What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word Transylvania? Vampires? Pale mist stealthily creeping through haunted forests? Howling wolves on the prowl and turreted castles, darkly brooding under perpetually ominous skies?
Whenever I envisioned Transylvania, those were the images that filled my head for most of my life. As a kid, I didn’t even know it was a real place! I thought it was a fictitious setting created by writers of science fiction for eager vampire lovers.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with all of its historical inaccuracies, just added fuel to my imaginative fire. When our Romanian friends in Switzerland showed us a video to dispel some of the myths, we saw a country that was far more fascinating than any movie. The real-life Dracula’s Castle – Bran Castle – might not in any way resemble the mountaintop stronghold from the film, but Corvin Castle in the town of Hunedoara very much does. As the first stop on our 11-day road trip from Switzerland to Romania, it left us awestruck. We guarantee that if you visit, you’ll feel the same!
Referred to in Romanian as Castelul Corvinilor, it’s known in English as either Corvin, Hunedoara, or Hunyadi Castle. The names originated from the Hunedoara region where the castle is located as well as from the Hunyadi/Corvin family that was most closely associated with it from its modest beginnings in the early 1400s.
Part of a Roman settlement until 1409, the land surrounding the castle was gifted by King Sigismund of Luxembourg, the King of Hungary, to Voyk de Hunedoara. It was a reward for loyally serving as a skilled military leader for many years.
High above the ground, an open-air walkway links the Capistrano Tower in the main castle with the Neboisa Gallery and Tower.
The property later passed to Voyk’s son, John Hunedoara, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a brilliant military strategist. Both men are still honored in both Hungary and Romania for their efforts to protect their borders from the Ottoman invasion of Europe in the 15th century.
In keeping with the customs of a typical hereditary monarchy, the castle and lands passed from John Hunedoara to his younger son, Matthias Corvinus, after his elder brother was executed during a struggle for power. Matthias Corvinus, also known as Matthias the Just, later ruled as the much-loved King of Hungary for over three decades. A stained glass window above John Hunedoara’s tomb in the chapel memorializes his grandson, Joan Corvinus de Huniad, the son of Matthias Corvinus.
It was Matthias Corvinus who was the first family member to take on the surname Corvinus, which in Latin means raven. Though several legends exist about why the raven began to represent the Hunedoara family, appearing on its coat of arms and replacing Hunyadi or Hunedoara as the family’s surname, one of the more popular legends explains not only the image of the raven but why it’s typically shown with a gold ring in his beak.
This legend paints a picture of forbidden love between King Sigismund and the mother of John Hunedoara, Elizabeth Morsina. Unable to marry her himself, it’s said that the King arranged her marriage to his trusted military leader, Voyk. When she bore a child, the King gave her a golden ring, one she treasured for many years until, left unattended, it was spirited away by a curious raven with a penchant for sparkly baubles.
A young John, already proving his prowess as a hunter, tracked down the bird, killing it and retrieving the golden band. Though historians place little validity in this legend, the raven is very much a part of Corvin Castle’s history, regardless of the origins.
The castle may no longer bear the mark of its original luxuries, but its two large halls, Diet Hall and Knight’s Hall, remain richly decorated with marble.
Overlooking the central courtyard, windows in the Knight’s Hall hold thick colored glass, bubbled and warped with age.
Just past Knight’s Hall, visitors can climb a circular stairway to the upper floors of the castle with its many towers.
The spires of Castelul Corvinilor are known for the brightly colored, shiny tiles on the roofs.
During our climb to one of the towers, the town of Hunedoara sprawled sleepily in the intense afternoon sun. Even in the dry heat of fall, the trees throughout town threw off pretty shades of green.
From the tower you can walk through the Capistrano Tower, which was at one time used as a prison.
Only a few meters across but high above the ground, the covered bridge is the only link between the circular Capistrano Tower and the Neboisa Gallery, which in Serbian means “Don’t be afraid.” We followed the long gallery to the Neboisa Tower, the furthest tower from the rest of the castle.
Descending back down to the lower floors, we came across an interesting old photo of the castle with information about its initial construction. The original complex likely resembled a fortress more than a castle. Much less fanciful than the one that stands today, it lacked the buttresses, soaring spires, and sprawling complex of towers.
Racked by several major fires over the centuries, it was heavily damaged by a fire in 1854; many of the castle’s current features were added during renovations after that fire.
The main hallway lining the courtyard might quite possibly be the only bright and cheerful place in an otherwise brooding castle.
In the courtyard, we paused briefly to admire several works of mosaic artist. We weren’t familiar with the Romanian artist, Alexandru Podea, but liked the couple of pieces he had on display. If you’re lucky, the pieces will still be on exhibit if you happen to visit Corvin Castle.
Hot, tired, and thirsty, I was still completely jazzed after visiting Corvin Castle. Not eager to leave, we sat outside the main gate and watched not one, but three separate wedding parties in progress on the grounds.
Can you imagine getting married at one of the Seven Wonders of the World?!
With a 2-hour drive still ahead of us, our final destination for the evening was Cartisoara, a tiny village at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. There, we’d be meeting up with our two Romanian friends to spend an afternoon with their wonderfully hospitable family members in Cartisoara, where we’d experience the heartbeat of Romania. After that, we’d travel with them for a couple of days before heading off in search of our own adventures in Romania.
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Know Before You Go
Dogs are not allowed in the castle.
Student tickets are the ridiculously cheap price of only 5 lei (about $1.25) so if you’re a student, bring your id!
Ticket prices vary depending on the season, so plan to visit in the off-season if you want to save some money.
Map of Romania Road Trip, Part 1
The orange pins mark our travel for day two; the blue line roughly follows the first half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited.