Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “At Home In… Transylvania?”.
“How much were they asking?” I inquire. “Eighty-five million U.S. dollars,” answers the gentleman showing me around the property overlooking the Carpathian Mountains. The place doesn’t have central heating, and the windows are awfully small, but the 14th-century pile is a residence fit for a queen. Which it once was. Queen Marie of Romania called the 57-room Bran Castle, complete with a secret stairway to a wood-panelled library, her home from 1920 to 1938. Oh—and Dracula may have slept here.
My husband, Stefan, and I are scouting for a vacation home in the long-contested central region of Romania known by Romanians as Ardeal, by Hungarians as Erdely, by German-speaking Saxon settlers as Siebenbürgen, and by horror-movie fans and English-lit majors around the world as Transylvania. Stefan, who grew up in western Romania, knows it as the place that his grandparents are from.
Our week-long itinerary has us threading our way through Transylvania’s cultural quilt, from the walled Saxon fortress city of Sibiu to the rural, Hungarian-flavoured region called Székelyföld (Szekely Land).
I’m looking for cosy, while Stefan, Mr. Mid-Century Modern, prefers sleek. But we’re in agreement that we don’t want anything like the residential developments going up in the region, which seem pitched toward British buyers who’ve been following the preservation efforts in Romania’s Saxon villages by Prince Charles and the Mihai Eminescu Trust.
Call us crazy, but we want a fixer-upper à la Peter Mayle’s nest in Provence.
Bran Castle was the ultimate fixer-upper when Marie, a granddaughter of England’s Queen Victoria, took possession of the neglected château.
“Its solitude appealed to me,” the eccentric royal said. “I instantly longed to possess it and to give life to it.”
Queen Marie’s descendants had been looking to unload the property, but no buyers stepped forward with the money, so it’s open for tours. At the foot of the castle, we run a gauntlet of souvenir stalls selling Vlad kitsch—fanged beer steins, gory T-shirts, bottles of Dracula Blood wine.
“What exactly is Dracula’s connection to Bran Castle?” I ask Nicolae Pepene, a local historian and the manager of another Transylvanian fortress, the citadel at Rasnov.
“In the 1960s,” he tells us, “when Romania was ruled by a communist government, its tourism czars decided it could be advantageous to market a place associated with Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century Prince of Walachia.” Tepes’s nickname? Vlad the Impaler, for his practice of having his enemies impaled on stakes as a warning display. He is thought to have been the historical figure on whom the Irish novelist Bram Stoker loosely based his popular 1897 neck-biter.
“They looked around at all of the available castles and decided that this castle at Bran, which guarded the one mountain pass running between Transylvania and Walachia, looked sufficiently Gothic,” he says. (Bonus point: Poiana Braşov, a popular ski resort, is only 13 kilometres away.) So what if the castle’s actual connection with Vlad Tepes is slim: Depending on what account you read, the moustachioed prince may have spent a night or two here as a prisoner, or he may have attacked it once.
“It doesn’t really matter that visitors to the castle have their minds full of the myth of Dracula or of tales of Queen Marie of Romania,” Pepene continues. “In the end they’ve travelled here to experience a fragment of those old times.”
Flash back a couple of days, and Stefan and I are toasting the start of our Romanian journey at the urbane La Turn Restaurant in Sibiu, an ancient town that once was the capital of the principality of Transylvania.
“To fruitful house hunting!” I say, clinking goblets with Stefan beneath the restaurant’s Euro-chic pendant lighting.
“May I pour you another glass?” a young server asks in perfect English. He tells us that he also speaks German and Spanish in addition to his native Romanian. Our fellow diners include university professors, IT folk, and other cosmopolitans. This old fortified town—one of seven that were established by the Germanic Saxons to defend Transylvania’s borders from the Eastern infidels—exhibits the slow creep of modernity in its medieval downtown. Polished museums, cafés, and open-air rock concerts in the enormous main square up the coolness quotient. We scan notices of apartments for sale in historic buildings—but decide we really came to Transylvania for its traditional country lifestyle.
