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by Irene Butler
(For Travel Writers' Tales)

I have long been intrigued by Romanian folklore. The very word Transylvania sends a shiver down my spine with blood-curdling images of haunted castles and fanged creatures. I am ready to find the historical threads in the lore.

Leaving by train from the capital Bucharest, I wend my way through the verdant foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and arrive in the medieval city of Brasov with vestiges of Austro-Hungarian Empire, Saxons and brief Ottoman rule.

[1. Brasov Pedestrian Street]

The wide pedestrian-only promenade Str Republicii is lively and colourful. On the umbrellas of the many sidewalk cafes is written, "Possibly the Best City in the World". I chuckle and think "perhaps it is". Brasov flaunts the narrowest street in all of Europe: Rope Street (Strad Sforil), dating back to the 18th century, is just over a metre wide and can be walked along touching both sides.

[2. Black Church]

Black Church (Biserica Neagra) towers in dusky beauty. Built in 1385, it was called St. Mary's - until renamed in 1689 after its outer stone walls were blackened by the "Great Fire" that levelled most of the city. Inside 100 Persian rugs are hung from the walls (given to the church by Saxon merchants returning from shopping-sprees to Ottoman lands). In 1839 a 4000-pipe organ was installed. I tremble with delight as its chords thunder the air waves.

[3. Bran Castle]

With taxi-driver Maxim, my sights are set on the early 14th century Bran Castle. My first spine-tingling glimpse is its looming russet-roofed, white-walled citadels and towers jutting from the side of a cliff. I leave Maxim to chat with his cronies and start up the winding path towards the castle. The light sprinkle of rain becomes a wind-driven drenching downpour half way up, which only serves to enhance the tale of this being Dracula's castle in Bram Stoker's 1887 novel.

Bran contains a "Bram Stoker Room", recounting how Stoker's book brought fame to the castle, and how his fictitious Count Dracula may have been inspired by the historical figure Count Vlad III Dracula (a.k.a Vlad Tepes).

[4.Vlad Tepes]

Vlad III was the ruling prince of the Romanian state of Walachia from 1456-62, and from 1476-77. His moniker Dracula meaning Son of Dracul (dragon) was inherited from his father Vlad II Dracul, who belonged to the Order of the Dragon established to preserve Christianity. Although not a vampire, like Stoker's Dracula, he was dubbed "Vlad Tepes" (Vlad the Impaler) for his blood-thirsty dealings with enemies; namely skewering them on wooden stakes in such a manner that the victims suffered excruciating pain for up to 48 hours before their last breath. It is improbable that Vlad Tepes ever set foot in this castle.

Bran was mainly a fortress over the centuries to protect Romanian borders. In the early 20th century the town of Brasov gave the castle to Queen Marie of Romania. She loved each of its 57 rooms, turning them into a summer retreat for her six children and King Ferdinand. Czech architect, Karel Liman, hired by the Queen, gave the castle its romantic appeal and added to the comfort with heating stoves of Saxon tile, running water, electricity, telephones and an elevator.

[5.Music Room]

I climb creaky wooden staircases and weave in and out of the high-ceilinged rooms filled with lavish hand-carved furnishings. Several rooms overlook the courtyard dotted with potted red geraniums to enliven the castle's sombre tones. The combined music room and library converted from an old attic is the largest room, and is as cozy as this stone edifice will allow, with a fireplace, a bear-hide rug and padded furniture.

[6. Secret Passage]

A narrow passage carved in the rock connects the first and third level and has access to a turret with a 360-degree view. My mind rattles like ghostly chains with thoughts of the many people who walked this eerie passage over the centuries-and for what purpose?

Princess Ileana, whose fondness for Bran matched her mother's, remained in possession of the castle from the time of the Queen's death in 1938, until the Communists evicted her in 1947. The castle opened as a museum under the Romanian State in 1957, and in 2000 it was given back to Ileana as a company run museum.

Romania was a wonderful commingling of past and present, history and myth all wrapped into a pleasurable experience. The sights left me wanting more… and I resolved that there will be a next time.


" Brasov is 87 miles NW of the capital of Bucharest (139km)
" Bran Castle - buses marked "Bran-Moeciu" leave from Autogara 2 to and from Bran Castle every half-hour. Taxis are always available.
" Transylvania has some of Romania's best skiing and hiking in the Bucegi Mountains; also visit the city of Sighisoara - the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, and the village of Sinaia to see Sinaia Monastery and Peles Castle.

Romania Tourism:
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Romania

PHOTOS: By Irene Butler

1 Brasov pedestrian street
2 Black Church
3 Bran Castle
4 Vlad Tepes
5 Music room of castle
6 Secret Passage

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