Castle Dracula

Enlarge picture
Author J. Gordon Melton stands inside Castle Dracula, Curtea de Arges, Romania.
Enlarge picture
Castle Dracula, Curtea de Arges, Romania.

Castle Dracula

(pop culture)

The first section of Bram Stoker‘s novel Dracula (1897) concerns Jonathan Harker‘s trip to Castle Dracula and his adventures after he arrives. During the last generation, as it was discovered that Stoker’s character Dracula was based, in part, upon a real person, Vlad the Impaler, the question was posed, “Could Castle Dracula be a real place?” The search for Dracula’s castle began. This search took on two aspects: the search for the castle that was the home for Vlad the Impaler and the search for the castle that Bram Stoker actually used as a model for the castle described in his novel.

As described in the novel, the castle was near Borgo Pass. It was reached from Pasul Tihuts, a point near the summit of the crossing, on a road leading south along a mountainous road into the high mountains where the castle was located. Harker’s journey from the pass to the castle was at night, and he reached it by horse-drawn coach with enough of the evening left to have dinner and his first visit with Dracula before dawn. Upon his arrival, he noticed a large courtyard. He was dropped in front of an old large door placed at an opening in a stone wall. Even in the dim light of the evening, the wall showed signs of age and weathering. In the light of day, he discovered that the castle sat on a great rock overlooking the surrounding forest which was sliced by several river gorges.

The castle was built so as to be nearly impregnable to attack. The large windows were placed above the level where arrows and other projectiles (at least those of premodern warfare) could reach. To the west was a large valley and a mountain range.

Entering the castle he saw a large winding staircase and a long corridor. At the end of the corridor, he entered a room where supper awaited him. The rooms in which Harker was to spend most of his time joined an octagonal room that stood between the room in which he ate and his bedroom. His bedroom overlooked the court where he had originally stepped off the coach. The door to the room opposite his bedroom was locked, but another opened to the library, which was full of materials from England.

He explored one forbidden wing of the castle in the southwest corner at a lower level. Here he found comfortable furniture, but it lay covered in the dust of abandonment. The windows were filled with diamond-shaped panes of colored glass. Here he would encounter the three vampire brides who resided at the castle with Dracula.

Harker climbed out a window on the south wall to make his way to the window on the east side of the castle, below his bedroom, into which he had seen Dracula go. In the first room he entered, he found a pile of gold, also covered with dust. He followed a staircase downward to a tunnel, and meandering through the tunnel he came upon the chapel that had been used as a burial place. Here he discovered the boxes of native soil ready to be sent to England, in one of which Dracula lay in his sleep-like state. The three women slept in the chapel. There was one large tomb, not noticed by Harker but later sanitized by Abraham Van Helsing, labeled with the single word DRACULA.

The Search for Castle Dracula: In recent decades, as the fact that the title character in Stoker’s novel was based on a real person, Vlad the Impaler, a ruler in what today is Romania, people suspected that there was possibly a real Castle Dracula. Given the accuracy of Stoker’s novel in describing many aspects of the Transylvanian landscape, the first place to look for a real Castle Dracula would seem to be near Borgo Pass. And in fact there were two different castles near both Bistritz (also spelled Bistrita) and the Borgo Pass road. The first was built in the thirteenth century some five kilometers north of the city at Dealu Cetatii. It fell into disuse and was in a dilapidated state by the early fifteenth century at which time the townspeople took the stones and reused them in refortifying Bistritz proper.

Castle Bistrita was built in the 1440s by John Hunyadi (d. 1456), a contemporary of Vlad the Impaler. Hunyadi was the “governor” of Hungary whose territory covered much of Transylvania. The two, whose lands adjoined each other, were in frequent competition and on occasion were allied. Hunyadi died in the siege of Belgrade, though the Christian forces won the battle and turned back the Turkish attempt to take the city. While it may be that Vlad the Impaler resided at Castle Bistrita for a brief period during the last years of Hunyadi’s life, it could in no sense be called Castle Dracula. Today no remains of Castle Bistrita exist. It was destroyed at the end of the fifteenth century by the largely German population of the area in an act of defiance against their former Hungarian rulers.

