Photography by Billy Cunningham
Architectural Digest, April 1984

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Mystery and surmise enshroud Romania's Bran Castle, where legend has it Vlad Dracula lived in the 15th century. His reputation for evil inspired Bram Stoker's famous vampire story, Dracula.

IN ROMANIA, where Gypsies still roam the countryside and folk traditions date back a thousand years, it is said that Dracula's castle is made of smoke. Though horror literature's most famous house may never have existed, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, conjured it up so vividly that for myriad readers it persists as the dark spectre he described: "A vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky."

Stoker, an Irishman, never visited the country where he set his classic thriller. But, researching it in the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1890s, he was captivated by descriptions of the mysterious landscape inhabited by vagabond tribes and peasants of Turkish, Roman, Saxon and Hungarian stock. "I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool," he wrote.

Into this evocative setting he thrust his vampire villain, whom he based loosely upon Vlad Dracula, a notorious Walachian prince who lived from 1431 to 1476. His name alone would have captured Stoker's imagination, for Dracula means "Devil's son," but he was still better known as Vlad Tepes, or "Vlad the Impaler," a reference to his vicious but favorite means of doing away with his enemies.

Although in some folk tales Vlad Dracula is depicted as a brave soldier, and a just sovereign, in others he is described as a bloodthirsty tyrant, who slaughtered not only his enemies, but his subjects, as well.

Tales of his alleged atrocities were legion, and his reputation for evil unsurpassed. More than four hundred years later, when vampire novels were titillating Victorian readers, Stoker utilized the history of Vlad Dracula to lend a nightmarish fillip to his spine-tingling thriller. F. W. Murnau's silent film classic Nosferatu, 1922, Bela Lugosi's popular interpretation almost a decade later, and a host of other dramatizations have done little to dispel the horror that came to be associateddeservedly or notwith the name of Dracula.

Though historians debate the point, Bran Castle, perched on a precipice in the Carpathian Mountains, has achieved the dubious distinction of being known as the home of Vlad Dracula. Other castles where he lived have succumbed to time, but Bran survives, one of the best-preserved examples of Medieval architecture in Romania. And, while there are no facts to prove it, there is reason enough to associate Vlad Dracula, at least peripherally, with the castle.

Built by the king of Hungary in 1377, it served as the principal mountain fortress guarding the main trade routes between the kingdoms of Transylvania and Walachia. In 1395 it was given to Prince Mircea, Vlad Dracula's grandfather. The arch villain's trail must have led him within the environs of the castle frequently, if not in his youth, then in his maturity, to visit his chief benefactor, Janos Hunyadi, a subsequent owner of the castle. For a time Vlad Dracula was in charge of guarding the southern flank of Transylvania and few places offered a better defensive vantage point than the lofty battlements of the principal fortress in the area.

Like his grandfather, Vlad Dracula prospered under the protection of the Hungarian king and enjoyed three separate reigns as prince of Walachia. However, in 1462 his relationship with the king suffered a setback when the monarch intercepted monies sent by Pope Pius II to Vlad Dracula to bolster his battle with the Turks. Withdrawing his support, the king had Vlad Dracula arrested near Bran Pass, a few miles from the castle, and conjecture has it that for a time he was detained, perhaps even imprisoned, at Bran Castle.

Approached from Bran Pass, the castle indeed resembles the "wild and uncanny" place depicted by Bram Stoker. Its stern facade bespeaks the feudal days of the Middle Ages. Inside there are vaulted ceilings, arched doorways, endless labyrinthine corridors, a secret passageway, and even the dungeon where Vlad Dracula is believed to have been imprisoned.

In the seventeenth century a series of architectural changes were made, and again in the 1920s and 1930s, when Bran was a favorite summer residence of Queen Marie of Romania, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her state-arranged marriage to the Romanian prince, later King Fer­dinand, was not a happy one. She loathed her husband and kept her distance by staying at Bran, where she rode horses and wrote poetry and novels. She also worked closely with her court architect, Carl Liman, and the changes they made to the exterior of the castle, as well as the furnishings that remain from her day, reflect her love of local traditions and a mix of Italian and German Baroque styles.

The queen apparently was not disturbed by the ghost of Draculashe regarded the home as exclusively her own. Yet today the myth of the vam­pire villain clings to the mirrorless castle, a proof, perhaps, that folklore and fiction are sometimes more persuasive than reality itself.

—Thomas O'Neil

Though the austere façade recalls the Middle Ages, the castle has undergone substantial changes over the centuries. The present entrance was added in 1622. At left are additions made during the early 20th century, when Bran was a favorite summer home of Romania's Queen Marie.

An ornate door knocker greets visitors intrepid enough to enter what some believe was a vampire's inner sanctum.

When the Hungarian king who had been his protector no longer looked on Vlad Dracula with favor, he had him arrested near Bran Pass and, according to legend, imprisoned within the stony confines of the dungeon at Bran Castle. Later, until the 18th century, thieves, unruly soldiers and captured Turks occupied the cell.

A late-Gothic sandstone portal embellishes the entrance to the Guards' Room

The passionate and tempestuous Queen Marie brought an unconventional flavor to Bran Castle, as in the decor of an informal Dining Room, with a ceramic-tiled stove and 18th- and 19th-century Transylvania peasant furniture.

A massive Italian Baroque bed dominates a Bedroom.

In Medieval times, rocks or boiling water were hurled down from the heights of the East Tower to repel attackers. Vlad Dracula may have waged battle from this vantage point while in charge of defending the region.