Grin and bear it

The Spectator, Neil Barnett, Thursday, 1st February 2007

As my little car laboured around a bend in the snowy Carpathian logging road, a brown furry figure jumped out of the forest on all fours and made off in front of the car. It was, perhaps, a sign that I had been too long in the city that I identified it as a man in a bear outfit. But as we pursued the lolloping creature, I realised my mistake: this was the real thing, a bear!

Bears make regular raids on the towns and villages of Transylvania in search of food. Occasionally they are shot; more often they get away, and their lot is infinitely better than the pigs’. One amazingly cold morning, not long after the start of my Transylvanian holiday, I was invited to a pig-killing, the highlight of the social calendar in this part of central Transylvania.

My hosts were Székely (pron. Se-kay) farmers, members of a Hungarian-speaking people claiming separate origins from the Magyars. They are tough, independent and mordantly humorous people who defended the borders of Transylvania and later the Habsburg empire from the Turks. In return they enjoyed the privilege of self-government like Russia’s Cossacks, free from serfdom and foreign military service.

This tradition of cussedness remains gloriously intact. Behind the ornately carved wooden arches that stand in front of Székely houses, what happens is more or less what always happened. Seeing that we were freezing, our host offered us a shot glass filled with a treacly black liquid which looked like Fernet Branca or the Hungarian Unicum. But it tasted like meths and was, we were told, industrial alcohol flavoured with cumin, just the thing to fortify you before witnessing the last moments of a pig.

The noise made by a stuck pig is just as you would imagine, with a fair amount of thrashing about and gore, but it left the assembled farmers, children, grandmothers and gypsies undisturbed, and terrified only the dog. The puli is an ancient Hungarian sheepdog that looks like a cocker spaniel in a Rastafarian wig, and despite his small size he’s usually fearless and ultra-territorial. But as the pig’s demise went on (usually it takes a good half hour), there was no mistaking the terror gripping the little black puli. After some whimpering, the dog retreated to the farthest part of his kennel, where he became invisible. Perhaps he thought he was for the chop too.

My next outing was to revisit the bears. At last light we walked into the foothills of the Carpathians to a clearing. The ghillie then festooned the trees and ground with apples, chocolate bars and meat before joining us in an enclosed tree-house equipped with a narrow viewing slit. Ten minutes later a Goldilocks-style family of bears sauntered up, two parents and two cubs, looking around as if it was all too good to be true. Twenty years ago, they would have been right. Nicholas Ceausescu, the communist leader of Romania, used to have the finest bear lured to just such a spot in exactly this way — then he’d fly in from Bucharest in a helicopter and shoot them.

I was there to watch, not to kill, but I’m sure I had just as much fun as Ceausescu. The bears made small whooping sounds and one of the cubs, made lightheaded by the windfall, threw an apple at his father’s back. For one moment it seemed as if a food fight would break out, before the daddy bear returned placidly to his haunch of mutton.

For the moment, there are no budget flights straight to Transylvania — which, when you consider the plight of Prague or Zagreb, is no bad thing. In a few years, I imagine, word of its natural beauty and wildness will spread, and visitors will descend in great numbers. For the moment, though, the flipside of having the place to yourself is that there isn’t a great choice of places to stay outside towns like Târgu Mures or Cluj. A good base is the guesthouse on the Count Mikes Estate in Zabola, nestling at the foot of the Carpathians ( Gregor and Alexander Roy-Chowdhury, its owners, are scions of the ancient Hungarian Mikes family and of a Bengali aristocrat. Romania’s communist regime seized the family’s property and used the buildings in Zabola to house a camp for communist youth and a hospital for tuberculosis, but Gregor abandoned his career in investment banking to reclaim the family property through restitution, and now has six guest rooms in a converted outbuilding, though the estate’s two castles remain uninhabitable.

It’s not too difficult to get to the estate — I was picked up from Brasov station by Árpi, one of the estate retainers, a chap recognisable from the Cotswolds to the Urals: gumboots, canvas trousers, moustache and roll-up cigarettes. And the food is good and traditional. Transylvanian food is, like the land itself, a mixture of Hungarian, Romanian and Saxon and, as I witnessed, the farming methods are entirely traditional. ‘We cook partly according to 18th- and 19th-century aristocratic Transylvanian cookbooks,’ said Zsolna, Gregor’s wife. ‘We have lots of trout from the river and game like wild boar.’ That night I dined off Hungarian pörkölt (often called goulash elsewhere) with Romanian mamaliga (polenta), a perfect Transylvanian concoction. Homemade plum pálinka proved a welcome improvement on industrial alcohol, cumin or no cumin.

After supper I ventured across the ‘volcanoes’ to a boozer in the singular village of Kommando. As the name suggests, Kommando was a military frontier post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, perched in a lonely spot high above Zabola. I must have seemed quite exotic to these stout mountaineers, whose favourite food in the depths of winter seems to be ice cream, and whose tolerance of the Bontempi organ is superhuman. But they proved, like everyone that we encountered, astoundingly friendly.