Nighttime in Transylvania is as atmospherically spooky as you would hope it would be. During the winter, a thick, low-lying mist covers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the silhouetted turrets and spires of ancient castles and fortified churches. Many of the old homes there still burn wood fires, adding to the smoky air, while the towns are filled with gothic and baroque buildings that were once beautiful, but are now marked by peeling paint and crumbling facades.
It is common at night to hear howling in the forests, either from stray dogs or wolves. It’s easy to see why Bram Stoker chose this part of Romania to be a setting for his most chilling creation, Dracula.
The first section of Stoker’s gothic horror masterpiece takes the form of a travel journal, written in shorthand by a young English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who is traveling across Europe to help conduct a land purchase on behalf of a noble client. Harker keeps a detailed diary of his journey from Munich to Transylvania, where he plans to meet the mysterious Count Dracula in his castle.
My plan was to follow in the footsteps of the fictional Harker, taking the same train routes—where possible staying in the same cities, towns and hotels—and ending my journey at the home of Vlad the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for Dracula. Partly encircled by the Carpathian mountains, Transylvania is still largely unexplored, despite its beauty and wealth of fascinating, centuries-old sites.
What better way to see Transylvania than by investigating if the novel that made it famous could be used as a travel guide today?
When Dracula was published in 1897, Munich’s Hauptbahnhof was just half a century old. It opened in its current location in 1848, with a glorious red and yellow brick grand hall designed in the style of the Italian Renaissance. It was largely destroyed by American bombers during World War II, but regained its status as Bavaria’s principal train station after the war.
In the book, Harker’s journey by steam train from Munich in the 1890s took the better part of 12 hours. Today Vienna can be reached in just under four, courtesy of the high-speed rail.
3 May. Bistriz - Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late.
- Jonathan Harker’s journal
With more time at my disposal than Stoker’s young protagonist, I stopped in Vienna to visit a macabre landmark. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, over 700 years old, is one of Vienna’s most notable landmarks. Mozart was married here, and Joseph Haydn sang as a choir boy in the ornately carved stalls. But deep underneath the cathedral is something much more gruesome: catacombs filled with the bones of over 11,000 victims of the bubonic plague.
Walking through the cold depths of the cathedral surrounded by skeletons is eerie enough. That is until you reach the crypt. For here, in rows of sealed bronze jars, rests the hearts and viscera of 72 members of the Hapsburg royal family. It seemed a suitably gothic beginning to my journey.
From Vienna I booked a place on the evening train to Budapest, the snow falling as we headed east through Hungary. On the four-hour journey I thought of Harker’s diary entry:
The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most Western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.
It’s important to note, while following in the footsteps of Stoker’s protagonist, that the author never actually set foot in Romania. The Transylvania that provides such an ominous backdrop in Dracula was entirely imagined, although the Dublin-born Stoker almost certainly studied the region and its folklore at the British Museum in London.
While staying in the small English town of Whitby, Stoker came across a book in the town library called An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, written by a William Wilkinson in 1820. Stoker’s notes about the book contain a mention of a historical figure: Dracula.
Over the course of seven years, Stoker researched Transylvanian folklore and superstitions surrounding the Strigoi, the evil souls of the dead. But to these he married an actual historical figure, that of Vlad the Impaler.
Vlad III was the ruler of Wallachia (now part of Romania) at various times between 1456 and 1476. He was born in Transylvania to the House of Draculesti, and as a Voivode (the equivalent of a nobleman), defended his county against invading Turks. He was given the chilling nickname of Tepes, Romanian for Impaler, for his predilection for mercilessly impaling his enemies, and raising them aloft for all to see in the town squares.
In reality, Vlad the Impaler was not much worse than many other feudal rulers in Europe, and in Romania he was even celebrated for defending the area’s Christian way of life against the invading Turks. In doing so, Vlad Tepes built a line of imposing castle fortresses, including Poenari and Bran Castle.
According to historian Benjamin Hugo Leblanc, Vlad Tepes’ reign brought prosperity; “crime and corruption ceased, commerce and culture thrived, and many Romanians today view Vlad Tepes as a hero for his insistence on honesty and order.” Indeed, it is entirely possible that had Bram Stoker not chanced upon his name researching Dracula in Whitby library, that Vlad the Impaler would remain little known today outside of Romania.
For Bram Stoker, Vlad Tepes of the House of Draculesti, son of Vlad Dracul, provided a suitable character on which to hang his research on vampire legends. It also helped that in modern Romanian, Dracula means the son of the devil.
My first stop on the vampire trail was meant to be the Hotel Royale, where Harker stayed the night in the old city of Klausenburg. But looking at an atlas today, there is no city by that name.