Hunyadi had a second and more important castle located at Hundoara some 100 miles southwest of Borgo Pass. This impressive thirteenth-century structure still exists and has been restored and opened to the public. Vlad Dracul was believed to have visited this castle on at least one occasion during his early years. In 1452, while loosely allied with Hunyadi, Dracula was greeted somewhat as a friend. A decade later, however, he returned as a prisoner of Hunyadi’s son Matthias Corvinus and began 12 years of imprisonment at Pest and Visegrád. Despite Vlad’s presence at the castle at Hundoara, it was not Castle Dracula.

Dracula was actually the prince (ruler) of Wallachia. His territory was south of Transylvania, immediately on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains. In the mountains, overlooking the Dambovita River, near the town of Campulung, and protecting Bran Pass (the road through the Bucegi Mountains), is Castle Bran. It was originally built in the thirteenth century by the knights of the Teutonic Order. In the fourteenth century, the Teutonic Order having been expelled, the castle was taken over by the German merchants of Brasov who used it as their defense post and customs station. Brasov was located in the Transalpine area, which included the Carpathian Mountains and that area immediately to the north and south of the mountains. Though the Transalpine area was officially part of Hungarian territory, the Prince of Wallachia served as military overseer of the area in return for certain Transylvania duchies. Most of the time, neither Hungary nor Wallachia actually controlled the castle, which was in the hands of the very independent German merchants.

Castle Bran has often been touted, especially by the Romanian tourist authorities, as the real Castle Dracula. During its years under the control of the German leadership in Brasov, it is possible that Vlad Dracula visited it on occasion in the early 1450s. He was officially the Voivode of the Transalpine area. Historians Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally noted that it possessed the atmosphere that Stoker was attempting to evoke in his descriptions of Castle Dracula. “The analogies between Stoker’s mythical Castle Dracula and the real Castle Bran are simply too close to be coincidental.” It had an inner courtyard and a secret underground passageway. A steep winding staircase could take a resident to a secret escape route deep inside the mountain. Though Florescu and McNally may have somewhat overstated their case, Dracula may have drawn, in part, from his knowledge of Castle Bran when he built his own mountain retreat.

The Real Castle Dracula?: The only castle that might be considered the actual Castle Dracula (remembering that no castle other than the one in Stoker’s imagination ever had that name) was the castle built and inhabited by Vlad the Impaler during his years as Prince of Wallachia. This castle overlooks the River Arges near the town of Poenari, in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps. It is located approximately 20 miles north of Curtea de Arges, the original capital of Wallachia, and was for many years the center of the Romanian Orthodox Church. When Vlad assumed the throne in 1456, there were two fortresses about a mile from each other on opposite sides of the river. Castle Poenari, the castle on the left side of the river, seems to have been built on the site of an even older fortress on the Arges River when this land was the center of the country called Dacia. Abandoned, it was rebuilt in the thirteenth century by Romanians attempting to block the incursions by Hungarian and/or Teutonic soldiers from the north. In 1455 it was in disrepair from recent battles with various invading armies, but was still habitable.

On the right side of the river was the Castle of the Arges. It was built a century before Vlad’s time, although some historians have argued that even earlier it was a Teutonic outpost tied to the castle at Fagaras, just across the mountains to the north. McNally and Florescu have argued that it was not Teutonic, but built by the early Wallachian rulers and modeled on Byzantine patterns.

At the end of the fourteenth century, Tartars invaded the area. The remnant of the Wallachian forces (and many of the country’s elite) eventually took refuge in the Castle of the Arges. The Tartars lay seize to the castle and finding almost no opposition soon captured it. However, its inhabitants escaped through the secret passageway under the castle. As a consolation prize, the Tartars largely destroyed the castle.

Of the two castles that Dracula found, the Castle of the Arges was in the more strategic position, possibly the major reason for his choice to rebuild it instead of settling at Poenari. It was located on a precipice overlooking the River Arges at the point where the valley of the Arges narrows and the foothills of the Carpathians turn into mountains.

