Traveling in Dracula Country
The actual route taken by Jonathan Harker can still be followed today.
NIGHTTIME IN TRANSYLVANIA is as atmospherically spooky as you could hope it would be. During the winter, a low-lying mist covers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the silhouetted turrets and spires of medieval castles and fortified churches. The towns are filled with gothic and baroque buildings marked by peeling paint and crumbling facades. 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 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 reallife 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?
WHEN DRACULA WAS PUBLISHED in 1897, Harker’s journey by steam train from Munich to Vienna took over 10 hours. Today it can be reached in just under four, courtesy of the highspeed rail. I set off on my journey in January of last year. With more time at my disposal than Stoker’s young protagonist, I stopped in Vienna to visit a macabre landmark.
Deep underneath St. Stephen’s Cathedral, nearly 700 years old, are catacombs filled with the bones of over 11,000 victims of the bubonic plague. Walking through the cold depths surrounded by skeletons is eerie enough. That is until you reach the crypt. For here, in rows of sealed urns, 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. 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.”
Stoker never actually set foot in RoIt’s
mania. The Transylvania that provides such an ominous backdrop in Dracula was almost entirely imagined. The Dublin-born Stoker studied the region and its folklore at the British Museum in London. He researched Transylvanian superstitions surrounding the Strigoi, the troubled souls of the dead. 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 1448 and 1476. He was born in Transylvania to the House of Draculesti, and defended his country against invading Turks. He was given the chilling nickname of Tepes, Romanian for Impaler, for mercilessly impaling his enemies, and raising them aloft for all to see.
In reality, Vlad was not much worse than many other feudal rulers in Europe. In Romania, he was even celebrated for defending the area’s Christian way of life against the invading Turks. According to historian Benjamin Hugo Leblanc, his 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.”
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. Today it’s known as Cluj-Napoca, a bustling university town located roughly halfway between Budapest and Bucharest.
The Hotel Royale doesn’t exist today, and maybe it never did. But nestled near the train station is the Hotel Transilvania, which in the 1800s went by another name, the Queen of England—perhaps a regal-sounding inspiration for a Hotel Royale.
Harker’s diary reads: “I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner a chicken done up with red pepper, which was very good .... The waiter said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”
These days, the Hotel Transilvania 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
FOR BRAM STOKER, VLAD THE IMPALER PROVIDED A SUITABLE CHARACTER ON WHICH TO HANG HIS RESEARCH ON VAMPIRE LEGENDS.
masterwork: a suite and a restaurant that serves dishes from the era. 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 Bistrit¸a. Nearly 120 years after Dracula was published, I did the same.
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 as unpunctual as Harker described, and some 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 that on the longer train journeys through Romania 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 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 that 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.”
Bistri¸ta 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 Bistri¸ta 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. Your friend, Dracula”
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 notices that villagers start crossing themselves whenever he mentions his mission.
If the locals in the novel are terrified at any mention of Dracula, there is a hotel in the mountains that delights in it. Situated in the Tihu¸ta Pass in the Bârga˘ului Mountains, the Hotel Castel
Dracula 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,” the Hotel Castel Dracula was designed in a hulking concrete style some three decades ago, for tourists.
The hotel is vampire-themed, with a 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 opened in 1983 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 supported by Communist leader Nicolae Ceaus¸escu 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 Parliament Palace, 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, near Bras¸ov.
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. It is an imposing fortress built on a mountainside dividing Transylvania from Wallachia. 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.
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 decadesold bus in Bras¸ov for Bran castle, I was pleased to see that the front window was covered with half a dozen, eyeshaped religious icons hanging from red ribbons.
Visiting during the quiet winter months, I was reminded of the scene where the increasingly nervous Jonathan Harker first encounters Count Dracula: “The instant 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 20thcentury 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.
Founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century, nearby Bras¸ov is a beautiful city, surrounded by the Southern Carpathian mountains, thick forests and fortified churches. Many of its streets are lined with faded Renaissance and Baroque era buildings. Once painted in vibrant pastels of pink, yellow and teal, today they are gently crumbling, after more than 40 years of neglect during the Communist era.
I HEADED FURTHER NORTH to the medieval city of Sighisoara, the home of Vlad the Impaler and a fine example of a fortified medieval town. Climbing the steep cobbled streets and entering the city gates is like stepping back in time to the 1500s. Indeed, so much of Sighisoara has remained untouched that its historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After climbing the 176 steps of a steep covered staircase, I came to an early 14th-century basilica, known as the Church on the Hill. It has 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 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 Carpathian fruit brandy Pálinka. On the bar is a pot of lard, 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.
ALTHOUGH BRAM STOKER never saw Transylvania for himself, I was surprised by how evocatively he captured the beguiling landscape. In a country 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.
The fortified medieval town of Sighisoara is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Haunted-looking churchyard at an early 14th-century basilica in Sighisoara