Stay with a Count in Transylvania

It was 1987. Ceausescu and his Securitate still had Romania in their clutches; in fact, most Romanians at that time probably could not remember life to ever have been different from what it was then.
But some elderly people in the small Transylvanian village of Köröspatak (Valea Crisului) could, all of a sudden. A face had brought back memories long buried, the face of my father entering the local Catholic church at 6.30 in the morning. Surely it could not be, they must have thought - not the Count, he couldn't even have gotten into the country, could he, and if he did why would he choose to attend the early morning mass at sunrise?
Yet word got around in the village and they crowded in front of the church entrance. When we came out, dozens of people first stared, then started weeping, grinning, kissing my father's hands, and thanking the Lord for having kept them alive to witness this moment.
Not that they knew him. They knew my grandfather. My father, his son, left the country at the age of eight. Yet they recognised him for what he was - the son of the last Count Kálnoky to live in Köröspatak, trying to carve out a living amid ever worsening economic conditions, trying to keep the village alive, until he had to flee when Nazi Intelligence realized he was working against the fascist regime. Later, the communists expropriated everything he had owned and my family had to leave Central Europe for good, as it then seemed.

But back to the events in the village in 1987. As half of the village had gathered around us and accompanied us to have a look at our former home, which was then used as grain storage and local Party headquarters, word came that a column of cars was approaching the village from the district capital, Sf. Gheorghe. This could only mean one thing: The Securitate were on their way to check what was happening. Following an almost imperceptible gesture from my father, the villagers vanished into their houses and we hopped into our 4x4 and left the village by a forest track through the hills to Miklosvar. The Securitate questioned the villagers repeatedly for several months, but nobody seemed to know who these mysterious foreigners had been.

A life-changing moment

I now know that this was the defining moment of my life. I was 20 years old then, a student in Germany, but not German. There were languages I spoke in, countries I had lived in, but none I could call my own, and I had an undefinable yearning for somewhere to belong to. Maybe that is why I patiently talked my father into visiting his home village in spite of all the difficulties. And finally, on that day in 1987, I found my home.
That is where I live today. I suspect I may have done everything I did since that day to be able to finally pull it off. I went to Budapest in 1993, allegedly to work on my PhD, but in fact just to get closer to Transylvania.

Returning to Romania

I found a job as a manager in a pharmaceutical company, then in 1996 got a position in Bucharest as head of the Romanian branch of a German multinational. I married my wife, Anna, a Transylvanian of a family who had not left the country, with whom I now have three sons.

Ever since 1987 I had pondered the question of how bring back the family to Köröspatak, where my ancestors lived for 750 years (before that, they were more in the west, near the town Sebes).

A moment of inspiration

After having had 200 guests from all over the world stay in the village of Miklosvar (Miclosoara) at the occasion of our wedding, an idea began to take shape: what if I could use the family's cultural heritage (mainly two former mansions, "castles" as they are called in Hungarian, and the surrounding parts of the village), to attract visitors interested in our region and its culture?
Not mass tourism, of course, but rather something for visitors who would appreciate the unique qualities of life in a place where the Middle Ages are still very much part of the present. Where there must be a witch and a few ghosts in a village worth its salt; where kids make their own sleighs come winter; where the priest throws a loaf of bread with a candle in it into the river if the corpse of some drowned man is to be found.
Dreams may shape destinies, but reality must be mastered. Romanian reality, and that of rural Transylvania, turned out to be quite a challenge. Looking back at the past 15 years, I sometimes wonder how it all came together in the end. It took 10 years of effort to finally get back, buy back or lease back some of the most important parts of the cultural heritage my family had created, such as the family's mansion in Köröspatak, a beautiful renaissance building in the picturesque village of Miklósvár (Miclosoara) and several decrepit remains of village houses.

We started restoring a couple of these houses, as this proved easier than the castles. They now have received their old spirits back again: furnished with old painted furniture and heated by large ceramic stoves or open fireplaces. We just added a little modern comfort like stylish bathrooms with running warm water in a village barely provided with electrical power (forget gas or running water).

Our top trip

Transylvania holiday accommodation

Transylvania holiday accommodation

Stay at a Count's guesthouse

From €105 to €195 per person per night
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Transylvania or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

The beginning of a Transylvanian business

And then I took the plunge. The guest houses were ready, and my idea was to start a small, exclusive tourism business to finance the restoration of the castles. But that demanded all of my time. I quit my job in 2000 and have since devoted all my time to our accommodation and the work on the mansions. Although I can only receive a maximum of 10 guests at any given time, visitors keep coming - mostly from Britain. They enjoy the unique, cosy atmosphere, the daily "cow parade" (as some guests put it) at 8pm, our wildlife, trekking through hills and forests or sightseeing (Saxon and Szekler cultural treasures abound in the region).
I try to show them why we live here. We tell the story of my family, show them the painstaking work of art historians to discover the original looks of the castle in Miklosvár, and the careful, slow restoration of such parts of the house as we think we can faithfully reconstruct. In Köröspatak, the problem is first saving the building from further decay. We have just finished putting up a new roof - half a hectare of tiles, all handmade in the village of Nagybacon ("Big Bacon" for some of my guests and Batani Mare in Romanian).

The guest house grows

This May, there will be a third guest house. I am building a copy of a demolished jewel of a house originally built in 1850. It combines Székely and German elements and is - was - absolutely unique. When I learned that it was being destroyed, I got the restorers to carefully map the house and its decorative elements, collect whatever could still be used from the rubble (wooden beams and doors; moulds of plaster decorations), and am now rebuilding it, just adding en-suite bathrooms to the three rooms.

Some people in our village must think I'm crazy. Others, though, slowly start realising that the reason why all these foreign guests come here is precisely because of the rich rural heritage we still have. And this is how we can preserve it.

A busy day for a count

Every day there are a hundred details to attend to. Architects insisting that in Romania there are more rules to abide by than, say, in Germany, and more expenses to cover than in Switzerland. Workers demanding their wages for themselves and their colleagues, only to disappear with the money to the next bar without giving the others their share. Art historians trying to impress, but also to badmouth other art historians participating in the project. Tons of documents, files, paperwork, accounting, correspondence. Emails and mastering the website.
Dealing with craftsmen to restore furniture, textiles, or other artifacts. Then all the care for the guest houses, preparing them now for the summer season. And often, in the evening, dinner with the guests. That is something I always look forward to, not only because they are mostly interesting people, but also because their acknowledgement of our deeds gives me the strength to continue.
The whole story of this enterprise, I am often told, is completely impossible. Maybe so, but no one told me that what I am trying to do cannot possibly succeed.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Count Kalnoky] [All photos by: Count Kalnoky]