Transylvania, Romania

10 June 2011 - I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I was for today! All my life since I was 6 years old I have been fascinated by Dracula and the vampire myth. I have dozens of books on the topic, movies and articles based on the popular folklore and I am totally enamoured by the whole mystic and legend surrounding Transylvania and Dracula. I have wanted for the longest time to visit this region and his famous castle and today my dream is coming true!

I had rented a private car and driver for this day so that I could stop and go at my own pace without the hindrance of a group. There were two great couples who I befriended on the cruise who were interested in doing this with me so it was simply terrific to share this with them. The driver showed up in a beautiful Mercedes SUV with seating for only 6 so this was perfect. It would be a few hours before we entered Transylvania and to say I was excited was an understatement.

I teased the driver that I was promised I would see a vampire on this tour and he said he would do his best.. lol. Enroute we all talked about legends and vampires and our driver gave us insight into Vlad the Impaler upon which the legend of Dracula was based. 

Prince Vlad, or as he was called even in his own time, Dracula (which means "Son of the Dragon") tops the list of Romania's many, many Christian crusaders who, in the transition years between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, fought to keep the Muslim-faithed Ottoman Turks out of their country. He ruled his military kingdom of Wallachia — southern Romania — with a heavy and blood-soaked fist. To not only the Turks but also to many of his own countrymen he was Vlad The Impaler. During his tenure, he killed by the droves, impaling on a forest of spikes around his castle thousands of subjects who he saw as either traitors, would-be traitors or enemies to the security of Romania and the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes, he slew merely to show other possible insurgents and criminals just what their fate would be if they became troublesome.

Now I was heading towards this mysterious land where so much history had taken place and each minute seemed like an hour. I was like a child again wanting to ask "are we there yet?" at every turn. Most of the houses we saw along the road were painted in a multitude of colors and some had very strange shapes. We saw locals with donkeys and it made our ride very picturesque indeed and in keeping with my expectations of this medieval land. What seemed to be such peotic justic was that the day was grey and misty and in intervals we had light rain, I thought this was the ferfect setting to enter Transylvania, with mist hovering over the mountains. I felt like I was on a movie set.   

FINALLY up ahead was a sign that read "Welcome to Transylvania"....OMG I was here in the land of vampires and counts and medieval castles! It was a dream come true for me to be here. Our guide said that we would stop for lunch prior to heading off to visit the castles. By now we had been driving for a few hours and we were getting hungry.

I wanted a restaurant with typical Transylvanian food and we were not disappointed. Our guide took us to Vila Bran which was perched high on a hill and we had authentic goulash and Transylvania potatos which were awesome! The restaurant was so quaint with wooden furniture and wooden beams on the ceiling. As you walked up towards the entrance we were able to pet a reindeer, another experience not too many people get to do, such fun.

In this area there are two main castles which you should not miss. One is Peles Castle and the other is Bran Castle, better known as Dracula's Castle. The first one on our route was Peles. This castle is quite literally what you would see in a fairytale. It is probably the most beautiful castle I have ever seen in my world travels. Peles Castle is considered by many one of the most beautiful castles in all Europe. It was the final resting place for several Romanian monarchs including King Carol I, who died here in 1914. The building of the castle began in 1873 under the direct order of the Viennese architect Wilhem Doderer and was continued in 1876 by his assistant, Johann Schultz de Lemberg. The castle was built in wood, stone, bricks and marble and comprises more than 160 rooms. The representative style used is German Renaissance, but one can easily discover elements belonging to the Italian Renaissance, Gothic, German Baroque and French Rococo style.

Peles is surrounded by seven terraces decorated with statues (sculptured by the Italian, Romanelli), stone-made-wells, ornamental vases and Carara marble. The architects used an abundance of wooden decoration , both for the exterior and for the interior of the castle, which confers a very special quality to the building. Every conceivable luxury can be found inside, the best woods, crystal chandeliers from Italy, the most expensive Meissen porcelein and unimaginable opulence whereever you eyes roam. There is German stained-glass windows, walls covered with Cordoba leather, ebony and ivory sculptures, as well as an extensive weapon collections. Peles Castle shelters one of the most important and most valuable painting collections in Europe, almost 2000 pieces.

We spent over an hour viewing this great castle and after the obligatory stop at the souvenir shop (did I mention I was a shopoholic?) we were off on our way with my treasured Peles Castle coffee mug and book tucked next to me.

Now we were  heading towards the highlight of my day......Bran Castle! The route was misty and very picturesque with colored houses dotting the valley and mist hovering over the mountains. It was truly the image of what I thought this area would look like. Finally I could see Bran's Castle in the distance.

