Motto: “This old castle has seen, along centuries, the good and the evil.” At night, when all the lights are on, it sits on the sky like a fairy tale shadow with hundred of flames punching holes through it.” Queen Marie of Romania
Bran – a gate of the Carpathians
Lonely and imposing, built on the steep rocks of Southern Carpathians, between Bucegi Mountains and Piatra Craiului, Bran Castle has been guarding for centuries Bran-Rucar pass, surrounded by unforgettable landscapes, with forests, pastures and gardens. “There’s no road more beautiful than this one,” wrote the famous historian Nicolae Iorga, describing the old pass from the Carpathians, of crucial strategic relevance ever since the Dacian and Roman time, windingly connecting Transylvania to Wallachia.
Bran is the Slavonic word for gate: a symbol of passing, of entries and exits, of separation and unity. At the beginning of the 12th century, the Teutonic knights built a medieval fortress serving as a customs office, while also being an impenetrable citadel. The inhabitants of Brasov finished the construction in stone in 1388. Its role become even more important during the reign of Transylvanian princes.
Bestowed for a certain amount of time to the rulers in the Romanian lands to the south of the mountains, in exchange for their loyalty in the fight against the Ottomans, the Bran region enjoyed certain privileges under the rule of Mircea the Elder, Iancu of Hunedoara or Vlad Tepes (Vlad The Impaller), also known as Vlad Dracula. Despite being ally with Bran and Brasov, Vlad Tepes severely punished the Saxon customs officers demanding higher and higher customs taxes, all the while supporting his rival to the throne. It is said that, out of spite against Vlad Tepes, the Saxon community took revenge in later chronicles, by obsessively depicting Vlad Tepes as a blood-thirsty ruler.
Dracula: a Gothic fantasy with vampires
Dracula’s historical myth is tied, vaguely and confusedly, to the name of the Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracula, the son of Vlad Dracul, member of the Knights’ Order of the Dragon (Ordinis Draconis), acknowledged in Europe as ruler of Wallachia. Born in Sighisoara, the son takes his father’s name, a noble title. Dracula’s legend will transform the name, however, into a demonic, vampire-like one. It is the legend that still haunts, playfully, the cultural and touristic imagery in the West regarding Transylvania. Bram Stoker’s famous book published in 1897 launched Dracula’s myth in Western culture. Written in a Victorian period passionate about Romantic mysteries and travels, the book is a Gothic fiction about a Transylvanian vampire count, haunting a lofty castle in the Carpathians. It is possible that the image of the castle in the Carpathians was inspired by Jules Verne’s famous novel or even by the postcards of the time with Bran Castel, since the exotic charm of Saxon Transylvania was expressively described by the travelers of the period. In the 20th century, a few successful movie adaptations of the book will ensure this eerie vampire fantasy’s place in pop culture, tying Transylvanian imagery to the Anglo-Saxon one.
Beyond fiction and legend, we are left with the history of Bran Castle. It certifies the fact that the biggest transformation the old military and customs fortress had seen was the one after the Great Union of 1918.
Bran Castle – the summer residence of the Crown of Romania
Two years after the union of Transylvania with Romania, the destiny of Bran castle would forever be linked to the name of an unprecedented personality: Queen Marie of Romania (October 29, 1875 – July 18, 1938), wife of King Ferdinand (August 12/24, 1865 – July 20, 1927), Creator of Greater Romania.
After the end of World War I, on December 1st, 1918, by popular will and under the auspices of the Crown of Romania, Transylvania and the other Romanian provinces united with the country, in a favorable international context, called “the astral moment of Romania”. December 1st, 1918 became Romania’s national day after the December 1989 Revolution and Romania’s return to democracy. In 2018, 100 year since the great union were celebrated.
Queen Marie was, in her time, an international charismatic personality, and one of the most acclaimed royal figures in the world. “I gave Romania a face, my face” confessed the Queen after her 1919, diplomatic tour in Europe, when the queen consort was the irresistible ambassador of Romania’s cause, an exemplary model of royal diplomatic efficiency, the most powerful country brand, in today’s words.
From 1920 to 1947, Bran Castle functioned as the royal residence of the Crown of Romania, property of Queen Marie, bestowed to the sovereign by the people of Brasov as a symbol of their gratitude and respect. Who else could have turned the sober medieval citadel in a comfortable, Romantic and eclectic home? With artistic flair, Queen Marie of Romania, also known as the last Romantic and the first modern woman, would forever imprint her unique stylistic touch on Bran Castle, just like she had done with the Castle in Balchik (today in modern Bulgaria), Pelisor Castle in Sinaia, and the royal palace in Cotroceni, Bucharest.
