The rain that’s hammered the windows all the way across the grey-cloaked mountains and up the winding Transfagarasan Road shows no sign of stopping as we get out of the car and contemplate the steps ahead of us, leading up a steep leaf-strewn path with a bright red handrail into the woods above.
“There are 1480 steps,” Florin, our guide for today who has driven us out into this wilderness, announces with a grin. “Take care…I hope you come back as you have not paid me yet!”
Armed with the sturdy umbrella he produces before diving back into his car to wait for us, we start off confidently, but it’s barely five minutes before my calves start to ache, and I insist we take it more slowly. We don’t meet anyone coming the other way. As we get higher, the mist starts to close in, and the only sound accompanying our trek is the crunching of twigs under our feet and the unrelenting beat of heavy raindrops slipping through the trees, until from somewhere in the white expanse below us comes a barking, answered by another.
Liam looks back at me. “The children of the night. What music they make.”
I laugh, but the invisible chorus is unnerving.
Every so often we stop to look over the rocky ledge, but the mist is so thick there could be anything down there. There’s no point trying to take photos of the view, so we capture each other in arty poses on the stairs. Every so often a plaque presents itself on a turning, telling us how much further there is to go. Even without a view we can feel that we are so high up, yet with still so many steps to climb into the fog.
It’s starting to feel like a bit of a pilgrimage. We left Brasov, our base for this trip, several hours ago, and the weather is so appalling that very few other people seem to be out in these mountains today. We stopped off at Bran Castle, just outside the city, before embarking on the long drive over here, which, with its pretty gothic turrets and forested backdrop, is often marketed as being “Dracula’s castle”. It’s beautiful and atmospheric, but it’s not the real deal; Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Wallachian king on whom the character of Dracula was based, had only a tenuous connection there. What we’ve come to see now, at the top of this cliff we’re climbing, is what’s left of Poenari Citadel, his fortress; the one that he allegedly forced local townspeople to reinforce after rounding up the older ones and impaling them, and from which he supposedly escaped via a secret tunnel when his enemies found a way to attack the castle from the neighbouring mountains. This is the focal point of our trip; the reason we chose Transylvania.
When the steps finally level out into a platform, we realise we are not alone on this mountain; from a small wooden hut emerges a man who greets us first in Romanian, then in English. There’s a small entrance fee to explore the ruins, and as we hand over our lei, a dog trots out of the hut and sniffs around us; I wonder if we’re the first people they’ve seen all day.
And then, across a short bridge, the fortress is there in front of us, looming through the mist. A couple of mannequins impaled on sticks wait for us at the top of the remaining steps, as if to assure us that we’ve got the right castle this time. The guard and his dog have disappeared back into their hut below, and we’re alone in the ruins.
We soon realise that there’s not much left to see; it’s easy to see why this is not as popular as Bran Castle. Plaques on various crumbling walls indicate that this section was the dungeon and this one was the look-out, but apart from the corner turrets and a few windows, nothing is recognisable. We lean out over the walls and occasionally the mist parts to allow us a glimpse of the mountains around us and the valley below; the views must be spectacular on a clear day, but it’s enough to give us a sense of how isolated and seemingly impenetrable this fortress was. There may not be much up here, but the power of this place is in the knowledge of its history, in our ability to imagine this cold, wet and misty day six hundred years ago with the king in his castle, his guards watching for threats through the grey clouds, and his workers toiling away under threat of impalement. The weather may be awful but I realise that we have picked the perfect day to come; the place is empty and eerie and the air is laden with something; quietness, rawness, history, age, or even perhaps ghosts if you like. We’re a long way away from anything.
The descent is far quicker than the journey up, and as the rain continues, no one is making the trek the other way. When we reach the bottom and meet Florin at his car, my fingers are numb and the muscles in my calves are convulsing a little. I turn around to see how far we climbed, but the mist has closed back over the clifftop, and all I see are trees and whiteness, as if the path up the mountain had never been disturbed.
We travelled to Poenari Citadel with Brasov Day Trips.