Simple pleasures

In a Europe that is becoming increasingly homogeneous, the mountains, forests and villages of Transylvania in Romania remain the last outpost of a more ancient era. Romanians, Saxons and Hungarians live in a patchwork of simple farming villages, drawing water from wells, living by near-subsistence agriculture and artisanal work. Dracula might be Transylvania's most obvious poster boy, but there is real romance and mystery to be found in this beautiful and ancient region.

[...] Covered by thickly forested hills and mountains inhabited by bears and wolves, where shepherds live outside with their flocks, Transylvania is a truly Arcadian place. But this unspoiled condition means it can be difficult to visit: roads are in poor condition and there is virtually no tourist infrastructure.

[..] Cultural and wildlife programmes can keep guests occupied for up to a fortnight. 'They might stay one night in the village and take a cart ride through the woods, then visit Saxon [German] and Székely [Hungarian] villages and natural attractions such as St Ann's lake, the only volcano crater lake in the region. They can also go bird watching and bear tracking. In winter we have a shuttle bus to the skiing resort of Poiana Brasov, just an hour away'.

To the east of Miklosvar lies the Zabola estate of the Mikes family, owned by Kálnoky's cousins, Gregor and Alexander Roy Chowdhury, whose mother was a scion of the ancient Mikes family and whose father was a Bengali aristocrat. Roy Chowdhury, who is still in his twenties, gave up a career as an investment banker in London to reclaim and revive his family's estates, which he is in the process of restoring and offering as a tourist destination. Like Kálnoky, he recovered a portion of his family property through restitution, which reversed the expropriation carried out by Romania's previous communist regime.

Kálnoky and Roy Chowdhury's return to Romania, reclamation of family property and investment in restoration and tourism is remarkable given the turbulent and at times brutal history of Transylvania. Looking across the snow-covered acres of the Zabola park, Roy Chowdhury says: 'In the 1920s there was land reform after Transylvania passed from Hungary to Romania, and this reduced the estate. Then in 1949 the entire estate was expropriated by the communists. But my mother never stopped believing that we would reclaim our property.'

Although thousands of hectares of Mikes forest and agricultural land remain subject to court action under the restitution law, Roy Chowdhury has recovered the Zabola park, including its old castle, for now the preserve of bats, and a newer castle currently used as a sanatorium, but soon to be vacated. But perhaps the most intriguing building is the surprisingly mobile Swiss house, which is now being run as a guest house while the castles are being restored.

He says: 'The Swiss house was moved from Berne to Paris in 1889 for the great exhibition, and thence to Vienna. My great-grandmother bought it in the 1890s and took it to Zabola.' When the house was reclaimed from the state it was in bad condition. 'There were chickens in the dining room,' he adds.

Today the Swiss house has been beautifully restored, with simple, solid furniture and local carpets offset by warm colours and roaring log fires - a perfect retreat from the rigours of the Transylvanian winter after a ride in a horse-drawn sled. With only four guestrooms, and surrounded by 40 hectares of park, you are unlikely to feel crowded out.

Whereas Kálnoky's property is in the middle of a village, the Zabola park is more secluded, and guests are free to roam through its tree-lined avenues and lawns. But, like Kálnoky, Roy Chowdhury is offering cultural and wildlife activities. One fascinating excursion is the nearby village of Comandau (or Komandó), up at 1,100m. As its name suggests, Comandau grew up around its garrison, who were charged with defending this part of the Austro-Hungarian empire's frontier from attack. Even today, it retains an extraordinary air of robust martial pride, despite switching to logging from its more soldierly activities.

Roy Chowdhury, too, intends to restore the estate's role as the economic centre of its local village. Transylvania is culturally rich, but decades of communism and the disruption wrought by the change of system have resulted in depressed living standards and an exodus of the young. Providing employment for guides, drivers, cooks and maids will help to regenerate village economies. 'When the hospital moves, some of the 50 employees will not move with it, so there will be a need for jobs,' he says.

Both men are resolute in their belief that sensitive, low-volume tourism in Transylvania can help to revive local economies and provide a new living for estates and country houses. For those who are willing to come and investigate an almost forgotten corner of the continent, these guest houses offer nothing less than a chance to travel back in time to an European idyll.