Strolling uphill from Rucăr to Bran is like walking through a dream-like space among villages lost in time, and under the watchful eye of millennial Bucegi – Leaota mountains on one side, and the spectacular Piatra Craiului, Prince’s Stone (like a sleeping dragon covered with a blanket of clouds) and Iezer on the other.
Rucăr is located in Arges County, the historical province of Wallachia, while Rucăr-Bran Pass and Bran Castle are located in neighboring Brasov County, in the historical province of Transylvania.
Yet the beauty of the natural passthat winds uphill from Rucăr, through a mountain corridor, to finally reach Bran Castle lies not only in the nature surrounding it, or in the history trapped underfoot, but also in the memories it carries.
Let’s rouse ourselves and allow this journey to kindle our minds and stir our imagination. Thus, we will proceed from Rucăr and make our way up to Bran.
Historical, romantic Rucăr
As a teen, I was lucky to spend my summers up at Rucăr. It was a time before Eco-tourism was even a whisper. Yet I did not lodged in the charming Rucăr village, the one spread along the main road with its white and pastel houses, but up on a hill, in a farmer’s holding. Fresh, steamy milk for breakfast, roasted chickens for dinner, home-made sausages too. Surely there would have been fresh vegetables on the table, I just don’t remember them…
Rucăr was inhabited by Dacians as far back as the Roman occupation as part of Dacia Inferior. Relics of a Roman castrum and even of a frontier fortification (limes) wall were unearthed in the area.
Lok at the image below. See the dotted vertical line bordering Dacia Inferior on the right side? The Roman frontier wall would have – more or less – followed it from the south, where Danube flows, towards the mountains, up to Dâmbovița Bridge, near Dâmbovicioara’s Gorge.
Back then Rucăr would have been called Ruffa Arbor, Ruddy Tree – for the beech tree forests turning crimson in autumn. Over the centuries Rucăr had known many names, by the history and the people that washed over it: Slavonic Rukel, Saxon-Germanic Rothbaun, Ruckendorf, or old Romanian Rucalu.
It was not far, west of Rucăr, that the renowned Battle of Posada took place.
It was 1324 and the relations between the greatest power of eastern Europe then, the Hungarian Kingdom, and Voivode Basarab I of Wallachia, Basarab the Founder – and vassal to King Charles I of Hungary – were auspicious. The Pope himself held Voivode Basarab I in high regard for his work on the battlefield against the infidels, the Turks. Yet King Charles I, a military expansionist, had his eye on Wallachia, and tried to undermine Voivode Basarab I in the eyes of the Pope.
A military confrontation took place, lasting four long days, 9 – 12 December 1330, known in history as the Battle of Posada, although the geographical location of the combat is still unclear; in a narrow, gorge-like valley near Curtea de Arges, where Voivode Basarab I held court? Perhaps the valley of Topolog? Or further east, between today’s Podu Dambovitei, and Rucăr?
King Charles I attacked Voivode Basarab I for “[he] is the shepherd of my sheep, and I will drag him by his beard from his lair.“
Outnumbered by 3 to 1, the Wallachians emerged victorious, King Charles even loosing his royal seal in battle (I wonder how much is worth today?) and escaping only after he donned a servant’s attire. (The servant, dressed as the king, was killed).
The victory of Basarab I at Posada marked the independence of Wallachia from the Hungarian crown. But not for long…
The Hungarian’s attacks prior to the Battle of Posada left the Basarab’s royal palace of Curtea de Argeș destroyed. A new fortress was built for the seat of the Wallachian principality at Câmpulung, south of Rucăr.
We’ll stick with Câmpulung for during the ruling of Basarab’s grandson, Vladislau I (Vlaicu-Voda), a border post was found here.
Yet… the new King of Hungary, Louis I the Great, Louis of Anjou, dreamed of expanding the Hungarian Kingdom over Wallachia. Why, he already had Transylvania in his pocket!
In 1354 King Louis I dangled the Banate of Severin (a territory west of Wallachia) in front of the new Wallachian ruler, Basarab’s son Nicholas Alexander. And King Louis received something for in return, a small step towards fulfilling his plan. The Wallachian Voivode, a Christian Orthodox ruler, recognized the right of the Roman Catholic Church to establish missions in Wallachia. And… the Saxon traders from Brașov were allowed to transit Wallachia without paying duties.
With time King Louis I added extra pressure over the Wallachian Voivode, added the Transylvanian fiefdoms of Amlaș and Făgăraș (inhabited by Vlachs) in the balance… And by 1369 the new Voivode of Wallacia, Vladislau I, had recognized King Louis I as his overlord…
The expansionist plan of King Louis I was taking shape…
When Vladislau I (Vlaicu-Voda) ruled Wallachia (1364 – 1377) he was known as the Transalpine Voivode (trans -Alpine = over the Alps, as the Carpathians are similar in appearance and climate with the Alps), and was also Duke of Severin, Almas and Fagaras. Vladislav I was uncle to Mircea the Elder, Vlad the Impaler’s paternal grandfather.
