Tuesday. 24-03-2015. Day 216.
Fortresses, Vampires, and Bears.
If you're going to be in Transylvania, sooner than later you're going to hear about Dracula. So before he could find us, we decided we were going to go to him. The warnings were there, however—Castle Dracula, or Bran Castle as it is properly known—really has little to do with Dracula, either the vampire from fiction or the prince from reality. But still ... an adventuring family has to answer the call of adventure.
So we dialed up Land of Dracula Tours and signed up for their Bran Castle Tour. Manuela, our guide for the day, arrived at our hotel (which, if you recall, is named Vlad Tepes) at 9:00 a.m. and we were off to see the sights of Transylvania. Our first stop was Rasnov Citadel, a hilltop medieval fortress that remains fairly well-preserved today.
One of the neat things about visiting Romania is that there is either a fortress or a castle or a fortified village at pretty much every turn of the road, but what's notable about Rasnov Citadel is that its walls were never breached by attackers (unless you count that one time by Gabriel Bathory).
Bathory heard about the impenetrable fortress in Rasnov and, being a man who liked a challenge, decided to give it a go. So he marched in and besieged the place. He wasn't having any luck until one day, on a brisk morning walk, he noticed a cave that led to supply of spring water. He figured this was the water supply for the villagers, so he blocked off the entrance to the spring. Soon enough, the villagers had to surrender to Bathory due to lack of water, so he marched right in and occupied the fortress for a while. He gave it back once a ransom was paid. What a guy!
After that humiliating experience, the villagers had two Turkish prisoners dig a well 146 meters deep inside the fortress walls. It took 17 years to complete.
Inside the citadel it can get pretty touristy. There are shops selling trinkets and a few folks dressed up in period garb. You can also have the chance to try your skill with a shooting a longbow or throwing an axe. We were there early, so these stations weren't open until we were on our way out. We would have given it a go, but we were on a schedule—we had to get to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary by 11:00!
Libearty Bear Sanctuary
Transylvania has a lot of forests, and those forests are filled with bears. Sometimes these bears get to be a nuisance, like they were in Brasov, and sometimes they are captured and treated cruelly for entertainment.
But fortunately for at least 78 of these bears, Libearty Bear Sanctuary works to rescue such nuisance and mistreated bears and brings them to a new home deep in the heart of a Romanian forest. The sanctuary covers 69 hectares of open land for bears to roam around in. There are 1500 meters of electrified fence to keep the bears (and the visitors) safe, but every day around 11:00 a.m., when it's feeding time, the bears wander up to the fence for lunch.
The saddest case was Max, a huge brown bear that was kept for entertainment. His former owners set him up for tourists to have their pictures taken with him, and they kept him docile by feeding him sedatives and beer, which caused him to go blind.
Max has to find his food by smell and by listening to the gents who tossed shovelfuls of meat and fruit over the fence calling him for lunch.
We also met Tex, another bear who was kept as a pet at the uranium factory, who seemed pretty chill and happy to be not held captive at a uranium factory anymore—which I think we can all agree sounds like a rather ignoble fate for such a noble creature.
After our visit to the bears, it was time for ...
Bran Castle, known the world over as Dracula's Castle, is strategically located in Bran Pass, a narrow opening in the Carpathian Mountains, right on the border between Transylvania and Wallachia. And it has almost nothing to do with Dracula.
Vlad III Dracula, the real-life Wallachian prince upon whom Bram Stoker based the evil Count Dracula in his famous novel, is a national hero in Romania. Vlad, who was nicknamed "the Impaler" (Tepes) because of his fondness for impaling criminals, kept the forces of Mohammed II from taking control of the region. Mohammed II is the same fellow who took Constantinople in 1453, so it was a pretty big deal.
But Vlad's connection to Bran Castle is tenuous at best. There are all sorts of different legends about the man and the castle which may or may not be true—he visited it once to organize a defense against he Turks, he lived there on and off in his childhood, he was held prisoner there. But everyone agrees on one thing—he never lived there.
The castle has become associated with Dracula because people who care about such things allegedly toured every castle in Transylvania and proclaimed that Bran Castle is the one that is most like the castle described in Stoker's book. It's highly unlikely that Stoker even visited the place.
Bran Castle dates back to 1212, first from wood then (when that was destroyed) from stone, and was initially built as a fortress to protect Brasov, the capital of Transylvania. And while it has next to nothing to do with Dracula, it is a pretty cool medieval castle.
In the 1920s, the castle was gifted to Romania's royal family—King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie. The Queen, in particular, loved the castle and spent a lot of time there. Today, it is decorated in a style similar to how it may have looked during her stays there.
While we were there, the castle was hosting a display of old Romanian print ads. Some of these were pretty cool, but they definitely felt out of place in the castle setting.
One of the coolest features of the castle was the secret staircase that led from the first floor to the library on the third floor. It's supposedly haunted, and if you make any noise while ascending or descending the narrow steps, it will disrupt the spirits. We didn't want that, so we were sure to be very quiet. Well, all of us except Jackie. But she seems to have suffered no ill effects.
On the way up to Bran Castle, you walk by a moss-covered tea house that The Queen (who was from England) had built in the garden below the castle. To get there for tea time, she used to ride down a mechanized elevator that went straight down the well (a wellevator!) in the courtyard. It looked like it would have been a pretty tight fit.
To build up the Dracula connection just a little bit, there is a small room at the top of the castle (the fourth floor, I think) that is dedicated to the legend of Dracula, featuring a lengthy history of the the Wallachian prince and how he came to be associated with Stoker's fictional count.
Aside from that small concession there is really very little Dracula in Bran Castle, but we still had a fun time exploring a real-life medieval castle.