Thursday, November 27, 2014

BBC News: Transylvania's castle owners sink their teeth into business

By Calin Cosmaciuc
Zabala, Romania

In the end it wasn't vampires that the castle owners of Transylvania had to worry about, it was communists.

With more than 100 castles, the historic region of central Romania - inspiration for Bram Stoker's 1897 horror novel Dracula - was for centuries home to many aristocrats.

This changed abruptly when the Romanian Communist Party seized power at the end of World War Two and confiscated all the castles, most of which were left to fall into a state of disrepair.

Some castle owners managed to escape the country, while others were thrown into penury.

Following the Romanian revolution of 1989, which saw the communists removed from power, the descendants of former owners started to hope that they could reclaim ownership of the properties. In 2005 this was finally made possible after a change in the country's law.

So now a growing number of people are going to court to get their family castles back.

Yet even if they are successful, the process involves hefty court fees. So with the old family fortunes often long gone, legal bills to pay, and repair work to do, most are having to think entrepreneurially, and run the properties as small businesses.

'The Count'

Kalman Teleki was a small child when his family's baroque castle in the village of Gornesti was taken from them.

The communists forced the family to instead live in a basement flat for 19 years.

Mr Teleki trained as a chemical engineer, and was eventually able to leave Romania in 1982, when he moved to Belgium.

Three years ago he regained Teleki Castle after paying about 20,000 euros ($25,000; £16,000) in legal fees.

Affectionately called "The Count" by some villagers, the 67-year-old says: "I open the gates of my castles for balls, weddings, music concerts, and [large] groups of tourists.

"I have to find a purpose for having a castle in the 21st Century."

He charges between 500 and 2,500 euros to hire out the building, and while demand can ebb and flow, he says that ideally he would like to see "at least one event per week".

At the same time, Mr Teleki lets individual tourists, or small groups, visit for free. "But we don't refuse donations, of course," he says.

Mr Teleki adds that the government could help his business by improving the roads in rural Romania, and by spending more on promoting tourism in the country.

But at the same time he says he is encouraged by the continuing fascination that people around the world have with Transylvania.

'A mission'

For Gregor Roy Chowdhury, it took "10 years of judicial fights" to get his family's castle back.

Located in the village of Zabala, Mikes Castle was used as a psychiatric hospital during the communist period.

Mr Roy Chowdhury's mother, Countess Katalin Mikes, escaped Romania when she was 16, and lived in Austria, where she married a man from Bangladesh.

Her sons Gregor and Alexander now run the castle and its wider estate, although they only got back a third of the land the Mikes family used to own.

Gregor Roy Chowdhury, who previously worked as an investment banker in London, describes running the castle as "more a mission than a job, here is my home".

The castle is now run as a guesthouse. It has 10 rooms at present, but this is set to double next year. Guests are offered traditional Transylvanian cuisine, such as goulash, lemon chicken, and a spirit called palinka.

Mr Roy Chowdhury says the castle now gets up to 2,000 guests a year, with most coming from the capital Bucharest. To help run the business he employs six people from the village.

'The big exception'

The dream for most castle owners in Transylvania is to mirror the success of the famous Bran Castle, which is by far and away the most popular in the region due to its claimed connection with Dracula.

While Irish writer Bram Stoker never visited Transylvania, the inspiration for the character Dracula is said to have been 15th Century Wallachian leader Vlad the Impaler.

Also know as Vlad Dracula, legend has it that he was imprisoned for a few months at Bran Castle.

As a result, Bran Castle gets half a million visitors every year.

Another castle now back in the hands of its original family owners, last year its revenues totalled 2.4m euros. And this year it was reportedly put up for sale for 64m euros.

Mr Roy Chowdhury describes Bran Castle's money-making success as "the big exception".

Meanwhile, Mr Teleki says it tends to unfairly overshadow all the other castles.

"I'm a little upset with this whole Dracula promotion," he says. "Transylvania cannot be reduced to Dracula.

"It is a good story, but there are more interesting things to see."

No comments: