Trekking in Transylvania
Transylvania is an extraordinary part of Romania, so agriculturally productive and so breathtakingly beautiful it is hard to believe that it is the great undiscovered trail riding destination that it is.
In August 2013 my husband Ashley, eldest daughter Pippa and I embarked on a journey down this road less travelled and spent 5 days horse trekking through this remarkable country and I feel compelled to share our adventure with you.
It was my daughter, Pippa, who decided to book this trek for herself. She was drawn to the area because of the legend of Dracula. Once she told me she was going, I couldn’t miss out, so I booked a place for myself and for my husband who would come along as a non-rider. We knew nothing about Romania and to be honest had never considered going, even though my husband’s maternal ancestors come from there.
We were met at Bucharest airport by Joseph, the company driver, and were introduced to some of our fellow riders – Myriah from Florida, Jacqui and Simon from North Yorkshire and Anita who had arrived the same day. I have to tell you about Anita. I actually thought she was one of our hosts, and when I found out she was riding with us I was gobsmacked.
Anita was a tiny, little old lady, with a twist in her spine, skinny legs and the brightest eyes that matched her beaming smile. She was bred in Oxford and had that famous British “Tally-Ho” attitude. But looking at Anita I seriously doubted that she would make the distance. Little did I realise exactly who I had standing in front of me.
Anita has 37 parachute jumps to her name- the last one just three years ago. The twist in her spine developed after she came off a colt in Africa and broke four vertebrae. That was also three years ago. She is not yet 75 years of age and one of the most sprightly and enthusiastic ladies I have ever met. She is the type of lady who has lived an most extraordinary life, and ended up being an inspiration to myself and the other riders throughout the trek.
From Bucharest Airport it is a 4 hour drive to the remote, eastern Transylvanian town of Miklosvar, the base camp for our ride. A huge part of the appeal of the ride is the accommodation that we were offered. The trek organisers are Count and Countess Kalnoky, whose family can be traced back in the area for 25 generations to 1252. They returned to Romania in the late 80s to claim some of their land and properties after a long exile during the communist reign. The guesthouse in Miklosvar was rebuilt by the Kalnokys and great attention was paid to maintaining the traditional Romanian charm.
The house is adorned with magnificent antiques, tastefully updated to accommodate the expectations of their guests. The Kalnokys don’t wish to claim technical perfection and guests should be prepared for minor inconveniences like power outages and occasional cold showers. However, these glitches do nothing to detract from the overall experience of Transylvania and are tempered by the sight of the locals drawing water from a public well nearby because their homes don’t have the luxury of running water.
We spent the first evening in Miklosvar with our fellow riders where the main topic for discussion over our sumptuous meal, was the horses we would ride the following day. I had researched Romanian horse prior to leaving for the trip and the reality was somewhat confronting. Romania is notorious for selling horse meat into Europe as beef. Horses had recently been banned from major highways but were still used by many people for work and transport in rural Romania. The reality of work horses is that they would. at times, be bound to suffer at the hands of people. I declared that I would be happy to ride any horse, providing it was sound and that I didn’t have to eat it for dinner that night.
The next morning, (after an elegant breakfast in our riding attire,) we were transported by the company’s small bus to the stables, about an hour away over winding, gravel roads. On the way we did, indeed, see many horses and carts travelling along the road. Carts probably outnumbered motor vehicles about two to one, but I never got tired of seeing the horses, either single or in pairs, pulling their farm implements out to the fields or carts laden with newly cut hay and people. It was utterly fascinating that people here still used horses and carts, and that was one of the reasons I was so enamored with Romania.
At the stables we met our guides, Edith (pronounced without the ‘h’) and Shandor. Edith spoke quite good English, Shandor only Hungarian. The horses were brought out and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they appeared to be in excellent condition and very well cared for. Edith spoke briefly about each horse that had been carefully matched by Countess Anna Kalnoky with its rider. “You,” she said to me, “are on Colifa.” To me that sounded like Cauliflower, so that’s what I called him for the first two days. “First canter,” she continued, “a bit of a problem, but after that, no problem.” OK, I thought. Sounds good.
