The Prince of Transylvania

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Prince of Transylvania

His Royal Highness has bought three properties in Transylvania and is keen to preserve the regions environment. After all, in rural Romania, organic farming is a way of life. Would you like to join him?

Theres a corner of a foreign field a far-off land with a legendary name where the heir to the British throne has chosen to buy not one, not two, but three properties over the last couple of years. Its a place completely at odds with his Aunt Margarets famous house on Mustique, in the sun (and gin-) soaked Caribbean.

There's sun here, for sure, but instead of gin you'll find a potent local brandy made from plums and distilled in virtually every backyard. This is Transylvania, the mythical home of Count Dracula and his merry vampires, and one of Prince Charles favourite places on the planet. In fact, hes been there so regularly of late that locals have suggested that if the Romanian monarchy is ever restored, Charles should be their next king!

It's easy to see the Charles-appeal in this rolling, otherworldly land beyond the forest (the literal meaning of Transylvania).Here, the way of life is based on organic subsistence farming, where villagers till their fields by hand, use horses for transport and wood for fuel. They exist in an almost medieval landscape, with wolves in the woods and bears in the hills.

Charles first came to Transylvania in 1998, and declared himself totally overwhelmed by its unique beauty and extraordinarily rich heritage. He was particularly interested in Romanias Saxon villages. These German-speaking communities date back 800 years and have effectively existed as a self-governing nation-within-a-nation for much of that time. While the villages remain relatively unchanged, most of the Saxon population has gone, leaving many houses empty.


The Princes interest led to him becoming patron of British-based charity, the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), which aims to preserve Transylvanias fragile Saxon heritage by restoring village houses and injecting new life into communities.

It is through the MET that Charles sourced his first property in the area. His 18th-century farmhouse is in the village of Viscri, a neat, well-kept set of homesteads five miles up a rough, pitted track, where life is still framed by cows departing to the fields in the morning and returning in the evening.

The farmhouse itself was in reasonable condition, although it had been haphazardly modernised, and had an odd mixture of tiling, lighting and kitchen equipment.

Prince Charles turned to a member of the local aristocracy, Count Tibor Kalnoky, to help him restore the interior to its original state. The Count was the ideal person for the job he shares similar environmental interests to the Prince and has converted some of his own traditional village houses into guest accommodation.

The Viscri house has become a spacious, charismatic, rambling property gathered around a typical courtyard with the Princes vegetable patch at its centre. It now has three double bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen, and is full of authentic details, furniture and textiles. The Count lets it out by the week via the website, and guests can help themselves to Charlies shallots.


Whats more, the two men have become firm friends, and the Prince often stays with the Count when hes in Transylvania.

The Prince declares the aim of his investment in property in the area is not to make money, but rather to help provide a sustainable future for the people of rural Transylvania. Tourism clearly has a vital role to play in this.

Although he doesnt stay in his own property, he is plainly very satisfied with the way it has turned out because he has since added to his portfolio in two other villages, one in Malancrav and the second in an undisclosed location. It is not yet clear whether he will be turning these into holiday rentals as well.

Nobody will reveal what Charles paid for his Viscri house, but similar properties were available at the time for around 10,000, with another 50,000 earmarked for necessary restoration. The arrival of royalty in the village has obviously pushed up property prices today, a house in Viscri would cost three times as much. Nevertheless, these prices are still cheap compared to the rest of Europe, and this concerns the MET, which fears that the wrong sort of people will descend on these simple villages and inflate property values beyond the means of the local inhabitants.


It wants to encourage responsible purchasers who are aware of the heritage value of the village houses, and who want to respect and maintain their original character. People like Lucy Abel Smith, an art historian who purchased a similar house to Charles in a nearby valley for a mere 6,000. It was a typical village property with a courtyard, outhouses and an outside WC. But with the assistance of the MET, and a further investment of 40,000, it now has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a housekeeper and a courtyard filled with flowers, geese and hens. It has been a real adventure, an up-and-down experience for instance, a builder I counted as a friend turned out to be selling my building materials around the village, says Lucy, ruefully.

This is certainly not an easy place to invest. Accordingly, the MET is now starting a radical new project with its existing portfolio of properties, which are spread through several Saxon villages. Instead of putting them on the market, they will initially be offered for long-term, low-price rental at a bargain rate of just 150 per month, to give people a chance to live in Transylvania and experience the local lifestyle for a year or two, before actually making a purchase. The plan is to prevent property prices escalating and to open the eyes of these temporary residents to the full implications of owning a property in communities like these. With incredibly low annual costs, a year in Transylvania could prove not only to be a relaxing rural holiday but a clever way to avoid the credit crunch!

Words: Andrew Eames


A Place In The Sun