From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Eastern Europe’s Hidden Castles

The castles of Western Europe get far more attention from tourists, but Eastern Europe is home to a vampire citadel, a fortress built by God and a castle whose herd of goats saved Christendom.

Eastern Europe has become an increasingly popular tourist destination since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years countries such as Romania and Bulgaria have been incorporated into the EU, further easing travel. The rise of budget airlines has made most Eastern European cities accessible as weekend trips from Western Europe. Major tourist destinations such as Prague, Krakow and Dubrovnik boast castles and walled cities, but there are other interesting fortifications that receive far fewer tourists.

Sighisoara
Romania

If you’re tired of angst-ridden teen vampires it’s time to make the journey to the Transylvanian city of Sighisoara, birthplace of vampire legend numero uno – Vlad Dracul. Sighisoara was settled by German merchants in the 1100s. Over the years it was part of Wallachia, Hungary, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and finally Romania. The city’s beautiful fortified medieval citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes a medieval clock tower, churches and other historic buildings.

Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, served as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was born in Sighisoara in 1431 and lived there until he was four. He became Prince of Wallachia (a region in modern Romania) and is regarded as a Romanian national hero for his efforts to halt Turkish expansion into Western Europe. He is also infamous for the cruelty of his treatment of his enemies and earned his nickname by impaling his enemies on wooden stakes.

The Romanian tourist industry is well aware of the interest in all things vampire. The house where Dracula was born has been turned into a restaurant where you can order traditional Romanian cuisine as well as a steak on a stake (which arrives smothered in ketchup).

The citadel has an old stone staircase enclosed by cobweb-entangled wooden beams. Rays of sunlight creep through the gaps between the beams creating a beautiful effect, but it’s not the kind of place you’d want to find yourself in the darkest hours of the night. There’s nowhere to run when the vampires arrive.

Bran Castle is about 100 miles from Sighisoara. The tourism industry proclaims it as the Dracula Castle and its houses displays on Bram Stoker and vampire legends. In truth the castle had little to do with Vlad Dracul and he never lived there.

Although the vampire industry is thriving in Romania, it’s far more likely the real menaces you’ll encounter are taxi drivers (notorious for overcharging) and wild dogs. In 2006 a Japanese embassy official died after being attacked by a stray dog in Bucharest.

Kamyanets-Podilsky
Ukraine

Kamyanets-Podilsky (there are about half a dozen different ways of spelling it) is known as the Stone Flower on the Rock. The castle is built on a rock overlooking a canyon and was so imposing it was said to have been built by God.

A seventeenth-century Turkish traveler said of the castle, “It is a most formidable, strong fortress whose walls are cut out of solid rock. The fortress stands at the top of a precipitous cliff and there is no other fortress like it to be found in the realm of Poland or in the lands of the Swedes and the Czechs, or in the state of Holland, or in the mountains of Germany.”

The first recorded mention of Kamyanets town is from 1060. The castle itself was founded in the twelfth century and increased in size over the years. It was laid siege to many times but all but two attacks were repulsed. In 1393 thanks to the help of a traitor inside the castle the Lithuanians took the castle.

A 1691 map of Kamyanets-Podilsky.
(Photo via Wikipedia Commons
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kamianets-Podilskyi_map_1691.jpg)

In 1621, the Ottoman Sultan Osman II arrived with an army at Kamyanets. He was so impressed with the castle that he didn’t bother laying siege to it. According to legend he asked who had built the castle and was told it was God. The sultan’s answer was, “Then let God capture it.”

In 1672 the Turks returned with a far greater army and eventually took the castle. It remained under Turkish occupation for twenty-seven years until under the terms of a peace treaty it was ceded to Poland. The city then changed hands several times between Poland and Lithuania and eventually came under Russian control.

The Russians turned the fortress into a prison and it was used to hold the man known as the Ukrainian Robin Hood. Revolutionary hero Ustym Karmaliuk was imprisoned in one of the towers but managed to escape. Apparently he was so popular with the local ladies that they gave him their plaited hair and he used it to make a rope with which to escape.

