Castles, vampires and the Inquisition: a macabre trip to Transylvania.

I wonder if Bram Stoker could ever have imagined the impact his 1897 book would have on the small town of Bran.

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What would likely be a random little agricultural village is now inextricably linked with vampires and the legend of Dracula.

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Bran Castle, apparently the inspiration for Stoker’s world.

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The funny thing is that neither the castle nor the beautiful grounds saw much of the man associated with the famous vampire. In fact, some doubt he ever even set foot there.

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These ruins are those of his real castle, in Bucharest. In front, the statue of the man. His father, Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Devil), provided the name, but it was around the story of his son, Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), that the character of Dracula the vampire was built. (Note: some internet sources contradict what I read at the Castle on the meaning of “dracul”, so please take this with a grain of salt)

Now, Vlad was not a gentle man. If you need to Google “Impalement”, I suggest you don’t do it just before or after a meal. During his rule, it is believed he had tens of thousands put to the stake (or rather had the stake put to them). Surprisingly, his legacy is not that of a cruel tyrant. People of the region regard him as having been a strict, but just ruler. He did not slaughter innocents or torment his subjects, but he applied implacable justice to those who had committed serious crimes, such as murder, theft, or being Turkish. The later were particularly annoyed by the execution method, as the process would be facilitated by lubricating the stake with pork fat.

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One of the most recent occupier of the Castle was the much nicer and much beloved Queen Mary. A member of the House Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (aka Windsor), she was one of the grand daughters of Queen Victoria, and three of her own children reigned as King or Queen (of Romania, Greece and Yugoslavia).

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The castle was built in the 14th century. Since 2009, ownership has reverted to the Romanian Royal family, whose titles are of course only historical. Archduke Dominic of Austria-Tuscany is the current owner of the place, run as a private museum since it was restituted to the family.

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Built primarily as a military construction, the rather modest inside is stilled filled with the furniture of the last occupants. Even the game room gave me the impression that life there would have been rather boring.

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Especially for this guy.

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The valley, at the border between Transylvania and Walachia, had already been an important trade route for centuries when the castle was built.

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The thick walls even hide a secret staircase linking the first and third floors.

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As my friend Valentin remarked in Bucharest, one easy way to date Romanian artifacts is to look at the alphabet. Cyrillic: before 1862. Latin: after.

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The castle featured a temporary exhibit on medieval torture. While this contraption was not part of it, it is closely related. It was used for what was called “putting on scales”. People would be weighed against an amount judged to be appropriate for their size and shape, because it was believed followers of Satan were lighter than normal. If the rocks the court had placed on the scale weighed more than you, you would be tortured until you died or confessed your to involvement with the Devil.

Ever the clever businessmen, the Dutch set up a court in Oudwater where you could be weighed at your own request. It always ruled in your favour and you would get a document certifying you were not involved in witchcraft. It was very popular, and very expensive.

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One of the most popular machines of torture throughout Europe; the rack, as featured in the movie “Braveheart”.

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While the nobility often got their heads chopped off, commoners were almost always put to death in slow and painful ways. Cutting them in half while upside down allowed them to stay conscious longer, as the blood would rush to the brain. Strange how everyone in this engraving seems to be having a good time.

Tens of thousands were killed by the various Inquisitions. Of course, if you torture people until they confess, and possibly waive the death penalty if they name accomplices, you will get a huge number of innocents convicted of crimes they did not commit. But this was much more unreal; these tens of thousands of people were not only convicted of crimes they did not commit, they were convicted of completely fictional crimes! No need to examine the records here; I guarantee you that 100% of people killed for having caused a drought or fornicating with the Devil were innocent. And incredibly, in our age of information, people, including many children, still routinely get killed for witchcraft, either by evangelical pastors in Nigeria, or by the Saud family, the bedouin barbarians who rule Saudi Arabia. It is a little disturbing that only a few centuries ago, Europeans leaders were no better.

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Close to Bran Castle, there is a small Museum of Medieval History. The name is very misleading, as all it contains is some furniture belonging to the Romanian Royal Family. Waste of my time and money (OK, very little money, but still).

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Travelling by bus across the Romanian countryside allows you to see parts of the country are still quite poor, with crumbling structures everywhere, probably from the days of Communism.

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Even horse drawn carriages, and not the kind that take tourists around.

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The buses are comfortable, but have a peculiar and very specific rule. Hopefully the Belgians never find out, or they might apply trade sanction against Romania.

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I’m not sure about the Hollywood move, but the town of Rasnov is half-way between the regional hub, Brasov, and Bran.

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The top of the mountain is occupied by the very large Rasnov Fortress, built in the 13th century by Teutonic Knights. It is a large fortress, designed as a place where a significant population could take refuge during a prolonged siege.

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It offers magnificent views of the Carpathian Mountains.

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And the town bellow.

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And finally, a little politics. I had not even noticed these little stickers, but Valentin explained that Bessarabia had been, only within the 20th century, part of the Russian Empire, Romania and the Soviet Union, before becoming modern day Moldova. He also mentioned he disagrees with the Romanian ownership claim. I can’t say the issue keeps me up at night.

While the Bessarabian question may be controversial to some, my next adventure takes me to a much more important and complicated country: Israel.

PS: the hub of the region is the town of Brasov, certainly an attraction in its own right. Unfortunately, while I spent two nights there, I was only going to visit the town itself on my last day in Transylvania, but I had to give up, due to continuous pouring rain.

#Romania

4 thoughts on “Castles, vampires and the Inquisition: a macabre trip to Transylvania.

  1. I saw the horse drawn cart and the sheep and I remembered that Borat was filmed in Romania. The pictures are strangely beautiful, especially the mountains.

  2. Actually is not Vlad the Devil, but Vlad the Dragon, the more precise translation. In medieval times Dragon image could have been a substitute for Beast, Devil. But thanks a lot. I enjoyed reading the story.

    • Thanks for the correction and the compliment. To be honest, when I write about a politically sensitive, modern subject, I can spent hours researching it before I press “Publish”. Medieval stuff, if I read it somewhere once, it’s good enough. I never got hate mail from supporters of Vlad :-)

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