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This is the first in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

We begin with the historical Dracula, because while Hammer's Dracula and Bram Stoker's Dracula are both very exciting, and their imaginative use of the Romanian landscape certainly shaped the way I saw it (see future posts on this), still in truth they are the products of Britain and Ireland respectively. It is direct encounters with the historical Dracula and his world that Romania has to offer, and that was my number one reason for wanting to go there. This isn't to say we visited every possible site connected with him while we were there. In practice, our trip was focused on Transylvania and Moldavia, whereas he was Voievod of Wallachia - the southern part of the country, between the Carpathians and the Danube. So we only spent a single day in the part of Romania which he actually ruled, which means there are still plenty more historical-Dracula-related sites for me to discover on a return visit. But between our day-trip to Wallachia, the fact that he spent a lot of his life in exile in Transylvania anyway, and the wider cast of historical characters who also have a role to play in his story, we did pretty well.

The highlight of our visit was Poienari castle, which we visited on our second day. This originated as a simple square watch-tower, guarding the Wallachian end of a narrow river pass which runs through the Carpathian mountains to Transylvania. Vlad III Dracula extended it to enclose the entirety of the narrow, isolated ridge where the original tower was located, but it is still a very constrained site because of the natural geography, so as castles go it was never particularly spacious or splendid. It is also pretty inaccessible, since the ridge on which it stands protrudes from the top of a steep-sided hill at the mouth of the pass. In the Communist era, a path including 1480 concrete steps was built so that tourists could get up to it easily, but I've no idea how people got up there in the 15th century - probably just a very winding and rather treacherous path up through the forest.

All of this puzzles people who have read Stoker's novel, and thus assume that it must have been the main Dracula family residence, but it wasn't, and was never intended to be. Dracula had courts at Târgoviște and Bucharest, and spent most of his time living and governing from those. The castle was simply part of his system of defences, intended to house a small garrison and guard the pass. It was also used on a fairly regular basis to hold prisoners and as a treasury - i.e. to keep things tucked away which you didn't want people to be able to get at easily. So, not the ancestral hall of Stoker's legend, but the real Dracula definitely did extend it from a simple watch-tower into a proper fortress (this is in the written sources about him, and matches up with the archaeological dating), and he doesn't seem to have built any other castle. So this is the real McCoy - or Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, as I like to call it.

We'll start with some views of the castle in context, looking up from the river pass below. This is where the pass opens out at the Wallachian end. The castle is the jaggedy shape on the middle of the left-hand slope, directly above the two smaller wood cabins:

And looking back down into that valley (and Wallachia beyond) from the castle itself:

This is looking up at the castle from the pass itself (taken through a moving coach window, but I think it's all right). The protruding ridge on which the castle stands is in the middle of the picture, with the castle itself again just about visible as a jagged shape at the top:

And looking back down on that side into the pass - i.e. the main side which the soldiers of the garrison would have watched from, to spot invading armies coming from Transylvania:

In short, you can definitely see why it's a good location to have a defensive watch-post. Also, here is me in front of that same view of the pass, proving that I really did go up there and climb all those steps!

These are some of the steps themselves, winding up through the forest:

And what you see when you get to the top:

It's not easy to photograph the castle exterior from any other angle, because the whole point of its ridge-top position is that there are precipitous drops on all sides. But I hope these photos will give at least some sense of its appearance and layout:









You really do have to visit it yourself to truly understand how it all fits together, though. Photos can't really capture it (just like a vampire OMG!). And of course you cannot appreciate without going there the lofty views over the valley, the gentle breeze lifting your hair as you stand looking outwards from the towers, or the absolute quiet (except for the slap of the flag against its pole) as soon as the crowds of tourists dissipate. Add to that the thought of Vlad Dracula himself stalking those corridors, inspecting the workmanship, surveying his kingdom from the same windows - and, well, it was everything I hoped, and will stay with me forever.

