Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The perfect budget eco break? Romania

May 18, 2008

Rod Liddle finds a corner of Europe yet to be invaded by Starbucks. And it cost only £1,500 for a holiday for five

In winter, the wolves migrate down from the frozen Carpathian mountains and prowl the snow-covered, wooded hills beyond our farmhouse – usually just out of sight, though you can hear them doing their famous howling thing.

In spring, the wolves head back to the peaks, but the brown bears have given birth to their young and are feeling decidedly querulous and antagonistic towards humans. Chippy, you’d probably call it. A year or so back, a local hunter was partially eaten by a brown she-bear, despite having apologised profusely for having disturbed her.

There are lynx and wildcats in the forests too; this is Europe’s last natural wilderness, a scenery of unremitting grandeur and minimal subsistence agriculture that the European Union has yet to streamline and thus destroy (though give it time).

I hadn’t thought it would be like this, Transylvania – quite so beautiful, quite so insulated from the exhausting, moronic clamour of western Europe – despite having read Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked through this landscape in the 1930s, astonishedly counting the gigantic white storks perched on every church roof.

That was then, I thought to myself before setting out: there’ll be a Starbucks on every corner now; there will be, God help us, malls.

I was wrong. I had figured without Nicolae Ceausescu and nearly 50 years of incompetent, totalitarian state socialism. If anything, old Nick put the country back another 100 years or so – especially this, the Hungarian part of Romania, the bit the Romanians look at with grave suspicion and muttered oaths. Every cloud, then.

It is a region that has been preserved, if not in aspic, then in horse dung; there’s a horse and cart on every corner, and it’s no affectation for the tourists; there are few cars, and many of the roads are too rutted for them anyway, mere mud tracks even in the centre of town. Up above, there are stars, loads of them.

Do you remember stars? And there are more storks than you could shake a stick at, their vast nests teetering on telegraph poles. You want to get away for a while? Then get away here, before it’s too late, before they spoil it, before the entire province is painted in the virulent yellow of oilseed rape under some fatuous, planet-destroying CAP scheme.

Believe me, this was the best holiday I’ve had in 30 years of fairly serious holidaymaking. And the cheapest. And the most tree-huggingly ecofriendly.

I think the kids liked it, too. A year or so back, we took the family to one of those all-inclusive resorts in Turkey with 427 swimming pools and X-treme water chutes and kiddie discos and synchronised-swimming aerobics and DVDs and video games. I don’t know exactly why we did this – mental laziness, probably.

We knew we’d hate it, but we thought our three children might welcome being suffocated by prepaid corporate-entertainment bilge, which was gravely wrong of us on any number of counts. The kids remember little of the holiday except for occasionally vomiting, and me throwing a strop and telling the Turks that even Greece was better than this.

The holiday this time around – no television, no prepackaged, sanitised entertainment of any kind – cost us less than a third of the price of that hideous Turkish jaunt, and the children want to go back NOW. They want to live there, in perpetuity. That, it turns out, is all they wanted: space, the outdoors, the suggestion of exciting wildlife close to hand and room for imagination.

This holiday cost us about £1,500 for five people, including all flights, all accommodation, all food, all alcohol, all excursions (of which there were two per day). I’ve never seen the children happier, even the two-year-old, whose physical development came on by a factor of about 10 as a result of being exhorted to walk more and be carried less.

And, for the snobs among you, there’s the chance to be taken bird-watching by royalty. Come on, how many holidays can guarantee you that? The place at which we were staying – beautifully converted farm buildings in the placid hamlet of Miklosvar, about 30 miles north of Brasov – is owned by Count Tibor Kalnoky, one of Europe’s last blue-blooded links to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

He is also the diplomatic representative of the world’s smallest state – the Knights of Malta, a strange Roman Catholic enclave that clings to the side of a hill in Italy – and, of course, a naturalist.

Are you beginning to comprehend how magnificently arcane, how otherworldly, this holiday was? The count is perhaps part of that growing web of eco-toffs, of well-born environmentally friendly monkeys who count among their number Zac Goldsmith and the Prince of Wales. Charlie, incidentally, owns a similar establishment near Miklosvar, which the count has helped him to renovate. They all know one another, the well-born scions of this well-mannered and charming greenerati.

