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It all started with catching the wrong bus from the airport. Mihai Barbu, 25 years old, had never left Romania before when he landed at Heathrow in 2002. He was desperate to find a better future, which had materialised in the form of a month’s scholarship to study a sports psychology master’s degree in Cambridge.
After recovering from his fright at seeing the bus had a woman driver who also happened to be African American (he had never seen either before), he fell into conversation with a fellow passenger who worked at a riding school. Mihai soon realised he was on the wrong bus and it had taken him far in the opposite direction from Cambridge. On a whim, he decided to drop his plans and went to work as a groom with his new friend – despite having never before been near a horse. That was the turning point of his life and that was what led me to Transylvania.
Long story short, Mihai spent several years climbing up the equine career ladder, competing in show jumping at the highest level and working with the greatest champions all around Europe.
But the pull of home was too strong and eventually he returned to Transylvania in 2011. Home was the remote village of Apos, a few houses strung along a dirt track, some ramshackle timber barns and a derelict 14th-century Cistercian abbey surrounded by dense pine forests and pasture.
Mihai was searching for the house of his grandparents who had been born nearby. He didn’t find it but stopped by the bell tower of the Saxon church dating from 1799 and looked across at the old Saxon bishop’s house, once grand and imposing, now vandalised, windowless and roofless. He knew in that moment that this was where he wanted to put down roots, bring the village back to life, raise horses and inspire his love of his home in others.
When I arrived in Apos in late spring with a group of friends and my teenage daughter Mia, the bishop’s house was a work in progress but it had a roof. The church had been saved before the centuries-old beams could be stolen and a stable had been built in Saxon style with traditional materials. We walked for a few minutes along the dirt track leading from the village to the kiln where the roof tiles are made in the same way they have been for centuries.
The kiln was opened by the Prince of Wales in 2015. He is a big supporter of local conservation projects and has restored one of the houses nearby, which you can now rent.
The clay for the tiles is dug out of the hillside right next to the kiln, put into a pit in the ground with some water and then mixed by one of Mihai’s horses walking in circles to turn a large wooden paddle to create a paste. In the double-height barn by the kiln lay 16,000 perfect handmade tiles on tiers of shelves from floor to ceiling.
We were invited to make tiles, but chose instead to sit down to breakfast outside in the sunshine at a long trestle table decorated with huge vases of meadow flowers.
It was a feast; freshly made bread, home-grown tomatoes and peppers, home-made jams, local cheeses and meats, spicy aubergine and pepper pastes, local fruits, milk still warm from the cow and apple juice from the village orchard.
Then it was time to get on our horses, which were going to carry us across the hills and valleys of Transylvania for the next three days, staying at a different guesthouse each night. We’d be spending five to six hours a day in the saddle and I was nervous. What if my horse was too strong for me? What if it ran off with me, what if I fell off and broke an arm and had to present Question Time (the BBC show of which I am presenter) in a sling? What if I broke my neck?
I felt even more nervous when my dappled grey mare was brought out from the stable and she was massive, far bigger than I am used to. It turned out, though, that Mika was calm, trustworthy and more than happy to break into a gallop but just as happy to amble along at a relaxing walk.
We spent our days passing through the dip and swell of endless beech and oak forests in the Hartibaciu valley. We crossed intensely green pastures speckled with meadow flowers, picked our way along terraced slopes where vines had grown centuries before. And on the horizon, the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains glimmered through the heat haze.
I felt as if I’d been transported back to Tudor England. I saw not a fence, not a gate, not a house, not a road, not a pylon – nothing to suggest the 21st century. We followed fresh bear prints but (thankfully?) never saw one and called out as we rode through the forests to make sure we didn’t surprise a mother and cubs.
From time to time, we came across a shepherd, surrounded by sheep and goats, making his way from hut to hut to overnight out on the pasture through the spring and summer. We knew when we were about to meet one as a pack of dogs would appear out of nowhere and stream towards us, barking ferociously. They are used to protect the flocks from the bears and Mihai would have to dismount to drive them away before we could carry on.
Occasionally, a horse-drawn cart would pass us and I even saw a farmer using a horse to plough his field. Each time we entered one of the many Saxon villages, we would first ride past the shacks of the Romanian gipsy families on the outskirts. The discrimination against them is still strong. I was told they are resented by many locals, accused of taking from the community and then moving on without putting anything back.
They dress in typical Western clothes, unlike the Szekler gipsies in Transylvania who appear to have come straight from the illustrations in a children’s fairytale. The women dress in brightly coloured scarves and swishing skirts with gold earrings and bangles, the men in black waistcoats and wide-brimmed black hats.
As we rode, Mihai told me how the Saxons had arrived in Transylvania (The Land Beyond the Forest) in the 1200s, invited by the Hungarian kings to farm the land and boost the economy with their skill as craftsmen.
They built the fortified churches that survive today and the single dirt track villages with brightly painted houses on either side built defensively against the invasion of the Mongol hordes and the Turks. Each house had windows on the first floor under a gabled tiled roof with the ground floor left as a massive void reaching below ground where fruit and vegetables could be stored throughout the winter. The Saxons remained in Transylvania until the Second World War when ethnic Germans were treated as war criminals and thousands deported to the Soviet Union.
Under Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship, most of the Saxons emigrated to West Germany and by the early 21st century, the people that had once made up 15 per cent of Transylvania’s population was reduced to less than 1 per cent. Their absence depopulated once thriving villages and left behind decaying buildings. Mihai has made it his mission to bring these villages back to life and, with his wife Bianca, is using their horse trekking business to fund it.
He started in his village of Apos with a band of enthusiastic volunteers restoring facades and roofs for free and even donating water buffaloes to the villagers (they have been farmed in the area since the 1700s). The mission has now grown with five ‘architecture ambulances’ that race around, rescuing buildings in imminent danger of falling down. We stayed at the homes of the some of his expatriate volunteers, foreigners who came to the country, fell in love with it and stayed. We spent a night at the gorgeously comfortable guesthouse of Countess Gladys, a beautiful and tough woman in her 70s, who has restored several Saxon houses in the village of Cris, and has her eye on a few more.
But Mihai wants his fellow Romanians to share his vision too. Each day we stopped for lunch at the home of a local family, eating home-cooked stews with fresh bread at a table in the garden. (Incidentally, I thought the food in Romania would be grey, tasteless. So wrong. It was all utterly delicious.) The idea is to show the local people that their traditional way of life can bring them value beyond the subsistence farming that sustains most families.
We also visited the village of Richis where Andrei, a man in his 20s, has returned home to live with his parents and start a wine business using local grapes and traditional methods. He proudly showed us his cellar lined with oak barrels.
Richis, like most of the villages we visited, is very new to any kind of tourism. And it has a charm that comes with the customs of centuries. Every morning, in a ritual practised in many towns in the area, the local cowherd walks along the main street. As he passes, every house that owns a cow opens the front gate to let the animal find its place behind the cowherd and follow him to graze up on the pasture. At the end of each day, as the cowherd strolls through the town, each cow peels off at the correct turning or gate and unerringly makes its way back to its own barn.
By the time we reluctantly handed back our reins at the end of our final day, we had utterly succumbed to the lure of Transylvania. Mihai and Bianca made sure of that with understated charm but unmistakable zeal. Their mission is to bring people back to a place that time seems to have forgotten. I can’t wait to return.
The Daily Telegraph