Being this close to Transylvania, a trip to see Dracula’s Castle was a mandatory experience – I even read the book to prepare! That said, I really didn’t want or need to spend a lot of time in Romania so I decided to make it a bonzai trip… and I enlisted Erika and Sanyi, two fellow English teachers, to go along with me! What we decided to do was catch the overnight train to Brasov, then spend the day exploring the city and the castle then catch the overnight train back.
Erika booked the tickets for us and got us a sleeper cabin for the way down, which was fun. I’d never been in a sleeper cabin on a train before and volunteered to take the top bunk (of three). There were two other people in the cabin with us, Adam (remember him, he’ll come back later) and some Australian doctor, who was already asleep when we boarded at 10pm.
We dropped our stuff and then headed to the dining car to grab a drink and hang out before hitting the sack. Adam came out and joined us after a bit. He’s an English bloke on holiday before he joins the Royal Navy and gets put on board a submarine. He had been in Budapest and was going to spend a few days down here in Romania before heading back. Eventually we all went back to the cabin and went to bed.
There’s this to say about sleeping compartments in trains — they are NOT the most comfortable things on the planet. In ours the overhead light could be dimmed but not eliminated and the beds are not terribly comfortable but at least we could all get a little sleep. As it was, I was up, along with Sanyi, at just before 7am, looking out the window at a fog covered landscape. It was perfect for going into the heart of gothic horror! Where you could see the countryside, it was green, with scattered sheep and the odd car parked in the middle of an overgrown field, but even so, the tendrils of mist gave everything a nice, mysterious atmosphere.
Eventually, we pulled into Brasov, which is the town nearest Bran Castle, at 9am and headed off to find our way to the heart of the beast, saying good-bye to Adam as we went.
Turns out, it’s a simple bus ride… IF you can figure out the bus system. Now this is what I don’t understand about smaller European cities and less developed countries – if you’re going to promote something as a tourist attracting, you should make it relatively easy to find and get to. Just saying. We found our way to the bus station, but it took all of us asking locals and making big sweeping, pictionary-style gestures to find the right bus (which wasn’t labeled in any way for the village we wanted to get to). But okay, we found the bus, and sat tight for the 25 minute ride to the place.
Unceremoniously, the bus dropped us off in Bran, where the Castle loomed large on a hill in the middle of town (see above photo and yes, it was in black and white, deal with it!). We walked up to the castle yard, where the street vendors were just getting set-up. Everywhere you looked there were Dracula souvenirs (mugs, shirts, steins, puppets) as well as a lot of native items. We bought our tickets and started up the cobblestone paved hill. Sanyi made friends with a dog on the way up and we entered the main building with a mix of excitement and trepidation and horror.
And that was about as far as that feeling went. For the most part, the castle, which started construction in the 13th century, is dedicated to the memory (and furnishings) of the Romanian monarchs who lived there. It turns out there is only a tangential relationship between the castle and Vlad the Impaler, who may (or may not) have been the real life inspiration for Stoker and there’s no evidence Stoker even knew of the castle (it’s a fair distance from the Borgo Pass). And yet, they market the place as Dracula’s Castle. Again, if you’re going to try and brand something, you ought to at least make an honest attempt to pander to the fans you’re trying to attract. Here, there’s one room with several large banners giving a brief history of Bram Stoker and the vampire myths and legends. A large marketing opportunity has been missed. Were I asked to help out, there would be a “Dracula Tour” and some of the rooms would be set-up with torture devices and half empty coffins. Whether or not it’s historically accurate, if you’re gonna sell something, then sell it!
That said, we did have walking through and seeing all the stuff, and it was certainly worth coming down (if we hadn’t, we just would have wondered – at least I would have). When we were done with the tour, we decided to have lunch and see the rest of the village before heading back into Brasov. While we were eating, Adam (remember him from the train?) joined us. He’d realized there wasn’t a lot to do or see in Brasov and so came down to the castle (which originally was going to wait a day for him) and then was going to take the same train as us back to Budapest. So we palled around for the rest of the day. This started with trying to find the museum where they stored whatever wasn’t still inside the castle. We missed it the first time we went looking but eventually found it. We also found out that the MOST popular phrase in Bran is “Inter-war Period.” Seriously! You’d be amazed at all the things which happened in the castle and village between the various wars. So much happened between the wars, in fact, I have a feeling that during the wars themselves, the town was put into a stasis field and held, unchanging, until the wars were over just so they could get back to the “Inter-war Period.”
We eventually made it back to Brasov proper where we spent some time looking for a mall with a movie theatre (which we never found) and ended up deciding to go into the old town city center for a coffee before coming back for our train. Getting to the city center was a bit of an adventure as well. It’s about 3km from the train station (our point of departure) and we were all pretty tired so we decided to take a cab. The cab driver charged us 5 lei a piece to take us and then dropped us off at the end of a long walk street. found a place to sit and have a drink and then wandered a bit. We walked around the famous “black” church (named for the soot covered exterior, not some sort of hidden evilness relating to the nearby Dracula associated castle) and listened to some jazz. Heading back to the train station, we realized we’d been taken for a ride by the first cabbie as our entire bill to get TO the train station was 8 lei total. Ah well, you live and learn.
The train back was a slightly different situation than coming down. We didn’t have a sleeping car this time, just general population seats. Remember what I said about the comfort level of the sleeping cabin? 4 star luxury compared to trying to sleep in a regular seat. Eventually, I curled up on two seats side by side and got a little rest, but my neck ended up hurting for three days. Still, the entire gonzo trip was worth it and if I had to do it over again, I would in a heart beat.