Monday, February 4, 2008

Dracula takes a back seat in Transylvania

From
February 2, 2008

Count who? It's the Prince that matters - the medieval villages of Transylvania in Romania are held in high regard by royalty

The quiet village of Copsa Mare lies cupped in orchards in central Transylvania. Its clay-tiled houses branch out from a central stream that is busy with geese. Above it rise terraced slopes that once bore vineyards but which are now meadows.

A horsecart laden with newly scythed grass stands outside the Magazin Mixt, the village shop. The farmer emerges as the noon bell tolls from the 14th-century fortified church, slaps his mare on the rump, and they clop home, the mare's foal skittering alongside. Nothing in this picture would be out of place 500 years ago.

The church-keeper who tolled the noonday bell hails me as I step through the gate. He lets me into a building sufficiently robust to shelter the villagers from Tartar raids.

Together we climb a rickety staircase into a tower that smells of owls' nests, and I tell him where I'm aiming for that day, Nou Sasesc and Malancrav. “Ah, Neudorf und Malmkrog,” he says, correcting my Romanian with the original German names. Although this is part of Romania, it was settled, in the 12th century, by Saxons, from Germany.

“Your Prince Charles was here,” he adds as we peer down the valley from the top. “Last year maybe, in Malmkrog. He has a house there.”

I knew this. I had heard that he walked the way I was going: Biertan to Malmkrog. The keeper pointed out my route through the maize fields.

There are about 230 villages in Transylvania's Saxon land. They comprise some of the last medieval landscapes in Europe, so walking between them is a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming experience. But in the last days of the Ceausescu regime, when many villages were threatened with annihilation to make way for giant agro-economic projects, the villagers began to leave. Germany announced that it would accept them as citizens, so today, in a village such as Copsa Mare, there are only 18 people left.

The place hasn't changed a bit. Every household has a couple of cows, a horse or two, a pig, chickens, vegetable gardens and fruit trees - particularly plums - to supply the raw material for throat-numbing palinka, distilled in the back yard.

It makes ideal walking country - Kent with bigger bumps - being rich in wildlife, totally unfenced, and well provided with trails. It does mean an almost complete absence of signposts because anyone on foot or on horseback already knows where they are going. So you need a map, compass, and friendly church-keepers to point the way.

I had chosen to connect the string of villages that lie in parallel valleys between Medias and Sighisoara, both once Saxon towns. It took me four days, but it wasn't hard, and I could always flag down a horse and cart when my rucksack felt too heavy.

My first night was in the village of Atell, and from there via Richis to Biertan, whose Unesco-listed fortified church has a “divorce room” where couples intending to separate were locked up to make them see sense.

And then it was over the hill via Copsa Mare to Malancrav. Here I stayed in a simple guesthouse run by the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which is based in Britain. My dinner was brought across the street by two teenage girls who giggled at this strange man with his stupid, beatific grin.

I searched for, and failed to identify, Prince Charles's house, and then in the evening I watched the cow parade as the cattle brought themselves back from the grasslands. Each beast knew where it was headed, peeling off from the herd at the appropriate doorway or gate. If it wasn't open, then the cow would stand and bellow, demanding to be let in.

This is a land where all the old lore still applies: you really do make hay while the sun shines, you certainly don't count your chickens before they hatch and you must wait until the cows come home.

It is land that deserves to be covered on foot, not in a car. And if you don't believe me, ask Charles.

Andrew Eames's latest book, Something Different for the Weekend, a year's worth of unusual weekends, is published by Bradt, £9.99

Need to know

Beyond the Forest (01539 531258, www.beyondtheforest.com) offers a week's guided walking based at Viscri from £955pp. This includes full-board accommodation, flights from Heathrow and transfers. The Mihai Eminescu Trust (020-7603 1113, www.mihaieminescutrust.org) has houses in Malancrav and other locations from £25pp.

Dracula facts

- Vlad the Impaler, the model for Dracula, was born in Sighisoara in Transylvania in 1431

- Few Transylvanians had heard of Dracula before 1990, when Bram Stoker's book was first translated into Romanian

- Dracula has become the most filmed character after Sherlock Holmes

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