Cauliflower, an athletic five year old grey, was handed to me and I took him into the arena. Before I mounted I just wanted to test his lateral flexion- none. Vertical flexion- none. Oh well, at least I knew what he didn’t have. I mounted him as the other seven riders mounted their steeds, and within minutes we were all trotting and cantering around the arena. Cauliflower did indeed have a little problem with the first canter – he kicked his heels into the air when we transitioned, but it was comfortable and I didn’t think it would cause me any grief.
My daughter Pippa was given a grey Lipizzaner mare and was instructed to ride at the back because she kicked and not to hold the reins too tight. After Edith determined that we all had a better than average chance of staying on the horses, we departed through the unsealed streets of the village Valea Crisului and into the fields, waving goodbye to my husband who remained with the driver. Edith led the way on her Shagya Arabian stallion, a Romanian breed favored for endurance riding.
The next very interesting and delightful fact about Romania is that there are very few fences. Virtually all of the riding country we traversed was open space. Because there are so few fences, there are a lot of shepherds tending flocks of sheep or herds of cows. The shepherds live in the hills in simple huts during the summer, sometimes with their families. I vividly recall the sight of a little barefoot urchin who had stepped outside her family’s simple caravan to watch us ride by. The contrast between our children’s extravagant lives and her simple one was sobering.
The first thing you notice when coming upon a shepherded group of animals is the melodious clink of the cowbells, then you may catch a glimpse of the herd. Then the shepherd’s big dogs, who do a marvelous job of protecting the stock from wolves and bears, run towards the group of horses and riders, barking loudly. The horses barely flinch as the dogs bark at their heels and then slowly the dogs lose interest or are called away by the shepherd. It was actually a little bit scary the first time it happened, but once we saw that the horses didn’t worry, we relaxed about the dogs.
The other slightly scary thing was cantering on the first day. There was no trotting, so we would go from a walk to a canter on a group of very fresh horses, with Cauliflower kicking up his heels and most other horses ignoring the restraints from their riders and galloping with great gusto alongside their recently released stablemates. I did worry about Anita for a while, but her horse wasn’t as keen to go as most of the others and so she pulled a stick off a tree to use on him. Although I could see the lady clearly knew what she was doing, I found myself hovering close to her for the first few canters, not just to look out for her, but also because her steady horse settled young Cauliflower quite nicely. I was also close to Pippa who was riding at the back of the group on her kicking mare. Even though I was more worried about controlling Cauliflower, every now and then I would catch a glimpse of Pip still on her horse, which was reassuring.
After a couple of hours we stopped to eat the lunch we had carried in our saddlebags. It was a simple lunch, comprising a few pieces of locally baked bread, some cheese and some local vegetables. Edith spread the picnic rug on the ground and offered us all tea and coffee, whilst Shandor looked after our horses that had been tied in the shade of some beautiful beech trees. Lunches throughout the ride were similar. We would stop in a beautiful location, (on the last day it was at one of Prince Charles’ guesthouses) sit on the grass and have about an hour to eat our lunch that we had carried in our saddlebags. We were supplied with bottled water as well, but I was careful to take extra each day because the weather was quite warm. Sometimes we were supplied with sparkling water which is always challenging to carry in a saddlebag. Cauliflower didn’t flinch when I unscrewed the top and it fizzed so he must have been used to the sound. But on the day I carried my sparkling water in the pop top bottle I lost most of it before lunch.
After a very pleasant rest we remounted and rode through more forests and fields until we reached Malnas Bai, where we were to stay for the night at a local hunter’s family home. Malnas Bai was once a thriving spa village with plenty of mineral water springs. However, four decades of communism has had a lasting influence in Romania and nowhere is it more obvious to the eye of the tourist than in the number of once magnificent building slowly crumbling. Edith explained to us that during the communist reign these buildings were abandoned as their wealthy owners were forced to leave and then they were used for other purposes by the state.
