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Finding the Real Dracula: The Truth and the Legend of Vlad the Impaler Dracula

If you're going to be a villain, it's better to have been one deep in the past. It seems the further back in history, the more colorful the man and less horrific the deeds. Think - Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun. And Vlad the Impaler. But Vlad has a doppelganger who is quite (in)famous on his own – Dracula the Vampire. Vlad is indeed Dracula, and he is from Romania. And he did live in a castle. But he is was known Vlad the Impaler Dracula or Vlad Tepes (pronounced TEP-ish), and his behavior easily qualifies as bloodthirsty without even referencing the fictional character.

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History of Vlad the Impaler Dracula

The land that is now Romania has had a tempestuous history with Romans, Goth, Huns, Visigoths and more coming and going. Then came the Tartars and the Turks. It was from this background of intrigue and conquest that Vlad emerged.

Vlad's Early Years

Little is actually known about the man who came to be known as Dracula. He was the son of Vlad Dracul I, who was the son of Mircea the Old. Mircea briefly inhabited the castle known today as Bran Castle.

Vlad I (Vlad Dracul I) eventually became ruler of Walachia and was named Knight of the Dragon Order. In Latin Dragon is draco and Vlad (the father) was nicknamed Vlad Dracul. His son was named Draculea, shortened to Dracula, Son of The Dragon.

Vlad, the father moved to the medieval city of Sighisoara in Transylvania where he had two sons...including Vlad (born around 1430). It was this son who went by the nickname Dracula but was ultimately called Vlad the Impaler. There were other sons as well, but they faded quickly into the mists of history.

Dracula was eventually taken hostage by the Turks and lived as a prisoner for four years. He emerged at age 17 planning revenge on his enemies.

Vlad the Impaler Comes to Power and Earns his Name

Lots of intrigue, back-stabbing, and family deaths followed. But Vlad eventually became ruler of Walachia. He centralized the power, levied taxes, and the punished the unhappy gentry by staking them – impaling them on wooden stakes that went in at one end, and out the other. It was an ugly way to die, and he used the technique with such relish that it was said the impaled once surrounded an entire city. Thus, Vlad earned the name Vlad the Impaler.

Obviously taken with this tortured way of death, Vlad the Impaler Dracula extended it to thieves, liars, grumblers, and just about anyone who annoyed him. And a lot of people annoyed him.

It is said that those who were hard-working honest, patriotic, brave and courageous (however few that may have been) were generously rewarded.

His exploits were captured in engravings from 1617 and appear as horrifying as they sound. Dracula the Vampire could not have been more blood-thirsty.

The Controversy Over His Death and Burial

More wars followed. Vlad lost and then, 14 years later, regained his throne. That didn't last and in 1476 he lost a battle with the Turks and was said to have been beheaded, his head making the trip to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Legend has it that his body and his head were reunited and buried in the Snagov Monastery. As a coda Dinu Rosetti, an archaeologist received permission to excavate the monastery in 1933. He is said to have opened the coffin... and found it empty. However, others suggest that this is a legend, and that it was only in the 19th-century that the Snagov monastery was identified as the site of the tomb of Vlad Dracula.

However, another report notes that another burial place in Snagov was found.
When they moved aside the stone covering this second grave, they found a casket. Inside the casket they found a skeleton, partly covered in the tatters of what had once been a silk brocade. Unfortunately, as soon as the skeleton was exposed to the air, the carcass disintegrated before their eyes. All that was left was a ring on one finger and a gold buckle like the one that had been given as a gift to Dracula from his father Vlad Dracul. The buckle had been awarded to Vlad Dracul during a jousting match back in February 1431. Apparently, Dracula had treasured this memento from his father. Source: Romerica.com

Oddly enough, Vlad the Impaler is also considered a bit of a hero - described as having transformed Walachia into a united and powerful state with its people lead to prosperity. He was described as a good leader, supportive of the development of crafts and trade. Apparently co-existing with the torture of perhaps several thousand (the number of reportedly staked souls increases over time and distance).

Clearly a controversial figure, his cruelty spurred stories of horror and eventually inspired the Irish writer Bram Stoker to create a novel set in Victorian England about a vampire Count living in a castle in Transylvania. As there is indeed a castle in Transylvania (Bran Castle) where the final scene of the novel is set that became the site of Dracula the Vampire's home.

Exploring the Locations of Vlad the Impaler Dracula

It is possible to visit some of the famous and infamous places with Vlad the Impaler's history.

Sighisoara

Founded by Transylvanian Saxons during the 12th century, Sighisoara still stands as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. It is also the birthplace of Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), who ruled of the province of Walachia from 1456 to 1462.

The cheerily painted building has a plaque identifying its link to Vlad. It now hosts a cafe/restaurant and a small museum of medieval weapons.

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Old Princely Court and Church in Bucharest

Said to have been built in the 15th century by Vlad Tepes, according to some local lore, Vlad kept his prisoners in dungeons which ran beneath the Princely Court and extended under the city.

Bran Castle

Named for its proximity to the town of Bran, the castle is a national monument and landmark in Romania. The fortress sits on the border between Transylvania and Walachia. Commonly known as Dracula's Castle (although it is one among several locations linked to the Dracula legend), it is marketed as the home of the infamous vampire count in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

What is known is that it had been held by his grandfather Mircea the Elder and home to many others after him. In 1920 the castle became a royal residence and the favorite home and retreat of Queen Marie of Romania. And today visitors will see recreations from that time period. There is nothing left from its earlier medieval history, except for a rather chilling climb up a very narrow stone stairway. At its base is the rather Disney-like Bran Village. Minus the rides. So far.

Poenari Fortress

The fortress is also considered to be the authentic Dracula's Castle. Only the walls and towers still stand from the original fortress located near the village. It is said that the climb up to the ruins is 1,462 steps.

Brasov

This is another Vlad site, dating back to his attack in 1458-60. Reportedly, the citadel was destroyed and the merchants of the town were impaled on top of the mountain. There is also a report that he executed 300 of the sons of Saxon merchants. Did we mention he was quite the blood-thirsty crazy?

The Princely Court at Targoviste

Targoviste served as the capital where Vlad ruled, and it was here that Vlad the Impaler Dracula impaled a great many disloyal court members after inviting them to a celebratory feast. There is an exhibition illustrating Vlad's life.

Snagov Monastery and Lake (Manastirea & Lacul Snagov)

Finally, we come to the controversial site of his burial. It is said that 100 years after the church was built (1364), Vlad Tepes Dracula added the fortress walls and a dungeon. A plaque on the floor of the church reportedly marks the grave with the presumed remains. The monastery, located on an island on the far side of the lake, can only be accessed by boat.

Read more about Vlad the Impaler history and historical sites at RomaniaTourism - Dracula's Legend
Some of the information in this article was found in a book Vlad the Impaler Dracula: Between Legend and Reality bought in a shop in Sighisoara, but it does not contain any publisher information. The bibliography references only materials published in Romania.

Read more about travel through Romania and Eastern Europe

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated September 10, 2016



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