered Castle Shade yet, although I soon will. I wondered whether it might be a little weak, but probably not as much as Island of the Mad, which I felt needed another edit. Oh, sorry, King is the only other author whose complete works are on my shelf. (She'll never match Oh, Jerusalem, though, which I have given to several people)

Lilyami (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 06:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Dorothy Parker was my mother’s favourite poet, and the only one I can recall her ever quoting, which is why Helen Martin has reminded me of this great ditty:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
a medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
and I am Marie of Romania.

I believe that the late Diana Spencer’s life, amongst many many others, would have been much improved by exposure to those lines at a suitably early age. I am sure that mine was; indeed I have little else to thank my mother for.

I am not an ingrate, btw. For example, I am very grateful to Mr Fowler for the pleasure and instruction his blog has given me over recent years. Today’s post is an especially shining case in point. Thank you.

Jan (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 09:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Romania was a right funny old place that's for sure.

Driving through villages where every cottage had a table outside selling potatoes at exactly the same price sort of summed it up it was as if everyone was giving capitalism a run but with absolutely no choice in produce + at fixed prices it was a pretty limited run!

The Carpathian mountains are incredible, they are beautiful. Maybe less manicured than most mountainous tourist destinations but really Christmas card stuff. Lots of all-out through semi wooded runs.

It came as a bit of a surprise to find lots of bear prints on the high ski runs (and you really didn't want to end up stuck on a run when it came to the early evening) but honestly it was a great experience. When you got to the end of the lowest runs there were sleighs which took you down into the ski resort.

The tourist ski resorts were strange places in themselves half of the hotels looked like they were part of high rise inner city estates and the rest were country houses converted into small hostels.

It was a memorable place though the folk were fun and they were interesting. Their attitudes when it came to having been part of the Soviet bloc were really interesting. I was told that they thought their country was likely to remain poor and being part of the Soviet union had been both a shield and a cushion against total failure but also part of the reason they were destined to fail.
They really were ambivalent about the old set up but equally worried about the consequences of their relatively new freedoms. Lots of the youngsters had already left for the west.

Bram Stoker has likely done the nation a massive favour in his dreaming up Drac. on their doorstep in a world where tourist destinations are vitally important he'll help save the nation.

Jan (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 09:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Have just glanced through this comment and goodness knows what "all- out through semi wooded runs" should have read as before it got mangled by this machine. Should have proof read properly before button pressing. Hope you are OK Mr. F. September tomorrow - practically autumn. Bloody Hellfire. Be Christmas next. Take it steady.

Granny (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 10:13

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What a lovely read, thank you

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 13:40

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Jan - whether or not you see this - what you wrote makes sense to me. You were writing about skiing. I assume you skied when you were there. I don't ski, but maybe while you were typing the comment you were remembering the experience of moving swiftly downhill through semi-wooded areas and that memory got into the typing. Actually, it's a wonderful image to me.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 13:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree Barbara, I visions of Jan swishing in and out of trees with James Bond style background music.


Stu-I-Am (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 15:30

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The silent film based on 'The Beetle' (1919) is now 'lost' and considering your take and the reviews I unearthed, it is perhaps on purpose. BBC Sounds/Radio 4 Extra does replay the radio drama adaptation of the Marsh novel from time to time. As for the relationship between the POW and Transylvania, Charles himself claims to be the great-grandson 16 times removed to Vlad The Impaler through his great-grandmother, Queen Mary. He also owns an 18th century guesthouse and nature retreat in the village of Viscri. However, Dr Dan Brett, a Romanian specialist at City College London rather uncharitably described the relationship this way: 'For Prince Charles it’s almost a fantasy land. Peasants living how he would want peasants to live, with horses and oxen, and isn’t that great ?'

Helen+Martin (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 17:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, I enjoyed your description, too, Jan, especially now that I have mentally added the James Bond style background music to your swishing down the hills.
Thank you, Lilyami, for the Dorothy Parker. That is exactly the way we used Queen Marie's name. She seemed to turn up in all sorts of strange places but of course it would never really happen to us. I seem to remember seeing it in a cozy mystery not long ago (Daisy Dalrymple?) where someone identified themselves and the door guard or whatever said, "Sure you are and I'm Marie of Romania." So that must be a common usage of the period and carried down a generation.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 17:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Wayne. That was a great comment and made my visuals of Jan skiing even better.

E Bush (not verified) Wed, 31/08/2022 - 22:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sounds like a fascinating place to visit, would love to see it.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 01/09/2022 - 13:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Travel tip for vampire country. If carrying a cross, heated iron rod, garlic and a large mirror as defensive weapons is impractical when likely to encounter vampires, it is suggested instead, having poppy seeds or rice secreted about your person. A little known but useful historical supposition is that vampires suffer from arithmomania, the obsessive need to count things. So, immediately on becoming aware of being pursued by a vampire, it is recommended that you throw a handful of rice or seeds behind you. This will usually cause your pursuer to stop and not attempt to resume the chase until every grain is counted --- by which time you should be well away.

Hark Waters (not verified) Thu, 01/09/2022 - 15:39

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Stewie, you may also remember that the children's TV show "Sesame Street" had a vampire puppet, Count Von Count, who demonstrated arithmomania by continually counting various objects around him.

Of course, arithmomania allows a way of some control over vampires. Some years ago I spent time travelling through the Western Balkans and in a small rural village in Montenegro I was shown the grave of a suspected vampire. The locals had left a mound of wheat next to it because if he arose from the grave during the night he would be distracted by having to count all the grains thus would not have time to enter the village.

Stu-I-Am (not verified) Thu, 01/09/2022 - 21:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

@Hark Waters Hark -- Now that you mention him, I do remember Count Von Count. As I recall, if there was nothing to count, he used his fingers. And who said maths doesn't have practical, everyday applications ?

Gail (not verified) Fri, 02/09/2022 - 08:48

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There’s a marvelous portrait of Queen Marie at the Maryhill Museum. She dedicated the museum in 1926. There’s also a replica of Stonehenge.

Jan (not verified) Fri, 02/09/2022 - 16:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I've just come back to this and am proper tickled at the idea of the swishing through the tree lines runs. We did indeed coast along a bit but at no great speeds that's for sure!

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sun, 04/09/2022 - 19:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank you, Gail. That is a very dramatic site overlooking the Columbia River and well worth a visit (although I have only been by, not inside). I couldn't remember whether Marie had visited or not & am glad she did.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sat, 10/09/2022 - 18:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You're welcome Barbara and I'm glad Jan, you enjoyed our comments.

The only Eastern European country I've been to is the Czech Republic. I didn't go the the country side but did see an old timber church, in Prague going from the dilapidated industrial section, a lot like the old Trafford Park of the 70's to the old town was really stark in contrast. I most return one day, the people there were best thing about Prague.