We were finally deep in the Carpathian Mountains, in the heart of rural Romania in Transylvania. Perched atop a rocky peak, the fortress has stood for nearly 1,000 years and it's now known around the world as "Dracula's" Castle. This is the building from which many Dracula movies took their inspiration. Situated near Bran and in the immediate vicinity of Bra┼čov, it is a national monument and landmark in Romania. The castle is now a museum open to tourists, displaying art and furniture collected by Queen Marie. The castle was first used in 1378 in defence against the Ottoman Empire, and later became a customs post on the mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia. The castle briefly belonged to Mircea the Elder of Wallachia. Vlad III besieged Bran on at least one occasion, taking the castle briefly in 1459 during a punitive incursion into the Burzenland.

Bran Castle was originally a stronghold built by the Knights of the Teutonic Order in 1212. At that time it was called Dietrichstein. By the late 1200's the castle had been overtaken by the Saxons who had used the castle to protect Brasov, an important trade center. In 1370 the fortress was used against invading Turks. It remained an important feudal fortress through out the middle ages, its role was the defence against invasion.

In the 15th century during restoration of the castle the Observation Tower and the Eastern Tower were added. The Eastern Tower was built with murder holes that were used by the soldiers to drop hot water and pitch on the castles attackers. In 1921, Queen Maria of Romania, brought the royal court architect to Bran Castle for extensive renovations which transformed this "fortress" into a Royal Residence. The ancient Gunner's Room became the Royal Chapel, the defense gallery of the tower was remodeled into apartments for the Queen's ladies in waiting. A fourth floor was added to the tower for the Queen's Secretary.

Queen Maria had an elevator installed in the fountain which is in the interior court. The elevator descended 197 ft. to a tunnel which opened onto the lovely park grounds in the valley below. Bran Castle has been opened to the public for at least 40 years, a museum, it offers glimpses into the past, such as the Chancellor's Office, the Council Hall and the Garrison Rooms. Also on display are lovely examples of feudal art, weapons, statuary, furniture and hunting trophies.

To some walking up the trail towards Dracula's Castle might be just another stop on the tourist map but for me it was much more than that. It recalled all the Dracula movies I loved to watch as a child. The vampire myth has always been a great fascination for me because of the symbolic nature of the romantized power Dracula had on it's victims. 

Being a history buff it was amazing for me to be walking in the misty fog in the steps of Vlad the Impaler towards this imposing structure. As I stared at the oncoming steps leading up towards the castle entrance a sense of awe came over me at the thought of those who had lived here hundreds of years ago. I could not help but make the comparison of how extremely different the days of yesteryear were to those of today. Long ago a feared ruler in full regalia would have climbed these very stairs and opened the large doors while nervous servants scattered through the oil-lit hallways. Today a teenager with a Justin Bieber T-shirt hopped up the same stairs with his Ipod glued to his ears making silly vampire noises.....ahhh how life has changed.

The interior is sparsely furnished and the wrought-iron chandelier in the entrance has been electrified. The walls are white stucco and you can see small narrow windows in many nooks and crannies. The narrow staircases lead to sitting rooms and bedrooms. On the 1st of December 1920, the Bran Castle was donated to Queen Marie of Great Romania, as a symbol of the inhabitants of Brasov’s gratitude for her contribution to the achievement of the Great Union of 1918. Right after that, the Castle came into a seven year restoration period under the guidance of the Royal Court architect, Carol Liman. He imagined the architectural ensemble as a summer residence. During the same period of time the Tea House was also built.

When the sightseeing was done and I had dozens of photos I could hardly wait to hit the souvenir shop. I didn't want the typical Dracula mug momento but was hoping to find something as unusual as this place was. I wanted something special which would remind me everytime I looked at it that I had been to Dracula's house in Transylvania. Well did I ever find it!!! In a special glass case there it was calling my name, a real Vampire bat encased in a crystal cube! It is unbelievable! My eyes just bugged out when I saw it and I had to have it at all cost. The shop owner advised me that this item was a cottage industry and that they are raised just for this purpose and the funds are used to help charities in the area. These bats are very tiny and have fangs just like a vampire and they drink the blood of small prey in order to live thus the origin of their name.  

On the way out I was in search of a dog to photograph since I had made it a point to get a shot of a dog from each town we visited in order to make a canine montage of my trip which I thought would be fun. I looked all over the base of the castle and finally there he was. As luck would have it he was a scary black dog and I could not help but feel this was so much in keeping with what you would expect a dog in Transylvania to look like.
Finally it was time to leave and return to Bucharest. On the way back we made a short stop to visit the medieval town of Brasov and we strolled the quaint streets and made some final purchases. It then started to rain and we headed back. It was a 3 hour ride back to the hotel and we saw many villagers with carts of hay and produce along the way. Many old houses and churches dotted the scenery.

When I finally arrived in my room I just reveled in the magnificent day I had had. A day filled with wonder, mystery and stories of vampires and myths. It truly was a highlight of my trip. As I shut the light I peered out at the full moon and made sure my windows were securely locked :o)

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