Vampires and untouched Wilderness
Exit Magazin, Stephen Toner, Jan 2008
At the first mention of this place there is one word that always comes to mind –Count Dracula.
Vlad Dracula, the ruler of the first Romanian state of Wallachia was known as Vlad the Impaler as he left his enemies to die slowly on stakes. This tale became the inspiration for many literary pieces and today moulds common perception of Transylvania.
As I drive through Transylvania from Bucharest I soon hit the foot of the Carpathian Mountains and every visual expectation I had is washed away. I had been expecting to find a land that comes hand in hand with the legend of Dracula. Instead, I drive straight into a magical Winter Wonderland and it’s only early November.I hadn’t prepared myself for the sheer breathtaking beauty. It’s like taking a trip through a myriad of fairytales from snow-tipped evergreens, to winding mountain roads flanked with warm autumnal trees and sunshine streaming down from clear blue skies. The light falls like a jigsaw puzzle and you feel it your duty to carry on driving and try putting the puzzle pieces together.
Driving out of the mountains towards my final destination of Zabola you find yourself drifting further and further back in time. Villages are medieval in their spirit and appearance, some of these settlements are over eight hundred years old. There is the occasional odd juxtaposition of a very dated satellite dish planted on a wooden, colonial looking home, the type you come across on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. But none the less there is the feeling that time has stood still in this region, something very rare in today’s European countries.
Pork and bread are for sale at the roadside and many of the villages consist of a hamlet of houses, a wishing well and a church. Curiously however, I did find several second hand shops (actually often more like someone’s front room rather than a shop), in pretty much every village I drove through. I stopped at many, and actually they where all worth the rummage.
An unexpected mode of transport across Transylvania is horse and cart and whilst I imagined myself part of a Constable or Turner painting, I was also able to marvel in the timeless practicality of this type of transport that seemed very fitting in the surrounding landscape.
A few challenging map-reading moments later; I dodged the last free wandering cow and arrived at Zabola. Driving through the carved wooden arch entrance I absorbed the ever-changing atmosphere of Transylvania, although now arriving at my destination under darkness. I began to feel a little like I hoped I would, scared and frightened and as if I had truly entered Count Dracula’s hideaway. Foreboding trees loomed large, silhouettes seemed menacing and the fortified church challenging. Driving through a tree-lined roadway into the grounds of the estate I arrived at The Machine House where I would be staying for the next few nights. Receiving a warm welcome from the housekeeper, and felt like I had arrived at the peaceful sanctuary I’d been searching for. A roaring wood fire, large inviting sofas, board games and candlelight were extremely inviting. I just wanted to curl up with a book and dream about everything I had seen that day. After some great home cooked food, I ended up doing just that.
Katalin Roy Chowdhury, or Countess Mikes (pronounced Mickesh), was a small child when she was taken from her ancestral home in the middle of the night in 1949 and spent her teenage years in exile in Austria, returning just once, in disguise, to see her old home. After Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in the revolution of 1989, land was slowly returned to its original owners but it took years of legal battles before the countess could return again to her near derelict home in 2005. Helped by her two sons they set to work to restore the estate and soon opened as Count Mikes Estate, an office building from the communist era, it has been transformed into a fabulous six bedroom rustic guesthouse and masters the popular ‘shabby chic’ ambience that I love.
Exploring the visually indulgent landscape within the estate, I felt relaxed,rejuvenated and a sense of welcome isolation. The beech wood forests engulf the mountains, kissing the surrounding deep blue sky. In addition to The Machine House, there are two magnificent ancient stately homes within the grounds at present unoccupied and in the process of being restored for eventual habitation. They are both full of character, beautiful in appearance and open to be explored. Also within the grounds of the estate sits a stunning fishing lake that I spent a tranquil moment watching the sunshine play on the water and autumnal leaves drift down from the trees that lined the lake’s edge.
The Machine House will happily arrange enticing day trips during your stay, bear-watching being a more unique experience, for the Carpathians have more bears than anywhere in Europe. One trip that I strongly advise is visiting the mountain-framed city of Brasov and the stunning medieval settlement of Sighisoara. Thrilling and historical as it is the birthplace of Wallachian prince, the infamous ‘Vlad the Impaler’. However I felt, as I have throughout this journey, that the charm of Transylvania is creating your own journey and letting the story unfold. Visiting so many Saxon villages which where built by the 12th-century immigrants where enough to write my story itself. Flourishing in their beautifully ordered agricultural settlements, many Saxons have relocated to Germany in recent years, leaving behind their stunning villages of fortified churches, walled courtyards and broad, green streets for discerning travellers to experience.
My final adventure and mini road-trip took me to St Ann’s Lake, the only volcano crater lake in the region and a two hours drive from The Machine House through breathtaking mountain scenery. Legend has it that a proud landowner, collected the virgins from the region, and forced them to pull his carriage and as they did the girls cried the lake full with their tears. The drive into the mountains in search of this lake is as much of an experience as finding the lake herself. The view from the top of the mountain was the perfect backdrop for the homemade picnic lunch, the Machine House housekeeper had thoughtfully prepared. Whilst there is a sad but romantic story attached to the lake, it was beautiful, extremely beautiful and probably my highlight of Transylvania. Whilst standing on the jetty at the lake, reminding myself of where I was, I thought that however my fairytale ends, Transylvania definitely offered an experience that I was not expecting but very happy to have indulged.
Exit travelled to Romania with award-winning Black Tomato. To book your bespoke Romania or Bucharest break, visit www.blacktomato.co.uk or call +44 (0) 20 7610 9008 Words Thumper Finch.