Dracula Comes Alive In Brooding Transylvania

26 May 2013

One of the greatest novels in the English language opens with a line about a late train. Not even his role as one of history's best-known vampire slayers could save Jonathan Harker from the vagaries of the European rail network, as the mild-mannered English solicitor makes his way from Munich across central Europe into the heart of modern-day Romania. More specifically, Harker was bound for Transylvania and a meeting with the mysterious Count Dracula, in a story of such spellbinding ingenuity it continues to transfix readers more than a century after its release.

Today marks the 116th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's spine-chilling Dracula, the Gothic horror novel which firmly fixed one of the most scenic parts of central Europe onto travel maps worldwide.

Harker's journey to the nightmarish Castle Dracula takes him from Munich through Vienna, Budapest and on to Klausenburg – or present-day Cluj-Napoca - in the heart of Transylvania. From Cluj, the unsuspecting Harker travels onward to Bistrita in what he calls "one of the wildest and least known of portions of Europe" for a rendezvous with the titular Dracula and the beginnings of a gripping struggle between good and evil. What is most fascinating about author Bram Stoker's vivid portrayal of the doom-ridden Transylvanian countryside is the fact that the Irishman never once set foot in Romania.

 Bran Castle

Vivid imagination
Stoker - better known in his day as a theatre manager rather than author – spent seven years piecing together his knowledge of the region through meticulous research into European folklore and myths.

It's a shame Stoker never saw the countryside he so vividly described, for Transylvania is undoubtedly one of the most scenic regions in Europe.

Largely untouched by the traits of mass tourism, the lush Carpathian Mountains are steeped in folklore and superstition and Stoker's blood-curdling Castle Dracula is variously described as being inspired by Bran Castle, Poenari Castle and Hunyad Castle respectively.

The truth is Stoker was unaware of all three and instead imagined Dracula's hellish castle to sit atop an otherwise barren peak in the Călimani Mountains, some 30 kilometres south-east of the infamous Borgo Pass.

The city with the most authentic link to the real-life Vlad the Impaler - a blood-thirsty Wallachian prince of the 15th Century who appears to have inspired Stoker – is the central Transylvanian town of Sighişoara.

A UNESCO World Heritage site for its incredibly well-preserved medieval city centre, this picturesque fortified town was first settled by ethnic German settlers in the 12th Century.

Divided between the medieval Citadal stronghold and a lower town which stretches along the banks of the Târnava Mare river, Sighişoara's enchanting city streets cater to a growing number of visitors each year.

 Sighişoara

Further afield
Stretching along the Cibin River and nestled against the stunning backdrop of the Southern Carpathians, nearby Sibiu was once the administrative centre for the Transylvanian Saxons who first settled this stunning part of the world.

Named the European Capital of Culture along with Luxembourg in 2007, Sibiu has recently enjoyed a surge in popularity with visitors eager to experience the countless cultural pursuits on offer in authentic medieval surrounds.

Brasov is one of Transylvania's largest cities but more intriguing is the small town of Bran some 30 kilometres away. Once besieged by Vlad the Impaler himself, Bran's popularity owes much to the imposing castle which looms authoritatively over the township.

These days Bran Castle is marketed heavily as 'Dracula's Castle' – despite having next-to-no association with either Vlad the Impaler or Stoker – who was probably unaware the castle even existed. Nevertheless, Bran Castle – as well as the similarly striking Poenari Castle and Hunyad Castle – are all outstanding representations of the type of menacing medieval castle Stoker no doubt pictured.

And with its foreboding castles and medieval cities framed by the backdrop of the melancholy, myth-laden Carpathian Mountains, Transylvania is every bit as dramatic as a certain Irishman named Stoker imagined.

Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.