Bran Castle will thus become one of the most appreciated royal domains from Transylvania belonging to the Crown of Romania, together with the later castle in Savarsin, property of her grand son, King Michael I of Romania, today the symbolic place of royal Christmas.
From this date on, the history of Bran Castle is organically connected to the one who brought it back to life, to Queen Marie’s heart and to the dramatic destiny of the royal dynasty and of Romanian society.
“My beloved Brana”
Two years after the Union, as a symbol of their gratitude for the one who had been queen of hearts and mother of the injured in the Great War, the people in Brasov donated Bran Castle to Queen Marie. The donation document from December 1st, 1920 reads: “We, Brasov Town Council, (…) unanimously decided to give Her Majesty Queen Marie of Greater Romania the ancient castle of Bran, so rich in historic memories, (…) as a token of our deep veneration and of the solid dynastic loyalties of our city… (…) towards the great queen (…)”. Since then, Queen Marie would be honored by the locals as the Empress of Bran.
The powerful medieval atmosphere of this citadel would also inspire Queen Marie for the ritual of her and King Ferdinand’s coronation on October 15, 1922, in the Coronation Cathedral in Alba-Iulia, founded by the two sovereigns especially for this historic event. “I don’t want anything modern a queen might have. I want everything to be medieval”, stated the Queen, as quoted by Diana Mandache in Bran Castle, Romanticism and Royalty. The Queen’s crown, made of the gold the people in Transylvania offered to the one they affectionately called “our empress”, was made in Paris, with a vegetal motifs and lateral pendants design specific to Byzantine diadems, and the Queen’s attire resembled that of Byzantine princesses, so that the aura of medieval sacred royalty would surround the two kings of Greater Romania.
The medieval theme is kept and valued in the interior design of the royal residence in Bran. The castle was built “in harmony with the rock beneath, none of the rooms being straight, with small, steep stairs,” wrote the sovereign, proud of her possession.
The queen has the vision of the castle, for which her pet name was feminine in gender, in a bright winter night: “Bran, or my beloved Brana, as I jest in calling my castle, earned a soul through me (…). The unconquerable little castle had that night a completely different appearance, it suddenly became ethereal (…).”
With a vivid imagination, the queen and the architect Karel Liman managed, together with landscape architects and artisans from Sibiu, to bring harmony to the opposites, in a supple and fascinating syncretism.
The castle joins together Teutonic and Saxon Western austerity with the Oriental sensuality and spirituality, the Byzantine atmosphere of the interiors, embroideries, lamps, Oriental rugs, old icons, set in the niches of the thick walls of the citadel, together with severe libraries and Western chairs.
Fireplaces, arcades, steep or spiraled stairs, secret staircases, polished oak doors, vaulted ceilings and large rooms, with just a few items of furniture breathing simplicity and refinement, balconies overlooking the interior garden, full of dahlias and geraniums, all give the castle an irresistible charm.
The massive past of the citadel walls or the fine past of the antiquities are reconciled here with the most modern utilities for that time: electricity, hot water, lift, funicular, telephone stations, infrastructure elements benefited by the localities around Bran Castle.
Great care was also dedicated to other elements of the royal domain: the castle garden and park, a small green house and a rose garden, where native species from Codlea or rare foreign species grew, the lake of the castle, where trout and swans lived, protected by votive stone crosses and fountains. The domain also had a hunting hut, a small wooden church and two traditional huts, an exotic refuge for the Queen and her closest daughter, Princess Ileana, which celebrated the Romanian vernacular architecture, the peacefulness and simplicity life could have; pots, stoves, icons, Romanian carpets, pillows, round wooden armchairs. The chapel would be the place for the spiritual, adorned with precious paintings and icons made in 1927 by Artur Verona. Bran Castle becomes once again what it had been in the past: a gate to different worlds, to both the West and the East, to the past and the future.
The journey of Queen Marie’s heart
The transformation of Bran castle from an austere fortress into a welcoming home has lasted 10 years. Between 1920 and 1930 the royal domain underwent work in parallel with the arrangement of the residence of the Queen’s heart, the Castle in Balchik, on the Black Sea, so that, in the epoch, Bran and Balchik would become the trademark for her unmistakable style.
