If someone offers you the chance to see bears in a country little changed since the Middle Ages, surely it can't be Europe? Matthew Day is entranced on a visit to Romania and stays in The Prince of Wales's guest house.
The Count swore it was the brandy that had made the bear appear. Just seconds previously, Count Tibor Kalnoky had handed round shots of the local brew as we sat in silence in the hide, hoping to get up close to Europe’s largest carnivore, and proposed a toast to the animal. Then, as if on cue, a lanky three-year-
old bear emerged hesitantly from the dark chill of a Transylvanian forest, enticed by handfuls of corn scattered on the ground. In truth, we had caught a glimpse of a bear as we walked through the forest on our way to the hide.
Count Kalnoky had pointed out the dark shape lost in the shadow of the trees to me and Oana, a guest from Bucharest and the only other person who had crawled out of bed at 5.15am. As soon as we laid eyes on it, the animal withdrew into the darkness. It was the typical fleeting nature of the first encounter that had spurred Count Kalnoky into offering bear-watching weekends at the guesthouses he runs in Romania, two of which are owned by The Prince of Wales (the other being the Kalnoky ancestral home).
‘Sometimes, a guest would see a bear, but it would just be a glimpse,’ he explains. ‘They were disappointed they hadn’t seen more, so I decided to try to organise trips.’
The base for my bear adventure was Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak. Founded by the Kalnoky family 400 years ago and home to about 120 residents, Zalánpatak is, by European standards, truly isolated. Set deep in the folds of Transylvania’s steep-sided hills, it’s only connected to the outside world by a long and bone-shaking track that winds its way between and over the peaks to the nearest village.
Go on holiday to Zalánpatak, and the trappings of modern life also take a break. No internet and no mobile coverage mean that much of the technology you carry with you is soon redundant. In addition, the village’s separation from the outside world makes it probably one of the last places in Europe where horse-drawn vehicles still outnumber cars. During our stay, wagons laden high with hay came clattering down from the hills, often fording the small river running in front of the guest-house in scenes that couldn’t fail to bring to mind Constable’s most famous painting.
It was the village’s isolation, a system of agriculture little changed over the past century and an unblemished landscape of hill, forest and meadow that lured Prince Charles into buying several acres of land and a number of dilapidated buildings in 2010. ‘He wanted to create a space where he could truly relax,’ explains Count Kalnoky as we enjoy an outdoor breakfast after returning from bear watching.
The Prince also wanted to restore the buildings he had bought to their original glory. Local craftsman and materials were employed in a painstaking process of restoration and reconstruction aimed at re-creating the past, but avoiding the pitfalls of the fake, the kitsch and the ostentatious. The result is beautiful, authentic and enchanting and comes with amazing attention to detail, even down to a bulb of garlic nailed above the bedroom door this is Transylvania, after all.
Bears have been to known to stray close to The Prince’s home. This is not surprising, as Romania is home to Europe’s biggest population of Eurasian brown bears outside the vast expanse of Russia. Along with the country’s still abundant forests of beech and oak that provide a rich bear habitat, one of the main reasons for their high numbers comes in the unlikely form of Nicolae Ceausescu. In a move in tune with his rather megalomaniac tendencies, the dictator decreed that the only people in Romania who could hunt bears were himself and a few chosen individuals.
The bear that rummaged in the undergrowth near our hide owed its existence, in some ways, to the long-dead Communist hard man who inflicted such a harsh existence on the Romanian people.
Oblivious to its good fortune, it scraped around in the ground for some 20 minutes before something made it take flight and it disappeared into the refuge of the forest. Happy to have had the rare privilege of a bear encounter, we returned the brandy glasses to the Count and climbed down from the hide. On the way back to the car, we walked across meadows laden with wildflowers still wet with dew, as, in the morning sun, the green-topped hills of Transylvania marched into the horizon.
Bear-watching weekends in Zalánpatak, Transylvania, are organised by Transylvanian Castle (00 4 074 220 2586; www.transylvaniancastle.com). The price for a single person in a double/twin room for three nights, all-inclusive with a programme of events, including bear watching, is £400, excluding flights, but including a transfer from and to the airport.