Travelling in Dracula country

Bram Stoker may have drawn heavily from ancient legends, but the actual route taken by Jonathan Harker can still be followed today. Luke Spencer follows the trail…

Night-time in Transylvania is as spooky as you could hope it would be. During the winter, a low-lying mist covers thick forests of pine trees and firs. Above the fog, you can see the silhouetted turrets and spires of medieval castles and fortified churches. The towns are filled with gothic and baroque buildings marked by peeling paint and crumbling facades. 

It’s easy to see why Bram Stoker chose this part of Romania as the setting for Dracula. The first section of Stoker’s gothic masterpiece takes the form of the travel journal of young English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who’s travelling across Europe to conduct a land purchase on behalf of a noble client. Harker travels from Munich to Transylvania, where he’s to meet the mysterious Count Dracula.   

My plan was to follow in the footsteps of the fictional Harker, taking the same train routes—where possible staying in the same cities, towns and hotels—and ending my journey at the home of Vlad the Impaler, the real-life inspiration for Dracula. Partly encircled by the Carpathian mountains, Transylvania is still largely unexplored, despite its wealth of fascinating, centuries-old sites. 

When Dracula was published in 1897, Harker’s journey by steam train from Munich to Vienna would have taken over ten hours. Today it takes just under four. With more time at my disposal than Stoker’s young protagonist, I stopped in Vienna to visit a macabre landmark. 

Deep underneath St Stephen’s Cathedral are catacombs filled with the 700-year-old bones of over 11,000 bubonic plague victims. Walking through the cold depths surrounded by skeletons is eerie enough. That is until you reach the crypt. For here, in rows of sealed urns, rest the hearts of 72 members of the Hapsburg royal family. It seemed a suitably gothic beginning to my journey.

From Vienna I took the evening train to Budapest, the snow falling as we headed east. During the four-hour journey, I thought of Harker’s diary entry: “The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East.”

Stoker never actually set foot in Romania. The Transylvania that provides such a fantastically ominous backdrop in Dracula was almost entirely imagined. The Dublin-born Stoker studied the region and its folklore at the British Museum in London. There he researched Transylvanian superstitions surrounding the Strigoi, the troubled souls of the dead. To these he married a real historical figure: Vlad the Impaler.

Vlad was the ruler of Wallachia (now part of Romania) at various times between 1448 and 1476. He was born in Transylvania to the House of Draculesti, and defended his country against invading Turks. He earned his nickname by mercilessly impaling his enemies, and raising them aloft for all to see. 

"For Bram Stoker, Vlad the Impaler provided a suitable character on which to hang his research on vampire legends"

In reality, Vlad wasn’t much worse than many other feudal rulers in Europe. In Romania, he was even celebrated for defending the area’s Christian way of life against the invading Turks. According to historian Benjamin Hugo Leblanc, his reign brought prosperity: “crime and corruption ceased, commerce and culture thrived, and many modern Romanians view Vlad as a hero for his insistence on honesty and order.” 

My first stop was meant to be the Hotel Royale, where Harker stayed the night in the old city of Klausenburg. Today it’s known as Cluj-Napoca, a bustling university town located roughly halfway between Budapest and Bucharest.

The Hotel Royale doesn’t exist today, and perhaps it never did. But nestled near the train station is the Hotel Transilvania, which in the 1800s went by another name, the Queen of England—perhaps a regal-sounding inspiration for a Hotel Royale. 

Harker’s diary reads: “I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner a chicken done up with red pepper, which was very good.... The waiter said it was called ‘paprika hendl’, and that I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

These days, the Hotel Transilvania isn’t shy about drawing on its possible legacy. The owners have a number of plans in development to emphasise the connection to Stoker and his masterwork: a suite and a restaurant that serves dishes from the era. Perhaps soon it will be as easy to find that paprika-spiced chicken as Harker’s waiter promised.

From Cluj-Napoca, Harker headed further east in the direction of Bistritz, today known as Bistrit¸a. As I headed deeper into the Carpathian mountains, there was a sense of entering a still wild and sealed-off part of Europe. The trains are as unpunctual as Harker described, and some are relics from the Cold War.

Before I set off, a Romanian friend gave me some advice: beware of stray dogs and people in general. Don’t trust anyone, authorities or the train employees. I noticed that many people would lock themselves in their cabin with bicycle locks. My carriage was empty apart from a woman in a black cloak who decorated our compartment with religious icons and spent the hours with her rosary beads.

