Living in the land of Dracula

 

Hollywood's version of Transylvania, all rocky crags, black cloaks and dripping fangs, does wonders for tourism, but the real place is outstandingly beautiful - and home to a way of life now lost elsewhere in Europe. How much longer can it thrive, asks Deirdre McQuillan

BLAME THE IRISH for misleading the world about Transylvania. Bram Stoker's Gothic novel Dracula, with its bloodthirsty vampires and spooky castles, spawned a host of Hollywood films that perpetuated the myth of a dangerous, remote realm, all rocky crags, black cloaks and dripping fangs. Today these associations do wonders for vampire tourism in southern Romania, and despite its very tenuous link with Vlad the Impaler - a real warlord called Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Devil, on whom the character of Count Dracula was based - Bran Castle attracts hordes of visitors every year.

The real Transylvania is outstandingly beautiful, its idyllic landscapes at total variance with its popular fictional image. I spent some time recently in the Hungarian-speaking area, based in a village called Miclosoara that friends had recommended, about a 40-minute drive from Brasov, one of Europe's best-preserved medieval cities, which is surrounded on three sides by the Carpathian Mountains.

It was a key location for the film of Cold Mountain, with Nicole Kidman, and was also used in the new Harry Potter movie, and it has much to explore, but I wanted to get into the countryside. Miclosoara, closed to visitors during the Ceausescu era, is a secluded Szekler - or Settler - village untouched for centuries, where a number of houses are being restored and revived for tourism. Like many thousands of other Romanian villages, it was scheduled for destruction in 1990 by the old regime.

Such a fate would have ended a way of life rich in tradition that now continues undamaged despite growing local fears about the effects of EU farming regulations.

A typical day in the village begins, as it has from time immemorial, at dawn when a boy sounds a silver bugle. At this signal a gate opens at each house, and from the cobbled yard emerges a cow, joining her next companion along the street - I must have counted 30 one morning. Followed by goats and horses in a steady procession, the herd, like something out of the ark, slowly makes its way to pastures way up in the foothills of the mountains.

It takes these animals about an hour to reach their grazing grounds, where they remain for the day, tails flicking peacefully in the shade of wild pear, hornbeam and veteran oak trees. At about 7pm they return home to be milked, plodding slowly back through the village to their waiting owners, oblivious to impatient trucks, cars and other vehicles in their wake, the odd moo announcing their arrival. It is an unforgettable sight.

A few days later, on a lovely sunny September day, with a guide on a horse-drawn cart, we trotted past those pastures, through wild-flower meadows studded with crocus and chicory, on our way to visit a shepherd and his flock. "People here are always working for tomorrow," said our guide as we watched the harvesting and passed other horse-drawn carts laden with hay.

From April to September shepherds set up home up with their families in the higher reaches of the plateaux, milking the sheep twice a day in pens, making cheese that is sent back down to the village. Fierce packs of guard dogs protect them at night from bears and wolves. Our shepherd slept out in the open, armed with a gun, his bed a rudimentary wooden box lined with sheepskins. Romania's Carpathian Mountains have Europe's largest population of brown bears, said to number about 5,500, and stories abound of their foraging activities close to towns. The shepherd's young daughter paraded her dolly pram proudly around their shack for us while he complained about rumours that the EU might restrict the number of guard dogs he could have.

Such is the beauty of the landscape that some observers have described it as being what 18th-century English parkland looked like before the introduction of enclosures; others say it brings the Grimms' fairy tales to mind. I had come down from the north of the country to Brasov on a train journey that took eight hours through some of the most glorious scenery imaginable - and awful environmental destruction, too - so had seen swathes of Romania beforehand.

These Transylvanian tours are organised by an enterprising, well-travelled Hungarian Romanian veterinary surgeon called Count Tibor Kálnoky, the fifth generation of an aristocratic family, who returned to the ancestral estate in Miklosoara from a lucrative pharmaceutical job in Germany. He then set about restoring it and setting up guest-house accommodation to attract tourists interested in history, culture and wildlife.

The ruined 17th-century hunting lodge is being saved, but it is an enormous undertaking that will take years to complete. Its wrecked grandeur inspired the French actress Fanny Ardant to select it as a location for a film yet to be made, an Albanian revenge tragedy.

"Many people thought I was mad," Kálnoky tells me with a smile as we sit at a table shaded by vines outside the guest house, but it is obvious that his dedication and sense of mission have reaped rewards of every kind for him and his young family.

The restoration of the houses, many of which date back to the l800s, and their furnishings has been done with taste, exactitude and an eye for detail; my lovely room has linen and lace sheets and the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in.

You get a sense of the variety and self-sufficiency of village life that's now almost extinct elsewhere in Europe, and he encourages visitor engagement. We meet locals, such as the beekeeper, the blacksmith and a doughty septuagenarian woman still working from morning to night, running a mill grinding corn, weaving, farming, cooking and gardening - and clearly adored by her grandchildren.

One afternoon, on a trip with Kálnoky through maize fields down to the river for a picnic, we count more than 21 species of bird, including a kingfisher, a Syrian woodpecker and the great grey shrike, otherwise known as the butcher bird, for its gruesome habit of staking its prey after the kill. Kálnoky is an avid ornithologist, his bible the Collins guide, which is illustrated by Killian Mullarney.

