Dracula's Real Home
Around stair 1,000, I seriously consider giving up, if only for a brief moment. I’ve been climbing for what seems like an eternity. I try to think back; how long have I been climbing? 20 minutes? 30? No, surely longer than that. Not that it matters; my legs are rapidly turning to jelly, I can no longer see the ground, and there is no end in sight. Sighing, I shoulder my too-heavy backpack and decide the only way to go is up. I’ve made it this far, there’s no sense in going back now.
I am visiting (or at least attempting to visit) Poenari Castle, and to reach it one must climb 1,480 steps. Located on a looming cliff next to the Transfagarasan road in Arges County, Poenari is the authentic cousin of the more famous Bran Castle, commonly marketed as the “Dracula castle”. It is Poenari, however, not Bran, that can be considered the authentic “Dracula castle”. Poenari was the fortress of the real historical figure VladTepes, Voivode of Wallachia and the historical basis for the fictional character in Bram Stoker’s novel. Known as “the Impaler” for his notorious cruelty towards his foes, Vlad used Poenari as one of his main citadels while fighting off the Turkish invaders of the Ottoman Empire.
As I continue my climb, a thought occurs to me. If it is so difficult for me, with my moderately uncomfortable backpack, to reach this summit, how did the original builders manage to drag massive stones and building equipment up this steep mountainside hundreds of years ago? While the stairs are not ideal (there are gaps in a couple of places and the wobbly handrails leave something to be desired), at least they are there. The original builders would have had no stairs assisting them up the mountainside, and certainly no handrails to hold on to. Of course the medieval Wallachians were most likely in much better physical shape than I, used to my modern comforts, but as some of my companions jokingly suggest the castle must have been built with vampire magic, I can’t help but be puzzled and even a little disconcerted at how this impressive fortress came to be at the top of this mountain.
Well, perhaps not that impressive anymore. As I finally reach the summit, I discover the reason that Bran Castle is by far the more popular tourist attraction, despite its lack of authenticity. Poenari has been in ruins for centuries, first bombarded by the cannons of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II Fatih, abandoned soon after, and then further damaged by a landslide in 1888. The citadel itself is a shadow of what it once must have been, a pile of rocks where once stood a mighty fortress. A little bit of medieval Wallachian kitsch awaits us at the top: two mannequins impaled on spikes, complete with fake blood, as well as a collection of replica torture and execution devices. Although I try to laugh it off, one can’t help but be a little concerned by the presence of the impaled “corpses”, a grisly reminder of what this place once must have been like.
Any disappointment at the state of the fortress itself is quickly wiped out when one takes a look at the view from the precipice. Located in the foothills of the Fagaras Mountains, wild Wallachia stretches out before you as you look out from the parapet of the citadel. Far below, the thin grey ribbon of the Transfagarasan road and the adjacent hydroelectric plant seem like distant reminders of the modern age, as the romantic but forbidding medieval land of Wallachia seems much closer at hand. Forested hills and mountains, some even capped with a bit of snow during this hot summer, stretch for as far as the eye can see. Bram Stoker’s mysterious count seems closer than ever.
Of course, Stoker himself had no idea Poenari even existed. He had imagined an entirely different location for his Dracula’s castle, hundreds of kilometers away in northern Transylvania. Poenari holds much more for those interested in Vlad Tepes and the history of the region than for those interested in vampires. The latter would be better off visiting the much more romantic Bran. As I explore the castle, however, I find the grisly mood of the place only enhanced by its authenticity. I discover a deep pit, once used as a dungeon for holding prisoners, though now filled with coins instead of captives. I can’t imagine tossing a coin for good luck into a pit once occupied by men waiting to be tortured and impaled. As one of my companions scrambles up the wall to get a better view, I can’t help but be reminded of the legend of Vlad Tepes’s wife, who supposedly threw herself from the castle in despair during a siege by the Turkish army.
As I begin my descent back down the many steps, with one last nervous look back at those bloody mannequins, I am honestly a little relieved. Those interested in history, ghost stories, or the macabre, and not afraid of a little bit of cardio, would do well to pay Poenari Castle a visit. If there is any such thing as a haunted castle, this one is it.