Incidentally, I was a bit puzzled by the use of bricks in the construction before I went there, wondering if perhaps they represented repairs from a later period than Vlad Dracula's building phase, but once I got up close I understood that they were an inherent part of the design from the start. The join between the solid stone lower part of the walls and the brick upper part is too straight and neat to represent a repair:

And in fact, it turns out that the upper part is not solid brick, but brick facing with a rubble core, just like Roman brick-and-concrete structures:

I also learnt very quickly over the following days that building fortified structures out of brick was actually very common in Romania in the late medieval / early modern period, including the same technique of brick facing over a rubble core. Here's an example from Slimnic castle, which we visited the following day, for comparison:

So it was worth going there from a purely archaeological perspective to boot!

On our third evening, we arrived at Sighișoara, where we proceeded to stay for the next two days. It is a medieval fortified town, with its centre very little changed by the march of history, and it contains this house:
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It stands close to the clock tower over one of the city gates:
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And, looking down from the top of that tower, you can see how it faces onto a small square, opposite a church:

Nowadays, it is home to a restaurant, where we had lunch on our fourth day:
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This is the dining room - a large room on the first floor, which was once clearly the house's main reception room:

In the far corner of the room, below the chandelier and in the top of the window alcove, you can see some remaining traces of painted decoration, and if we zoom in on those, we find that they include three portraits, one of which looks like this:

It's on the basis of that picture that a plaque has been fixed to the front of the house, stating that the historical Dracula's father, Vlad Dracul, lived there from 1431-1435:
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Indeed, the wall portrait illustrates Vlad Dracul's Wikipedia page. BUT! There is no inscription on the painting to state definitively whom it is meant to represent, and nor does there seem to be any other surviving contemporaneous confirmed portrait picture of Vlad Dracul which it resembles. In other words, there is no direct evidence that the portrait is actually supposed to be him - only speculation, based on the fact that the person shown is wearing a turban, and Vlad Dracul is known to have cultivated good relations with the Ottoman Turks. Furthermore, though Vlad Dracul certainly gained support from the people of Sighișoara while living in Transylvania between 1431 and 1436, there is no direct evidence that he had any kind of permanent residence there. (All of this is explained on this page - alas, in Romanian, but stick it through Google translate and you'll get the gist.)

Also, the first sound evidence for the existence of his son, Vlad Dracula, is a document from 1437, in which Vlad Dracul (by that time Voievod of Wallachia) mentions his 'first born sons, Mircea and Vlad'. So in other words, we don't know exactly when Vlad Dracula was born - only that it was before 1437, and early enough for him to seem a serious pretender for the throne himself by 1448, when he had his first (Ottoman-supported) crack at taking it. So even if Vlad Dracul the father did live in this house from 1431 to 1435, it's not certain that Vlad Dracula the son was born there, since he could quite easily have been born before 1431. In short, then, much as I'd like to be able to say I've eaten lunch in the house where Vlad Dracula was born, I'm pretty sceptical about the notion that I have done anything of the sort.

That said, Sighișoara is as good a place as any to imagine the early childhood of the little Vlad, which certainly was spent in Transylvania, doubtless in towns which looked a lot like Sighișoara, and probably quite often in Sighișoara itself. It was also very exciting to see these 15th-17th century cups, jugs and mixing-bowl in the local museum (housed in the same clock-tower shown in my picture above) which, according to the label, were found in the 'Casa Vlad Dracul':

I have no idea how, when or where exactly they were 'found' - there was no explanation. But I enjoyed imagining the little Vlad drinking from them, all the same.

After those two sites, we were done with the historical Dracula himself, but there were still plenty of places on the itinerary where we came across various of his political allies, enemies and relatives. I'm covering them below in historical chronological order, rather than the order in which they visited him.