These days the communists have been ousted and Romania is a democratic country. Many buildings are still owned by the state but it can’t afford to restore them. Malnas Bai is one such place. You can see that it was once a busy tourist centre but it has now become a little village that sees few visitors. Locals still bring their bottles to fill at the springs because the water is said to be very good for one’s health. Malnas Bai should be a major tourist destination, but it has simply faded into the grey of communism and not yet returned.
Tourism has yet to return to Transylvania as a region. That is probably another reason for the area’s great appeal. We didn’t feel as though we were being packaged and sold to tourism operators. We felt as though we have peeped through a door and glimpsed the real Romania. We stayed in the houses of villagers, we ate the food they grew, we shared their lives for as brief moment. We had a personal experience with Romania that has a deeper meaning than it would have if we had stayed in flashy tourist hotels that sold souvenirs. The houses we stayed in were basic, but very clean and welcoming. We loved it, we were in the real Romania, and we could live as the Romanians lived and for a brief moment we had that precious glimpse into their lives. We knew that most village people were lucky to have running water and electricity in their houses and that we must have seemed like rich tourists to them. We were afforded the luxuries that many locals do without because that’s the way Countess Kalnoky chooses to look after her guests.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the dogs in Romania. They are everywhere, from huge Maremma type shepherd’s dogs to small family pets. Homeless and wild dogs wander around freely, and the result is a cacophony of barking dogs in the villages at night. Take earplugs is my advice. The three nights that you spend in the villages are three sleepless nights if the noise of barking dogs worries you.
Upon arrival at our destination each afternoon we would tie the horses up and leave them for Shandor to unsaddle. I had mixed feelings about this; on one hand I thought I should look after my own horse as a way of thanking him for carrying me so well during the day, but on the other hand it was lovely to leave it for somebody else, sit down and be served a nice, cool drink. Shandor had his routine and if anybody ‘helped’ it could actually mean more work for him in the end, so we dutifully left the horses with him.
I should mention that just prior to finishing the ride we stopped at a stream for the horses to drink. I suspect that they didn’t drink again until the next morning when we once again stopped at a stream. The horses spent the night tied up in a converted garage, next to each other, with a feast of meadow hay before them. Pippa’s kicking mare had her own stall, and Edith’s stallion was taken to separate accommodation for the night. I was fascinated because the rest of the Romanian horses could be tied and fed in close proximity. I couldn’t imagine tying my horses that closely with food around and expecting them all to get a share.
On the morning of the second ride we noticed that Anita’s horse had quite a nasty girth gall and a number of rider were concerned about it. Edith is only the guide and quite powerless to make decisions concerning the welfare of the horses. She had to talk to the countess, who was holidaying in Italy at the time. There was no choice but to saddle up Anita’s horse and ride it for another 4-6 hours. However when we reached our destination we found that another two horses had been brought in and that Anita’s horse was to be retired from the ride.
They don’t have many horse floats in Romania. When they needed to swap the horses, the substitute horses would be brought over, pulling the cart to the required destination, and the retired horse would return the same way.
We had another incident involving horse welfare that concerned us. One of the riders had pulled out of the ride because of a sore back and so my husband was given the option of coming as a substitute rider. He was given a big strong carthorse looking animal called Noah. Noah had no brakes. Legend has it that some time ago Noah and another horse were taking tourists for a cart ride when they bolted. Terrifies tourists leapt from the cart and one tourist broke his arm. The driver could only stop Noah and his mate because they bolted down a dead end street and had to stop at the building at the end.
So my husband was given Noah to ride with a snaffle bit with a length of chain over his nose. Noah proved to be a steady mount who did whatever the other horses did, except he kept pulling his head down for a feed. However Noah had not gone on a ride all season. We were on the last, hottest and longest day of the ride and I think we must have been running late because we had a few very long canters, some downhill, many uphill, and Noah became exhausted carrying my husband on a very hot day at a good pace for a long time. Noah started staggering and my husband dismounted and lead him the last kilometer or so to the lunch spot. The horse was clearly exhausted and my husband refused to ride him after lunch, concerned about his welfare. Edith couldn’t leave the horse behind, she had to get him home, so after an extra long lunch break, Shandor rode Noah back to the stables. Noah made it, but we were very concerned for him.
