Transylvania, a journey to the heart of Bram Stoker’s book

La Transylvanie, voyage au coeur de l'oeuvre de Bram Stoker

« Beyond these hills rose other forests and the great peaks of the Carpathians themselves. We could see them to our right and left, the afternoon sun illuminating their already splendid tones – dark blue and crimson in the hollows of the high rocks, green and brown where the grass lightly covered the stone, and then it was an endless perspective of jagged, sharp rocks that got lost in the distance, where snowy peaks loomed. »

Jonathan Harker marvels at the scenery as he travels to meet Count Dracula. You probably know the rest of the story: young Harker becomes the prisoner of a bloodthirsty creature. But he barely escapes, while the Count continues to claim his victims. Jonathan and Mina, his fiancée, attempt to defeat the vampire by driving a stake through his heart.

If the legend was born of the fertile imagination of an Irish author, the famous landscapes described by the Harker, our protagonist and guide, do exist. They are those of Transylvania, etymologically « beyond the forests »: a mountainous region in western Romania, more than 2,300 kilometers from France.

But what’s really out there? A rich folklore, nourished by a mixture of religious and pagan beliefs. Divided in turn between Mongols, Saxons and Ottoman Turks, Transylvania fully reflects this incredible melting pot of populations.

Bram Stoker never set foot in Transylvania when he wrote his famous Dracula in 1897. First, he immersed himself in his native Ireland, ravaged by famine and cholera, to create a morbid atmosphere. Then he began meticulous research into the Romanian region and its customs. The prolific writer saw Transylvania as the ideal backdrop for his plot.

Bram Stoker et Vlad III L'Empaleur

Left: Bram Stoker in Bistrita-Nasaud | Right: A representation of Vlad III The Impaler – Photo credits: Wikipedia – NY Times | Shutterstock – TPYXA Illustration

So Stoker took great pains to draw on local history to tailor his bloodthirsty creature. Indeed, the character of Dracula was inspired by the voivode tyrant Vlad III the Impaler, whose nickname refers to his monstrous torture techniques. By choosing Transylvania as his backdrop, Stoker has created an enthralling novel, but also a myth, that will make this Romanian region popular, and we invite you to discover it!

Meet our guide

His name is Jonathan Harker, and he’s a young London notary’s clerk. In order to conclude a property sale with a mysterious foreign count, Harker embarks on a journey to Transylvania, in the heart of the Carpathian mountain range. For Harker, the journey is as exotic as it is exceptional, at a time when airplanes and high-speed trains didn’t exist.

Le cauchemar de Dracula (1958)

Dracula and Jonathan Harker also conquered the cinema, as in Dracula’s Nightmare (1958 ) – Photo credits: Flickr – Super Furry Librarian | Diversity Corner

It’s a long way to go, but Harker makes sure he doesn’t miss a thing. So he decides to record each stage of the journey in a notebook, which he later shows to Mina, his fiancée. It’s this logbook, the first part of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, that serves as our guide through this folk-filled region.

And as soon as he arrived in Transylvania, our guide noted his first impressions: « It seems that all the superstitions of the world are to be found in the Carpathians, and are sure to stir the popular imagination. If that’s the case, I’m sure my stay will be most interesting. » If he only knew…

Cluj-Napoca, in pursuit of Dracula

« Having left Budapest without too much delay, we arrived in the evening at Klausenburgh. I stopped there to spend the night at the Hotel Royal. »

Our first stop, and Jonathan Harker’s, begins in Klausenburg, now known as Cluj-Napoca. There, Harker goes to the Hotel Royal, where he gets his first taste (literally) of the local culture. He is served mamaliga, a cornmeal porridge, impletata, a dish of stuffed eggplant, and paprika hendl, a soup he believes to be the source of his nightmares the following night.

So he exchanges his first words in German with the innkeepers, who make him anxious. Indeed, their overly serious airs must be hiding something…

Cluj-Napoca

Cluj-Napoca is a beautiful city, with magnificent religious monuments – Photo credits: Shutterstock – cge2010 | Pani Garmyder

However, contemporary Cluj-Napoca doesn’t quite reflect the sinister atmosphere described by Harker at the start of his diary. Indeed, Romania’s second-largest city exudes life. Student life, cultural life and nightlife, mainly. In Cluj-Napoca, for example, you can discover the marvellous Alexandru Borza botanical garden, home to over 10,000 plants.

But rest assured, Dracula is never far away! You can immerse yourself in Transylvania of a bygone era at Romulus Vuia Park, where you’ll find traditional peasant houses, mills and shops of yesteryear. Then, just stroll through the narrow streets of the village and you’ll discover numerous religious relics, eerily reminiscent of the piety of the people Harker meets along the way.