Located roughly halfway between Budapest, Hungary, and Bucharest, Romania, the city shed the name Stoker knew it by after World War I, when Transylvania became part of the Kingdom of Romania. Today it’s known as Cluj-Napoca, and it’s a bustling, bohemian university town.
The Hotel Royale doesn’t exist today, and maybe it never did. But nestled near the train station is an historic inn that claims to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker. The Hotel Transilvania, located on Ferdinand Street, is one of the oldest in the city, and has been an inn since the Middles Ages.
When the Klausenburg railway station was built in 1870, the venerable old hotel went by another name, the Queen of England—perhaps a regal sounding inspiration for a Hotel Royale. Harker’s diary reads:
We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good… I asked the waiter, and he said it was called “paprika hendl,” and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.
These days, the Hotel Transilvania in Cluj-Napoca isn’t shy about drawing on its possible legacy. The owners have a number of plans in development to emphasize the connection to Stoker and his masterwork.
“We would like to follow the book in creating a suite that resembles the era that the journey was told in the novel through painting, pictures, albums, old movies, items and furniture,” explains Adriana Sava, the hotel’s general manager. “Our project is extensive and complex.”
The hotel owners are also planning to open a restaurant that serves dishes from the era. “We feel that this will attract visitors who have a longing to travel back in time and follow the footsteps of Jonathan Harker,” Sava says. Perhaps soon it will be as easy to find that paprika-spiced chicken as Harker’s waiter promised.
From Cluj Napoca, Harker headed further east in the direction of Bistriz, today known as Bistrita. Nearly 120 years after Dracula was published, I did the same.
I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika…
To Victorian readers, the depths of Transylvania would have sounded as remote and mysterious as to seem possibly made up. As I headed deeper into the Carpathian mountains, there was a definite sense of entering a still wild and sealed off part of Europe. The trains are indeed as unpunctual as Harker described, and most are elderly relics from the Cold War.
Before I set off, a Romanian friend in New York gave me the following advice: Beware of stray dogs (they bite) and of people in general. Don’t trust anyone, authorities or the train employees. I noticed on the longer train journeys through Romania, that many people in the sleeper cars would lock themselves in with bicycle locks. My carriage was empty apart from a woman in a black cloak who decorated our compartment with religious icons, tucked her legs under her, and spent the hours with her rosary beads.
The train journey passed without incident, however, and the snow covered scenery looked nearly identical to what Bram Stoker imagined:
All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country which was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods…
Count Dracula had directed me to go to the Golden Krone Hotel, which I found to my great delight, to be thoroughly old-fashioned, for of course I wanted to see all I could of the ways of the country.
Bistrita is a small town in northern Transylvania, built around a river and surrounded by mountain villages. There is indeed a hotel called the Coroana de Aur (Romanian for Golden Crown), but this one was built in 1974, during the dark days of Romanian Communism. Inside, you can dine at a restaurant called Salon Jonathan Harker, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
It was upon arriving in Bistrita that Jonathan Harker has his first contact with his mysterious client, in the form of a note left at the hotel.
My friend - Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight…
Harker was to travel on the final stage of his journey by coach, through the Borgo Pass in the mountains. For the first time he encounters mounting tension and trepidation from local villagers, and notices they start crossing themselves whenever he mentions his mission.
Just before I was leaving, the old lady came up to my room and said in a hysterical way: “Must you go? Oh! Young Herr, must you go?”
If the local villagers in the novel are terrified at any mention of Dracula, there is a hotel to be found in the mountains that very much delights in it. Situated in the Tihuta Pass in the Bârgāului Mountains is the Hotel Castle Dracula, which claims to be located in the approximate spot of the book’s castle.
But while Stoker’s Castle Dracula was, “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky”, the Hotel Castel Dracula was designed in a hulking concrete style some three decades ago, as a tourist attraction.
The hotel is vampire themed, with an accompanying graveyard (not real), a bar in a tower, and Dracula’s “tomb” in the basement. While the overall effect is more theme park than Victorian, the hotel does highlight an interesting aspect of Romanian history.
It was built in 1983 during the totalitarian regime of Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu, in an attempt to lure Dracula tourists. Even though Romania was one of the most closed off countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Hotel Castel Dracula was reportedly commissioned by Ceaușescu himself. Romanians were no stranger to his follies; this was a man who bulldozed a huge section of the capital Bucharest to build the vast Palace of the Parliament, still one of the largest buildings in the world.
There were no traces of Dracula in Piatra Fântânele, the village where the hotel is located, so I headed south to find Bran Castle, just outside the city of Brasov.