The itinerary for the ride says that each day 4-6 hours is spent in the saddle. I can confirm that this is, indeed the case. Day three is the shortest, with only 11km being covered, but most days we rode about 25km and on the last day we did 32km. The terrain varies between grassy, undulating hills to deep cool forests. The total distance travelled was 116km in the five days.
Not only was the riding absolutely fantastic, the opportunity to wander through the tiny villages in the evening was truly wonderful. The waterwheel at “Little Bacon” was fascinating, because it serves the villagers as it did in the old days. The villagers take their grain to the mill and the old lady mills it into flour, takes her percentage, and the villagers collect the flour made from their own grain. We saw how the old lady weaves on the old fashioned loom, heard how her husband sadly died when he was caught in the watermill, and saw a photo of her on the back of Prince Harry’s dirtbike. What an amazing lady she was! At the same village we had some time to visit the local pub. Behind the counter was a young girl who spoke no English, but added up the price of the coolish beers we chose from the fridge on the calculator, then showed us the total. Outside the pub some local youths entertained us. They had lined their tractor trailer with plastic and pumped water from the river into the trailer, making a mobile swimming pool. We watched their hilarious antics from the pub verandah as we sipped our Romanian beer that cost about 75c per half litre bottle. Romania is not expensive!
Out of the six nights, three were spent in the villages, one in the beautiful guesthouse in Miklosvar, but it was the last two nights that were the most memorable. On the afternoon of the forth day we returned to the village of Miklosvar and the horses were turned loose in a grassy paddock full of apple trees. Most of the guests returned to the guesthouse but there was not quite enough room for my husband and I. In the middle of the horse paddock was a magnificent castle, which features on the front of the company brochures. That was to be our accommodation! The castle was, in true Transylvanian style, a mere shadow of its pre-communism state, but it was, to us, magnificent! It was undergoing renovations and it was clear that the main bedroom had been hastily restored to accommodate extra tourists like us. Most of the people in our group shuddered at the thought of staying in the seemingly haunted castle, but we were delighted!
Our room was furnished with the most comfortable beds with antique oak headboards. Beautiful paintings sparingly adorned the waiting walls and we felt that we were the count and countess of Miklosvar. Lonely pieces of magnificent antique furniture stood as though waiting to be placed somewhere. It was especially lovely sitting outside and seeing the team of riding horses grazing happily under the apple trees.
One of the wonderful things about the trip was meeting and spending time with the other riders. Of course we all discussed the horses and the general feeling was that we had been very well matched with the horses but they all had hard mouths. Myriah’s mare in particular had a very hard mouth and she had little chance of controlling it on the canters so she had to ride it right behind Simon’s rather tolerant horse so it didn’t get away on her. The group generally agreed that the dressage and all purpose saddles were a bit uncomfortable but certainly tolerable. Once I adjusted my position a little I was quite comfortable in my saddle. The meals were delicious but we would love to have had some iced water at the end of the very hot rides. Edith shared a meal with us on most nights but Shandor didn’t. Edith was able to answer our many questions about Romanian life and was an absolutely delightful guide. She told me that about 80% of the clients on the ride are British and only a few Australians have ridden with her. Edith is a teacher for most of the year and spends the three months of her summer holidays as a riding guide. She told me that she has very few riders who cannot complete the trek.
Although he had come as a non-rider, my husband Ashley actually rode for 3 out of the 5 days, but this is apparently quite unusual. We had two ladies who struggled to finish the ride and he was able to step up to the saddle, thus saving the guides the job of having to lead the spare horse. Non-riders should speak with the hosts beforehand if they wish to book guided tours. Ashley had a brilliant private guide on the second day who took him to see local craftsmen, farmers and gave him the most interesting insight into Romania.
As for Anita, well her back gave her some trouble during the ride. She only rode a half day on days four and five. On the last day she tumbled off her horse when he stumbled going down a hill. Luckily she was unhurt. Anita finished the ride with the rest of us, exhausted but absolutely elated at this truly wonderful adventure we had all shared.