Desperately Seeking Castle Dracula, Transylvanian Symphony part 1 – The Heart of Starkness: Vampires on the Looney Front

Going in the footsteps - or should that be wing beats - of Dracula, if not of Bram Stoker, the Irish author who conjured up the world’s most famous vampire, you’ll have the devil’s own job trying to locate the infamous Castle Dracula, so starkly depicted in the Gothic horror novel.

<strong>Artist’s impression of Castle Dracula at Hotel Castle Dracula</strong>
Artist’s impression of Castle Dracula at Hotel Castle Dracula

For Stoker, although widely travelled, never visited Romania, let alone Transylvania, site of many of the most memorable happenings in his book. In that, he was like another iconic author whom he knew, Arthur Conan Doyle, who never saw the Roraima region where Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana meet, site of his famous Lost World.

So Stoker relied on people who knew the area and its lore for his ‘Heart of Starkness’ depictions.

<strong>Heart of Starkness</strong>
Heart of Starkness

In the book Jonathan Harker, the British lawyer arranging to buy real estate in England for Dracula’s coming immigration – perhaps that’s why Brexit won in last year’s referendum; too many Romanians - arrived in the town of Bistritz, now called Bistrița, by train from Klausenburg (now Cluj) to the south, and stayed at the Golden Crown hotel on his way to Castle Dracula.

Now, Bistrița possesses a magnificent old town dominated by a gothic church with a lofty tower, originally built in the 14th century by Transylvanian Saxons and given a renaissance make-over round about 1560. But nowhere was there a Golden Crown hotel in 1897, when Stoker published Dracula.

Views of Bistrița

Today, Yours Truly arrives from the north by car from Sighet and, lo and behold, there to greet your eyes is indeed a Golden Crown Hotel (Hotel Coroana de Aur), opened in 1974 to cash in on the vampire tourist trade.

From Bistritz Harker took a horse-drawn carriage in a driving snow storm for hours on end to the Borgo Pass, where the Count drove him off to Castle Dracula in his own carriage. Stoker never gave specific landmarks to locate the castle other than a generic wild and snow-covered landscape, haunted by howling wolves and bats, and lit by supernatural blue flames at night.

Today, you can reach the Borgo Pass by paved road in about half an hour and, lo and behold, there to greet your eyes is Hotel Castel Dracula in a splendid position atop a hill.

Apart from a stone tower, with gold lettering dripping like blood, it doesn’t look particularly castle-ish, and to state the obvious: yes, it’s kitschy, but join in the fun!

There are wrought iron bats on the chandeliers, pictures of various front covers of the novel, as well as of Bella Lugosi, Dracula’s celluloid alter ego. A bust of Stoker graces the front lawn.

Inside Hotel Castle Dracula and out

And for three lei (about 75 cents) a lady will don a black and red cape and take you down a winding staircase, bearing just a candle, into THE CRYPT.

Here, candle snuffed, the top of a coffin suddenly bursts open and Dracula sits up with a blood-curdling scream, making sure that any visitors with weak hearts will also snuff it even before everybody’s favourite blood-quaffer can dig into their necks with those pearly white fangs of his.

Dim lights glow, then go out. On the way back, a hand will jump out from the wall and grab your thigh to the sounds of more screams and thumps – no, it’s neither pussy-grabbing Trump nor all-over-the-place Harvey Weinstein, just a kitsch machine.

Just the right preparation for a visit to the restaurant, where you can eat grilled testicles and testicles sauté, though they don’t say of what or of whom.

Whatever else Stoker did, he certainly didn’t get the Borgo Pass right.

Among his descriptions: ‘Then the mountains seemed to come nearer to us on each side and to frown down upon us.’ And of the general area he writes: ‘ever getting closer to the mountains and moving into a more and more wild and desert land.’

Well, that was November. Today we’re almost there, late-ish October, and the whole area is absolutely idyllic, a beautiful pastoral landscape of slopes and meadows and gentle forest-carpeted hills in all the colours of their autumn glory – bright ever-greens, yellows, orange, burnished copper.

Views around the Borgo Pass

Higher mountains soar away on the horizon. Nearer at hand on a hilltop is a giant post-Stoker white cross to bamboozle Dracula, and a new Disney-World look-alike monastery.

Even in snow the place must look snowily idyllic, rather than ‘wild and desert.’

As for his descriptions of Castle Dracula: ‘The castle was built on the corner of a great rock, so that on three sides it was quite impregnable... Then rising far away, great jagged mountain fastnesses, rising peak on peak, the sheer rock studded with mountain ash and thorn, whose roots clung in cracks and crevices and crannies…

‘Then we looked back and saw where the clear line of Dracula’s castle cut the sky; for we were so deep under the hill whereon it was set that the angle of perspective of the Carpathian Mountains was far below it.

‘We saw it in all its grandeur, perched a thousand feet on the summit of a sheer precipice, and with seemingly a great gap between it and the steep of the adjacent mountain on any side. There was something wild and uncanny about the place. We could hear the distant howling of wolves.’

More Borgo Pass views

OK, kitschy hotel, you haven’t made that one. Nor have you, Borgo Pass, even if it was here that Harker, Van Helsing and the other members of that merry band of 1897 Ghostbusters cut off Dracula’s head and drove a stake through his heart, putting a messy end to his 500-year-long un-dead status.

Stoker evidently modelled his Dracula on the 15th century Wallachian voievode (Prince) Vlad III Dracula, known as Vlad Țepeș, Vlad the Impaler, for all the hundreds of thousands of people he is said to have impaled.

Portrait of Vlad Țepeș from Braşov Castle
Portrait of Vlad Țepeș from Braşov Castle

His Dad, Vlad II, called himself Dracul, meaning Dragon, so Sonny Boy added an ‘a’ at the end, which evidently makes it Son of Dragon. But more on him on the next stage of this journey, where Vlad’s castles are also now celebrated as Castle Dracula, cashing in on Stoker’s wild imagination.

Why Stoker chose northern Transylvania as his setting when dear old Vlad Țepeș was on his impaling rampage in its southern reaches, where he had his castles, I know not.

Views of northern Transylvania near Borgo Pass

Be that as it may, Transylvania as a whole has been endowed with a mystic aura.

The Romanian tourist office brochure writes: ‘Some say that Transylvania sits on one of Earth's strongest magnetic fields and its people have extra-sensory perception. Vampires are believed to hang around crossroads on St. George's Day, April 23, and the eve of St. Andrew, November 29…

‘Tales of the supernatural had been circulating in Romanian folklore for centuries when Irish writer Bram Stoker picked up the thread and spun it into a golden tale of ghoulishness that has never been out of print since its first publication in 1897.’

<strong>From Braşov castle</strong>
From Braşov castle

[Upcoming blog: Transylvanian castles cash in on Dracula legend - Vampires on the Looney Front]

By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist. Available on Kindle, with free excerpts at https://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Fidel-Toils-Accidental-Journalist-ebook/dp/B00IMNWV2W and in print version on Amazon in the U.S at https://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Fidel-Toils-Accidental-Journalist/dp/1496080319/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

And: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist; available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version at https://www.amazon.com/Bussing-Amazon-Road-Accidental-Journalist-ebook/dp/B00KNCGD9M

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