Another story about Kamyanets claims that on the first of January each year, a giant bird flies over the city and drops a single feather. A black feather signifies bad luck, a gray feather means things will be unchanged, a yellow means it will be a good year and a white feather means happiness.

Novelist Mikhail Bulgakov worked near Kamyanets and the canyon is said to have served as a source of inspiration for his description of Jerusalem in “The Master and Margarita.”

The castle is open to tourists and it’s possible to climb up the tower stairs and go down into some of the basements. You need to watch your step as some parts of the castle aren’t exactly maintained to rigorous safety standards.


Veliko Tarnovo
Bulgaria

Veliko Tarnovo is the historical capital of Bulgaria. Due to the extent of its influence after the decline of the Byzantine Empire it came to be known as the Third Rome.

The region was first settled more than five thousand years ago. The old city was built on three hills and eventually grew to become the capital of the Bulgarian Empire and a center of Eastern European culture. In 1393 the city was captured by the Ottoman Empire and remained under Turkish control for almost 500 years.

It’s now possible to spend an enjoyable hour or two wandering around the castle grounds. Some nights the castle is lit up by a laser show.


Krujë
Albania

The Albanian mountain fortress of Krujë played a pivotal role in stopping Turkish expansion into Western Europe. In the fifteenth century, Krujë resisted three Turkish sieges by much larger forces. The castle was ruled by Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero and the so-called Dragon of Albania.

After the fall of Constantinople, the pope appointed Skanderbeg Captain General of the Holy See and the Champion of Christ. In 1466 Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, laid siege to Kruje with an army of 150,000 but was unable to take the castle. Skanderbeg’s resistance was seen as crucial in delaying the westward march of the Ottomans and giving the Italian city-states time to prepare.

In Albania, Skanderbeg is ranked as one of history’s greatest military geniuses. In one of the sieges he sent a herd of goats out of the castle at night. Each of the goats had a candle attached to their horns. The Turkish army saw the moving lights and launched an attack. Skanderbeg counterattacked and scattered the surprised Turkish forces. To commemorate the victory Skanderbeg’s helmet had an image of a goat incorporated into it.

Skanderbeg died of illness in 1468. Ten years later, the fourth siege of Krujë finally proved successful for the Ottomans. lbania didn’t regain its independence until 1912.

Krujë isn’t the easiest place in the world to get to, but is accessible via a minibus ride of variable duration from the capital, Tirana. The museum inside the castle houses some of Skanderbeg’s possessions and details Krujë’s role in history.


Kotor
Montenegro

Kotor boasts the ruins of a mountain fortress overlooking an old walled city and Europe’s southern-most fjord. (That’s what the tourism brochures claim. The good folk at Wikipedia describe it as a submerged river canyon rather than a fjord).

The region was first settled in Roman times and known as Acruvium. It was part of the Roman province of Dalmatia. In 535 AD Emperor Justinian built a mountain fortress overlooking the city. The city later fell under the control of the Bulgarian Empire, then Serbia, then the Venetian Republic. Venice ruled the city for over three hundred years with two intervals of control by the Ottoman Empire. Kotor was later conquered by the Habsburgs, the French, the British, the Italians and eventually became part of Yugoslavia. After the Balkans conflict, Montenegro became an independent country in 2006.

Kotor has a wonderful fortified old city with plenty of winding and narrow alleys. An inscription near the city gate gives an insight into some of the feelings stirred up by all of the wars, proclaiming “What belongs to others we don’t want, what is ours we will never surrender.”

There is a long but rewarding walk up the side of the nearby mountain. All that remains of the fortress are the walls, but the battlements provide a great vantage point to sit and ponder the mysteries of life or simply enjoy the view of the old city and fjord-like submerged river canyon.

Aidan01 Aidan Doyle is an Australian writer and computer programmer. He loves traveling and has visited more than 70 countries. Aidan lived in Japan for 4 years and worked as an English teacher. He is a Clarion South graduate and his stories and articles have been published in places such as the Internet Review of Science Fiction, Salon.com, Science Fiction Weekly and Australian small press magazines. http://www.aidandoyle.net