I do not mean any of this slightingly; Tibor was a funny and extremely knowledgeable guide. One morning, he put on his walking boots and took me and my two boys out to see the shrikes and the eagles and the giant bats, all flapping purposefully about down by the river. He does this every week, he says; he enjoys it. My girlfriend chose not to join us. “See one f***ing bird, you’ve seen them all,” she said, opening a novel on the garden terrace.

I liked the count a lot. So did my boys. And they’ve been brought up to believe that royalty are parasitical vermin who must be exterminated. In fact, they asked me about this parasitical-vermin business while the count was actually with us (“I don’t think we should shoot him, he seems really nice ...”), which led to a ticklish situation for a while.

I’ve revised my position, anyway – maybe they should be allowed to run guesthouses. Kalnoky runs his better than any I’ve been to. The count is fervently green. Pretty much all of the food comes from the local village or the village a few miles down the road; the kids can milk the cows and goats, then drink the stuff at breakfast.

The alcohol, of which there was a welcomingly copious amount, is all made on site – sweet, pale caraway brandy and another more fiery distillation made, I suspect, from spent uranium rods (excellent stuff, it was).

A few days after we left, the count had a “green day” planned, when he and the staff, and any guests who felt like it, were to go out and clear up the litter left by the local fishermen at the oxbow lakes. We missed that, sadly – never rains but it pours, huh? The point is, this place takes its eco-credentials very seriously indeed. I felt so virtuous on my return home that I almost went out and bought a 4WD to compensate.

We were housed in large peasant buildings equipped with bourgeois furnishings – nice, heavy furniture, comfortable beds, warm showers. The handful of guests ate together each night in the lovely candle-lit cellar, sharing fine meals (and free wine) drawn from that Mitteleuropa tradition of pork goulash, caraway soup with dumplings, pikeperch, or zander, grilled and served with the freshest available vegetables, huge Hungarian cakes flavoured with cinnamon and sugar.

The scale of the operation is small enough for you to tailor the excursions as you might wish – what I wanted to do was walk, down the spectacular ravines and up in the high forests, and there was a willing and knowledgeable guide on hand for all that stuff. You can also do the usual Transylvania thing and see “Dracula’s castle”, or visit Saxon villages and sulphurous caves that are supposed to endow you with good health and sexual vitality, neither of which I possessed before I went there and neither of which I possess now.

Incidentally, the Hungarians are a bit sniffy about Dracula, his being a fictional character and all. But we went to his spectacular castle and walked around, noting Dracula’s disabled-access ramp and Dracula’s CCTV security system and Dracula’s TV lounge.

Elsewhere, there are pretty mountain lakes where, in late April, the snow still lay on the ground and fresh bear prints could be made out at the water’s edge, and fossil-collecting expeditions deep in the Carpathian forests, where the black woodpeckers scurry from branch to branch and there is not a sound to be heard but for the birdsong and the gentle susurration of my haggard lungs, finally giving up the ghost.

By the way, I spiced up this trip, just for the benefit of the kids. (Well, that’s my argument.) Instead of doing the simple thing and flying to Bucharest, then taking a two-hour train ride to Brasov (from which city the guests are collected), we flew instead to Budapest and took the sleeper train south and east, across borders that have shifted more frequently than Conservative policy on the EU.

There is something inexpressibly romantic and exciting about boarding a big Soviet-era train in Europe’s loveliest city, Budapest, armed with only a few bottles of grain alcohol and some chocolate, then heading slowly off into the mysterious eastern European night.

And being woken at 0500 by cheerful Romanian soldiers demanding to see your passports, the mountains of Transylvania closing in on either side of the track. A decent sleeper berth for five of us, plus the cost of the 12-hour journey, was no more than £150 in total – and, of course, the kids were entranced by it all. To think that we put ourselves through all that Turkish corporate misery, all that prepackaged bilge, a year ago, when we could have had this all the time.

Travel brief

Getting there: EasyJet flies to Budapest and Bucharest. Or try Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737, www.jet2.com), Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and Aer Lingus (0818 365000, www.aerlingus.com).

Getting around: there are four direct trains per day from Budapest to Bucharest. Book through Deutsche Bahn (0871 880 8066, www.bahn.co.uk); a two-berth couchette costs £195, one-way. Trains from Bucharest to Brasov cost £8, one-way; tickets can be bought locally. For timetables, visit www.cfr.ro. Where to stay: Kalnoky Guesthouses (www.transylvaniancastle.com) has doubles from £77.

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