9 June, 2018. Transylvania — I write you now from the Romanian village of Bran, where our group has just escaped from a visit to what the locals call “Dracula’s Castle.” It was a frightening affair indeed! I can only hope this journal entry helps other innocent travellers from succumbing to our fate…..
To be fair, our tour guide did warn us. And yet, much like Jonathan Harker, the fictional character from my favourite novel Dracula, I ignored the sound local advice, determined to press on to Dracula’s Castle. What goth girl wouldn’t? I’d come all this way, to the wilds of Romania, the very source of the vampire legends that inspired Bram Stoker’s famous Count. How could I not detour to Bran to visit its castle — just because of rumours it was a tourist trap?
I suppose, gentle readers, should you find yourself travelling in Transylvania that you will likely do the same, regardless of what I say to you now. But at least you will know what to expect inside Bran Castle, and how you might best enjoy it.
Bran Castle: Fact vs. Fiction
First, some facts: Dracula’s Castle, officially Bran Castle, is a medieval fortress built in the late 1300s. It sits atop a beautiful hill at the foot of a mountain pass, and has been used for military defence, royal residence, WWII hospital and is now a museum. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Romania, reached by day trip from the capital Bucharest or the very pretty city of Brașov.
And now, fiction: Why is it called “Dracula’s Castle”? Marketing. That’s it. There is no connection to the actual Dracula – because Dracula doesn’t exist. Author Bram Stoker never stayed here. He designed his fictional vampire based on Romanian legends he read in studies of Eastern European folklore.
And what of Vlad the Impaler, the actual Romanian voivode, son of Vlad Dracul, whose reputation for extreme cruelty allegedly inspired Stoker’s Count Dracula (or at least his name)? Vlad never stayed here either. At most, he and his troops passed by Bran a few times. This was never any Dracula’s Castle.
I knew all of this before leaving for Romania. And I knew all of this when our tour guide asked if we really wanted to detour for this optional activity. I still voted yes, figuring worst case scenario I get to wander a medieval castle, snap some goth pictures and buy fun Dracula souvenirs. I did get to do that, but I honestly can’t say it was worth the effort.
The scariest thing about Dracula’s Castle is overcrowding
As I said, this place is extremely popular. Our visit began in a long queue to get in the door. I would guess we spent between 30 minutes and one hour waiting in the hot sun. I Yes, this par for the course visiting tourist attractions. But no true vampire would allow their guests to burn like that.
You might think the line is to control the capacity and flow inside. You would be wrong.
This is a true medieval castle. These places are not roomy. They have narrow passageways and twisting staircases. I’m not claustrophobic, but we were so crammed into other tourists, I know many friends who would not have been able to handle it, even in pre-COVID times! It really felt more like we were still in a line, a neverending line to a roller coaster ride that would never come.
While shuffling through the castle, nose-to-tail with so many strangers, straining to see much of anything, never mind an exit, a line from Dracula came to my mind:
“This castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” – Jonathan Harker
What is there to see inside Bran Castle?
The rooms are filled mostly with antique furniture and art collected by the late Queen Marie of Romania. There are some historical fashions on display, including military uniforms and suits of armour. A separate ticket will get you into the Torture Chamber (which has antique devices including an Iron Maiden) or their new Time Tunnel (which is more like an amusement park attraction than a historical one).
But what about the vampires? To their credit, museum curators do not pretend any vampires lived here. There is some signage about vampire mythology, including the Romanian reverent the strigoi, but it’s incidental. I did overhear a local tour guide telling a visitor that some tourists actually think vampires are real and are disappointed to find out otherwise.
I do hate to say it, but my favourite part of Dracula’s Castle was leaving it.
Is there anything good at Bran Castle? Sure. The outside.
Surrounding Bran Castle is a fairly extensive market, where you can shop for all kinds of Dracula souvenirs, Romanian crafts, and even food. I discovered a unique local cheese wrapped in tree bark, and scored some Dracula dollars – which I’m sure are totally legit. Nearby, our group also had a lovely traditional Romanian meal at Bran Chalet, a hotel and restaurant with stunning views of the castle from further afar.
Were I to do it all again, I’d recommend this: do go to Bran, just don’t pay to see inside the castle. In the same time it takes to wait in line, you can shop, eat, pose for your gothic Dracula’s Castle selfie and be on your way to a more pleasant destination.