Bran Castle (also called Vlad Castle) is an impressive 14th century residence set on a 60-metre high cliff in the quaint town of Bran, Romania. The legendary fortress was once used as a defensive front against the Ottoman Empire, followed by its role as a mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia. It was also the base of Vlad the Impaler, history's original 'Dracula', who was renowned for his innovative way of killing his enemies (hint, his preferred method is what gave him his morbid name). Fashioned in gothic architecture, Bran Castle is the ultimate destination for an authentic scare. This is what I'd confirmed as soon as our bus pulled up the cobbled driveway, long past visiting hours. The castle stood in the distance, with a long spiralling walkway on the side that led up to its entrance.
Now, the medieval castle-turned-museum usually grants admission until 6pm (4pm from October 1-March 31) only, and after our long road journey from Bucharest (with a pit-stop at Peles Castle) took far too long, we dreaded being denied entry. Lucky for us, our guide Cristiana Tatoiu (a self-claimed descendent of vampires), let us in.
Some challenging steep steps later, we gathered in the foyer that enshrined Romania's renowned leaders and owners of the castle on its walls. Despite being the main lobby, it emanated a spooky aura that seemed to silently warn guests to stay away past sundown.
As our castle expert Cristiana shared accounts of its lineage across the centuries, and of Vlad and his horrific torture methods, her tone set the mood for what we were to face deep within the chambers of the old residence.
"Be careful now and stay close," she warned. "We have 'guests' in the castle and I cannot guarantee your safety." Clearly, the 'guests' she meant were not of the human kind and, at every turn, it seemed as though a shadow or two lurked behind a curtain of infinite darkness. The dim lights in each room did not ease the sense of foreboding I'd felt as Cristiana led us deeper and deeper into a never-ending maze.
Our first stop was the chamber of Queen Marie, who had become royalty in Romania upon her marriage to King Ferdinand I, and received the castle as a token in 1920. It soon became her favourite residence and she spent time restoring it for use by the royal family. Among the recovered images of the queen in her daily life, one that haunts me to date is her portrait in a wedding dress. Set on the wall beside her encased gown, you can feel the spirit of the monarch as she gazes straight into the eyes of its observer. Walk further and you will stumble upon a modest, preserved section of her room.
"Don't stare too long; she doesn't like that," Cristiana's low but thick accent sharply cut the silence, jolting us out of our thoughts. Remembering her previous warning, we refused to stay at the back of the line and hurried to keep up, as she took us through countless rooms and passages that I would never be able to retrace.
Soon, we were led through a secret route that connected the first floor to the third - a narrow, low-ceiling staircase that serves as perfect nightmare fodder for the claustrophobic. Heavily-worn red bricks flanked either side and steep steps of stone offered no mercy for its climbers, save for one railing for support. With barely any space to squeeze through, I had to shuffle myself side-to-side in order to pass through the tight passage, comforting myself with the crunching sounds of footsteps, unable to look forth as I ascended. Unfortunately, I was caught off-guard by sudden darkness that left me wide-eyed and frozen for a few seconds. Turns out that a slow pace caused the sensors to switch off whatever meagre ray of light we had.
In the silence, we heard Cristiana cackling in the distance. "If you don't move fast enough, they will come for you." she trailed off.
Fuelled by fear, we pushed on, forcing our tired knees to lift our unfit selves towards the tunnel's exit as fast as possible. We finally made it to the platform, only to be surrounded by more haunting portraits, restored furniture, preserved accessories and tainted armours that were used by former residents of the castle. Breezing past these, unable to focus on Cristiana's story-telling, we were finally out of the stuffy rooms and onto a platform to rest by an old water well. It was this section of the fortress where my instincts screamed the loudest. It wasn't the endless abyss of the well that made me want to leave the premises, but there was something eerie about the venue, in addition to the sudden drop in temperature.
Here, our guide explained how Queen Marie had a hideout built just above the water level with an electric elevator and extended horizontal tunnel. As the years passed, this shaft transformed into a gallery that exited into the Royal Park. Today, the time tunnel looks like pod from the future. Once the doors seals you in, you're surrounded by a multimedia show that instantly goes from sweet and serene to disturbingly dark.
By the time, we stepped out into the Royal Park, it was past midnight.
As we stood in a circle, thanking Cristiana for her tales about Bran Castle, she decided to indulge us with one last fact that she was kind enough to withhold while we were within castle walls, perhaps an act of mercy towards the faint-hearted.
Years ago, when workers were busy renovating parts of the building, the sarcophagus of an infant, buried in the walls, was discovered. While left in the open, every guard on duty would hear the hurried clacking of heels across the halls. Some believed it was the panicked spirit of the child's mother, as the loud haunting footsteps ceased as soon as the coffin was restored in its original resting place. Let's just say we weren't able to sleep well for the next few days.
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