Rob Crossan visits one of Prince Charles’s Romanian pads and discovers that rather than the mythical vampire-ridden world of Count Dracula, it offers opportunities for bear-spotting in stunning untamed landscape.
The Count and Countess have just said their goodbyes to us after a long dinner of Romanian wine, pork and potatoes in a converted barn. It’s a night devoid of stars or moon and the barn door creaked like a Hammer horror film cliché as they departed.
Minutes pass but I can’t hear the cough of their car engine. Looking outside to see if they’re okay, I’m confronted with nothing but a bare courtyard and the malevolent shriek of a crow.
The Dracula myth
Tibor Kalnoky and his wife, Anna, seem to have just vanished into the ether. Nobody much cares for the Dracula myth in these parts, but moments like this make me wonder just how much of the fables and legends of Transylvania may have their roots in reality.
It’s located in the north-eastern region of Romania, yet a surprising number of my friends seem to be under the impression that Transylvania is a fictitious place. Although it was immortalised by Irish writer Bram Stoker in his late-nineteenth-century novel ‘Dracula’, the truth is that Stoker never even visited the region, and only used Transylvania as the location for his vampire tale because his publishers thought his original idea to base the story in Austria was too similar to other gothic books that had already been published. The reality, however, is even more grisly than the dark world of Stoker’s imagination.
General consensus among academics is that the Dracula myth stems from a fifteenth-century prince called Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, who lived in the region and devised unique forms of torture for his victims which included driving a wooden stake through a poor unfortunate’s anus and pushing it through to his shoulder so that they would be kept in agony for at least two days before dying.
The reality of the Carpathian mountains
Today there is little of the deep pine forests, bats and decrepit castles that you’d expect from the Transylvanian landscape. Rather, driving through the region, in the lower parts of the Carpathian mountains, delivers a landscape of pregnant hummocks, horse and carts avoiding lorries on main roads, storks pecking at the surface of fields of tobacco-coloured soil, indolent sheep grazing by the roadside, the odd Communist-era eyesore factory, sagging telegraph poles, timidly dribbling streams and villages that present a pure ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ vision of a lifestyle that modernity has bypassed.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t vestiges of Vlad and Stoker in the region. To the embarrassment of the locals (who mostly speak Hungarian rather than Romanian, due to the area being ruled by the Magyars for much of its history) there’s a castle in the village of Bran where a man in a vampire cape poses for photos by the entrance with a selection of armoury which, they say, has nothing whatsoever to do with Vlad, or indeed the myth of Dracula dreamed up by Stoker. I decided to avoid this and kept going along the undulating mountain roads to the village of Miklosvar, where Count Tibor Kalnoky owns a property.
The Count himself wasn’t around when I arrived, but I was welcomed with a glass of homemade brandy and tea and cakes by manager and ornithologist Gabor – a 27-year-old local with hands as rough as an emery cloth and an Uncle Joe-esque moustache curled up with pomade.
Fit for a prince
The sprawling medieval house has a sepulchral wine cellar where a gut-busting dinner of wine, chicken and soup was served. The guest rooms lead out on to a small courtyard where water is still brought up by bucket from a well, a vegetable patch produces parsnips and carrots, and the only sound is of horses trotting on the dirt roads or of elderly village women, in garish shawls and floor-length skirts, gossiping on benches outside the onion-domed church and adjacent shop which opens for a total of one hour per day. If I were anywhere else, I’d think I was in some kind of kitsch ‘heritage’ village from medieval times. In Transylvania, however – just a three-hour flight from Luton – this is the way of life for everybody. Well, almost everybody.
I was shown into a very special bedroom in the Count’s home. With embroidered pillows, cotton sheets and a en-suite sauna next to the bathroom, this is the bedroom used by none other than Prince Charles when he comes to the region.
The Prince of Wales has a huge love for Transylvania and has history here dating back to his great grandmother Queen Mary, consort of George V, himself thought to be a descendant of the devilish Vlad the Impaler. Today, the Prince owns two properties in nearby villages, both of which are open to visitors.
The next morning I was invited by Gabor to make the hour-long journey by car to the even more remote village of Zalanpatak, where I would be the first person to stay in the latest addition to the Prince’s property portfolio. Even more intriguingly, I was told that the Count himself and his wife would be joining me for dinner.
The road to Zalanpatak isn’t possible without a four-wheel drive. Ploughing our way through roads that appeared to be 90 per cent potholes, the landscape around us became increasingly raw and untamed. At the entrance to the village, huge piles of smouldering charcoal were crawling with villagers stoking the flames, their faces smeared black with soot.
It’s in villages like this, Gabor told me, that occasional sightings of some of the area’s 6,000 or so bears are possible. Wildcats and wolves are sometimes spotted too. It seemed as if we were finally entering a village where it was possible to really believe there might be some veracity in the Dracula myth.
The farmhouse that the Prince has restored has three rooms leading out on to a courtyard, on the other side of which is a wooden beamed barn with a huge fireplace, dining table and kitchen behind a tiny oak door. It was exactly as the sun set at 8pm that Tibor Kalnoky and his wife Anna appeared; telling me they’d spent the day in the region’s major city, Cluj Napoca – a five-hour drive away – to buy a hat for Prince William’s wedding, to which they’d been invited.
Tibor is a dapper-looking man in his forties, dressed in tweed on this occasion and with an elaborately lacquered shock of black hair. His wife, Anna, is stern-looking with glasses, and was dressed more casually in jeans, her face often melting with laughter once relaxed.
As the brandy and wine were poured, Tibor began to tell me his story. ‘People think a count must be something terrifying, but it is pretty much the equivalent of what would be called an earl in England. My family lost everything during the Ceausescu regime and it took a lot of effort to re-establish myself here. I used to work as a vet, but now I work closely with Prince Charles in managing these properties. We both think that this is Europe’s last true wilderness and the self-sustaining lifestyle that the villagers have here is something that really should be a model for how we should all be living.’
Tibor told me that Prince Charles generally stays here without Camilla and has a smaller than usual entourage of no more than ten when he comes – usually in May. ‘Hardly anybody knows that he’s here,’ Tibor confided. ‘And by the time they do find out, he’s usually gone.’
As the pork and potato dishes came out and we began to dine by candlelight, the sense of being in a land truly untouched by the modern world continued. ‘But,’ I asked Tibor as the vino I was drinking to celebrate my last night in the region began to relax my inhibitions, ‘doesn’t it get annoying when people always bring up capes and fangs?’
‘When I tell people I’m from Romania people’s eyes tend to glaze over,’ he replies. ‘But when I tell people I’m a count from Transylvania they light up! Everybody has so many questions to ask. The myth is nonsense, but it does make my life more interesting!’
Wizz Air flies daily from Luton to Cluj Napoca airport. Visit Avis at the airport to hire a car to take you to the Transylvanian villages.
For more details on staying at one of Prince Charles’s and Count Tibor Kalnoky’s properties visit www.transylvaniancastle.com. B&B from £41 per person per night; full board (including taxes and guided excursions) from £122.