And this is how we have the first documented mention of Rucăr, dating from 1377 when King Louis I planned to finally incorporate Wallachia into the Hungarian Kingdom (the Kingdom of Saint Stephen).
Thus… Bran was to receive a new fortress, a privilege granted by King Louis I to the inhabitants of Brasov on 19 November 1377 … and for this reason the border post was moved from Câmpulung (Câmpulung Muscel) to Rucăr (close to the Hungarian Kingdom’s southern border).
While all these years, no matter what political plans were in place, merchants and traders still traveled between Wallachia and Transylvania – along Rucăr Bran Corridor.
Years later I took the same road and traveled further uphill, towards the mountains, past colorful homes lining a tarred road, a mere tourist lucky to only catch glimpses of quaint timber dwellings scattered across lush hills.
Dâmbovicioara, a 16th century hamlet, a gorge and some ancient caves
One of my first childhood memories places me in front of a gush of icy water running over a bed of stones. Its sparks run with the sunshine and over the smooth rock. I can see my fingers stretched in front oh me and I feel as if I want to catch the icy droplets of glitter, the sun scorching my back. Or least dig out a pebble as a memento.
Long before souvenirs ever made sense, my heart knew I was living in the moment.
I was with family and friends at Dâmbovicioara’s Gorge, Cheile Dâmbovicioarei.
More memories emerge.
A narrow road lined with pebbles, bordered by cliffs that hold the sky. And the joyful knowledge that the cool gorge, after a hot August ride, meant that we were nearly there. This was the time before car air-con and safety belts, when a vehicle transported as many as could merrily fit inside.
Dâmbovicioara village dates back to the middle of the 16th century. Podu Dambovitei village (Dambovita Bridge) is thus named after an ancient wooden bridge built over Dâmbovita river, and well-used by those traveling along the Rucăr Bran Corridor, between Wallachia and Transylvania.
Further on, at an altitude of 861m, the secretive Dâmbovicioara Cave opens up. Only half the length of the underground grotto is open to the public. I enjoyed visiting, especially since the guides are none other but children from a local school.
The whimsy road between Dâmbovicioara and Rucăr Bran Pass
Left and right, if you know where to look, history speaks to you. Listen to these name: German’s Fortress, Cetatea Oratia, Saxon’s Hill, Dealul Sasului, Turks’ Fields, Plaiul Turcilor, German Woman’s Spring, Izvorul Nemtoaicelor.
A paved road winds now though a forest of secular fir trees. Only two lanes, at times the road’s shoulder only marked by boulders painted with limewash. Somewhere along the road, after it makes a nearly 360 degrees bent climbing the steep slope, we leave Arges County and enter Brasov.
The primordial Rucăr Bran Pass
If you close your eyes and open your heart to the wind roaring among the rising stones and to the whispers of the evergreen trees, maybe you will hear the echo of a bell, the bleating of sheep, the call of old folk. For the same path that still exists today was first used by shepherds as they moved their flock from the valleys below to the rich pastures nestled in the mountains.
It was a time before soldiers or merchants ever set foot on this very same road that we, the latest arrivals, tread on today. We label it transhumance, they called it a way of life.
Even today shepherds still graze their flocks, and still use traditional methods for making cheese in pine bark. Wooden houses are scattered over hills, their lush meadows fragrant with the scent of blackberries and strawberries.
The same road stretched underneath the same sky just a few centuries back, when traders with overflowing wagons, topped with goods, but concealed weapons too, trekked along it. Saxons from Braşov, or traders from Wallachia, just as excited to meet like-minded merchants, afraid they be robbed, and ducking when the way narrowed at Rucăr Bran Pass. Eyes darting left and right. Warriors anywhere? Armed men striding to a fight? Phew, all peaceful today!
Even in the 21st century, in the sprinkle of helmets surrounding Bran, among secret mountain paths and whimsical clearances, pastoral rituals are still observed. Thus, on the last Saturday of the month of September, the sheep are brought down from the mountains, after a summer’s worth of grazing, and returned to their owners for the winter, răvăsitul oilor, ‘the outpouring of the sheep’. The shepherds also share with the owners the cheese produced during spring and summer.
We left old Rucăr, trod uphill to Podu Dambovitei, along the winding road leading to Rucăr-Bran Pass, and we made it to Bran Castle. What’s next?
A book of short stories on Bran’s history coming soon and one on Transylvania’s spectacular past.
Discover my books on Amazon.