Transylvania? Is that even a real place?
12months ago Erika Kovacs* and I were chatting at our shops at the Carl Hester Dressage Masterclass. She had just returned from a trip to Hungary and Transylvania, horse riding through the mountains. “It was life changing” she said, “we’re going again, you should come”. And so now I have just spent the most extraordinary 7 days in Transylvania, doing exactly what I want to do on holidays – explore a remote area on horseback, unclipped from the ‘real’ world. This is a little attempt to describe this experience, which I hope is not a once in a lifetime moment, but a place I return to again and again.
Transylvania doesn’t officially exist any more, the land was assigned to Romania in the 20th century and Hungary was instantly halved in size. But culturally, Transylvania is a distinct and extraordinary land and culture. My window into this world came through staying at the guesthouses of the family Kalnoky. They were bestowed with the title of Count after saving the Austrian emporor from a bear, however, along with the other aristocrats, were deported in the 1930s**. Returning after ’89 to reclaim their lands in the post-communist world they have passionately restored their stripped homes, impoverished villages and created a thriving yet remote tourist experience.
4 hours from the Romanian capital, Bucharest and over the Carpathian Mountains is the village of Miklosvar. We stayed here at Count Kalnoky’s guesthouses – restored traditional homes within the village and nearby the Kalnoky Castle (recently restored but not yet available for accommodation). I woke the first morning to the bells of the cow herd moving through the village to the meadow pastures for the day – a ritual I would never tire of witnessing in every village we stayed in. Sometimes goats and sheep would be part of this parade, each flock with its herder and ferocious dogs. At cow’o’clock the cows return home through their village, each owner holding open the garden gate for their cow to return to its stable for milking and dinner. Silent witnesses to all these comings and goings are the villagers, each perched on the bench outside their house. Nothing goes unnoticed!
Assigned horses at the stables (a separate village where the Kalnoky manor is – stick with me, I know its confusing!) under the critical eye of the Countess Anna, we filled our saddle packs, took excited pics and headed out through the village, following Edit at the front and with Chandor the Strong at the rear. The horses were an assortment of Gidrons (a strong, opinionated war horse breed), Lippizaners (kind eyed, sturdy greys) and Szyrgy Arabs (a local breed of arab / thoroughbred especially prized for endurance racing). Up across the fields, already cut for hay, through flocks of sheep with their shepherds watching from the shade, past herds of cows and into the forest. There are no fences – fields begin and end with geometric logic, but no evidence of ownership. The shepherds’ dogs serve several purposes – herding their flock, warning of intruders and most importantly, warning of bears. Bears are a real threat to the animals of both the village and the high lands – the poo was testament to their presense, but we were very disappointed not to see any close up (our guide and groom however were very relieved). In the villages, all animals are stabled every night, otherwise they would be taken, no problem.
Its so hard to describe the deep, soul-full blessing of being truly on top of the world, as far as you can see just one forest-covered range after another, sinking to villages sprinkled along valley rivers, marked by their silver church spires. The sounds of the forest – hoofs padding on leaf beds, distant cow bells, creaking leather, heavy, steady breathing of the horses as they pulled up steep hills. The free, wild canters up the ridges with the spare boiled egg thunking backwards and forwards in the saddle-bag. Stony descents down into each village, watering at village streams and then back up, up, up following markers on ancient birches that produced a golden light filtering through the canopy. Oaks, birches and elms each in turn held their majestic arms above us, welcoming us from the brilliant sun. Closer to the villages the hawthorns would appear, then the fruit trees and finally the overhanging purple plums in the village lanes provided the fresh fruit for the day. Lunches were picnics we carried in our saddle-bags – bread, egg, cucumber, sheep cheese, bread and coffee – and eaten with the horses tied in the forest while we stretched out on the grass.
Each day we rode about 5-6hours, celebrating the arrival in our next village with coffee in the flask, parlinka*** in the straw woven bottle and cake. The horses were stabled with a villager and we were billoted either to private homes or guesthouses, with varying degrees of rustic charm (like maybe, maybe not hot water or gag inducing drainage issues). The first night we stayed in a spa village, where the local mineral spring was celebrated with a spa house of soviet era aesthetic. But the sauna and mineral soak was a blessing after that first long 5 hour ride and the discovery that there was no hot water at the guesthouse. If the landscape filled our souls, the dinners filled our hearts and bellies. Traditional Szeklar hospitality saw us in village homes around tables quaking under the finest cooking of the hostess. Everything came from the household – the sausage from the pig, the flour for the bread from their wheat and milled at the local waterwheel powered mill, the tomatoes and vegetables from their immaculate gardens. And the hostesses were the greatest bustlers I have ever seen, communicating their competence with the wiggle of their arms and bottoms. Breakfast was a return to the same hostess for excellent coffee and a continental style spread.
It was hard to distinguish between history and life. I had to keep reminding myself this wasn’t a tourist display – once I’d passed through the ladies would still be on their benches, the waterwheel mill would still be grinding one sack of flour an hour, the horses would still be pulling the carts to the woodlands to gather the timber to warm the houses for the long Winter ahead, the shepherds would still be admonishing the cows to hurry up, the bears would still be prowling along the village gardens looking for dinner. Would they remember the strange group of Australians who sat on the horses rather than in the cart? Would they wonder where these people with their endlessly snapping iphones were going to next? Or would we just form part of the patchwork of people who have come and gone without disturbing the rhythym of the seasons and the tasks that need to be done each day? Maybe when I come back next year I’ll have learnt a little Hungarian and be able to ask them…
*Erika is the owner of Horse in the Box and originally from Hungary.
** Forgive my massive simplification of 20thC history
*** Parlinka is a local liquor made from carraway seeds – each host made their own and apparently the strengths and flavour differed significantly! Please also forgive my bodgy spelling of Hungarian words.