Tag: Romania

Story of the week: A journey off the beaten track into the villages of rural Romania

Miclsoara chruch

Prince Charles doesn’t get much good press these days.

In Romania, however, he is regarded as something of an eco-avenger.

Ever since, at least, plans to build the kitsch Draculaland theme park outside the UNESCO-listed town of Sighisoara were shelved after the personal intervention of our very own Prince of Wales.

HRH is a regular visitor to Romania and a patron of The Mihai Eminescu Trust, an ecotourism project based in Viscri, Transylvania, which won Best for Innovation at the 2004 Responsible Tourism Awards.

He is also given to secrecy-shrouded visits to remote outposts of the country to see for himself the complexity of preserving Romania’s Saxon heritage against a backdrop of a burgeoning tourism industry.

While a groundswell of small tour operators is championing more sustainable rural projects, the mass-market, get-rich-quick schemes that have traditionally blighted Romania’s Black Sea coast, remain the preferred hobby horse of back hander-hungry local officials.

Changing fortunes

Things are changing for Romania. The country is emerging from the shadows to claim its share of the current Eastern European tourism boom.

But for the frontier folk of Maramures, a rural outpost on the northern cusp of the Carpathian Mountains, such talk is meaningless. Life in these unspoilt villages has remained relatively unchanged in centuries.

Life is simple: work in the fields, church on Sunday and horse and cart the preferred medium if you’re racy enough to consider venturing to the next village. Wander tranquil country lanes and you’ll encounter women wearing traditional skirts above the knee and men in dainty hats – even when it’s not a saint’s day.

My base was Botiza, a rustic village in the Izei Valley edging east from Sighetu Marmatiei, the region’s rail hub for the sleeper trains from Bucharest, and located just a few kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

Housed with a local family at their farmstead cum B&B, I had a bed, slap-up meals, hot, wood-fired water for washing and a chance to watch in awe at mealtimes as the sturdy mother of the household downed shots of horinca, the local double-distilled plum, with theatrical aplomb.

For a day’s exploration we hired a cart and driver for equivalent of £8. The dusty dirt drag of Botiza’s main thoroughfare gives way to a potholed, stone-grooved track leading west from the edge of the village and within minutes we were out amid cornfields and haystacks.

While his two sons played in the cart behind, driver Vasile, regaled us with shrewd observations of local political machinations.

“Many villages the elect the same corrupt mayor twice,” he laughed.

“Round here we say the first time they are corrupt but, the second time, having already filled their pockets, they’re better than someone new.”

Unesco listed

After two hours clip clopping along country lanes, we arrive in Poienile Izei, where the village church, built 1602 and dedicated to Saint Paraschiva, is one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage-Listed churches in Maramures inscribed in 1999.

The social fabric of these village communities revolves entirely around the Orthodox churches, many of which date from the 16th century and remain remarkably well preserved today, having escaped the bulldozers of the Communist years thanks to the region’s enforced geographical isolation.

But, unlike the external frescoes on the facades of the seven, better-known churches in northern Moldavia, these churches, constructed from wood to a Byzantine pattern, have internal frescoes – bold and simple daubed in reds, yellows and whites.

The church at Poienile Izei is particularly striking as it’s the only one in Romania with frescoes of hell, depicting fiery visions of eternal damnation with a large, hungry-looking bird about to swoop down on unsuspecting sinners. Elsewhere there are images of the various torments the devil will administer to those failing to live by the church’s moral code.

Even today the ritual of worship remains untroubled by notions of modernity with men taking the pews in front of the altar and women banished to the rear. The latter are not allowed at the altar at all.

Of course, before you can actually enter the church, you have to find the man with the key. And, in rural Maramures, that can prove a tricky business.

While Vasile goes off in search, he invites us to his uncle’s house on the fringes of the village.

When Ana and Gheorge Sabadi realise they have a foreigner in their midst, they insist of making lunch and we end up sitting around their kitchen while a bowl of broth bubbles excitedly on the hearth, feasting on pig fat, raw onions, salt and bread – all washed down with lashings of horinca, the moonshine that cements any new friendship in Romania.

When Vasile returns with the keeper of the keys, they have clearly also been on the horinca and are liable to be found drunk in charge of a horse and cart. There’s nothing for it, I tell them, I’ll drive.

“It’s much easier than a car,” said Vasile, handing me the reigns.

“You pull the reigns to move left or right, say ‘Whoa” to stop and make a clicking sound with your teeth to go faster.”

Guest of honour

Puicariu Gabor, the 83-year-old keymaster and official church singer, is evidently a man of few words – and even fewer teeth.

