To visit the real Dracula’s real castle in Romania, you have to know which castle to visit. Shall it be Bran Castle of Transylvania, beloved by tourists and the country’s tourism board, or Poenari Castle of Wallachia, the historically valid but little-known alternative?
Those who have read Bram Stoker’s novel about the world’s most famous vampire are often curious about what inspired the Irish writer to pen his tale. That explains why 200,000 foreigners (in addition to 300,000 Romanians) crowd Bran Castle each year.
The former may be hoping to see crypts and cobwebs, blood and bats, and invariably they come away disappointed. They seem not to realize that Vlad Drăculea — the historical figure on whom Count Dracula is based – was not a count, did not live in Transylvania, and had absolutely nothing to do with Bran Castle. The association is based strictly on appearance. The forbidding structure described by Stoker in his book seems to be based on the menacing façade of Bran Castle, with its jutting spires and ominous silhouette. But even this is untrue, since Stoker never laid a foot in Romania. There have been studies of the research he did for his book and Bran Castle does not show up in any of them.
Romanians visit Bran Castle for completely different reasons. They have come to see a 14th century structure with relevance to their national history. That a popular 20th century royal, Queen Marie, lived here and left personal items of furniture and artwork adds to the attraction for them.
A VISIT TO POENARI CASTLE
Curtea de Arges is the closest village to Poenari Castle; Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is 2.5 hours further south. Since Poenari is not a major tourist attraction, there aren’t hoards of buses heading there daily. And you have to be prepared to walk up when you arrive – 2,800 feet up. What is left of the castle is perched on the hill where it was constructed. There are 1,482 well-tended steps, but no escalators, elevators, or roads to the top.
The reason Vlad Tepes (aka the Impaler) chose this location was its relative inaccessibility. In its heyday the fortress dominated the entire top of Poenari Hill. However, it has been a ruin for centuries as a result of neglect and natural disasters.
The low-key entrance to the steps leading up to the castle is on Strada Albești, Transfăgărășan (DN7C), the road leading north from Curtea de Arges. It is near a hydroelectric plant, which serves as a marker. If you hire a local taxi or guide, they will know the way. My driver/guide knew the route by heart, but balked at accompanying me up the steps. “Only 10% of my clients want to climb this hill,” he sighed, “and no one has done it in a long time. I am out of shape.”