These were tough years for Queen Marie and more and more frightening for Europe. After King Ferdinand’s death in July 1927, queen consort Marie would be marginalized from political life by her son, King Carol II. “My only joys remain Balchik and Bran,” wrote with bitterness Queen Marie to a friend in 1931. She came to Bran more and more often, together with Princess Ileana and found here moments of peace and delight for which she was grateful. A prolific and talented writer, Queen Marie found at Bran the time to write parts of her memoir “The Story of My Life”. At Balchik, in 1933, the queen wrote her memorable letter will-worth, “To my country and my people”: “By the time you read these words, my people, I will have passed the threshold into eternal Silence (…). I bless you, beloved Romania, the country of my joys and sorrows, beautiful country that lived in my heart and whose paths I have known all. (…)”
On July 18, 1938, after a long suffering, Queen Marie passed away at Pelisor and was buried in the royal necropolis in Curtea de Arges, together with King Ferdinand. However, her heart, the center of her being, would stay, according to a strange last wish from the sovereign’s will, in the Stella Maris Chapel in Balchik. Just like the old knights of Jerusalem, Marie, the cross-crusader of all Romanians’ union dream, wanted her heart to rest for eternity in one of the dear places she had brought to life.
However, history’s vicissitudes would not allow the sovereign’s heart to rest in Balchik. Beginning with 1940, when the history of the Romanian Cadrilater ended, the queen’s heart knew a long journey. With great pains, Princess Ileana managed to bring the case with Queen Marie’s heart at Bran and deposited it in a rock alcove in front of the castle. The place has become a place of pilgrimage for the inhabitants of Bran and Brasov, who worshiped the queen.
The exile of Princess Ileana, heiress of Bran
Queen Marie left Bran Castle to Princess Ileana, because she was the only person who shared her love and devotion for these lands. “Bran has a heart and can only be mastered by someone who understands its heart.” To honor her mother, princess Ileana has built in Bran the hospital “Queen’s Heart”, where she would work as a nurse for a few years, in memory for the part Queen Marie played for Romanian soldiers in World War I. She also has a chapel built, a replica of Stella Maris from Balchik. In 1941, after an earthquake, the remains of Prince Mircea, Queen Marie’s youngest son were brought from Cotroceni and buried at Bran. Thus, a branch of the royal family would become grounded at Bran, as a seal over time, set against the gloomy years to come.
In 1948, when communism took over Romania, King Michael I, Queen Marie’s grandson was forced to abdicate, and the last fortress standing for democracy and constitutionality in Romanian society fell to the ground. Exiled, the members of the royal family would cherish for over 40 years the dear memories of the country they loved and served. Before her exile to the United States of America, Princess Ileana managed to take with her a handful of earth from Bran, which she placed in a small metal box that never left her until her death. Becoming a nun, under the name of Mother Alexandra, Princess Ileana got to see again her country right after the revolution, in 1990, when she was welcomed by the inhabitants of Bran with extraordinary warmth, after decades of communist oblivion. Shortly after her visit home, Ileana died on January 21, 1991, in the United States, still carrying with her the same small metal box of earth taken before her exile in 1948, a telluric symbol of her yearn for her country.
Bran Castle in (post)communism and today
From 1948 to 1989, the years of the communist regime in Romania, Bran Castle was taken over by communist authorities, and it was turned into a museum in 1956. Like many other items of royal heritage, the signs of the constitutional monarchy were deleted, destroyed, subjected to an intense politics of oblivion.
As the rock sanctuary with Queen Mary’s heart continued to attract clandestine pilgrims, in 1977 the authorities decided to move the precious case at the Museum of National History of Romania. Considered national heritage, but never shown to the public, taken out of the case encrusted with precious stones and stored unworthily on a shelf in the museum, waiting for better times, the heart’s exile would last for almost 77 years, 2 countries, 4 cities and 3 changes of political regime. The queen’s heart came back from this strange exile of oblivion in 2015, when King Michael I of Romania, her illustrious grandson and the last sovereign of the country, barely returned himself from a too-long exile, decided to bring the queen’s heart to Pelisor, in the Golden Room, where the sovereign of Greater Romania had passed away.
Between 2006 and 2009, following a property restitution process, Bran Castle became the property of Princess Ileana’s heirs, being re-opened to the public and enjoying a considerable tourist success. Today, the generous space hosts every year eclectic cultural and entertainment events: Jazz at Bran Castle, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, choral concerts, European Night of the Museums, Children’s Day, cat exhibitions, medieval re-enactments, public readings of the fairy tales written for children by Queen Mary.
Such events experiment in a postmodern manner the in-betweenness of history and legend, Western myths and local traditions, fiction and reality, art and entertainment, creating an attractive touristic and cultural offer.
Since 1989, the history of the royal patrimony has been gradually recovered, restored and valued, in the form we have the chance to see and understand today. The story of Bran Castle brought back to life by Queen Marie, and of the castle in Savarsin, both famous royal residences of the Romanian Crown in Transylvania, shine light on part of these dramatic and fascinating stories.
By Sidonia GRAMA
(From the special edition of TB 86 – „ENJOY TRANSYLVANIA!” – May/June 2019)