Byline: Laura Sevier
Heading to Transylvania, my mind was swimming with blood-curdling images of a land inhabited by vampires and werewolves. According to Bram Stoker, this was the home of Count Dracula and his fiendish brides, a place where dark magic ruled and no one left home without a cross around their neck and a vial of holy water clutched tightly in their hand. Encircled within the hook of the Carpathian Mountains, the area takes its name from the Latin for 'beyond the forest'. It is a spellbinding land and one I quickly learned is inhabited not by vampires but by very real fanged creatures, including wolves, bears and lynx. Much of Transylvania is untouched, untamed wilderness containing vast tracts of Europe's largest remaining old-growth forests.
I was travelling with The European Nature Trust (TENT) and our first stop was Brasov, a city in the heart of the Carpathians, whose inhabitants have grown used to brown bears and wolves rootling through their rubbish tips. We arrived in pelting rain and darkness and, ravenously hungry, dashed through the Baroque streets of the old town, past Gothic churches and medieval battlements, to Sergiana, a lively underground restaurant in a former brewery. The leather-bound menu was 20 pages long, and full of translations such as the splendidly named 'Stag Lost In The Yard, ten people to share'. Included in this meat feast of stag steak, pork and chicken was the worryingly named 'peasant zucchini', something Dracula would perhaps have enjoyed. We drank local plum brandy and decent Merlot by the jug.
The next morning, I awoke to a dawn chorus of howling werewolves (OK, scrapping stray dogs), and opened the blinds to reveal a kaleidoscope of autumn colours in the distant forest. As I gazed transfixed, a line of mist descended from the mountains to whitewash the scene, eerily like the impenetrable freezing fog that surrounds Castle Dracula. But laughing off this ill omen, we set out for the remote village of Zalanpatak, some hours' drive to the northeast. At first we passed through the industrial relics of Romania's Communist past, a chaotic maze of chimneys, pylons, pipes and dilapidated high-rise blocks, before reaching the open countryside where we shared the road with weather-beaten men on clanking tractors and horses and carts driven by gypsies.
This spellbinding inhabited by fanged creatures wolves, bears getty images We were heading to meet a genuine Transylvanian Count, Tibor Kalnoky, for lunch. He owns four luxury guesthouses in the village of Miklosvar (Miclosoara) and also runs the Prince of Wales' two properties in the region, which have been restored from tumbledown shacks to comfortable guesthouses - one in the old Saxon village of Viscri and the other in Zalanpatak. The Prince has been a regular visitor to the area since 1998 and has done much to promote its protection and preservation.
There are almost no road signs and it's easy to get lost as the roads narrow and grow increasingly winding. We passed meadows of wild flowers, and shepherds' huts, the distant hills burnished by leaves of golden green, pumpkin orange and blood red. Giant potholes and pond-like puddles reduced the journey to a crawl for the final 7km and on the outskirts of the village great haystacks stood sentinel while the villagers worked the fields using tools that looked like hand-me-downs from the Middle Ages.
Entering Zalanpatak, with its gingerbread cottages, puff-ing chimneys and wooden barns piled high with hay, was like being lost in the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable; modern life was almost invisible apart from a single satellite dish and the odd plastic bottle. And there's nothing showy about the Prince's place, with its lime-washed walls and wooden outbuildings. There's no television and the electricity is unreliable - the lights were flashing on and off as we arrived - but I was enchanted by the handcrafted furniture and plain white walls. …