One of the duo behind the International Vampire Film and Arts Festival, Craig Hooper, tells of his first trip to Transylvania and explains how easy it was to get there…
Yes, it really is a real place. It wasn’t made up by Bram Stoker – Transylvania is part of modern-day Romania. And it’s everything you’d ever imagine it to be – spectacular, mysterious, epic and yes, sometimes quite scary.
I travelled there with my wife and two children for a holiday. We like going to interesting places and ever since I first read Dracula I’ve always wanted to go there. I was worried it might not live up to expectations – but it didn’t disappoint.
We started our journey flying from London to Bucharest (from £72 return if you book now for Vampfest) and spent the first two days in the capital. We stayed in the spectacular Orhideea Residence and Spa in a stunning two-bed apartment with amazing views, breakfast and a brand spanking new swimming pool and luxurious spa (at the time of writing, a suite for two here including spa access and breakfast is just £63, which is quite expensive for Romania but a bargain if you’re coming from western Europe or America).
A stopover in Bucharest is well worth the visit. The old city is beautiful and crammed with great shops, bars and restaurants. Look out for the bust of Vlad Dracula at the entrance to the castle (now a museum). The surrounding newer city built by Nicolae Ceaușescu also has monolithic grandeur, with wide boulevards and extravagant fountains.
We drove from Bucharest through the flatlands of Wallachia (Vlad was a Prince of Wallachia), stopping off where the mountains begin at Sinaia. Here you can take the cable car to the top of the mountain for amazing views and visit the stunning Peles Castle. It has nothing to do with Dracula but it’s well worth the visit (you can even stay in the luxury hotel in the castle grounds – Complex La Tunuri – in the week leading up to Vampfest for as little as £48).
A few miles on and we were finally in Transylvania itself. Brasov is the regional capital and the real Dracula made it one of his main areas of operation in his struggle against the marauding Turks. Now it’s a big, sprawling, modern city – but just ignore that and make your way to the perfectly preserved old town, built around the mountain. There’s loads to see and do with a huge range of cafes, bars, bakeries, restaurants and hotels built around the immaculate main square and restored castle.
From Brasov, it’s just a short road trip along winding mountain roads to the one place I’d really been looking forward to – Bran Castle, otherwise known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’. It’s an imposing monolith built on a crag overlooking the village of Bran and as the sun dips you can easily imagine Stoker’s vampire crawling down the walls to get his breakfast. Inside its twisting passages you can almost picture Harker desperately trying to find a way out (as you might be after a visit to the rather gruesome torture chamber…).
But don’t look too closely into the history as you won’t find the real Vlad anywhere near it. He may have visited it once or twice at best but it he never made it his castle. The reason it’s so closely attached to the legend is because Bram Stoker reputedly saw an evocative line-drawn picture of the castle in a book in the London Library and used that as the lair for his vampire lord.
The road to our eventual destination (and your destination for the Vampire Festival) winds through spectacular mountains, past dozens of castles and equally impressive fortified churches to the jewel in the crown of Transylvania – Sighisoara. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medieval citadel seems almost untouched by time. The impressive walls circle a hill, which is itself capped by another hill within the citadel, crowned by a church and graveyard.
Besides it’s breath-taking setting, Sighisoara’s main claim to fame is that it’s where the ‘real’ Vlad Dracula was born. And it feels like very little has changed since his day. A stroll around the maze of cobbled streets soon allows you to build up a thirst and although there’s nowhere selling blood (at least, not as far as my mortal eyes could see), good local beer and wine is in ample supply (a pint of beer is around 80p).
It was as the sun set on the main square here that the idea of the Vampire Festival came to me. Sighisoara is the perfect location – a direct link to Dracula, well catered for in terms of hotels, bars and restaurants and completely self-contained by the ancient walls. And after dark it really does get a bit scary… a stroll through the graveyard after midnight is only possible if you have no imagination…
There are so many other places to visit in Transylvania and the surrounding area, especially if you’re hunting down the true story and legends of Dracula. I’d particularly recommend Fagaras Castle and Corvins Castle (which looks so spectacular it feels more like a set for Game of Thrones), both with strong links to Dracula, and the picturesque town of Sibiu. All are well worth taking the time to visit.
We hired a car and drove. The main roads are good but watch out for potholes on the back roads! It’s easier and more luxurious to take the train – it goes from Bucharest, through Sinaia and Brasov to Sighisoara and a first class ticket is just £12!
Transylvania is not just a setting for a story. It’s a great place to visit – it’s easy to get to; the food, beer and wine are excellent and you get great value for money when you get there. Add to that the world’s first International Vampire Film and Arts Festival and you’ve got a truly memorable holiday – so get booking now!