Ironically, the only reason we were slated to go to Sibiu was because we were unable to find an appropriate car rental agency in Sighișoara, and the next closest were Sibiu or Brașov, but since Sibiu was a slightly closer hop to the expedition’s next target, Sibiu it was.
This was ironic because, as it turned out, the subject of our quarry, Vlad Țepeș, had both taken refuge in Sibiu at one time and later had harsh words with the denizens for supporting one of his two rival claimants at the time; as one can easily imagine, Vlad was not the type to be forgiving to those seeking to displace the authority he had paid so much to gain.
We arrived in Sibiu a few hours after we had departed, with no few stops and considerable confusion later, confusion somewhat ameliorated by commiseration with a young German woman who had about a similar command of Romanian as did I and was about as confused as we were by the Sighișoara to Sibiu trainline which featured the amazing rubberbanding train (don’t ask).
The Sibiu train station was unremarkable, and after haggling in horribly broken English and Romanian we procured a taxi to the airport where we picked up a rental car and one of my two companions, Kristina, found herself elected as the driver, being the only one of us who could drive manual – that being all that was available. (Hey, don’t judge; seriously, when was the last time you saw a manual transmission that wasn’t a truck, bus or your own car, for those who are aficionados of such?)
Sibiu is a fairly well-known tourist destination in Romania; it is certainly larger than Sighișoara. We wandered around some of its historical sites – most notably the awesomely nicknamed “Gate of Corpses” at the Haller Bastion where plague victims had been pushed through holes drilled in the walls during an unfortunate siege.
This is, too, where we encountered one of our first Romanian-isms: the word “cafe” in Romanian does not actually imply food. Nor, in fact, does the word “restaurant”. Seriously.
Once we had satisfied ourselves that we had properly absorbed any lingering necromantic energies from said Gate of Corpses we took to the road, making a dusk trek from the heart of Transylvania and through the Carpathians into Wallachia.
Our target? Poenari Castle.
Poenari Castle was arguably Vlad Țepeș’ most important fortified redoubt, perched high in the Carpathian Mountains and serving variously as prison, refuge, treasury and watchtower. Vlad didn’t build it; he did, however, rehabilitate it and considerably expand upon it, efforts continued by his brother Radu when Radu pushed Vlad out of power.
We made our way through winding country roads that reminded me of nothing so much as the Santa Cruz Mountains of home, save with a lot more stray dogs and regular incidents of the road being obstructed by horse-drawn carts. Despite this and an occasional disconcerting absence of street names, we found ourselves in a well-appointed pension (basically, a bed and breakfast) named the Pension Irina (the road to it is a bit harrowing, but it is very high quality at a surprisingly reasonable price).
The next morning we made our way up the road towards Poenari Castle itself. And its 1480 steps. I did mention that, right? Yeah, one climbs a stupid number of steps to get to (eventually) a gatehouse manned by a single watchkeeper for the site, and then the “castle” itself.
I use the term “castle” advisedly; Poenari is tiny and functional. Perched on the top of the ridge it is on, it commands an imposing view of the river valley below and would have been absurdly difficult to take. In truth, its standard garrison was five or six men, not surprising given that aside from its walls and battlements, the actual main keep consisted of a single tower, maybe twenty feet on a side, going up three or four levels depending on the era (in Vlad’s time, I believe it was just the three levels).
Poenari is also the site of two great stories:
[Vlad’s] first major act of revenge was aimed at the boyars of Tirgoviste for for not being loyal to his father.
On Easter Sunday he invited all the boyar families who had participated at the princely feast. He asked them how many princes had ruled in their lifetimes. They said they had lived through many reigns.
Shouting that this was their fault because of their plotting, Vlad the Impaler had them all arrested on the spot. He impaled the older ones on stakes while forcing the others to march from the capital to the town of Poenari.
This fifty-mile trek was quite grueling and no one was permitted to rest until they reached destination. Vlad the Impaler then ordered boyars to build him a fortress on the ruins of an older outpost overlooking the Arges River.
Many died in the process, and therefore Vlad the Impaler succeeded in creating a new nobility and obtaining a fortress for future emergencies. What is left today of the building is identified as Poenari Fortress (Cetatea Poenari).
It’s said that [Vlad’s] first wife, Jusztina Szilagyi of Moldavia [whom he met and eloped with in Budapest], flung herself from the towers of Poenari during a siege by Vlad’s muslim brother, Radu Bey [Radu converted to Islam during his and Vlad’s mutual captivity as teenage hostages to their father’s good behavior many years before].
Before flinging herself into the Arges River below, she exclaimed she would rather rot and be eaten by the fish than to be a captive of the Turks.
The river (you can see it mostly dried up at this time of year in the accompanying photo) is now sometimes called “Lady’s River” or “Maiden’s River” in recognition of Jusztina’s voluntary tumble from Poenari’s battlements.
But the way up the steps to Poenari Castle was itself not without incident. We were accosted from the base by probably the most pathetic example of canine doggy-ness I have had the misfortune to see.
(I actually maintain my suspicions that it was at least in part a cultivated act for tourists – the rest of his pack appeared later up the steps, and he wasn’t actually that ill-fed for all the remoteness of the location and his masterful act of beggery. As distinct from buggery. There was no buggery. Just to be clear.)
He followed us up all the way to the top, soon joined by the rest of his pack. Naturally, we rewarded the castle’s resident werewolf pack with a healthy percentage of the sausages and bread we had brought up for ourselves for lunch at the top.
Upon our descent, we made our way down towards the town of Curtea de Argeș, also the site of “The Royal Church”, Biserica Domnească, which is itself the site of a great piece of folklore:
Master Manole, the best mason of those times, had a dream in which he was told that, in order to build the most beautiful monastery, he had to wall in someone very beloved by him or by his masons. He told his masons about it and they agreed that the first wife who came there on the following morning should be the victim.
Manole’s wife, Ana (who was pregnant) came first and she was told that they wanted to play a little game, building walls around her. She accepted and soon realized that it wasn’t a game and implored Manole to let her go, but he kept his promise.
The monastery itself is a beautiful piece of workmanship, featuring the bizarrely twisted towers that you sometimes see in Romania and that remind me of nothing so much as a paean of homage to Cthulhu. In other words, I really, really approved of the aesthetic.
Poenari is not a vast fortress, but as one of the three primary sites I wanted to see on this trip, I was not disappointed. It is a haunting and lonely place, yet with the unbridled beauty of the Carpathians in autumn spread out beneath it like a picnic basket it is a sight that is difficult to purge from the memory.
Next Article: The Princely Court of Târgoviște and the Sunset Tower