Dracula's Castle Returned to Heirs of Former Royal Family

A Transylvanian castle famous for its connections to the 15th century medieval ruler who inspired "Dracula" was returned Friday to a Romanian royal heir, more than a half-century after it was seized by the country's communist regime.

New York architect Dominic Habsburg made an emotional return to Romania after 58 years abroad to take formal possession of Bran Castle, where the heart of his grandmother Queen Marie had, quite literally, rested for decades before it was put in a Bucharest museum in 1971.

The community of Bran, which had built the fortress in the 14th century to help stave off invasion, gave it to Queen Marie in 1920 to thank her for her efforts in unifying the country. It had briefly been associated with Prince "Vlad the Impaler," whose cruelty inspired novelist Bram Stoker's creation, the vampire Count Dracula.

In 1938, Princess Ileana, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, inherited the castle, which is perched high on a rock and surrounded by snowcapped mountains.

It was confiscated by the communist government in 1948, when the Romanian royals were forced to leave the country.

Habsburg and his sisters Maria-Magdalena Holzhousen and Elisabeth Sandhofen took part Friday in a ceremony confirming the castle's return — part of Romania's efforts to repair past injustices and return confiscated properties.

"I don't have enough words to thank the people of Romania for not allowing this injustice to continue," said Habsburg, 68, who recalled growing up and going to school in the mountain village, now a tourist resort with 6,500 residents.

"We can't turn back time or repair mistakes but this means justice," he added in Romanian. "The name of Bran and this castle should always be a symbol of justice and honor in Romania, the country my ancestors and I always loved."

Habsburg said he did not want the castle's name to be associated with Dracula.

"We are talking about a fable, a novel, I don't think that's OK," Habsburg said, adding that he will meet with the people of Bran to discuss plans for the castle.

On Friday, Habsburg signed an agreement with Culture Minister Adrian Iorgulescu to keep the castle open to visitors for the next three years.

"Almost everybody in Bran works in the tourist trade," said Nicu Solovastru, 53, who was selling sheep cheese and plum brandy near the castle. He said he hoped it would remain a tourist destination.

CountryWatch: Romania

More than 400,000 visitors a year, most of them foreign, visit the castle — mainly because of its loose association with the legendary Prince Vlad, who punished wrongdoers or the lazy by impaling them on stakes. He once impaled all the elderly people in a community in an act of revenge following the killing of his father and brother.

Vlad did not own the castle, but is believed to have used it briefly during his incursions in Transylvania. He is also believed to have been imprisoned in the castle for two months in 1462 when he was captured by a rival Hungarian king.

Unlike Vlad's castle in Poenari, which is in ruins, Bran Castle is well preserved and tourists prefer it. It features a secret exit, and a secret corridor allowing defenders to leave in case of siege.

Many in the nearby village earn a living from selling Dracula souvenirs, such as wooden figurines and paintings with Vlad's face and "Vampire" wine, as well as wooden chess sets and hand-knitted sweaters. Locals have opened dozens of small bed-and- breakfast accommodations, as Bran has drawn more tourists since the end of communism in 1990.

The castle is decorated with Queen Marie's furniture and family pictures.

During World War II, Habsburg and his sisters worked at a local hospital that their mother ran, he told The Associated Press. He said the royal family hid American and British citizens when Romania was allied with Germany from 1941 to 1944, and later during the Soviet occupation hid ethnic Germans. Tens of thousands of ethnic Germans were deported from Transylvania to labor camps in the Soviet Union.

"I think it's a normal thing that they are giving the castle back to the royal family. It's theirs," said Ion Dimitriu, who was mowing a lawn near the castle's gates.