Romanian holiday

Transylvania isn't an obvious place for a second home and that's part of its charm, writes Deborah Mulhearn
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The Independent Online

Most people would look for a second home abroad in France or Spain, but not Liverpool-based publisher Arabella McIntyre-Brown. When she was left some money by her sister, she bought a house - that she'd seen only once from the outside - in Transylvania.

Most people would look for a second home abroad in France or Spain, but not Liverpool-based publisher Arabella McIntyre-Brown. When she was left some money by her sister, she bought a house - that she'd seen only once from the outside - in Transylvania.

With Dracula's castle down the road at Bran, and the Carpathian mountains as a backdrop, her house is in a staggeringly beautiful setting, but it's more fairytale than Gothic horror, she says. "I first saw it in August and it was incredibly green and fertile. I'm from West Sussex, and it reminded me of home - wild-flower meadows and beech woods, but 1,200m high and surrounded by mountains. It has sloe bushes, hazel trees, roses, apple and cherry orchards, and even watermelons and apricots.

"There are jackdaws, rooks and hordes of sparrows, plus of course brown bears, chamois, lynx, wolves and ravens," laughs McIntyre-Brown. 'Transylvania has the perfect climate - hot days, cool nights. And in the mountains there are no mosquitoes, or bloodsuckers of any variety!"

McIntyre-Brown first visited Transylvania, in central Romania, in August 2003. She stayed in the town of Zarnesti, made friends with local tour guides Dan and Luminita Marin, and determined to return. With a publishing business to run in Liverpool, and no spare cash, she had no thoughts then of buying. But things changed. Her elder sister Ginny, wife of the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, was diagnosed with a rare cancer later that year, and died in February 2004. "Ginny left me a generous legacy and I wanted to do something different with her money. It suddenly occurred to me that she would have loved this idea. Ran agreed - I wouldn't have done it without his backing."

So, in May last year, McIntyre-Brown rang her Romanian friends to ask them to look for a house for her in the area for £10,000-£15,000. She flew out in June to see what they had lined up for her. "It's all done on hearsay and informal networks. You won't see a 'for sale' sign or even an estate agent in a small town like Zarnesti," she explains.

But nothing grabbed her. On her previous visit she had been to a Carpathian village near Zarnesti, and Dan said he'd heard that there may be a house for sale up there. McIntyre-Brown was adamant that she didn't want it. "It's paradise in summer but under snow for five months of the year, and it hit -38C last winter. There was no way I wanted somewhere I could only use half of the year. But we went anyway, winding up hairpin bends and along stony tracks. We stopped about 100 yards away and walked through the gate into the meadow. And that was it. It was like a gift that dropped from the sky. It was my house and I couldn't not have it.'

The price was set at £21,000, which included two-thirds of an acre of pasture, but then a protracted process involving Romanian inheritance laws and family politics threatened to abort the sale. "But somehow Luminita worked magic and I got a phone call in September saying, 'Come and get your house!'."

McIntyre-Brown paid about £23,000 (1.3 billion lei) for her house, a stable and hayloft, and the land. (She lost £2,000 on currency fluctuations.) "It was all done in cash, which was nerve-racking, and there were a few 'what have I done?' moments. But the legalities were simple and the local bank very efficient."

"Now, I can't think of any disadvantages. It's a bit of a trek to get there, but that's also its charm. For me, it's quicker and cheaper to fly from Liverpool to Bucharest via Amsterdam. From there it's two hours drive to Zarnesti, and then on to my village by taxi or, failing that, horse-and-cart."

The three-storey house is of traditional wooden construction, clad in hand-carved wooden shingles with a modern terracotta pantile roof. The interior needs complete renovation, and the first job is to build a septic tank and install a loo. For the furnishings, McIntyre-Brown plans to employ local craftspeople. "It's an emerging economy and a very cultured land with a rich folklore and many artists. I want to contribute in some way.

McIntyre-Brown plans to complete the restoration next summer. "I want it to be a haven, a place of healing, perhaps for people to come while recovering from cancer, because it's so peaceful and restorative. Ginny would have been pleased with that, I think, but she'd have thought it was funny, too - we grew up on Hammer horror movies!"

Arabella bought her house with the help of Romanian friends. Her advice for anyone looking for a property in this region would be to find a local who speaks English and is happy to help. As 2007 approaches, Romania's date for entry into the EU, foreign investment will drive prices up, says Edward Russell, who runs www.homesinromania.co.uk. "You can get a beautiful old cottage for £10,000, but you'd have to spend that again to bring it up to basic living standards," he says. "But £45,000 would buy a substantial property.

"Because of the country's past reputation of corruption and crime under Ceausescu, the perception of risk is much higher than the reality. If you take advice and conduct everything legally, you won't have a problem."

For other traditional houses: www.homesinromania.co.uk

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