Parc Romulus Vuia et Château de Banffy

Left: Romulus Nuia Park | Right: Banffy Castle – Photo credits: Shutterstock – antal tiberiu alexandru | Jinga

And the Hotel Royal in question? You’ll find its equivalent at Hotel Transylvania, a medieval establishment located on Cluj-Napoca’s oldest street: Ferdinand Street. Finally, if you’d like to dine Harker-style, there are a number of restaurants offering the dishes he devoured on his first night in Transylvania. You’re free to accompany them with a glass of the local brandy, Palinka…

Leaving the city center to the north, Bonțida’s Bánffy Castle and Nicula Monastery are important stops on this literary pilgrimage. Beyond that, a visit to these two buildings, dating from the 15th and 17th centuries respectively, provides an insight into Transylvanian heritage and its cultural syncretism.

Bistrița, the first chills

« My research taught me, however, that Bistrița where, Count Dracula told me, I should take the stagecoach, was an old, well-known little town. »

After Cluj-Napoca, Jonathan Harker travels to Bistrița, where he spends a night. In his diary, Harker writes of Bistrița’s rich historical past, but also of the strong Orthodox beliefs that animate the city. He mentions the villagers’ signs of the cross, fearing the devil, or rather the sinister creature who eagerly awaits Harker’s arrival.

What’s more, it’s in this northern Transylvanian town that our guide-protagonist receives his first message from the creature in question, Count Dracula, welcoming him to the Carpathians.

Bistrita

Bistrita under the sunset – Photo credit: Shutterstock – antal tiberiu

So, this second stopover in Bistrița allows us to enter a little more deeply into the supernatural environment as imagined by Bram Stoker. This ancient Saxon village, 1h30 drive from Cluj-Napoca, seems to have stopped in another era! Already, you’ll find Gothic architecture such as Romania’s tallest tower and a 14th-century evangelical church.

You’ll stroll through narrow streets, punctuated by the remains of fortifications. In the heart of this archaic city, your path may cross a splendid 19th-century synagogue, the Goldsmith’s House and the very old Cooper’s Tower, which dates back to the 15th century. Finally, although it’s not really a recommendation from Harker himself: the Bistrița market is a must-see when visiting the city!

Synagogue de Bistrita & Salon Jonathan Harker

Left: Bistrita synagogue | Right: the famous Jonathan Harker lounge at Aur’s Coroana Hotel – Photo credits: Flickr -Bogdan Pop | Booking

Naturally, local hotels can offer you the chance to continue the Dracula experience after dark. For example, Aur’s Hotel Coroana (« Golden Crown » in the novel) claims to be the heir to the inn where Harker spent his one and only stay in the city.

For example, you can dine in Jonathan Harker’s living room while sampling the dishes he mentions in his diary. On the menu: brigan steak, Mediasch Doré wine and a few crucifixes.

We’re heading deep into the Carpathians…

« As the sun began to decline, we saw, here and there, in the crevices of the rocks, sparkling a waterfall. »

In the welcome letter received by Jonathan Harker in Bistrița, Count Dracula invites him to cross part of the Carpathians, one of Europe’s largest mountain ranges.

Carpates

The Capartes, a breathtaking massif – Photo credit: Shutterstock – Standret

Stoker left nothing to chance in his characters’ peregrinations in Transylvania. From his small library in the depths of England, he drew inspiration from William Wilkinson’s Voyage Dans la Valachie et la Moldavie (1820) to master unfamiliar places.

Thus, he decided to place Dracula’s castle in the Tihuța Pass, named after its Hungarian name of « Borgo » in the novel. And if you survey the Carpathians yourself, you’ll see that the location seems perfectly suited to planting an old castle surrounded by menacing fir trees. But back then, this mountain road-trip was done in a horse-drawn carriage. If today’s car journey takes a good hour from Bistrița, it will take much longer for Harker…

Col de Tihuta

According to Bram Stoker, it’s in this forest pass, the Tihuța Pass, that the mythical castle is hidden… – Photo credit: Flickr – Cristian Bortes

So it’s there, in the heart of the Bârgāului mountains and at an altitude of 1,200 meters, that we get a little closer to the myth. Following the success of the novel, hoteliers built a castle in the village of Piatra Fântânele, in reference to Dracula, where a statue of Bram Stoker now stands.

Here, you can eat, stay, enjoy an unbeatable view of the Carpathian Mountains and even discover a (fake) cemetery. After all, the hosts take pleasure in making the experience as fun as it is scary (make sure you keep a clove of garlic with you!).

Monastère et Statue de Bram Stoker

Left: Piatra Fântânele monastery | Right: Bram Stoker statue – Photo credits: Shutterstock – FotoAcord | artfotoxyz

A few kilometers from the themed castle-hotel, you’ll find a monastery built to ward off evil spirits. After all, it’s important to attract tourists, but not the evil eye. You can visit this monastery, renowned for its labyrinthine architecture and 31-metre-high cross.

What’s more, if you spend the night in the area, you can admire it in the middle of the night, as it even has LED lighting.

Brașov, welcome to the castle!

