The rugged landscapes of Transylvania are the ideal décor for a haunting horror story. That’s at least what Bram Stoker must’ve thought when he wrote the tale of Dracula. Chances are you know Romania just because of the mythical legend he created. Maybe visiting the famous Bran castle is on your bucket list. In case you were considering stepping into Dracula’s trail, I wrote down some essential tips to get the best out of your Dracula experience.
I think it is safe to say, I used to very much dislike the tourist magnet that is Dracula – or Vlad the Impaler, as many call him. But lately, I have changed my mind. So instead of writing a nasty don’t go article, I want to give you some advice on where to go when you don’t want to find yourself in the agony of struggling through a sea of selfie sticks and Nordic walking people. Most importantly, I want to give you an idea of who Dracula actually was. For me that made chasing him down so much more interesting.
A guide through Dracula tourism in Romania
Who was Vlad Dracula?
If there’s one thing I despise, it’s actual historical figures being abused by merchandise sellers and cheesy tour companies. Vlad Dracula – the man that is now responsible for all the Dracula tourism – was in fact a real man. Vlad, born in 1431 in Sighisoara, was a brilliant strategist, a war hero, a leader, a romantic soul and the king of torture. Some say he delayed the work of the Ottoman army by 70 years. Quite a decent job for one man with a tiny army.
Vlad – captured by the Turks at an early age – had a dream of joining the different regions of Romania by simply ruling all of them. After escaping, he had inside information on the Turks. This way, he could organize surprise attacks, creating chaos among his enemies.
How to impale your enemies
With a tiny army, he managed to overrule the Turkish army and capture his enemies. His methods of punishment were quite unorthodox – even in those times. He liked to impale his enemies and place them on the hill, creating his own ‘forest of Turks’.
By inserting a giant pole into the anus of his enemy – which exited the body between the shoulders – prisoners would live for 48 hours. Their screams were enough to warn fellow warriors to back off. An excellent war strategy, if you ask me.
Dracula’s ‘real’ castle, the Poenari fortress.
A story worth hearing
His story is one of bravery and definitely worth figuring out before traveling to Romania. And although Vlad’s war methods were slightly intense, this story has absolutely nothing to do with vampirism. I recently learned the real story through The Land of Dracula, a tour organization based in Brasov. They specialize in Dracula’s legacy without the cheesy vampire tales told at every other tour in this region. I must say I found it quite refreshing. It actually made me reconsider my feelings about the whole Dracula tourism industry in Romania for a little bit.
Another way to learn a little more about his story, is by watching the film Dracula Untold. Because there are almost no good documentaries on the real story of Vlad, this could help with understanding where he came from and why he was important in Romania.
There are many places inside and outside Romania referring to Vlad Dracula, such as the famous Bran Castle or the lesser known Arefu village. Vlad was a traveler. He traveled to numerous places to help out with strategies, including a few famous sites I will be talking about today. I picked these places because most of them are easy to reach using public transportaion. They’re also the major sites when it comes to Dracula tourism in Romania. Having visited these sites myself, I hope to help you out in your search of Vlad Dracula.
Vlad’s birthplace in Sighisoara
When you visit Sighisoara it only takes little effort to see where Vlad was born. Last year, I went to see his birth room in an old building in the old city center. The building now houses a restaurant called Casa Vlad Dracul and if you pay 5 RON, they will let you in his chambers. You might have read about it before, as it was the funniest tourist trap I’ve visited so far! Still there’s no harm in going as it is a small price for a wonderful travel anecdote.
Everybody deals with extremely touristy situations once or twice on their travels. I had a major panic attack in Dubrovnik, when I found myself crammed on one little street together with 11.000 fellow travelers. I also had one here.
Bran Castle used to be my trigger to write a don’t go article. To be honest, I’m still not that sure about it. The castle doesn’t have that much to do with Vlad Dracula anyway. When you’re there, you’ll mostly feel overwhelmed by mass tourism.
When you do decide to go, I’ll advice you to go as early in the day as possible and avoid the weekends. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a guide with you, as the place is usually so crowded, it’s impossible to focus and read the information on the walls.
A place you do go is the garden. For some reason many tourists skip it, and I must say it’s rather lovely to catch a whiff of fresh air after the circus that is the inside of the castle. Outside of the garden you will find the village of Bran. Bran is – apart from the very touristic center – quite lovely located in the rolling hills of the Bran pass.
The tomb at Snagov
Vlad was buried in a monastery in Snagov, close to Bucharest. The monastery Vlad was buried in, stands on an island in the middle of the Snagov lake. If it wasn’t for the trail of Dracula, I would advise you to go and see it anyway as it is absolutely stunning! This is also one of the lesser visited Dracula sites, although that doesn’t say much when you’ve seen the crowds at Bran.
The Poenari Fortress
The real castle of Dracula, is what they call the Poenari Fortress. Deep in de valleys of the Fagaras mountains, this fortress used to protect Vlad Dracula from his enemies. The hills used to be so steep and the view so good that Dracula picked this place as his usual hiding spot. Nowadays the fortress can be visited by driving over the Transfagarasan Road, towards Curtea de Arges. After arrival, you have to climb the 1480 steps up the steep mountain.
Made it up the 1480 steps!
I recently visited the fortress with my good friends over at the Land of Dracula. During a private tour their English speaking guide, Manuela, informed me of Dracula’s life story, while distracting me from the physical activity I was so dreading to engage in. And of course she drove me over my favorite road – my happy place – the Transfagarasan. The location of the fortress makes it my favorite Dracula related place so far.
The Poenari Fortress isn’t as easily accessible as the other Dracula related sites, as no public transport will bring you there. Booking a tour or driving the Transfagarasan highway yourself are the only options. The highway is usually closed between October and July, depending on the weather.
How to survive Dracula tourism in Romania
When it comes to visiting these sites, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to know what you’re getting into upfront. This way you can take appropriate measures. Long story short: when you want to survive the Dracula tourism in Romania you have to:
- Get there early
- Don’t go during the weekends
- Avoid the biggest crowds by choosing nature over castles
- Know the real story
- Take a guide
- Take a valium (or a very big alcoholic beverage, whatever floats your boat)
Do you have any experience with the Dracula tourism in Romania? If not, I hope I didn’t discourage you from visiting some of the places mentioned above, because – when timed right – they can be quite good. Also, if you have any recommendations for visiting any Dracula related site, please let me know by leaving a comment below! 🙂
(Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid to mention The Land of Dracula in this post, but even if I was my views would have been honest and real, just like they are now.)