But as we finally step through the church’s heavy wooden door, he becomes positively animated remembering the honour he felt as key keeper on the day that Price Charles came to visit.

“He was with a big group of people all in cars. When I showed him around the church, he didn’t ask any questions but he did,” he said, indicating a thick, leather-bound tome by the altar, “sign the guest book.”

Sure enough, as I flick through the pages I come across a flowery signature in a bold, black felt tip.

It simply read: “Charles, May 9th, 2004.”

* This story was first published in the Financial Times in 2005. Liked this? Try also Meeting a real-life Count in Transylvania.

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Story of the week: On the trail of wolves in Transylvania, Romania


* We’re going right back into the archive this week for one of my first ever freelance commissions, based round a trip to Romania.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

Gigi Popa really knows how to hold a tune.

Every night after dinner at his Zarnesti guesthouse, he cracks open the firewater plum schnapps, reaches for his battered old acoustic guitar and strums his way through a back catalogue of singalong favourites from Dylan to Elvis.

But, after the last guest standing drains his glass and the nocturnal mists roll down from the Transylvanian Alps to engulf the farmsteads, the rural heartland of Romania dances to a different tune: the call of the wolves.

“We are not afraid of the wolves and beers,” Gigi tells me, pausing for breath between schnapps-fuelled Romanian folk songs.

“But sometimes they come to the villages at night. If you chain up your dog,” he says, suddenly serious, “the next morning only the chain is left.”

Natural escape 

Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, one of the largest natural ecosystems in Europe, is home to over 3,000 wolves, plus a healthy population of beers and lynx – the highest concentration of large carnivores in Europe.

For the first-time amateur carnivore spotter like myself, Romania offers a rare opportunity to leave London in the morning and be infringing on the personal space of critters with big teeth by dusk.

Indeed, with 586 protected areas and 13 national parks (the large majority within the Carpathian ranges), Romania offers a glimpse of an agrarian Europe frozen in time.

The Romanian government may be striving to shake off its Communist hangover and secure entry to the EU but, in Zarnesti, the access point to the southern Carpathians and 170km northwest of Bucharest, life has changed little since the Middle Ages.

Think wizened old crones in headscarves, transport by horse and cart, and the kind of indigenous local fauna that has little Red Riding Hood sleeping with the light on.

Hunting remains big business here with a 60kg adult wolf fetching about 1,000 euros on the open market. Bears were only protected during the Ceausescu years so that the erstwhile dictator could hunt them for sport.

Officially wolves have been protected since 1996 but European trophy hunters still find ways to secure permits by greasing the right palms at the local forestry administration.

“I came to Zarnesti because I’ve always been fascinated by the call of the wild, the power and strength of wolves,” says German-born Christoph Promberger, director of the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP), an umbrella group running various ecotourism projects to foster the fledgling local tourism industry.

Now I’ve never come face to face to with a large carnivore before but Christophe assures me, as we drive over to visit the project’s field cabin, that there’s no need to be nervous.

“In the last 50 years, there have been only eight incidents involving wolf attacks and no fatalities,” he explains, showing me an angry scar on his hand.

“I’ve been within 2m of a wolf, eyeball to eyeball; it was exciting.”

He adds: “Wolves have neither the need nor the experience to attack humans.”

The cabin is home to two wolves rescued from a fur farm and now cared for by CLCP staff. Crai and Poiana, the ‘pet’ wolves, certainly seem friendly enough but we’ve come to answer the call of the wild.

And if we are to actually run with the pack, then we are going to need professional help.

Wolf tracker 

Step forward German national Peter Sürth, wolf expert and animal tracker, who has been tracking wolves across Europe since the Seventies.

“As a tracker I try to get into the wolves’ heads, to feel their needs,” says Peter, as we head out from Zarnesti via the walled city of Brasov to the Ciucas Mountains in the southeast Carpathians.

“Wolves get a bad press simply because humans have lost contact with the forest.”

He adds, “But with European wolf numbers growing again, we need to learn to live together.”

At Babarunca, 60km from Zarnesti, the pot-holed road gives way to a rough dirt track, still wet from a thorough nocturnal dousing. We leave the jeep in a clearing and start to trek along the forest path.

The nearest civilisation suddenly feels a long way away. I’m sure the eyes of the animals are upon us.

“Wolves have a similar social system to humans,” explains Peter as we climb a steep, muddy track deeper into the Dengu forest. “They even raise and educate their puppies in a kind of wolf kindergarten to teach them about survival in the wild.”

