Tacky souvenirs are rare in Romania, but in the Transylvanian town of Sigishoara our daughter found a little statuette of a naked lady exposing her throat to a Boris Karloff lookalike. At the time we had a bit of a giggle about it, but the statuette’s image flitted across my mind that evening, when we were about to have dinner with a real Transylvanian count, in his candlelit cellar. Rhena, 11, was still at an impressionable age; was she going to be scared?
Fortunately, Tibor Kálnoky turned out to be a sophisticated aristocrat in his late 30s, with flawless English and equally flawless manners. He also happened to be a family man with young children, and when we described our fascination with his village – the storks, the scythes, and the horses and carts - he put down the decanter and turned to Rhena. ‘Have you seen the cow parade? No? Then come. It will only take a few minutes.’
And so, with dinner temporarily on hold, we joined many other villagers waiting outside their gates. Sure enough, the first of a long string of straw-coloured cattle appeared right on cue, ambling down the main street, nosing their way into family courtyards. The Count explained that for the villagers, this was part of their social life: every evening they would emerge into the street and wait until the cows came home.
Transylvania is a place where old wives’ tales come to life. Here you literally don’t count your chickens until they hatch, and you make sure you make hay while the sun shines.
The village containing Count Kálnoky’s Cottages (transylvaniancastle.com) was a sleepy little Hungarian-speaking settlement, and from there one of the Count’s guides took us on a horse and cart up through the cow pastures to the fringes of a beechwood forest. On a hillside thick with wildflowers, the guide made a fire, and we had grilled steaks washed down with brandy. On another day we set off to Viscri, formerly known as Weisskirke, a village that was once completely Saxon and German-speaking. There we had lunch with one of the few remaining Saxon villagers before walking up the hill to the medieval church.
And then of course there was Sighisoara, a Saxon and Hungarian town with pastel houses piled up the sides of a hill to a formidable citadel, its clocktower rising above the dusky red rooftiles. It was here, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler (the model for Dracula), that we found our blood-sucking souvenir.
Sitting around the dinner table that evening, it was inevitable that the subject of Transylvania’s most celebrated aristocrat would come up. Count Kálnoky pointed out, gently, that Dracula is the product of an English writer’s imagination. And that the people of Transylvania had never heard of him prior to 1990, when Bram Stoker’s work was first translated into Romanian.
So that was that then. No need to have packed the garlic.