The Search For Dracula’s Castle
Transylvania, RomaniaIt was a dark and stormy night…
Poienari Castle perched high on a steep precipice of rock
We’ve all read scary stories that begin with this opening hook. What usually follows is a scene of a castle perched high on a steep precipice of rock; lightning licking its spires which pierce the brooding sky; the dark clouds scrape over the full moon. Terror seizes those who come near it. Mystery surrounds those who reside within it. But, as readers, we know that this is the predictable dwelling of the story’s villainous character.
But where in history has this story derived from? Is there a castle somewhere in the world that has been the basis for such a dreadful plot? I asked myself these questions as I backpacked throughout Europe in the Fall of 2001. I had hoped to find the source for such stories and I thought the best place to look would be in the heart of Romania, otherwise known as Transylvania.
My first full day in Transylvania was spent in Brasov on October 31, 2001 ï¿½ Halloween. It did not take long to realize that Romanians take no part in such nonsense. They are probably sick of tourists coming here and assuming that Halloween derived from Romania’s past. The fact is, Halloween ï¿½ originally called All Hollow’s Eve – started in the 5th century BC in Celtic Ireland, which, if you look on a map, you’ll notice is nowhere near Romania.
Central Romania might not be the original home of Halloween, but it sure does personify a ghost story setting! When dusk settled on Brasov on Halloween, chills raced up and down my spine. Throughout the city, stray dogs could be heard howling at the moon. Bats quietly snatched bugs out of the sky. Smoke from a few unseen chimneys blanketed the windless city. The large bell from the Black Church in the center of town tolled monotonously. Yes, Transylvania is Spooky with a capital “S”!
The next morning, things seemed to return to normal. The Black Church, although still blackened from a fire in 1689, looked less foreboding in the sunlight. The stray dogs were no longer howling, and instead, whimpered for food when you passed them. I made my way to a bookstore to gather some information on the legendary Dracula.
Once there, I flipped through a large Romanian encyclopedia and found myself looking at the 5-inch-long entry for “Poienari” (pronounced poy-en-ar-ee). This is the official name for Dracula’s castle. The book says that Romanians know it as “Citatea Lui Negru Voda,” or Citadel of the Black Ruler, however most call it Cetatea Poienari, or Poienari Castle.
It was erected around the beginning of the 13th century by the first Romanian rulers in a region of Romania, known as Wallachia. Around the 14th century, Poenari was the main citadel of the Basarab rulers. In the next few decades, the name and the residents changed a few times but eventually the castle was abandoned and left in ruins.
However, in the 15th century, realizing the potential for a castle perched high on a steep precipice of rock, Vlad Tepes repaired the structure. Vlad Tepes is known better to the Western world as Vlad The Impaler, or Dracula.
Legend has it that Vlad forced the nobles of Tirgoviste, whom he held responsible for the deaths of his father and brother, to trudge fifty miles through mountains and snow to the spot where Poienari Castle lies in ruins. If they survived the brutal journey, they spent the next few months repairing the castle until it was fit for Vlad to live in. And if the nobles survived this feat, which many did not, Vlad did what he was famous for: he impaled them on the spot.
An obvious sign that I was heading in the right direction
My quest had found a destination: Wallachia, Romania – located just south of Transylvania. For the next couple weeks, I stayed with Romanian friends and studied as much as I could about the castle. I read about the folklore surrounding the place, and how, in the mid-15th century, Vlad was able to escape into Transylvania with the help of local villagers. Still told by villagers supposedly related to those in their stories, residents of Aref claim that, when the Turks were pursuing Vlad, they helped him escape in the opposite direction. Supposedly, they did this by reversing the horseshoes on Vlad’s steed, thus making it look like the horse was traveling towards the castle and not away.
Although the castle was used for many years after Vlad’s death in 1510, it eventually was abandoned again in the first half of the 16th century and was in ruins, again, in the 17th century. Due to its size and location, the castle was very hard to seize, even by natural forces. However, in 1888, a landslide brought down a portion of the castle which crashed into the river far below. Nonetheless, the castle was slightly repaired and the walls and its towers still stand today – mainly for tourists to invade.
So on November 18, 2001, armed with the info I’d acquired and my camera, my friend Marius and I drove toward the infamous castle. Marius lives south of the castle in the city of Pitesti, so the pleasant drive up the highway didn’t take that long at all. We arrived at the base of the castle at about 9am.
My first reaction to the area surrounding the castle wasn’t what I expected. Most noticeably, there is a large power plant sharing the same hillside as the castle. The Vidraru Power Plant is said to be one of the biggest in Romania, and if you ask me, it is also THE BIGGEST eyesore in Romania. The constantly humming monstrosity sits just 100 yards from the path leading to the castle.
The castle, on the other hand, was everything that I imagined. It really does sit perched high on a steep precipice of rock, just like the scary tales talk about. And I’m certain that, in the right conditions, lightning would lick its spires, which do indeed (kind of) pierce the sky. Marius and I were close to entering the dwelling of this story’s villainous character. Just one small feat stood in the way: the stairs.
Stair #954 of 1,425
In order to access the castle, visitors must climb 1,425 stairs. I know this for a fact because I carefully counted them. I also carefully climbed them because, not only were some broken and at slightly varying heights, but they were covered in a morning ice. In fact, everything was covered in frost. The trees looked eerily frozen in place, almost vitrescent.
At the top, the view was breathtaking. Standing there looking out over tens if not hundreds of miles of land, I could see why Vlad wanted to have his castle at this location. He could see his enemies approaching hours in advance, allowing time to prepare for battle. Heck, he could probably relax for a bit before preparation, for those 1,425 stairs I gruelingly climbed most likely weren’t there 500 years ago. Attackers would have to scale the steep hillside in order to attack the fortress. And that was if they had the energy to do so after such a climb.
For the next hour or so, Marius and I explored the small ruins. I joked around a few times by climbing on the rebuilt tower, torturing Marius and his fear of heights. But the possibility of a long, hard fall is no laughing matter. To fall off this castle means a 50-foot free fall followed by a 1,800-foot bone-breaking tumble down to the river below.
Standing in triumph on the castle’s tower
Poienari Castle could possibly be the source of the stereotypically frightening fortress portrayed over and over again in books and movies. Although a large collection of scary castles reside in countries like England and Germany, Poienari has an ambiguous radiation of wickedness. It was here where nobles of Tirgoviste were murdered by one of the more macabre deaths in history, impalement. It was here where countless Turks died trying to seize the stronghold. And it was here where one of the most infamous – and sometimes villainous – characters resided: Dracula.
For more stories and photos from Kolby’s 77 day journey through Europe, visit his website: www.kahunna.net