Mystical tales from Transylvania
The walled Romanian town of Sighişoara is the birthplace of Dracula. (Matt Munro)
It’s a freezing midwinter evening just outside the Transylvanian village of Miklósvár, and the forest is eerily quiet. Icicles dangle from the branches and silver blades of sunlight filter through the conifers, casting the forest floor in an iridescent glow. Apart from the crackle of the campfire and the stamp of horses’ hooves, there’s not a sound to break the wintry silence. It’s then that Count Tibor Kálnoky begins to tell the tale of the first time he visited the village witch.
‘One of my sons was suffering from sleepwalking,’ he explains, staring into the campfire as he pours out a round of pálinka, a fiery Hungarian fruit brandy. ‘Every night he would wake up and wander in his sleep. We tried many treatments, but nothing worked. So we asked some local people and they told us to visit an old lady by the name of Marika Neni, who everyone just called Auntie.’ He sips his brandy, stirring the embers of the campfire with his leather boot.
‘She used an old remedy which involved melting some lead in an iron pot and then looking at the shape the lead made as it cooled, rather like reading tea leaves. Then she said some spells, gave us the lead to put under his pillow as he slept, and sent us home.’
He looks up from the fire, downs his pálinka and breaks into a roguish grin. ‘And believe it or not, he’s never sleepwalked since.’
With his dapper hair, jodhpurs and knee-high boots, Count Kálnoky doesn’t strike you as the kind of man who would believe in witches’ cures. But superstitions such as these are still a fundamental part of everyday life in Transylvania, even after decades under Communist rule. Having spent most of his childhood in government-enforced exile, Kálnoky finally returned to reclaim his family’s estates in 1999, following the fall of Ceaușescu’s regime and after an eight-year legal battle. Since then the count has learned to embrace Transylvania’s old ways.
‘It’s good luck if a stork nests on your rooftop,’ he explains, ducking through the timber gateway of a courtyard cottage, one of several he’s renovated around Miklósvár over the last decade. ‘And bad luck if you knock them down. We’ve got a nest that hasn’t been used for years, but I’m not brave enough to remove it!’
Entering the cottage feels like stepping into a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Stout oak beams underpin the roof and rough plaster lines the walls, while an antique ceramic stove pumps out warmth and shuttered windows peep onto the moonlit courtyard.
‘You should be cosy in here,’ says Count Kálnoky. ‘Don’t be alarmed if you hear noises in the night. It’s probably just the watchman stoking the fire. And, if not – well, that should help keep out the vampires.’ He gestures to the doorway, where a bunch of dried garlic has been nailed into the plaster.
Sprawling along the edge of the snowy Carpathians, Europe’s last truly wild mountain range, Transylvania is a land that is rich in myths and legends. A region of Romania since 1918 but historically an independent province, Transylvania’s history has been shaped by the many transient populations that have passed through over the centuries: Saxons, Ottomans, Hungarians, Jews, Serbs and Roma Gypsies. With them came stories collected on their travels: tales of goblins and giants, fairy queens and woodland nymphs, unearthly phantoms, man-eating ogres and predatory ghouls. Venture out on a moonlit night and you might encounter the pricolici, the devilish werewolves said to be the restless spirits of violent men. Even more terrifying are the samca, wizened hags with dagger-like fingernails that sometimes appear to children and women during childbirth; their appearance signifies certain death. And then there are the legends of the strigoi, or vampires – undead creatures risen from the grave to feast on the blood of the living – which fired the imagination of an Irish writer by the name of Bram Stoker, and inspired him to write his Gothic bestseller, Dracula, in 1897.