« On the other hand, the walls of my castle are falling apart, shadows are crossing it in great numbers and winds are blowing everywhere. I love shadows and all things dark, nothing pleases me so much as to be alone with my thoughts. »

While in Bram Stoker’s work, Dracula’s castle is located in the vicinity of the Tihuța Pass, there is a real castle in Brașov that resembles the novel’s descriptions. This third leg takes us to Castelul Bran (« Bran Castle »), which is located in the town of Brașov, a 5-hour drive from the Tihuța Pass.

What’s more, Brașov is the former Wallachia where Vlad III the Impaler reigned, the man who inspired Bram Stoker to create his Dracula character, if you’ve been following along. We’ll come back to this dreadful character at a later date…

Le Château de Bran

Enter the legend at Bran Castle… – Photo credit: Shutterstock – Marianna Ianovska

However, Stoker also drew on his own experience in making his protagonist a prisoner in a castle. Indeed, the author worked for several years as a legal clerk at Dublin Castle, and found the job particularly « claustrophobic ». Legend has it that he regularly had nightmares, and with good reason: Dublin Castle is built on piles of human bones.

But back to our adventures in Transylvania. What can you find at Bran Castle today? Perched on a cliff at the entrance to the Bran-Rucăr pass, the Gothic fortress built between 1377 and 1388 by order of the King of Hungary bears witness to the region’s tumultuous past. Reception rooms from another era, medieval furniture, a torture chamber, narrow corridors and other mazes… The castle is an invitation to become Jonathan Harker, to scare yourself, to imagine yourself a prisoner of a monster that will come and suck your blood in the middle of the night.

Cour et passage secret du Château de Bran

Left: castle courtyard | Right: secret passage – Photo credits: Shutterstock – S-F | Khalil Rabee

Bran Castle also bears witness to a royal past, having been the residence of the famous Habsburgs and the Romanian royal family. Queen Marie is said to have spent a great deal of time here!

Sighișoara, the roots of evil

« Yes, the Count lay there, but he looked half-rejuvenated, for his white hair, his white moustache were now iron-gray; the cheeks were fuller and a certain redness appeared beneath the pallor of the skin. As for the lips, they were more ruddy than ever, as drops of fresh blood trickled from the corners of the mouth, down the chin and down the neck. The deep-set, shining eyes disappeared into the puffy face. It was as if this horrible creature was simply gorged with blood. »

The final leg of our journey takes us a hundred kilometers from Brașov, to the town of Sighișoara. Here, reality catches up with fiction: for Vlad III the Impaler is said to have been born here, in 1431. His father Vlad Dracul, who ruled in Wallachia (Transylvania’s neighboring region), is said to have lived in the town of Sighișoara with his wife.

We’ll leave Harker aside, then, to discover the town where the torturer who inspired one of literature’s most frightening creatures was born.

Vlad III & Sighișoara

It’s here, in Sighișoara, that the crazy story of Vlad III begins – Photo credits: Shutterstock – Tatiana Dyuvbanova | maloff

At first glance, there’s nothing to suggest that the town was the birthplace of an executioner. Sighișoara is in fact a fortified citadel, whose medieval center is a Unesco World Heritage Site. So if you take a stroll through the center, you’ll find yourself passing through narrow, winding and particularly colorful alleyways.

You’ll also discover its landmark monument: the Clock Tower, where you can admire the panorama from the top. Last but not least, take the wooden staircases, « scara scolarilor » (or schoolchildren’s stairs). They’re a real time machine! After 175 steps, you’ll come upon the Gothic Church of Saint-Nicolas, with its Renaissance paintings and relics.

Sighișoara

Sighișoara offers a real space-time jump…and a dose of horror – Photo credits: Wikipedia – Radu Ana Maria| Acaro

Behind the church lies an old German cemetery. You were looking for a thrill, weren’t you? Here you have it. In this cemetery from another age, moss and ivy now cover the tombstones. Although austere and overgrown, it’s well worth a visit. But you won’t find any traces of Vlad III…

For it’s on the way down to the center that you’ll find the traces of the man behind the myth. You’ll come across Vlad Dracul’s house. No frills, just a plaque written in Romanian. And if you feel like it, you can visit two rooms for 10 Romanian Leu (about €2), where Vlad’s spirit will be delighted to scare you. Unless there’s a comedian involved…

Maison de naissance de Vlad III

Vlad III’s house – Photo credit: Shutterstock – BalkansCat

Beyond Dracula

« We are in Transylvania, and Transylvania is not England. Our habits and customs are not your own, and there will be many things that will seem unusual. »

Our journey through enchanting Transylvania is now drawing to a close. If you’d like to continue your vampire quest, then we invite you to visit the Romanian capital, Bucharest, home of the Dracula Museum. Here, you can perfect your knowledge not only of the region, but also of the myth. And let’s not forget: Dracula, his castle and the Carpathians have also inspired 7th Art time and time again!

However, if you’ve quenched your thirst to learn more about Bram Stoker’s creature, then we invite you to discover new facets of the wonderful region of Transylvania. Because Transylvania has so much more to offer: castles by the thousands, great lakes, ski resorts in winter, fabulous hikes in summer…

But take a stake in your suitcase and a few garlic cloves in your pocket, you never know.