Hiking Up to Dracula’s Castle(s)

I like to plan a lot of trips at once. I’ve got three good ones going now, one of which is an eastern European jaunt to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest and three castles associated with Dracula. By Dracula, I mean both the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, and Bram Stoker’s literary character. Further research has shown that I might not meet a vampire on my trip, but I will probably end up climbing a hell of a lot of steps.

I’ve always been interested in vampires and vampire folklore (no, I don’t consider “Twilight” to be legitimate vampire anything, sorry), and I love traveling, so it seemed like a good idea to work a castle tour into the eastern European trip.

Bran Castle gets most of the press relating to Dracula. It’s the castle that inspired Bram Stoker, and it’s quite lovely. Thing is, Vlad himself never set foot in it. So while I plan to visit Bran and take in all the vampire tourist traps, it’s a literary destination only.

Poenari Castle is the real McCoy. Vlad moved in when the castle was already old and dilapidated, and fixed it up. It’s supposedly one of the most haunted places in Europe. We’ll see. The place is crumbling and isolated, but apparently it is possible to get up there, if you’re willing to climb 1,500 steps. 1,500. I think the most steps I’ve ever climbed in one go at KU was like 100, shuttling back and forth between the two journalism buildings.

Perhaps the coolest/creepiest thing that Poenari is known for is the dramatic suicide of Vlad’s wife. Learning that the Turks were knocking on the door, she threw herself from the castle into the river below rather than be taken prisoner. It’s called the Princess’s River to this day.

Poenari reminds me a lot of Hohensalzburg fortress, a monstrosity that I climbed in Salzburg. According to the museum at the (very) top, Hohensalzburg (‘hohen’ in German means ‘on high’ or ‘above’) is such a good specimen of medieval castles because it was never successfully sieged. I can imagine an invading army standing below staring up (and up, and up) at it and thinking, “Screw this, let’s find some beer.”

Hohensalzburg Fortress

About 1,124 steps up Hohensalzburg fortress. Poenari is like this, only with more vampires, ghosts, Romanians and crumbles.

I seriously remember hiking up to Hohensalzburg, and being afraid that I would literally fall down the mountain. In the final stretch up to the ticket booth, the path had railings and wooden grooves to keep you from taking a header backwards. Now of course there was a little sky car thingie that took you up without having to climb stairs. But climbing up on our own was such a wonderful experience and … OK, it was mostly because we were really cheap.

So, if I can handle the Austrian monster, I’m sure I can hike up to Poenari.

Our third and final castle, Hunyad, is where Vlad was held prisoner for a few years in between his reigns. Back then, Hunyad was in Hungary; today it’s Romania. While it doesn’t have the literary heft of Bran or the sheer creep factor of Poenari, it’s still pretty sweet.

I’m not entirely sure when this trip will happen. It was a good year or two between when we first planned Europalooza (a monster four-week trip across western Europe) and when we finally got to go, so I’m not holding my breath for this eastern European trip.

Something tells me, though, that the castles will still be there in a few years.

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