The next day we depart Sibiu to explore rural parts of what the British botanist John Akeroyd calls “the last example of an intact medieval landscape in Europe.” Driving northwest, we head into Mărginimea Sibiului, a neighbouring region of 18 villages that dot the foothills of the Cindrel Mountains in the Carpathian range, which swings down from Poland and Ukraine in a backward “C” to form Transylvania’s eastern and southern borders. We cruise through Orlat, Sibiel, and Sălişte. Sheep graze on village greens; storks nest atop telephone poles. Strongholds of Romanian culture in a historically Germanic area, the villages are proud of their ethnographic museums and centuries-old churches, but today we have eyes only for casa de vanzare—house for sale—signs.
“There’s a place for sale,” I point out.
Stefan doesn’t slow down. “It should be illegal to paint a house that colour,” he exclaims.
Homes are awash in bright hues: salmon pink, hospital green, and a purple shade I associate with my preteen obsession with Donny and Marie Osmond. Many have wide wooden gates for cows and horse carts to enter inner courtyards. Small recesses above gateways display painted religious icons. It is late afternoon, and cows already stand patiently outside their gates, waiting for their owners to let them in. Properties become grander and better-tended as we climb the foothills. Yet nothing appeals enough to Stefan to make him stop.
Then something happens that sets our villa search on a different track entirely. I had booked two nights at an inn that belongs to a small but growing network of culturally authentic Romanian accommodations. Turning off just past Bran’s town limits, we follow a road that spirals up through a forest of pines, rounding several switchback turns as we climb, our tyres spitting gravel.
“Where is this going?” Stefan mutters. “We can just stay one night, right?”
When the road finally levels off, we emerge from the trees and find ourselves on a grassy hill. Along the horizon on one side stretch the snow-capped peaks of the Piatra-Craiului range; the equally grand summits of the Bucegi range rise on the other. The fresh air makes me heady. Compared to the visual jumble in the town below, the houses and farms here possess an almost spiritual tranquillity. We pass a black-shingled, white-walled Orthodox monastery that looks as crisp as a tuxedo. Slopes of “fat” grass, as Stefan calls it, rich and green, fall away from the road, which follows the ridge of the hill until it ends at the front door of the Inn on Balaban.
Nothing we’ve seen so far in Romania compares to this building. It looks like a farmstead lifted from some pre-industrial age and deposited here on Balaban Hill. And yet it’s clearly new, all bright white paint and smelling of fresh sawdust.
The housekeeper, Petruta Secarea, greets us at the door dressed in a folk outfit embroidered with flowers. She holds a wooden tray bearing two glasses with generous shots of tuica, the local plum brandy. My hands stiff from the cold, I down the tuica in two gulps. “Whoo,” I exhale, the warmth spreading to my fingertips.
We step into a cobbled inner courtyard. To our right I make out two guest rooms, to the left the common living and dining areas and stairs to a floor above, with four other guest rooms. Stefan points out the hand-cut wood pegs in the rafters over the door. The roof shingles fit so tightly that a sheet of paper wouldn’t slide between them.
We enter the inn’s common room, where every object—from the wooden dresser bearing a traditional floral design to the antique, painted-glass religious icons—is cosy and artful, solid and well made. The inn is as spruce and clean as the mountain air.
“Remarkable,” Stefan keeps saying. A builder himself, he singles out some particular marvels of craftsmanship: a tailor-made window that latches shut with a satisfying firmness, a weathered iron door handle.
“This building is a copy of a mountain-style peasant home constructed with traditional techniques typical of the Bran Valley,” Gabriel Moja, the inn’s manager, tells us in Romanian as he gives us a tour of the property. Owner Dan Dimancescu, a Romanian American from Boston, was dismayed at the state of modern architecture in his parents’ homeland and turned to the past for inspiration for this Wi-Fi-enabled but otherwise traditional-feeling inn.
“If guests want, we can take them to local farms to experience rural Transylvanian life,” Moja adds. “One boy visiting from New York with his parents was amazed to see how cheese is made.”
We agree to go the following day, with Stefan offering to help take down a haystack.
“At least I used to know how to do that, back when we’d help my grandparents in the fields,” he says. “The trick is to layer it in the cart so the straw doesn’t fall off or fly away.”
“It’s a way of life that is in danger of disappearing,” says Moja. “Our young people are trading the hard work of farming for more convenient city life. Maybe what saves the farms from disappearing entirely are these opportunities for tourists to visit and take part in a traditional lifestyle.”