First, in Baia Mare (day 11), we encountered the house of Iancu Hunedoara (usually Anglicised to John Hunyadi). Well, alleged house, anyway. I suspect they're all pretty spurious, really. Hunyadi was both Voievod of Transylvania, ruling it on behalf of the Hungarians who actually controlled it, and later a regent-governor for Hungary itself on behalf of its child-king Ladislaus V. He was a long-term enemy of Vlad Dracul, supporting his overthrow and assassination in 1447, but helped Vlad Dracula take the Wallachian throne in 1456. If there's one thing I've learnt about Romanian history, it is that neither enmities nor alliances ever last for very long - and indeed that goes for Hunyadi's alliance with Vlad Dracula too, for the principal reason that Hunyadi then went and died only a few months later.

His house in Baia Mare is not super-exciting to see, because it is in a ruinous condition and under a printed tarpaulin. But for what it's worth, here it is. The house in question is the one to the right of the arched passageway in the middle of the picture:


Hunyadi's son, Matthias Corvinus, took over as king of Hungary (and ruler of Transylvania) in 1458. Vlad Dracula and he struck up an anti-Ottoman alliance in 1459, but after Vlad's battles against the Ottomans were less unequivocally successful than they might have been, and in the light of tensions between Vlad and Saxon merchants living in southern Transylvania, Matthias Corvinus had Vlad ambushed and arrested in 1462, bringing his main reign as Voievod of Wallachia to an end. It was basically in order to justify this arrest that Corvinus then either spearheaded, or at the very least encouraged, a systematic smear campaign against Vlad Dracula, which resulted in some of the wilder horror stories that are now preserved in the printed pamphlets about him. So, in short, no friend of Dracula.

Anyway, in Cluj-Napoca on our final day we saw yet another house with a sign on it saying that 'according to historical tradition' Matthias Corvinus had lived there:



In the main city square, there is also a huge monument to Matthias Corvinus, dedicated in 1902:


We also spent quite a lot of our holiday in Moldavia, which was ruled from 1457 to 1504 by Vlad Dracula's cousin, Ștefan cel Mare, aka Stephen the Great. Dracula helped Ștefan to obtain his throne in the first place, while Ștefan helped Dracula in return when he seized back the Wallachian throne for the third and final time in 1476. So on the whole they were chums (indeed, the scenes between them in Vlad Tepes (1979) are downright bromancey), although Ștefan focused on defending his own interests, sometimes to Vlad's detriment, during his wars against the Ottomans in the early 1460s.

As a long-running and very successful ruler, Ștefan cel Mare was able to dedicate large numbers of churches in commemoration of his military victories, several of which we visited. For example, this is the painted monastery at Voroneț (day 6), which is very famous, and which he dedicated in 1488:

Inside was a lovely painting of him as the founder, handing over a miniature image of the church to Jesus, but we weren't allowed to take pictures of that, so this link will have to do. We also weren't allowed to take pictures inside the museum at the Monastery of Neamț (day 5), but when I discovered that they had one of Ștefan cel Mare's ceremonial swords, I sneaked one all the same!

Finally, and going back in holiday-time right to our first day, there was also the matter of Mihnea cel Rău (that's Mihnea the Bad to you and me), Vlad Dracula's son who attained the throne of Wallachia himself in 1508. He obviously wasn't particularly skilled at securing power by consent, though, and ended up being first overthrown by his nobles, and then assassinated in front of the Cathedral at Sibiu, where he had gone into exile.

This is the square where the assassination took place, seen from ground level and from the church tower above:
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And this is his tombstone in the crypt of that self-same Cathedral:


All in all then, traces of the historical Dracula were never too far away, and of course just being able to explore the geography and settlement structure of the landscape in which he operated helped me to understand him far better than I did before I went. There is more to learn, as ever, but this was a very satisfying historical Dracula field-trip.

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Jul. 21st, 2015 07:46 am (UTC)
Fascinating stuff.
Jul. 21st, 2015 08:36 am (UTC)
Cheers. :-)

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