Suddenly he stops dead. “Red deer kill,” he says, indicating a patch of hair and fragments of bones under a bush. The hefty imprint of a brown beer’s paw looks up at us mockingly from the mud.

“It’s fresh – within 12 hours,” says Peter, eyes scouring the horizon.

We follow the tracks through the dense foliage until, 45 minutes down the trail, Peter spots a set of wolf tracks, running down from the higher ground at an intersection in the forest glade.

“Even fresher and there’s at least a pair,” he says excitedly, poking around the ground with a stick.

“You can always tell wolf faeces due to the bits of hair and bone, plus the intensely strong smell,” he says, waving a stick thrust into fresh wolfy do-dos under my noise.

Suddenly I’ve lost my appetite for lunch, not to mention my earlier enthusiasm for getting up close and personal with some of our fury forest friends.

Not only can a wolf’s jaw exert double the pressure of a German Shepherd – that’s enough to break a deer’s neckbone in one good, clean bite – but their poo smells worse than the morning after a night of Guinness and chicken vindaloo.

But there’s no turning back now. “Come on,” says Peter. “I think we’re getting close.”

Forest clearing

As we reach a ridge looking back over the forest, the trail goes cold. We push on, emerging into a meadow with a sweeping panoramic vista across the Ciucas Mountains, but the only wildlife in evidence are Ionut and Ioan, two teenage boys trundling through the ancient forest on a horse and cart.

As the afternoon passes, we complete a full circle, ending up back at the clearing with the detritus of the deer kill.

The animals must have seen us coming all along.

But, before we head for home, Peter has one last trick up the sleeve of his fleece: it’s time for my wolf-howling tutorial.

“Howling stabilises the social system amongst wolves. It brings them together to give them strength – a bit like humans when we sing,” explains Peter.

And with that, he throws back his head, fills his lungs and lets out a piercing primal scream that ricochets off the mountains like a stray bullet at a Romanian Mafia shoot-out.

Peter looks hopeful. “We’re not just telling the wolves, ‘I’m here,’ but also asking, ‘Where are you?’”

I cup my hands around my mouth and muster up a low, guttural howl. We wait. And wait. The silence of the forest is almost deafening.

Back in the jeep, heading back to Zarnesti, the mood is a muted. “I’ve seen wolves up close less than 20 times in seven years working in the area,” says Peter.

“That’s why there are so few wolf attacks. The wolves are far smarter at avoiding us then we are at finding them.”

At the guesthouse, Gigi is waiting for us with cold beers and words of encouragement. As he cracks open the plum schnapps that night, he tells me of his own tracking adventures as a young man.

“Before the revolution, I would often go into the forest to be with the animals,” he smiles.

“The wolves and beers were my friends.”

The forest animals may guard their privacy from rubbernecking foreigners but, for the avuncular Gigi Popa, they happily come out to play.

Perhaps they realise that passing strangers like me are just the proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing.

* This story was first published in O Magazine in 2003. Liked this? Try Meeting a real life count in Transylvania.

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Story of the week: Meeting a real-life count in Transylvania


* This is the fourth post in a new weekly series, highlighting old stories from my travel-writing archive. I’m running them here in full. Subscribe to this website for more.

Friday night. Downtown Bucharest. The Count Dracula Club restaurant is doing a brisk trade with bemused tourists and black-clad Eurogoths, sipping blood-red Deeper Kiss cocktails. As we tuck into the Evil Salad (“Don’t smell the basil”), a man in a black cape with a fine line in facial pallor is running through a kitsch vampire floorshow, culminating in a spot of crowd-participation neck biting.

“No white wine,” shrugs a bored, white-faced Morticia Adams-lookalike waitress. “Only red. This is, after all, Dracula’s House.”

Some 15 years after Romania emerged from the dark ages of Ceausescu’s brutal regime, Dracula kitsch is proving a big draw for Romania’s fledgling tourism industry.

Indeed, the legend created by Bram Stoker’s bastardised take on the legend of the Romanian overlord Vlad Tepes, aka Dracul (meaning ‘evil’ in Romanian), today draws coach parties and tour groups – pretty ironic as the Dracula author never visited Transylvania in his life.

The novel was originally called The Undead and set in Austria; he changed details after initial claims of plagiarism.

There is, however, more to Romania’s early forays into tourism than men with plastic teeth. While Prague is now overrun with beer-soaked stag parties and Budapest firmly established in the brochures of the major tour operators, Romania still feels wonderfully untouched.

