The Rustic Charm of Romania
By Tania Huppatz, Snaffle Travel – www.snaffletravel.com.au
A trek into the pages of Tolstoy, Tania Huppatz from Snaffle Travel shares her riding experience of the five day escorted tour through the historical landscape of Transylvania, which has remained unchanged for more than one hundred years.
Set against the backdrop of the Carpathian mountain range, this unforgettable horse riding holiday tours Europe’s last pristine landscapes and preserved medieval villages in a seemingly forgotten world of centuries old Romanian charm.
This is still etched into my memory as one of my favourite travel and horse riding experiences.
In late May, I joined seven fellow travellers in the village of Miklósvá, formerly part of the Kálnoky estate owned by our hosts, Count Tibor Kálnoky and his wife, Anna, who are the 25th generation of the Kálnoky family, with a rich family history that dates back to medieval times.
In 1252, the Kálnoky family was documented in the eastern parts of Transylvania. Since their return following 50 years of exile in the west, the Count and Countess are re-creating their family’s lost heritage in an extraordinary part of the world which time itself seems to have forgotten.
Despite the decades that have passed, Transylvania continues to capture the hearts of those who encounter it. HRH Prince Charles himself, so moved by the plight of Transylvanian villagers, has purchased and lovingly restored several guesthouses which tourists now enjoy.
Immersing us in Transylvanian culture, we were accommodated at both lodgings during our stay. On our arrival to the Kálnoky estate, we were welcomed by our hosts with a traditional Transylvanian ritual — a crystal decanter of brandy and reception committee of tiny glasses.
For the nights to follow, we would enjoy three course dinners of locally sourced, in season produce shared over candlelight. Wine and conversation flowed freely every evening in a setting reminiscent of the 19th Century, with oak beams overhead and a warming fire.
Operating from April to October annually, Spring is a splendid time to visit Transylvania. The temperatures are mild and the meadows are in full bloom. We spent between 4-6 hours in the saddle daily, covering 120km of open country unspoilt and almost untouched by tourism.
Life has remained relatively unchanged for Transylvanian villagers and their horses throughout the centuries. In the Erdővidék, or ‘woodlands’, region where we rode, horses have retained their traditional roles, and are still widely used for ploughing fields and pulling carts.
The Kálnoky family formed their first formal regiment of Hussars in 1741, a class of light cavalry that originated in eastern and central Europe in the 15th Century. The Hussars’ horses included the Szeklers, which are claimed to be descended from Attila and the Huns.
Today, the Hussars’ horses are required to be as sensible and sure-footed as their ancestors. The current breeds include the Hussar’s Shagya-Arabian, the Lipizzaner, the Hungarian Cavalry’s Gidran and Lipizzaner’s various crosses with mountain ponies.
Together with my riding companions, we had the opportunity to ride all of these locally bred horses, as well as the Huzul, an historic and robust breed unique to the Carpathian mountains. Ranging from 14.2-16.2hh, they were well-mannered and forward-moving.
Such traits are distinctive of horses historically bred for battle and required to traverse challenging mountain terrain. Suitable for intermediate to experienced riders, they carried us with ease up to 40km per day along the unmarked tracks of Szekler country with no fences in sight.
A trail ride by name, but not by nature, the riding in Transylvania is sensational. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Szekler region became Romanian during the first World War, and offers riders uninterrupted miles of pasture and woodland.
On the first day, were driven to Valea Crisului — Sepsikőröspatak or ‘round brook’ — the Kálnoky family’s once glorious stables 40 minutes away to meet our horses and our main guides, Boti and Sandor. Once mounted and comfortable on our horses, we departed.
Our ride began with a slow ascension north onto high pastures where we were met by a magnificent view of the Carpathian mountain range. The countryside below was dotted with free-standing oak and beech trees. Spring had arrived and the mountains were alive with wildflowers.
Each day included a one hour stop for a picnic lunch amongst the surrounding nature. Buttercups, yellow ranunculi, wild purple flower sage, poppies, shasta, wood anemones, hellebores and dog’s-tooth violets made themselves visible around us with shy persistence.
Our first two nights, we stayed at the Count Kálnoky’s cottages, sensitively restored and quaintly decorated with hand-stitched cushion covers, period lamps and an old cuckoo clock. The evening air carried the sounds of cow bells and horse-drawn carts laden with hay.
The next day was spent meandering through the mountains on our way to Zalánpatak where the Prince of Wales’ private retreat resides. Unfortunately, the prince was not home, but cuckoos, deer, foxes, wolves and the occasional brown bear made for impressive sightings.
Throughout our mountain journey, we also met shepherds with their herds of cows and sheep, accompanied by their protective Romanian Carpathian shepherd dogs. We began our descent from the mountains on the third day, riding from Zalánpatak to the Kálnoky’s hunting lodge.
The horses were watered at each stream we came across, their shod hooves powering through the water at crossings. While the distances placed physical demands on them, each horse was in exceptional condition and fed local grassy hay at the end of each working day.
As we left the mountains behind us, local villages amass with colourful houses and bustling life emerged before us. The locals provided a friendly atmosphere as we passed through, waving to us as they went about their daily activities on the fields and in their homes.
On the fourth day, we ventured 40km through the Carpathian mountains, returning to the ranges once again. It was hay season and local farmers could be seen cutting grass by hand with scythes, using wooden frames for drying racks before transportation by horse and cart.
The hay is stored in barns for Romania’s long, cold Winters. In such a harsh mountainous environment, the Kálnoky’s horses are usually stabled during the Winter season, but careful management ensures they receive plentiful forage to keep them physically and mentally healthy.
The next day, we returned the horses to their stables at Valea Crisului, before being transferred back to the Prince of Wales’ private retreat in Zalánpatak for two days of rest and relaxation. On the final day, we took a horse and cart ride to George’s Meadow for a picnic lunch.
A christening gift from the Kálnoky family to Prince George, the meadow was filled with fragrant wildflowers, including salivias, daisies and ranunculi. Before lunch, we stopped for a brandy tasting, a locally produced liquor made from carraway seeds.
On our final return to Zalánpatak, we sat together in the sun drinking Romanian beer and reflecting on the week’s riding adventure. For each of us, Romania was a life-changing step back in time that we won’t soon forget.
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