The lone guests that evening, we dine on a hearty, paprika-laced pork stew called tochitura, followed by sour-cherry crêpes, then sit in the warm living room and share a bottle of postprandial Romanian Merlot. We giggle like jackpot winners. Out in the dark, late-summer snow falls on the mountaintops.
“What do you think?” Stefan asks, fired up. “Should we do something similar? Instead of buying a place that is already out there, should we maybe build something new that is based on traditional designs?”
“That certainly would solve the problem of you not liking anything we’ve seen,” I answer.
And so our search changes focus to finding the perfect spot to build on—though I doubt we’ll discover anything as happily situated as the Inn on Balaban.
Stefan’s grandparents hail from the Székelyföld, a rural region of meadows, streams, and farmsteads that is our final destination. We drive past labourers bent double plucking potatoes from the dark soil. A Roma (Gypsy) settlement seems to dance with brightly collared clothing hung out to dry. In the villages, tall wooden house gates etched with floral designs and runic script proudly announce the tenants’ Székely heritage, which, legend has it, stretches directly back to Attila the Hun. Although highway signposts list place names in both Romanian and Hungarian, most people in the Székelyföld speak in Hungarian, and some still hanker for the time before World War I when Transylvania belonged to Hungary.
Our base for the next couple of days is a guesthouse in the village of Miclosoara (in Romanian) or Miklosvar (Hungarian). The guesthouse is owned by a true Transylvanian count, Tibor Kálnoky.
“Travelling to Transylvania is travelling into the heart of Europe,” the German-born count says over aperitifs of a local caraway brandy in the drawing room. “This area is what Austria or Germany were like once.”
Kálnoky sits on an upholstered divan, one of the many antiques that he and his wife gathered from around Transylvania to furnish his family’s restored manor house turned B&B. He is the very picture of a gracious host. I choose an armchair close to the old ceramic-tile fireplace.
Like Dan Dimancescu, Kálnoky believes in the promise of a Transylvania renaissance and hopes that visitors will come not because of the lure of Dracula, but to experience, as earlier Europeans did, a life lived close to the land. His guests can try tracking bears, go birdwatching, or attend a harvest-festival ball. Still, Kálnoky is not averse to leveraging the fact that he is a “Transylvanian count” for marketing purposes.
“We’re grateful for Dracula because everyone has heard of him,” Kálnoky says. “When visitors first hear the word ‘Romania,’ they may think of the late autocratic communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu or of orphanages. When they hear ‘Transylvania,’ they think of forests, castles, bears, bats—they become intrigued. When they arrive here, they discover Transylvania’s many natural charms, so by the time they leave they’ve almost forgotten about Dracula.”
Before heading down to the candlelit, oak-beamed wine cellar for dinner with Kálnoky’s other guests, we tell him about our quest.
“You should really go visit Etelka nene,” he says, using the affectionate diminutive for “little aunt.” “She lives in a nearby village and runs the only water-driven mill that remains in the area.”
The following day we drive over to the village of Băţanii Mici and meet white-haired—and very energetic—Etelka Keresztes. Fruit trees, vegetable gardens, cats, and chickens fill her property. “My son will show you the mill,” she says, making her way to the barn.
“We run the mill rarely now,” her adult son says when we find him opening the mill’s water flue. “Few people bring us wheat to grind.” He pours kernels into a funnel, and the large mill wheels begin their noisy grinding. The finished product gets emptied into a big bag, which he tugs away from the chute in a floury puff and seals for pick up.
Afterward, Etelka nene invites us into her kitchen. We look at photographs of her grandchildren while she serves us strong coffee laced with fresh milk from her cows and a plate of home-made kifli, a kind of croissant, with home-made jam.
“It’s cheaper and easier to buy flour or bread from the grocery store,” she says, “but as long as I can lift my two arms”—she raises them as if she were taking on a heavyweight boxing champ—“we’re not going to eat from a store!”
I see now why Kálnoky had suggested that we meet her. Etelka neni is the type of big-hearted, self-sufficient Eastern European grandmother you would like to have living next door. Aside from her, however, the village of Băţanii Mici doesn’t impress us as anything special, so we decide not to linger.
