Transylvania and the Count


In 1897, Irish author Bram Stoker unleashed Dracula upon the world. The titular Count was not the first vampire in literature – that trend extends at least to the first half of the 18th century – but he is the most famous. Because of Stoker, we have dozens of adaptations of his novel, a number-loving vampire on Sesame StreetCastlevania, Abraham Lincoln as a vampire hunter, and even sparkling bloodsuckers.

Count Dracula notoriously resides in Transylvania, a historical region of what is now Romania. Transylvania was the birthplace of Vlad III, who ruled over neighboring Wallachia. You might recognize Vlad better by his well-known sobriquet: Vlad the Impaler. Most scholars believe Stoker based Dracula on Vlad III.

Let’s explore the geography and history behind this immortal horror story.

Vlad the Impaler - unknown artist

Vlad III was the second son of the Wallachian ruler known as Vlad Dracul. In medieval Romanian, Dracul meant “the dragon.” Vlad the Dragon received the name because he was part of the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order from the era. Dracula is the genitive form of Dracul, indicating that Vlad Dracula is the son of Vlad the Dragon. Adding to the vampiric connotation of this name, in modern Romanian, dracul also means “the devil.”

The not-so-nice royal gained the nickname Vlad Tepes, which translates to Vlad the Impaler. Like most rulers of the age, Vlad executed a lot of enemies; his favorite method involved impaling humans on poles.

A bloodthirsty figure with a penchant for stakes. One can easily see how this person might morph into Count Dracula, as Stoker added a dash of Transylvanian vampire folklore.

1499 German woodcut by Markus Ayrer showing Vlad dining while his victims die on stakes

In the novel, Count Dracula’s castle rests in Transylvania. The real Vlad was, indeed, born in this region, though his power rested in Wallachia.

Transylvania's location in Europe - graphic by OSeveno
Historical regions of Romania - map from Things About Transylvania
Transylvania, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains - graphic from RomanianFriend

At the story’s beginning, one of the protagonists, Jonathan Harker, travels to Dracula’s estate on lawyerly business. To get there, Harker must travel by carriage through the creepy Carpathian Mountains, the chain that nestles Transylvania, as seen in the photo above. The point of no return occurs as Harker traverses Borgo Pass.

In reality, this location is called Tihuța Pass. It’s a gorgeous spot:

Tihuța Pass in winter - photo by RomânescEsteLatin
Coltii Morarului (The Miller's Teeth) in the Romanian Carpahtians

Scholars are not certain about Stoker’s inspiration for the Count’s chateau, but one theory centers on the beautiful Castle Bran. Though Stoker never traveled to Transylvania, he likely saw an illustration of Castle Bran in one of the many books he read to research the region.

Vlad the Impaler likely had little to do with this fortress, as he spent much of his time as a leader away from his homeland. The real Dracula did construct a citadel, named Poenari Castle. Though Stoker never learned of this location, Sir Christopher Lee, who portrayed Count Dracula in film, noted in the documentary In Search of Dracula that Poenari Castle “uncannily” matches Castle Dracula, as described in the novel. Vlad’s stronghold sits 1,000 feet above a river, towering over cliffs, just as the labyrinthine bastion does for the fictional vampire.

Unfortunately, Vlad’s castle fell into disrepair and largely exists today as ruins.

Castle Bran - photo by Dobre Cezar
The remnants of Poenari Castle - photo by Nicubunu

Toward the end of the book, the group of good characters chases Count Dracula out of England, as he attempts to flee to his castle. Because this tale takes part before the advent of modern technology, the Count takes refuge in his coffin, while he sails through the seas of Europe and up the rivers of Romania.

In the novel, the characters travel up rivers named the Sereth and the Bistritza. These rivers actually exist, but they have slightly different names: Siret and Bistrița. The Siret is the fifth-longest river in Romania.

These picturesque waterways highlight the diversity of the terrain in Romania. From the Black Sea coastline to the gorgeous, inland rivers to the imposing mountains, Romania delivers. 

The Siret River - photo by Cezar Suceveanu
The Bistrița River - photo by Cezar Suceveanu

Though Transylvania is known for its real and fictive evils, in the forms of two different Draculas, the natural landscape speaks to something pure and beautiful. Vlad III took many lives by the stake, yet, in the end, it was the vampire who vanished from this very instrument. Though horror and blood filled the land, Dracula is a wonderful metaphor for the timescales of the universe. The water continues to flow through the rivers and the mountains still oversee the forests; no matter how immortal a being thinks it might be, the natural world will outlast us all.

Further Reading and Exploration

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Map of locations in Dracula

The Carpathian Mountains – Rolandia

Vlad the Impaler – The ruthless ruler of Wallachia – Rolandia

Transylvania – Encyclopedia Britannica

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