In search of the real Dracula

Long before Bram Stoker’s literary Dracula sparked a century-long, global obsession with vampires - both the torturing and tortured variety - a lavishly mustachioed Wallachian prince by the name of Vlad Dracula (r 1448, 1456-1462 and 1476) was making a name for himself by heroically repelling successive waves of Ottoman invaders.

How Vlad earned his reputation

Dracula’s name and accomplishments went viral across the continent, often accompanied by liberal embellishment, particularly his array of statement-making prisoner execution methods, ranging from decapitation, boiling and burying alive.

Vlad_Tepes_002 Dracula himself

However, Dracula famously earned the post-mortem moniker 'Ţepeş' (impaler) after his preferred form of execution: skewering. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s buttocks, emerging just below the shoulders. This diabolical method ingeniously (i.e., cruelly) spared all the vital organs, meaning that the now writhing victim faced at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death.

To be fair to poor Dracula, skewering defeated enemies was not unusual in medieval Europe. Vlad’s first cousin, Ştefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great), is said to have 'impaled by the navel, diagonally, one on top of each other' 2300 Turkish prisoners in 1473. And they sainted that guy!

Dracula's legend as wily Ottoman scourge and bloodthirsty combatant was sealed in the spring of 1462 when, after repeated failed attempts to conquer the rebellious prince, an increasingly impatient Sultan Mehmed II raised and personally led an army of 90,000 troops into Wallachia. The momentum and morale of this impressive siege took a serious hit when they stumbled upon a bit of Dracula’s handiwork: a literal forest of stakes adorned with 20,000 men from Mehmed's previous Ottoman army. Ţepeş’ forces, using disguises and guerrilla tactics, picked away at the Sultan’s demoralized forces, including a daring but unsuccessful assassination attempt on the Sultan himself, for months before they ultimately retreated.

bran3 Interior courtyard of Bran Castle. Image by Leif Pettersen

Finding Dracula's true home

Ţepeş is still revered as a hero in Romania, though these days you’re more likely to see his face on vampire-themed t-shirts and coffee mugs, cheapening the prince’s good name in the interest of tourist revenue. This enthusiastic effort has unfortunately spilled over into popular 'Dracula castle tours' that disingenuously railroad tourists to the undeniably vampiresque Bran Castle in southern Transylvania. However, Vlad never lived there and - it’s disputed - he may not have ever even set foot on the premises.

In fact, Dracula’s true home, Poienari Citadel, is a gorgeous but admittedly long trip southwest over the Carpathian Mountains in Wallachia, so prohibitively far off the tourist beaten path and ill-serviced by public transport that only Dracula purists, historians and the occasional hopelessly lost driver ever visit.

Poienari, built on previous fortress ruins by miserable, soon-to-be-skewered Turkish prisoners in 1459, was a massive defensive fortress, strategically positioned to guard the entrance of Wallachia from Transylvania through the Argeş Valley. Though it was used for centuries after Dracula was forced to flee yet another Ottoman attack, the structure was eventually abandoned. A large section collapsed and fell down the mountain in 1888. What remains is a rather small cluster of semi-restored, head-high ruins, somewhat underwhelming on their own, but enriched by the mountaintop setting and the heart-quickening 1,480 stairs one needs to endure to access the site.

leifatedge At the edge of the ruins, Poienari Citadel. Image by Leif Pettersen