Mystical tales from Transylvania
‘For me, this is such a special place,’ says Gabor Tomas, as he treks through the snowy woods around Zalanpatak, another tiny hamlet on the Kálnoky estate, about 15 miles southeast of Miklósvár. He’s been exploring Transylvania’s backcountry since he was a child and now works as a conservationist and nature guide. ‘There are very few places in Europe where you feel so far from civilisation. If you want to, you can still really taste the wild here.’
As if to illustrate his point, a winged shadow swoops low across the valley, fluttering to rest on a branch of a skeletal oak tree. ‘Look,’ he whispers. ‘A Ural owl. People believed they were an evil omen and signified death.’
We watch the owl loop and hover above the land, as the sun silhouettes spindly trees along the horizon and snowflakes tumble from the winter sky. ‘I wish people took the time to discover this side of my country,’ Gabor says. ‘Nature is our greatest asset. But as soon as you mention Transylvania, it means just one thing to people: Dracula. No matter what we do, that won’t change.’
It’s more than a century since Bram Stoker dreamt up his vampiric count, but Dracula is still big business in Transylvania. He’s everywhere: on T-shirts and keyrings, on leaflets and billboards, on coffee jars and toothpaste tubes. Every town claims a tenuous link with the count, or more accurately with his real-life counterpart Vlad Țepeș, known as Dracula, the bloodthirsty warlord who ruled the kingdom of Wallachia intermittently between 1448 and 1476, and who had a predilection for impaling his enemies on stakes, allegedly thousands at a time.
Few places sell their Dracula connections harder than Bran Castle in the Carpathian foothills, about 20 miles south of the well-preserved medieval town of Brașov. This sturdy fortress was originally built during the 13th century to guard the Rucăr-Bran Pass, a key strategic route into Wallachia. It’s now better known as the legendary location of Dracula’s castle.
It certainly looks the part: ringed by ramparts and riddled with echoing halls and secret passageways, it seems the ideal place for a thousand-year old strigoi to have made his mountain lair. Unfortunately, as so often with the Dracula legend, there’s no evidence that Vlad ever visited Bran, let alone lived there; his actual castle, now a ruin, was at Poienari, 150 miles north of Brașov.
‘When it comes to Dracula, untangling fact from fiction is the biggest problem,’ says local history professor Dr Nicolae Teșculă, as he surveys the red-tiled rooftops of Sighișoara, the hilltop town that’s now famous as Vlad Dracula’s birthplace. The winter sun is casting long shadows as we walk through Sighișoara’s alleyways, past merchants’ mansions, cobbled courtyards and fortified gateways. Ravens strut and croak on the medieval ramparts, and a faint peal of bells echoes from the church.
‘There’s no doubt that Dracula was a brutal warrior,’ Teșculă continues. ‘But many of the myths surrounding him are propaganda disseminated by his enemies. In fact, he’s regarded by most as a hero. He protected Transylvania against the threat of Ottoman invasion and ensured the survival of our own indigenous culture.’
He crunches on through the town’s icy streets and sets about debunking the Dracula myth with an academic eye. The name Dracula actually derives from a chivalric order called the Order of the Dragon, he explains. Vlad Țepeș’ father was a member of this order, and took the epithet Dracul – the dragon. Dracula simply means ‘son of Dracul’. Vlad’s reputation as an impaler was exaggerated by his enemies, to portray him as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The fact that Vlad’s body was found buried with no head is no surprise: his killers would simply have wanted proof of his death in order to collect a bounty.