Stranger than fiction
Transylvania was made famous by Bram Stoker but the region's real history and medieval villages are much more interesting than Dracula
The Guardian, Saturday November 3 2007
Machine House Romania
Blood red ... Machine House, Transylvania.
The full moon draws lines of silver around the gloomy power stations on the plains outside Bucharest. Over the Carpathian mountains, the road twists alarmingly and fog descends on Transylvania. Gothic farms flash past as Nic, the taxi driver, expertly juggles three mobile phones, cranks up Van Halen on the radio, and somehow avoids the sepulchral shapes of women clutching babies crossing the treacherously misty road ahead. It is not quite the sort of fright I was expecting on a Halloween trip to Dracula country but it is quite scary enough.
"Transylvania had been a familiar name as long as I could remember. It was the very essence and symbol of remote, leafy, half-mythical strangeness; and, on the spot, it seemed remoter still, and more fraught with charms." So wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor of his romantic walk across this strange and beautiful land in 1934. Like many of his observations about Romania, it is still strikingly appropriate today, although to the Dracula myth we can add the enduring weirdness of those Transylvanian songbirds the Cheeky Girls.
Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who never visited this land, is responsible for its image of towering castles, dark forests and Count Dracula rising above them, but the real Transylvania is more interesting and complex than the strangest of fiction.
The day after my dark drive dawned bright, with the relief and surprise that follows a night arrival. The tree-lined avenue leading into the Count Mikes Estate that had looked forbidding in the dark was russet and gold; the beechwoods on the hills beyond a mix of grey trunks and ochre autumnal leaves. Cooking smells wafted around the cosy, wooden-floored Machine House and, after breakfast, the Countess wandered in to say hello.
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 she spent her teenage years in exile in Austria, returning just once, in disguise, to see her old home. When Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in the revolution of 1989, land was slowly returned to its original owners but it still took years of legal battles before the countess could return to her near-derelict home in 2005.
Helped by her two sons, she has set to work sensitively restoring the estate which her family has held since the 15th century. "I thought we must do something to make it better," she says firmly. Two fine old buildings remain and, last December, a third - the Machine House, which held generators for the primitive hospital the communists established on the estate - was opened as a guesthouse.
A lovely mix of privacy and country house informality, the Machine House has open fires and huge rooms, including the "red room" with a free-standing bath. Antlers on exposed stone walls create a warm, hunting lodge feel, without the gothic horror or the hunting (although the Mikes Estate can set up bear-watching trips - the Carpathians have more bears than anywhere in Europe, as well as wolves). Best of all, in a land unfairly maligned for its cooking, the guesthouse is managed by a chef who conjures up beautifully presented local dishes - venison, wild mushrooms and delicious home-made dips and jams - for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In the soft light of late autumn, the grounds of the estate are almost silent but for the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker on a hollow branch. Red admirals and fritillaries bask in the last sunshine of the year. Beyond its walls unfold thickly wooded foothills where you can take guided treks, and dozens of fascinating settlements, including the local village, Zabola, well worth a tour in the estate's horse and trap. You won't stand out. Horses and carts shaped like troughs are still a common means of transport.
Despite its accession to the EU earlier this year, Romania still gets a bad press: the land of medieval mud that impersonated Kazakhstan in the Borat movie; the post-communist montage of grimy factories and stray dogs; and a people often accused of being implacably prejudiced against minorities like the Gypsies.
It is impossible to leave Romania without scenes of both pre-industrial and post-industrial ruin seared on your retina, but even if it is poorer than its fellow EU members, it cannot simply be branded as backward. Satellite dishes protrude from the grapevines meticulously threaded around homes; surf stickers decorate tractor windscreens. For every horse pulling a plough, there are families in SUVs; for every stream inexplicably flecked with plastic rubbish, there are immaculate Transylvanian villages such as Zabola: attractive and, without any "western" input, already completely sustainable.
There are many extraordinary places to visit on day trips from the Mikes Estate, including the mountain-framed city of Brasov and the stunning medieval settlement of Sighisoara, a Unesco world heritage site and the birthplace of Wallachian prince, Vlad Draculea, the infamous "Vlad the Impaler" who had a predilection for skewering enemies on wooden poles and, very loosely, inspired Stoker's entirely fictional Count Dracula.
But the most startling of all Transylvania's other worlds are the Saxon villages built by the 12th-century immigrants. Thriving in their beautifully ordered agricultural settlements, the Saxons retained their German language for the next 800 years and by the 1930s numbered 800,000. Thousands were killed during the second world war or fled during Ceausescu's regime. While ethnic Hungarians such as Countess Mikes returned to their land after the dictator was deposed, many Saxons have relocated to Germany in recent years, leaving behind their stunning villages of fortified churches, walled courtyards and broad, green streets.
One, Viscri, has been beautifully conserved, helped by a local charity which now boasts Prince Charles for a patron. Many, such as Apold and Bradeni, remain ordinary, working villages, with scarcely a car or shop in sight. Others, on rutted dirt roads, are near deserted, sad shells of the past. Here, Leigh Fermor's account of Transylvania in 1934 still holds true: "The rhythm of life had remained many decades behind the west - a hundred years, perhaps." Membership of the EU will soon change this. Much will be good - signs already show the cottage industries and admirable conservation efforts being funded - but much could be lost, particularly when the planned motorways traverse Transylvania, changing its still, silent valleys for ever.
Black Tomato (020-7610 9008, blacktomato.co.uk) offers four nights' B&B the Machine House on the Count Mikes Estate, Transylvania (zabola.com) from £499pp including BA flights and private transfers.