On the drive back to Count Kálnoky’s guesthouse, Stefan muses, “What really strikes me about Tibor Kálnoky is that he employs 20 people—20 locals who don’t have to leave the village for work in the city.”
“True,” I say, wondering where this line of thinking is going.
“Maybe we can renovate more than just one house. Maybe we can renovate several houses in a village and rent those out to tourists, like he’s doing.”
The idea makes some sense. Transylvania seems to inspire people to become champions of local sustainability, from Dan Dimancescu to Prince Charles.
“It’s a big, long-term project, but my father and grandfather may be interested in getting in on it…,” he continues.
Our villa search has evolved yet again. Now it isn’t about finding our own plot of land but about finding our village. A village where, though? We’re running out of time.
The answer doesn’t come to me until that evening, seated at dinner in Kálnoky’s wine cellar. The first course is a soup made with forest mushrooms foraged that morning. It reminds me of the soups that Stefan’s mother cooked for us on our previous visits to Romania. She’d spent hours making the paper-thin diamonds of pasta that went into her chicken soup, which was flavoured with a chicken she’d killed, plucked, and cleaned herself. Slow food as a matter of course.
“Wasn’t one of your grandmothers born somewhere near here?” I ask Stefan.
“That’s right; she was born in a little end-of-the-road village named Székelycsóka,” he says. “When I was a kid, I would spend my summers there. It was a very lively place. I remember an uncle of mine would gallop down the main street in his horse-drawn cart, standing upright like Ben-Hur.”
Székelycsóka—which is much easier to pronounce (say-kay-cho-ka) than to spell and also goes by its Romanian name, Corbesti—feels right to me. We have a personal connection to the place; in fact, I’m surprised we hadn’t thought of it earlier.
The next morning we’ll head to that end-of-the-road village, but for one last night we indulge in Count Kálnoky’s hospitality. A housekeeper brings out the dessert: a moist apple cake, simple and fresh. I breathe in its sunny orchard aroma. And not for the first time since coming to Transylvania, I think: “Yeah, I could live here.”
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “At Home In… Transylvania?”.
Transylvania is a historical region with many well-preserved medieval towns, which once encompassed parts of Romania and Hungary. Now, located in central Romania, the region is bound on the east and south by an arc of the Carpathian Mountains. Sibiu is at the foothills of the mountains, straddling the Cibin River. It is 215 km northeast of the capital Bucharest.
There are no direct flights from India to the Romanian capital Bucharest. A minimum of one stop is required at either a European or Middle Eastern gateway city. Airports in the Transylvania region include Cluj Napoca, Sibiu, and Târgu Mures, which are well connected to other Romanian cities. They are also connected by road and train.
Indian travellers to Romania require a visa. A short-stay tourist visa costs around ₹4,300, and requires a confirmed itinerary, medical insurance, and proof of financial means. Applications have to be made in person by the applicant or a third party at the Romanian Embassy in Delhi. It takes around two weeks to process a visa and you may be asked to visit the embassy for an interview (newdelhi.mae.ro/en; 011-26140700, 011-26140447, 011 26148175).
Weather in Transylvania is most pleasant (11-16°C) during spring (Apr-May). Summer (Jun-Aug) is sweltering (as high as 45°C) and thunderstorms are common during the time. Transylvania looks sublime in autumn (Sep-Nov), perfect for long hikes through the region’s breathtaking landscapes. There are a number of harvest festivals as well. Winter (Dec-Mar) is punishing, with temperatures dropping to -20°C.
Perched on a hilltop, the Inn on Balaban has traditional, peasant-style architecture, serves excellent home-made food and offers Romanian wine. It prides itself on its no-TV policy but offers Wi-Fi (www.gobtf.com; doubles €150/₹10,500 including breakfast and dinner). Kálnoky’s Estate is a 1211, restored heritage property where an art historian and ecologist serve as guides to the area’s culture and landscape (transylvaniancastle.com; doubles €100/₹7,000 including breakfast).
Amy Alipio is Features editor of Nat Geo Traveler (U.S.). She always looks forward to her mother-in-law’s roasted eggplant spread and cabbage rolls on visits to Romania.
Catherine Karnow is a National Geographic photographer and contributing editor. She has shot for Smithsonian magazine and the French and German editions of GEO.