If you were to search online for “Dracula’s Castle” you will invariably discover images of what the Transylvanians called Castelul Bran. An imposing fortress built on a mountainside dividing Transylvania from the region of Wallachia, surrounded by thick forests and dwarfing a small village, from the outside Bran Castle certainly looks like the kind of place where a centuries-old vampire might live.
As the young English solicitor made his way into the mountains, each villager he passed would point two fingers at him, “a charm or guard against the evil eye”, upon learning of his destination. Boarding a rickety decades-old bus in Brasov for Bran castle, I was pleased to see that the front window was covered with half a dozen, eye-shaped religious icons hanging from red ribbons.
Bran Castle, while having little to do with either Count Dracula, or Vlad Tepes, has become known as “Dracula’s castle” mostly on looks alone. Perched high on a ridge, the castle shadows the small village below, where market vendors sell wooden crosses and plastic fangs, and closeted with thick forests and swirling mists, it retains a definite aura of mystery and spookiness.
Visiting during the quiet winter months, I was reminded of the scene where the increasingly nervous Jonathan Harker first encounters Count Dracula:
He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed cold as ice, more like the hand of a dead than a living man.
Inside, Bran Castle contains narrow winding stairways, secret passageways, and a torture chamber. Beneath its turrets there’s a fair amount of 20th century furniture, dating to the castle’s days as a royal summer residence in the 1920s and ‘30s. The country’s Communist authorities turned it into a museum in 1956.
From his extensive research, it is likely that Bram Stoker would have read of Bran Castle, but Vlad the Impaler barely set foot in it, if at all, unlike Poenari castle, which is now a ruined mountain fortress.
Founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century, nearby Brasov is a beautiful city, surrounded by the Southern Carpathian mountains, thick forests and fortified churches. Many of its streets are lined with faded Belle Epoque era buildings. Once painted in vibrant pastels of pink, yellow and teal, today they are gently crumbling, after a half century of neglect during the Communist era.
The city still retains the air of the medieval, aside from one peculiar feature: an oversized white town sign similar to Hollywood’s.
Still on Stoker’s trail, I headed further north to the ancient medieval city of Sighisoara, and the home of Vlad the Impaler. Sighisoara is one of the few intact walled citadels left in Europe. Climbing the steep cobbled streets and entering the city gates is like stepping back in time to the 1600s. Indeed, so much of Sighisoara has remained untouched that its whole historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sighisoara was one of the seven walled citadels built by the Transylvanian Saxons to defend against a Turkish invasion. Popular with visitors in the summer, in the dead of winter the mountaintop town is silent and virtually empty, its cobblestones wet with fog and snow. A steep, dark wooded covered staircase, known as the Pupils’ Stairs, leads to the top of a hill.
After climbing 176 steps, I came to an early 13th century basilica, known as the Church on the Hill, where it’s possible to see the coffins of Sighisoara’s noblemen—Transylvania’s sole church crypt. It’s one of the most haunted-looking churchyards I’ve ever seen. Shrouded in mists, with the ever-present howling of dogs in the surrounding forest, the tumbled down gravestones and mausoleums could certainly be home to the undead.
Wandering around the citadel square, where witch trials and public executions were carried out, I came across an ochre colored home, with a wrought iron dragon hanging above the entrance. A plaque noted that the Romanian ruler Vlad Dracul had lived there between 1431 and 1435. His son, Vlad Tepes, was born there.
The medieval house is also a well appointed bar, where I tried the traditional Carpathian spirit palinka. The fruit brandy is so strong that there is a pot of lard on the bar, a dab of which is used to coat the tongue before sipping the fiery spirit. After visiting the bar, you can enter the first home of Vlad the Impaler, suitably draped in red velvet curtains and lit by candelabras, with a chilling oil painting of Vlad enjoying his breakfast in front of a forest of impaled prisoners.
Stoker was 50 years old when Dracula was published, in 1897. At the time, he was the business manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre, working under the celebrated actor, Sir Henry Irving. Irving was well-known for his dramatic portrayals of gentleman villains, and is thought to have been an important inspiration for Dracula’s mannerisms.
The novel went on to become the classic example of vampire lore, yet Stoker himself never enjoyed the financial success that its many film versions later enjoyed. By the end of his life, Bram Stoker was so destitute that he applied to the Royal Literary Fund for compassionate grants.
Although the author never saw Transylvania for himself, I was surprised by how evocatively he captured the beguiling landscape. In a country where horse drawn carts can still be seen on the Communist-built motorways, and where medieval fortresses are seemingly always emerging from the fog, Jonathan Harker’s journal proved to be as accurate a guide book as a Victorian Lonely Planet.
Bram Stoker may have drawn heavily from ancient legends, but the actual physical route taken by Harker can still be followed today.