The train journey passed without incident, however, and the snow-covered scenery looked near identical to Stoker’s fantasy: “All day long we seemed to dawdle through a country that was full of beauty of every kind. Sometimes we saw little towns or castles on the top of steep hills, such as we see in old missals; sometimes we ran by rivers and streams which seemed from the wide stony margin on each side of them to be subject to great floods...Count Dracula had directed me to go to the Golden Krone Hotel.”

Bistrit¸ a is a small town in northern Transylvania, built around a river and surrounded by mountain villages. There is indeed a hotel called the Coroana de Aur (Romanian for Golden Crown), but this one was built in 1974, during the dark days of Romanian Communism. Inside, you can dine at a restaurant called the Salon Jonathan Harker, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

"The hotel is vampire-themed, with a graveyard, a bar in the tower, and Dracula’s tomb in the basement"

It’s upon arriving in Bistrit¸a that Harker has his first contact with his mysterious client, in the form of a note left at the hotel. 

“My friend, welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. Your friend, Dracula”

Harker was to travel on the final stage of his journey by coach, through the Borgo Pass in the mountains. He notices that villagers start crossing themselves whenever he mentions his mission.

Though the novel’s locals are terrified at any mention of Dracula, one real hotel delights in it. Situated in the Tihut¸a Pass in the Bârga˘ ului Mountains, the Hotel Castel Dracula claims to be located in the approximate spot of the castle. But while Stoker’s Castle Dracula was “a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light”, the Hotel Castel Dracula was designed in hulking concrete style three decades ago, for tourists.

The hotel is vampire-themed, with a “graveyard”, a bar in the tower, and Dracula’s “tomb” in the basement. While the overall effect is more theme park than Victorian, the hotel does highlight an interesting aspect of Romanian history.

There were no traces of Dracula in the village so I headed south to find Bran Castle, near Bras¸ov.

Bran Castle has become known as “Dracula’s castle” mostly because of its looks. It’s an imposing fortress built on a mountainside dividing Transylvania from Wallachia. The castle shadows the small village below, where market vendors sell wooden crosses and plastic fangs, and closeted with thick forests and swirling mists, it retains a definite aura of mystery and spookiness. 

As the young English solicitor  made his way into the mountains, each villager he passed would hold up a charm or guard against the evil eye upon learning of his destination. Boarding a rickety decades-old bus in Bras¸ ov for Bran castle, I was pleased to see that the front window was covered with eye-shaped religious icons, hanging from red ribbons.

Inside, Bran Castle contains narrow winding stairways, secret passages and a torture chamber. The country’s Communist authorities turned it into a museum in 1956. From his extensive research, it’s likely that Bram Stoker would have read of Bran Castle, but Vlad the Impaler barely—if ever—set foot in it.

Founded by Teutonic knights in the 13th century, nearby Bras¸ ov is a beautiful city. Many of its streets are lined with faded Baroque-era buildings. Once painted in vibrant pastels of pink, yellow and teal, today they’re gently crumbling, after more than 40 years of neglect during the Communist era.

"Shrouded in mist, with the ever-present howling of dogs in the surrounding forest, the tumbled down mausoleums could certainly be home to the undead"

I headed further north to Sighis¸ oara, the home of Vlad the Impaler and a fine example of a fortified medieval town. Climbing the steep cobbled streets and entering the city gates is like stepping back in time. 

After climbing the 176 steps of a covered staircase, I came to an early 14th-century basilica, known as the Church on the Hill. It has one of the most haunted-looking churchyards I’ve ever seen. Shrouded in mist, with the ever-present howling of dogs in the surrounding forest, the tumbled down mausoleums could certainly be home to the undead. 

Wandering around the citadel square, where witch trials and public executions were once carried out, I came across an ochre-coloured former home—now an inn—with a wrought-iron dragon hanging above the entrance. A plaque noted that Vlad Dracul had lived there between 1431 and 1435. His son, Vlad the Impaler, was born there. 

Although Bram Stoker never saw Transylvania for himself, I was surprised by how evocatively he captured the beguiling landscape. In a country where medieval fortresses are seemingly always emerging from the fog, Jonathan Harker’s journal proved to be as accurate a guidebook as a Victorian Lonely Planet.