We all know the infamous tale of the darkest creature of the night. The tale of Dracula is one that has inspired the heart and minds of thousands of creative souls. I’ve read the book several times and never failed to find something new to fall in love with. I’ve been guilty of writing my own vampire tales that wound up being more of an excuse to dive into the lore surrounding these intriguing creatures (more on that as we get closer to Halloween).
It is famously said that Dracula’s Castle was based on the real Castle Bran, nestled on a steep cliff wall in the countryside of Romania. I knew this when we started planning our trip to this beautiful country. We would be attending a friend’s wedding in a small town known as Campulung- a gorgeous place all on its own.
Imagine my delight when I discovered that Bran was just over an hour away from Campulung. Naturally, the literary lover in me didn’t have any other choice but to follow the calling of her heart straight to the castle on the cliff.
First and foremost, although Castle Bran in nicknamed Dracula’s Castle, I will be the first to admit that the strings tying the two together are about as thin as a spider’s web. It is said that Bram Stoker may have used a picture of Castle Bran that he happened across in a book as his reference point for the castle in his twisted tale. All we have to go off of is a description: a castle situated on the edge of a high cliff with a river running below it, sittin in the area of Transylvania. While it does fit the bill, there isn’t much more to go off of.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered a story surrounding the castle that piqued my interest, a tale far stranger than that of a fictional creature of the night. I was enraptured with this tale because was a true one, and often it seems that fact is far stranger than fiction. The story I will now tell you concerns the heart of a long-dead Queen who once roamed the uneven halls of Castle Bran. In fact, you could easily claim that she breathed fresh life into the place- and left her heart behind.
Queen Marie of Romania was given Castle Bran on December 1st, 1920. The castle, built progressively through the 1200s through the 1300s, was in bad shape when it came into her possession. But the Queen felt a tug in her heart for the old place. For a decade she set about the task of remodeling and improving the fortress. She even discovered secrets that had long been lost to history, such as the hidden staircase that was locked behind a fireplace.
She fell in love with the castle, spending many of her summers within it’s slightly crooked walls- a charming feature she refused to let the architects change during the restoration. She opted to emphasize it’s original beauty without forcing it into the ‘modern’ standards. But the Queen’s devotion went far deeper than many would expect.
Upon her death in 1938 her final Will was read. The Queen bequeathed the castle to her daughter because she said thar ‘only someone who understood the castle’s heart should possess it.’ But she did have one other request. Queen Marie asked that her own heart be removed from her earthly remains and laid to rest in the castle she so deeply loved.
In an attempt to see to these wishes, her heart was removed and placed in a small silver box, which was then encased in a gold one. For a while the box lay in Stella Maris Chapel until it could be moved to Bran in 1940. Originally the box was placed in the woods outside the castle, near the little wooden church. Her daughter eventually moved it into a carved niche inside the solid rock of the cliffside. A simple marker was placed so that others could show their respect for the Queen, seek her comforts and ask for her advice. The Queen was able to rest peacefully there for a time.
Yet, as so many stories do, this one takes a darker twist. If you ever decide to visit this beautiful country you will see the damage wrought by the communist regime who held power for a number of years in the region. If you speak to the locals they will tell you tales of their own time spent as children starving, attempting to survive off of ration cards. You will see cows and chickens roaming the streets and you will understand why. They will tell you tales of their beautiful architecture and history- demolished for ugly and unimaginative communist structures. You will note these differences as you drive through the towns and villages. The Queen’s heart was but one of the disrespected and ill-used artifacts of a proud history.
When the marker commemorating her heart’s resting place was desecrated, it was moved for safekeeping. For years it was locked away in the basement of a museum in Bucharest. There was an outcry, but one that was not heeded for many years. It wasn’t until 2015 that an announcement was made: Queen Marie’s heart would be moved, but not back to Bran. No, it would never find it’s way back to those hallowed halls to once beat for. Instead it would be respectfully held in Pelisor Castle, the place where the Queen breathed her last. By many this was considered a victory, and far better than the dusty museum cellar she had been left in. I can help but wonder if her spirit stayed behind in the true home she so dearly loved.
When you step up to Bran Castle you will see an impressive sight; this grand creation perched on the very edge of a cliff. You may walk through the halls and feel a bit underwhelmed. You were fed tales of Dracula and darkness; and yet this is a far cry from that. You will peek into the Queen’s chambers and know nothing about her, enjoy climbing the secret steps she discovered. You will walk away and never know the hidden tale of a lost Queen’s heart. You will stare into the trees and picture things that go bump in the night, not small gold caskets that glint in the moonlight.
You will leave this place thinking it represents darkness and death, when its true legacy is one of love. Queen Marie believed in the life of this place, she believed in the soul and the heart of the castle. Perhaps the story here is far better than any fright you could give yourself. Do not forget the tale of the Queen who so openly loved a place that she truly gave her heart to it.