Our weekend in Romania isn’t just a whirl in a new destination: it is a magical journey to a different time. A horse-drawn cart laden with logs is the only other traffic on the main road as we turn out of Targu-Mures airport. (Which I know to be pronounced ‘Teergu-Muresh’ thanks to a tip-off from a Romanian friend, along with: ‘You must try the sweet local chardonnay’ and ‘But you could skip the lettuce soup.’) During the hour and a half drive to the centuries-old Saxon village where we’ll be for two nights, such transport becomes a familiar sight. In fact, as passengers in a Fiat, we soon feel the odd ones out.
Wending our way through the Carpathian Mountains we pass communities of pretty brown, red, blue, green, purple and yellow cottages, many with its own clutch of livestock. Admiration for pristine domed churches and enchanting derelict biseric? is interspersed with waves to black-hatted locals perched on the back of carts (eliciting huge toothy smiles and looks of horror in equal measure). Rumbling down a bumpy dirt road, we overtake a man laden with a huge bundle of branches. He’s on foot, miles from anywhere, carrying sticks. Where’s he going? What’s he going to do with them? Even the GPS looks bewildered: it currently reckons we’re in the middle of a field. A reassuring peek at our old-fashioned road map confirms we’re almost at Biertan, a World Heritage site and the nearest town to Copsa Mare.
A road sign nudges us down a track through more pastel-toned houses – some peeling, others just-painted – and through neatly harvested fields of wheat. I wonder what Patrick Leigh Fermor would make of us heading to Transylvania to review an Italian-owned guesthouse? I am sure the cultured king of intrepid travel writers, who died recently aged 96, would scoff at us doing anything but immersing ourselves in authentic local culture. To Fermor, this central region of Romania was ‘the very essence and symbol of remote, leafy half-mythical strangeness; and, on the spot, it seemed remoter still, and more fraught with charms.’
One imagines Paddy, who was as happy kipping in a barn as a B?leni mansion, furrowing his brow at the thought of mod-cons or talk of threadcount. So it is that Copsamare Guesthouse would have been his kind of place. It will soon become clear chichi boutique bolthole, and a world away from luxury chain hotels, this unique stay, we have been told, is at the heart of traditional village life – right from the start of the property's renovation a few years ago.
Today, a turreted fortified church still looms over Copsa Mare’s cluster of side-to-side Saxon cottages. Though the 16th-century church has long-since fallen into disrepair, and the village’s many German-origin inhabitants all but gone, the next generation is visible everywhere. A teenager is at the well filling a bucket, while a toddler scampers across the bumpy main track with puppies and kittens. Animal-loving Ms Smith is by now cooing at chickens and pigs trotting about in fenced-off gardens, winding down the window to ask a bemused farmer on a tractor if she can take his picture.
We are here well out-of-season, and we are the only car in the village; an elderly man makes the sign of the cross as we pass him for the second time. As captivating as this tableau of country life is, something occurs to us as we tackle the small residential circuit again. We have no clue which building will be our abode. Let alone which could be a Mr & Mrs Smith hideaway. We think we saw one tiny shop, but that’s it. Our notes tell us our room is in the house by the Orthodox church. Eventually we find a little white steepled church and park up; a phonecall later a smiling woman is walking over to greet us. This is Cornelia, our guardian angel for the rest of our stay.
Cornelia hands us a heavy set of keys and gestures us to our home for the weekend. Barely distinguishable from the postcard-fit peasants’ homes either side, we step through the White House’s gate into a garden backdropped by the most incredible escarpment. Vertiginous though the slope is, right at the top a flock of sheep is skipping across the grass. Gentle investigation reveals our neighbours consist of two rotund headscarfed black-clad octogenarians feeding chickens to one side; and to the other, a farmer tending to a very plump, very vocal pig. This Ms Carnivore-Smith politely (guiltily) ignores Ms Vegetarian-Smith looks of concern, and eagerly heads into the cosy cottage where a fire is roaring in a wood-burning stove.
Copsamare’s three house are a lesson in Transylvanian traditions: dried maize and nut leaves hang in clusters, end-of-season apples in a wooden bowl on the communal table, and boldly painted ceramics from Horezu adorn the walls and shelves of the sort-of shared kitchen. Ms Smith logs that the hollow tree-trunk once used for maize-crushing would be ideal in a game of hide-and-seek. (I resist making jokes that perhaps next door's piggy would like to try it for size in the pending run-up to Christmas.)
Travelling this trip without our Mr Smiths, we plump for the down-to-earth twin room. Instead of the usual inspections of hi-tech gadgets and fancy bathroom products, we delight in the authenticity of furniture made by the villagers and genuine sense of place. Without the distraction of television or internet, we settle down with destination guides, to plan what to see, eat and do for our 48 hours in Transylvania.
Now, aren’t you impressed? I got this far without a whisper of you-know-who. But a word on Dracula. Yes, of course we intend to head to mediaeval micro-city Sighisoara, where we’ll doff our caps to the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler up in the cobbled old town. Legend suggests that the ultimate vampire hails from this neck of the woods, though in fact Bram Stoker blurred Vlad Dracul’s tale and that of the notorious caped Count. Vlad’s ruling methods were certainly on the gory side, but true Transylvanian lore doesn’t indicate any actual blood-sucking. Nonetheless, during a twilight stroll through our rural neighbourhood, these faint-hearted Ms Smiths agree that any offers of extra garlic at supper won’t be refused.
A cold weekend in December is far from a conventional time to visit Transylvania – as fairytale-evoking as it must be in the snow. In high season, Cornelia's convivial dinners in owner Giovanna’s home can be for up to a dozen Copsamare guests. But tonight our motherly host and chef transforms home-grown ingredients into a simple feast just for us. We toast our wholesome, traditional supper in the Wine Country with another glass of Romanian merlot, and we thrill at how charming this tourist-free village must be in the sunny blossom-filled months. Trees laden with fruit, herbs and fragrant wildflowers at the edge of lush, terraced vineyards. Sprinkling another sliver of speck with chilli flakes and onion, I suggest to Ms Smith we return in spring with our beaus. ‘If only to check on our cute curly-tailed neighbour,’ says my companion, eyeing my cured pig fat suspiciously as she helps herself to a slice of just-baked pear and chocolate cake.