There was something to discover every day. In the nearby village of Vargyas we meet a member of the Suto family, who have been making and painting furniture for 15 generations, since their arrival as carpenters and joiners to furnish Daniel Castle in 1568. Their traditional furniture and wood carvings are painted freehand, using colours made from minerals sourced in a nearby gorge, and decorated with ironwork forged by the local blacksmith.

Ornate wooden entrance gates, characteristic of Szekely folk art, are everywhere, embellished with floral patterns and other motifs; the Sutos' gate is particularly rich in detail. In the local graveyards are unusual wooden totems on the graves, topped with tulip motifs - open for a female, closed for a male - which are peculiar to Transylvania.

Our group was a mixed bunch of mostly UK visitors, along with an Australian and an Iranian, and we dined together every evening convivially at one long table in the wine cellar of the house beside a blazing wooden fire. The food and local wine were excellent; we usually had a light soup followed by a stew and dessert. Apple soup was a new experience one night; juice from the orchards is preserved using grated horseradish. Occasionally, bread is baked in a cabbage leaf, which imparts both a pattern and a particular taste.

"Transylvania" comes from a Latin phrase meaning "beyond the forest", and the region's wonders are rapidly being discovered by the outside world. Off the main highways, roads can be difficult and potholed, and signposting is notoriously confusing, so it's best to take organised tours where possible.

The dead may have come to life in Bram Stoker's novel, but in Transylvania today a landscape and way of life now lost elsewhere in Europe are thriving. But for how long?

Go there

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com) flies from Dublin to Bucharest, but they arrive late at night, so you need to stay in the city before venturing farther.

Deirdre McQuillan few with Tarom (www.tarom.ro/en/), the Romanian national carrier, from London Heathrow, returning with Aer Lingus.

Where to stay, where to go and what to eat in Romania

Where to stay

Travelling to Transylvania will almost certainly mean spending a night in Bucharest. The small Rembrandt Hotel (Smardan Street 11, 00-40-21- 3139315, www.rembrandt.ro) has been highly recommended. From Bucharest Airport you get a taxi into town (about €15), then a train to Brasov, two and a half hours away.

Count Kálnoky's Estate. Miclosoara, 00-40-742-202586, www.transylvaniancastle.com. These restored buildings are a great place to stay. The main building has a reception area, wine cellar, restaurant and some upstairs rooms. Outlying buildings, some a five-minute walk away, house guest rooms. What makes it an all-year-round attractive location is that tours are offered every day to places that would be otherwise difficult to find. It is a hiker's paradise, and some guests told me that it's even lovelier in winter, when the place is covered in snow. The website gives lots of information about the cultural and nature tours, as well as its riding treks.

Casa Rozelor. Str Michael Weiss 20, Brasov, 00-40-268-475212, www.casarozelor.ro. A hotel and art gallery in a converted medieval granary.

Casa Wagner. Piata Sfatului 5, Brasov, 00-40-268-411253, www.casa-wagner.eu. At this converted 15th-century German bank, in the city's main square, each room is decorated in a
different style.

If you prefer a package, UK-based company Beyond the Forest (www.beyondtheforest.com, 00-44-1539531258) organises week-long full-board tours from the UK to Transylvania, with flights,
transfers and excursions.

Where to go

Bran Castle. Traian Mosoiu str 489, Bran, 00-40-268-238333, www.brancastlemuseum.ro. This 14th-century fortress on top of a 60m crag, about 25km south of Brasnov, is promoted for its tenuous link with Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, and is the former home of queen Marie of Romania, a member of the British royal family and a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, who decorated much of the interior. Bran Castle is now a museum, attracting nearly 500,000 visitors a year.
Count Kálnoky also offers a tour.

Transylvania is a huge region made up of 10 counties, with much to see and explore - some great cities, for example, such as Brasov, the fortress town of Sighisoara and historic Sibiu, are said to have more than 100 attractions, including a lot of castles, such as Bran, Hunedoara and Peles. It is a region of unspoilt landscapes and mountain passes made for activities such as skiing, hiking, paragliding, wildlife spotting or, simply, walking.

It's easy enough to hire a car, but everybody I know who has done so warns about the difficulties of getting around, particularly when few people in the countryside speak English and signage is haphazard. Trains can be tricky enough; some are better than others, and it's often necessary to book ahead. You are told to beware of walking too close to flocks of sheep; guard dogs can be zealous.

What to eat

Transylvanian cuisine has been influenced by the region's history of invasion and the effects of different cultures, from the Greeks and ancient Romans to the Saxons, who settled in the south, not to mention the Slavs and Hungarians.

Fresh bread and homemade jams are the usual breakfast fare, and the honey is good - you often see lorries with portable hives travelling the roads. Guest-house fare tends to be hearty home-cooking, with starters of salami, cucumbers and picked peppers, followed by meaty stews and pastry desserts or ice cream. Transylvanian wine is excellent and inexpensive.

What to read

The three guidebooks I used were The Rough Guide to Romania(£11.99), Transylvania: A Land Beyond Fiction and Mythby Zoltan Farkas and Judit Sos (Jel Kep, £11.90) and Transylvaniaby
Lucy Mallows (Bradt Guides, £14.99).