Better still, there are moves afoot to resist selling out to the filthy lucre of mass tourism and develop smaller, local tourism projects along more sustainable lines. The Romanian government may still be striving to shake off its Communist hangover and secure entry to the EU by 2007, but community projects are thinking long-term, lobbying hard for ecotourism over Euros.

One such project invites you to take a bite out of rural Transylvania as a guest of Count Tibor Kalnoky (pictured above), a genuine Transylvania count, whose 750-year family history spans the political history of Old Europe. And before you go getting any ideas, the man locals doff their caps to and address as “Mr Count” is urbane, charming and not prone to bedding down in coffins.

This time you can leave the crucifix at home.

From Bucharest, it’s a three-hour train journey through the Romanian countryside to the city of Brasov, where Kalnoky’s driver is waiting to whisk us to the tiny Transylvanian village of Miclosoara, 45km northeast of Brasov and nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

A rustic bridge across the River Olt marks the national divide between the villages Saxon and Szekely Romania, where a local Hungarian dialect is the predominant tongue. Round these parts, agriculture remains the main industry, horse and cart the primary medium of transport and the patchy local electricity supply regularly plunges the dusty main drag into darkness after the cows come home at dusk.

If you do run into a vampire, there’s nobody around to hear you scream.

Tibor’s ancestor, Samuel Kalnoky, was an erstwhile regional chancellor of Transylvania. He built the family’s powerbase through shrewd political decisions and military connections, accepting the title of Count from the Imperial House of Hapsburg and set about building the family’s hunting lodge in Miclosoara in 1686.

The Kalnokys were exiled from Transylvania in the 1939 with the rise of fascism, leaving the ancestral pile to fall into disrepair. It was first looted then used to house offices for the collective farming syndicate.

Tibor returned to Transylvania shortly after the fall of Communism to set about the huge task of re-acquiring and restoring the family property to its former glory. He sued the Romanian state for eight years for the right to reclaim the family home.

Today, the revenues from the guesthouses – eight rooms in cottages throughout the village, decorated in traditional village style with antique furniture – are helping to pay for the restoration of the Kalnoky home. Once completed, he hopes to open it as a boutique hotel.

“The moment of epiphany came at church the night we returned to the village,” remembers Tibor. “I remember the old ladies at the mass crying as they recognised my father and I. Despite 50 years in exile, the outpouring of affection for the family was immense.”

We gather that night for dinner in the wine cellar. An eclectic bunch of British historians, a young couple keen on hiking and some prickly Americans on a riding holiday, we take our seats around the candlelit dinner table as if gathering for an Agatha Christie murder mystery, while the waitress serves up a turnip soup and chicken stew from large china ladles.

“Our guests range from diplomats to holidaymakers via the diplomatic ex-pat community, weekending from Bucharest. We aim to maintain a balance of atmosphere and personal service,” explains Tibor, over a post-prandial plum brandy in the drawing room.

But murmurings in the village suggest that Kalnoky is starting to become a victim of his own success. He used to greet and guide guests personally but, now, with increasing numbers arriving off the train to Brasov, his staff are primarily handling the day-to-day business, while the Count himself puts in the odd dinner-party appearance.

The next morning, a breakfast of coffee and bread with homemade jam and local cooked meats is served outside in the shade of the apple trees. There’s no fixed routine, as such, but local guides offer plenty of optional daily activities.

These range from horse and cart rides out to local beauty spots to a half-day jaunt into Sighisoara, the Unesco-listed medieval city, which recently escaped being the site of a much-derided Dracula Land theme park thanks to the personal intervention of our own Prince Charles.

The regulars at the Count Dracula Club restaurant are not Tibor’s target market. Indeed, the legions of Dracula fans that will flock to Transylvania for Halloween this year will find short shrift in Miclosoara. October 31 is a complete non-event around these parts but on November 1, the Day of the Dead, families will gather in churchyards across Transylvania to pay their respects to deceased relatives.

On our last day Tibor takes us for a guided tour of the hunting lodge. Climbing through the ruins, he points out a faded family crest, one of the first things to be uncovered during initial restoration work in 1995.

The motto reads: No est Mortale Qvod Opta (My life’s choice will live forever).

“Like Romania, we have a long haul ahead of us and feel, at times, we are swimming against the tide,” he says, as the autumnal afternoon draws across the cornfields of rural Romania.

Then he smiles. “I tell the locals I’ve come back to dig up the family treasure. That’s the only way they can believe why we’re still here.”

* This story, the first of several about Romania, appeared in the Guardian in 2004. Read the original, Gothic Quarters.