Arabella McIntyre-Brown explains that Transylvania may be rocky, but not a horror show
Transylvania is one of the world’s strongest brands. Everyone recognises the name, and can tell you the other name that goes with it. Even children who look blank at the mention of Ghormenghast or Ruritania know all about it.
So when I mention that I have a house in Transylvania, the first response is usually: ‘What, Dracula country?’ The next is usually: ‘But it’s not real, is it?’
Or at least it was until the holiday home industry discovered it. Transylvania – the largest region of Romania – is now the next best thing for the bargain hunter. Luckily for me, most people want a holiday home on a sunny coast, and are happy with an apartment in a hideous white block amongst a hundred other hideous white blocks, as long as they can see blue water and have easy access to beer and pizza.
In my village, the bread is delivered every other day in a horse-drawn cart; milk comes from next door’s cow, and if you want to eat out that night, you have to drop into the cabana and let Adriana’s mother know by noon what you’d like to eat and when. Even if there were a menu, pizza wouldn’t be on it.
I’m the first and still the only foreigner to buy a house in the village, and the prime source of gossip and entertainment. The village, the name of which translates as Hill, is in one of Romania’s national parks, and is on the road to nowhere except the next village, Cave. For me, born in a Sussex hamlet called River, this is just fine.
The place is, in fact, Sussex up a mountain, with added wolves and funny hats. And it’s a Sussex of 50 years ago – this is my time machine, where at first glance the 20th century has made little mark.
It’s as far south as Provence, and the village is as high as Ben Nevis, which means that you get all the familiar English flora and fauna but with bears, wolves, eagles and chamois thrown in for good measure. Summers are hot, winters are very cold. Spring and autumn are short and spectacular, and the inhabitants are hardy. It’s a long way from my terraced house in Liverpool.
How I got there was a matter of things falling on me out of the blue. I suppose I had something to do with it, but it seems as if I just stood there and said yes.
In 2003 I wanted a holiday, and turned up a website that offered a week in Transylvania. How could I resist, having been brought up on Dracula movies? What I could see of the area on the web looked great – medieval towns, unspoilt landscapes, cheap prices. Bargain.
My first night – this was August – there was a thunderstorm. My room looked out onto a range of pointy green hills, and I sat on the balcony and watched the lightning stab through them as the thunder did its thing. The howling from a hundred canine throats was probably just dogs but this was Transylvania, and the children of the night – what music they made.
That week was a revelation. I was half-expecting Gothic pine forests, darkness and suspicious locals. What I got was light, warmth, colour and an irresistible welcome.
Yes, we got taken to Bran Castle, alias Dracula’s Castle, but apart from a mention of 14th century ruler Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), it was all fairytale romance. Not a long tooth in sight, once past the market stalls around the gates, crammed with vampire tat.
Dan Marin, our guide, took us by horse and cart up to Magura – now ‘my’ village. The road, a stony, rutted track, winds up from the valley floor through beechwoods full of hazels, dog roses, sloes and the odd spruce. After the twelfth hairpin came the view across to velvety green meadows scattered with wooden houses. We all duly caught our breath.
The road winds round the side of the hill and then along a narrow ridge lined with houses and populated by dogs, chickens and small children. Stunning, unspoilt, magical. We ate lunch on a terrace looking over fields full of marigolds framed against the pale mass of a mountain ridge.
I got stung by a wasp which had crawled up my trouser leg, which made the afternoon’s entertainment, but I was relieved to learn that although wasps and bees did OK at this altitude, mosquitoes didn’t. Picnics sans midges: perfect.
I went home knowing I’d be back, but not even dreaming of buying property. But life is twisted. Early in 2004 my sister died suddenly of cancer. Generously, she left me some money and we even talked about what I should do with it. Premium Bonds, we thought. But later that year, I realised that the amount she left would afford me a place in Transylvania.
My brother in law was thrilled and said Ginny would have adored it. So I called Dan and asked him to find me some houses to look at. ‘In Magura?’ he asked, knowing how much I’d loved the village. No, I said. Three feet of snow for five months of the year. Waste of time.
I went out in June, looked at a bunch of houses in Zarnesti where Dan and his wife Luminita lived. They suggested we look at one in Magura. No, I said. No, no, no. No. So we drove up, just for the hell of it. Because I wasn’t interested in a house up there. Absolutely not. We parked the car and walked over the rise. The old woman who had shown us the way pointed down the hill at a wooden house with a stable next to it. ‘That’s the one,’ she said.
We were a good 100 yards away but that was it. I couldn’t walk away. It wasn’t the house itself, which is nothing exceptional. It was the setting. Panoramic views of rounded velvet hills plunging into green baize ravines, with mountains front and back still topped with snow. The house was surrounded by a wildflower meadow, cherry trees and hazels, with a raven idling in the vast blue sky, amid the ringing of bells.
So we met the neighbours and the game began. Without Luminita, who should be head of the United Nations, I wouldn’t even have started. Family politics on a grand scale and the fact that the house didn’t officially exist meant an email from Dan in July saying that it was no good. Impossible to sort out.
I was desperately disappointed but kept a photo of the house on the wall by my desk and hoped. Two months later, Dan emailed. ‘Luminita has done everything. You can come and get your house.’ Luminita had dragged the feuding families in front of lawyers, broken up fist fights between in-laws, dragged siblings and cousins down to the village hall to get the house on the official map, and set up the whole deal, interpreter, bank, lawyer and all.
I went out in November in a bit of a daze. Everything was ready, all was smiles from the women and the men kissed my hand with traditional Central European courtesy. Apart from the Royal Bank of Scotland not sending the money (Oh, right, can you come into Dale Street and sort it out? No, I’m on top of a mountain in Transylvania) it all went fantastically smoothly. All the legals done in a day, all in cash, done and dusted. Wine and cakes all round, and I was on the plane back to Blighty wondering what on earth I had done.
Since then, there have been floods, collapsing walls, cars stuck in the mud, neighbours waving axes at my JCB driver, presents of milk and honey from the neighbouring wives competing to be No.1 friend, lots of thunderstorms, more rows with the neighbours over churned up grass, rumours of my setting up a cult and/or brothel, cows eating the wrong apples, dancing at the harvest festival, encounters with the local Romeo and other daily entertainments.
All is made possible by the great kindness and competency of my friends Dan and Luminita, and their son Bogdan, who has two degrees, bilingual English, a passion for Shakespeare and obscure classical music; he is also a builder with courteous, efficient and skilled friends who are making short work of the rebuilding of the house.
Complex, beautiful, cultured, Romania has its problems and its drawbacks: post-Ceaucescu Transylvania has a dark side that has nothing to do with my undead neighbour just down in the valley. The contrast of the timeless rural idyll with the anguish of third-world Europe is fascinating. I love it. Winters in Liverpool, summers in the Carpathians: what a deal.
First published in 2006