The Dark Side of Twilight – Dracula & Bistrita

The Dracula myth has become a staple of popular horror culture. Today Transylvania is not so much known for its stunning beauty and wildness, as it is for being the home of Dracula. It has gotten to the point where anyone who visits the region can pretty much claim they saw something connected with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Find a castle, any castle in a remote area of the Carpathian Mountains and it surely must be where Count Dracula made his home. Conversely, a great deal less is known about the specific locales where Stoker places the events of the book that occur in Transylvania. Foremost of these is Bistrita the only real Transylvanian town given any description in the novel. It is located in a rather remote area of northeastern Transylvania. Relatively few people go all the way to Bistrita to visit the actual place, since there are more accessible – and less accurate – Dracula sites on the tourist path.

Bistrita as it looks today

Bistrita as it looks today

Dracula Slept Here – Tourism & Transylvania
The fact that Bram Stoker set part of Dracula in Transylvania has brought that beautiful land great fame. Along with it has also come the inevitable Dracula themed tourism. Visitors who spend any amount of time in Transylvania will come across many attractions that reputedly showcase Dracula. The veracity of those on offer is disputable. Take for instance the so-called “Dracula’s Castle.” This happens to be Bran Castle near Brasov, which was used by neither Stoker’s fictional Dracula nor the historical one, Vlad the Impaler. Nevertheless since the castle looks the part and Vlad may have spent a night or two in the place, it is passed off as the real thing.

Perhaps Bran Castle is what Bram Stoker had in mind when his character Jonathan Harker describes, a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.” There are a couple of problems with this. Namely that Bran Castle is kept in excellent condition. Also, there is no documentation showing that Stoker knew where Bran Castle was located, let alone what it looked like. One literary sleuth claims that Stoker may have created Dracula’s mythical castle from a photo he saw of Bran Castle in a book. Myth and reality rarely mesh when it comes to Dracula. Whereas Stoker’s Count Dracula was ensconced in a castle high up on a rocky, inhospitable precipice, the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler was actually Voivode (Governor) of Wallachia, which lies south of Transylvania and is a land of rolling plains. The idea of Dracula does not bring to mind yeoman farmers. To get a feel for Stoker’s Dracula the visitor can make a trip to Bistrita, but be forewarned, this is not easy.

The Dark Side of Twilight – Traveling to Bistrita
Bistrita does not get as many Dracula tourists as one might imagine despite its connection with the famous novel. This is mainly due to the difficulty of getting there. A traveler coming from Bucharest finds the historic Transylvanian city of Brasov much more easily accessible. It takes just over two and a half hours to get to Brasov by train from the capital. It is the most fashionable tourist destination in Transylvania because of its historic center and Saxon influenced architecture. In contrast, the quickest a train goes from Bucharest to Bistrita is at least eight and a half hours, with a minimum of one change. Anyone who has ever ridden the rails in Transylvania knows to add an hour or more to arrival times. In other words, to visit Bistrita a tourist has to really want to go there.

Bistrita might not be the fashionable place to go, but if a visitor wants to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker it seems a good place to start. The town makes an appearance at the end of the very first diary entry in the novel when Harker says: It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place. Being practically on the frontier—for the Borgo Pass leads from it into Bukovina—it has had a very stormy existence, and it certainly shows marks of it. Fifty years ago a series of great fires took place, which made terrible havoc on five separate occasions. At the very beginning of the seventeenth century it underwent a siege of three weeks and lost 13,000 people, the casualties of war proper being assisted by famine and disease.” (Note: Stoker uses the German spelling of Bistritz. This blog uses the current Romanian form, Bistrita, since that is where the city is located today. When Stoker wrote Dracula, Bistrita was part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At that time, the city would have officially been designated by its Hungarian name, Beszterce.)

City of the Saxons
Stoker had definitely done some historical research on Bistrita. Indeed, the city had been plagued by multiple fires during the 19th century. During a fifteen year span beginning in 1836 the town suffered no less than five conflagrations. These fires decimated the town’s medieval citadel which dated all the way back to the early Middle Ages. In 1857, yet another fire destroyed the Saxon fortified church’s tower, roof and bells. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula in the mid-1890’s, Bistrita had a population of 9,100. The most numerous ethnic group was Saxons. Bistrita was one of the Siebenburgen or “Seven Fortresses” which were the Transylvanian Saxon cities. The second and third largest ethnic groups were respectively, Romanians and Magyars. Nearly all of the Saxons left the city after the wall fell. As Auslandsdeutsche (Germans abroad) they were entitled to German citizenship, which most of them took along with the better economic opportunities Germany offered.

Coroana de aur Hotel in Bistrita - Jonathan Harker would have loved it

Coroana de aur Hotel in Bistrita – Jonathan Harker would have loved it

A Night At the Golden Krone
When Jonathan Harker arrives in Bistrita the reader doesn’t learn anything about the Saxons, but there is some local flavor of at least the fictional kind. Harker alights for the evening at the Golden Krone Hotel. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula there was no such hotel in Bistrita. That is not true today. Attempting to turn a quick buck on Dracula tourism, some enterprising Romanians have built the “Coroana De Aur” which when translated goes by the same name as the lodging in Dracula. Online reviews of the hotel give it a rating of above average. No word yet on whether anyone has had the same disconcerting experience that Harker did at the Golden Krone. All seems well when Harker arrives, why he even receives a greeting from the count, “My Friend.—Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well to-night…”

The next day though when Harker asks the hotel proprietor about Dracula the ominous forebodings begin. “When I asked him if he knew Count Dracula, and could tell me anything of his castle, both he and his wife crossed themselves, and, saying that they knew nothing at all, simply refused to speak further. It was so near the time of starting that I had no time to ask any one else, for it was all very mysterious and not by any means comforting.”

The Last Glimpse
Comfort was something Harker would experience very little of the rest of his trip. It is doubtful that a visitor who spends some time in Bistrita will have that same experience. With modern technology checking in and out of the “Coroana De Aur” probably takes nothing more than a couple of keystrokes. It is doubtful that any tourist would want to repeat the sendoff Harker got as he left Bistrita by wagon coach: “When we started, the crowd round the inn door, which had by this time swelled to a considerable size, all made the sign of the cross and pointed two fingers towards me. With some difficulty I got a fellow-passenger to tell me what they meant; he would not answer at first, but on learning that I was English, he explained that it was a charm or guard against the evil eye. This was not very pleasant for me, just starting for an unknown place to meet an unknown man; but every one seemed so kind-hearted, and so sorrowful, and so sympathetic that I could not but be touched. I shall never forget the last glimpse which I had of the inn-yard and its crowd of picturesque figures, all crossing themselves, as they stood round the wide archway, with its background of rich foliage of oleander and orange trees in green tubs clustered in the centre of the yard.”

If a trip to Bistrita to stand in the footsteps of Harker does approximate that experience, what else might happen is probably best left to the imagination. Bistrita may not be on the well-traveled tourist path, but it is certainly a place where true Dracula buffs will find a little bit of reality mixed with a whole lot of myth. In so many ways that makes it just like Dracula.

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