Despite numerous natural and cultural attractions—including seven Saxon-built fortified churches and the historic center of Sighisoara, designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites—the Transylvania region of central Romania is forever linked with the infamous legend of Dracula.
Romanians can thank (and for many years, they cursed) Irish author Bram Stoker for that notorious distinction. It was his Gothic horror novel, Dracula, published in 1897, that gave eternal life to the dastardly vampire. While the toothsome villain is a work of fiction, Stoker’s character was inspired by a real-life Romanian, Prince Vlad III, whose exploits were, well, bloodcurdling.
Better known as Vlad the Impaler, Prince Vlad was a 15th-century aristocrat from Wallachia, a historical region located between the Southern Carpathians and the Danube River. His father, Vlad II, was a member of the knightly Order of the Dragon—“drac” in old Romanian—and thus bestowed with the surname Dracul by King Sigismund of Hungary.
This was the height of the Ottoman Wars in Europe, and Wallachia was the scene of frequent battles between Christian European forces and their Muslim Turkish counterparts. In 1442, Vlad the elder, along with Vlad III and his younger brother, were taken captive during a diplomatic meeting; Vlad II was eventually released, but his sons were held as hostages for years. During their captivity by the Ottomans, Prince Vlad’s father would be dethroned and killed at the hands of fellow noblemen.
Needless to say, Vlad III had some revenge issues.
The prince was twice able to regain his father’s seat as the ruler of Wallachia, first with aid from the Ottomans and again, after switching sides a number of years later, with Hungarian support. Securing the throne for the second time, Vlad III set about to consolidate power in the most gruesome way possible: he invited hundreds of possible challengers to a feast, had them all stabbed, and then impaled their bodies on spikes.
Thus, Vlad the Impaler was born, and his grisly deeds against enemies would become legend. (One tale tells of how he washed his hands in his victims’ blood; not the same as drinking it, to be sure, but still.) Ironically, Vlad III never owned Bran Castle, the spectacular hilltop fortress near Brasov which Stoker used as inspiration for Count Dracula’s evil lair. Also of interest: the author never visited Romania, let alone the castle he made so famous.