31 October 2009

Transylvanians sink their teeth into Dracula's lucrative legacy

Bran Castle towers above Bran village and is better known as Dracula’s Castle

Letter from

Patrick Comerford

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, according to Tom Stoppard. But so too are Rosenau, Kronstadt, Honigburg, Prejmer and Torzburg. The former Saxon names on the old maps of Transylvania have long since disappeared and these pretty town and villages on the southern slopes of the Carpatians have been known for a long time by their Romanian names – Rasnov, Brasov, Bran, Harman Tratlau and Bran.

If anyone in Brasov harbours any lingering regrets that the city is no longer known as Kronstadt, no-one wants to return to the brief interlude of post-war madness when the place was given the blood-chilling name of Stalingrad (Orasul Stalin).

Brasov is now the most-visited city of Romania, with its charm and popularity leading one guidebook to describe it as “the Prague of Romania, the Krakow of Transylvania.” With its cobbled streets, castellated towers and ornate churches and townhouses, it is no wonder that the legend grew up that when the Pied Piper charmed the children away from Hamelin, they emerged from the Carpathian Mountains in the town square of Brasov in 1284.

The legend may have been a way of explaining the migration of German-speaking Saxon settlers to this part of Transylvania. It was they who made Brasov the home of some of the best craftsmen, jewellers, and traders in Transylvania. After Ceausescu was toppled, an estimated 130,000 “Saxons” left Romania for Germany, leaving behind a small minority to look after a rich architectural legacy of fortified churches and mediaeval houses. In recent years, these “Saxons” have begun to trickle back to their ancestral homes in the region they once knew as Siebenburgen, and the centuries-old Lutheran churches have become popular venues for fashionable German weddings.

Meanwhile, the people of this region are happy to put the memories of Stalin and Ceausescu into the history books. Instead they are making a tidy tourist industry out of another ruler with a reputation for torture and mass murder – Vlad Tepes, better known to the rest of us, thanks to Dublin-born Bram Stoker, as Dracula.

But there is a remote and blood-curdling link between Stalin and Dracula in Brasov. Ceausescu had the word “Stalin” carved out in the trees of Mount Tampa, looking down on the city. It was close to this gory tribute that Brasov’s original defensive fortress was first built. When the Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes, attacked Brasov in 1458-1460, he dismantled the citadel on Mount Tampa and 40 merchants were hauled up the slope and impaled on top of the mountain.

It was Vlad’s revenge for a city law that had prevented Romanians from entering the Saxon walled city of Kronstadt. Bram Stoker believed Vlad’s moniker was derived from the Romanian word “draco,” meaning “devil,” although it is more likely he was known as Dracula, or “Son of the Dragon,” because his father, Vlad III, was proud of being made a Knight of the Dragon by the Emperor Sigsimund in 1431.

Vlad Tepes was never a vampire, but he was certainly ruthless and cruel in his bloodletting as he pursued his campaign to rid the Romanian principalities of Saxons, Turks and Greeks. He decapitated his enemies or buried them alive if he had not subjected them to his favourite punishment of impalement, driving a stake carefully through the victim’s anus until it emerged just below the shoulder without piercing any vital organs. Victims were then left writhing in agony before their captor, who watched and ate as they took at least 48 hours to die.

Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler is seen by many Romanians today as an early forerunner of Romanian nationalism. As the story is told and retold, it is often forgotten that he ruled Wallachia and not neighbouring Transylvania. Vlad was never the torturer of Torzburg, but Bram Stoker’s novel has allowed Transylvania to capitalise on popular Western images of Dracula, and the village of Bran 28 km south of Brasov, has prospered by convincing tourists that Bran Castle is Dracula’s Castle.

The castle, perched atop a 60 metre peak, towers above the village, and with its Gothic turrets, tiered towers, and labyrinthine secret passages, it sometimes looks the part. There is a remote possibility that Vlad might have attacked the castle in 1460; then he again, he might have spent a night or two here as fled a Turkish onslaught in 1462. But “might” never makes history, and in reality Bran Castle, is another part of Transylvania’s Saxon legacy, built in 1382 as Tortzburg and one of the defensive fortresses guarding Siebenburgen against the Turks.

Despite countless horror movies, Bran Castle had a more romantic association with Queen Marie, who lived here from 1920. She made a dramatic appearance at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, declaring: “Romania needs a face, and I have come to show mine.” She rode unattended through the streets, showering her people with red roses at carnival time, and once declared: “My love for my country Romania is my religion.”

Bran Castle remained a royal residence until 1947. But royalty and romance are less attractive to tourists than any tentative link with Dracula. As we passed through King Ferdinand’s bedroom, a child looked on the four-poster bed in awe and asked: “Did Dracula sleep in that?” “No, silly,” her doting father replied. “He slept in a coffin in the crypt.”

Down in the village, the tourists generally ignore the beautiful, open-air Village Museum and head for the shops selling Hallowe’en-style trinkets and Dracula masks or to the bars that advertise themselves as “Haunted Castle” and “Skeleton’s Tavern.” We left before dark.

This Letter from Transylvania was first published in The Irish Times on 31 October 2005

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