The rebuilding process has become one of the more famous stories of Vlad, one of the earlier incidents confirming his nickname, “The Impaler.” He had discovered that the boyars, the elite families of Wallachia, had been responsible for the death of his father and the torture and murder of his older brother. He decided to gain his revenge and get his castle built at the same time. During the Easter celebration following his taking up residence in his capital at Tirgoviste, he arrested all of the boyars (men, women, and children). Still dressed in their finest Easter clothes, they were forced to march to Poenari and rebuild the castle. The material from Poenari was carried across the river to construct the new residence overlooking the Arges. The boyars were forced to work until the clothes fell off their backs … and then had to continue naked.

Vlad’s Castle was quite small when compared to either Castle Bran or Hundoara. It was only some 100 feet by 120 feet. It rested on a precipice that looked out over the River Arges. To the north were the mountains dividing Transylvania and Wallachia, and to the south a commanding view of the countryside. There were three towers and walls thick enough to resist Turkish cannon fire. It seems to have been made to house about 200 people. According to legend, a secret staircase led into the mountain to a tunnel, which in turn, led to a grotto that opened on the bank of the river below the castle, though no evidence of the secret passage has been uncovered.

The Turks attacked and captured the castle in 1462. Vlad escaped north through the mountains, but his castle was severely damaged by the invaders. It was used by some of his successors as a mountain retreat. However, it was gradually abandoned and left to the ravages of time and weather. Built originally as a defensive position, it was too far outside the commercial routes that dominated the life of the region.

As late as 1912 the towers of the castle still stood. However, on January 13, 1913, an earthquake hit the area. It toppled the main tower into the river. A second earthquake in 1940 further damaged the castle. Then in the 1970s the Romanian government, responding to increased tourist interest in locations associated with Dracula, carried out a partial reconstruction and built a walkway up the mountainside to the castle’s entrance. Today the mountain upon which Castle Dracula rests can be reached by car about an hour’s drive north of the city of Pitesti. The walk up the mountain to the entrance takes approximately 45 minutes.

The Problem of Castle Dracula: The search for Castle Dracula highlighted the problem of reconciling Stoker’s fictional Dracula with historical reality, a problem created by readers’ excursions into Stoker’s fictional world and made possible by Stoker’s attempts to create as realistic a setting as possible. His book was set in Transylvania. Vlad the Impaler was a prince of Wallachia. While born in Transylvania, he resided all of his adult life in Wallachia, except for a period of imprisonment in Hungary. The geography of the novel and of Vlad’s life are impossible to reconcile, a fact clearly demonstrated in Francis Ford Coppola‘s movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its almost comical attempts to place Dracula at the Castle on the Arges and near Borgo Pass at the same time.

There was no actual structure ever called Castle Dracula, only a small castle built by Vlad the Impaler. Though Vlad the Impaler’s small castle had its place of importance in Romanian history, it was not known by Stoker and did not serve as a model for his Castle Dracula. It is probable that no castle in Eastern Europe served as the model for Castle Dracula, and the search must be directed closer to home. Thus some suggested that a castle at Cruden Bay, Scotland, where Stoker stayed while writing Dracula, was the model. However, from Stoker’s manuscripts it is now known that the section of the novel on the castle was written before he traveled to Cruden Bay and that that section of the book remained essentially unchanged through publication. It would appear that Stoker’s castle was a matter of pure imagination, a castle constructed from images of the romantic castles of European fairy tales and folklore.

Sources:

Ambrogio, Anthony. “Dracula Schmacula! Misinformation Never Dies.” Video Watchdog No. 19 (September/October 1993): 32–47.
Florescu, Radu, and Raymond T. McNally. Dracula: A Biography of Vlad the Impaler, 1431–1476. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973. 239 pp. This volume contains pictures of the several castles associated with Vlad the Impaler.
McNally, Raymond T., and Radu Florescu. In Search of Dracula. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1972. 223 pp. Rept. New York: Warner Books, 1973. 247 pp.
Moisescu, Nicolae. Curtea de Arges. Bucharest, Romania: CORESI, 1993. 76 pp.