My image of Transylvania had come straight from the horror movies: dark, dripping forests haunted by werewolves, and a grim castle atop a bony crag, the residence of a pallid count dressed in black. From a distance, the facts lent some weight to this picture. There are indeed mountains and forests, towns are few and far between, around 5,000 bears and 3,000 wolves lurk in the thickets (the greatest density of both in Europe), and Vlad Dracul did exist, though the vampire element was added by Bram Stoker. The real Prince Dracula preferred impaling his victims, apparently to give him an appetite for breakfast.
However, when you get to Transylvania, some three hours' drive from Bucharest airport, what you actually see is a different kind of fantasy. This is the sort of country you would expect to find, not on late-night Friday television, but through the back of an enchanted wardrobe. There are green hills, soft with hollows and shadows, the silver threads of waterfalls on remote mountainsides, and slopes covered in beech trees, their trunks impossibly tall and slender, the leaf canopy far above, the bronze of last year's autumn underfoot. The sun comes slanting down in stripes and dapples, transforming the whole forest into a dizzying kaleidoscope of light and shade. Higher up, the trees turn to pine and larch, the pines even taller and more slender than the beeches, and higher still, blue against a bluer sky, are mountain-tops, snow-drizzled even in summer. This is Narnia as Pauline Baynes drew it, hill and forest and peak, with the rivers tumbling down and the exquisite detail of tree and leaf - a land so perfect it could only exist in fantasy.
The roads are few, most of those mainly tracks, and the traffic is generally horse-and-cart or, if you're really high-tech, tractor-drawn trailer. The occasional village sprawls along the valley-bottom, the houses with their sagging roofs and wide courtyard doors painted in candy colours, storks' nests adorning the telegraph poles, livestock meandering along the verge. The evening rush hour occurs when the cows decide to trundle home, blocking the single street. There are no desolate castles on the heights; the establishment credited to Dracula (though he only stayed there one night) is as harmless in appearance as a French château.
I was in Romania on a horse-riding holiday, based at a lodge above the village of Sinca Noua. Once we climbed out of the valley, we saw neither houses nor people, though we glimpsed deer, quickly lost in the sun-dapple of the forest. Out in the open, solitary buzzards wheeled overhead. Sometimes there was wolf spoor on the track, fresh in the mud, and the black nodules of bear droppings. But if wolf or bear saw us, they gave no sign. Lynx also live there, but they are too cunning and shy for even the expert to spot, and the stripes and stipples of their coat make them invisible against the leaves. We heard cuckoos calling, and warblers, and golden orioles, and saw many small birds that didn't hang around to be identified. The high meadows were full of flowers, vaguely familiar yet strangely different - apricot foxgloves, wild Canterbury bells, purple and pink and white orchids, many-petalled trumpets and whorls and stars in mauve and yellow.
Our gallant horses scrambled uphill and slithered downhill, always eager for a chance to hoover up the endless deep grass. Mine munched on trees, too. In places, we had to dismount to negotiate particularly difficult declines, or pick our way along rocky stream-beds with leaking boots and water over the ankle. We didn't care. Trivial discomforts meant nothing beside the beauty and the quiet - the huge quiet that was always there, behind wind-murmur and leaf-murmur, behind the soft thud of hooves on earth, the jingle of a stirrup, the piping of a bird. The quiet of the first forests before men came, before cars and planes and all the noise and rumour of the modern world. There are few places in Europe where such quiet still reigns, and surely none more lovely.
We rode for six to eight hours a day, with one day off to rest. At breakfast we would make a sandwich lunch with cheese and smoked meats, which we carried in our saddlebags; in the evening, we returned to the lodge for dinner. The food was simple and variable in quality: soup, a meat course, few green vegetables but always a substantial salad, yoghurt or cake for dessert. We also had a couple of excellent barbecues, with beef, veal, chicken, lamb and, once, wild boar. (This is a lean holiday for a vegetarian, though manageable if you eat cheese: several varieties are available.) To drink there was beer, Romanian wine, and the local brandy, which has a distant relationship with plums. It comes in three strengths, 37, 43 and 60 per cent, though my recollection may be understandably hazy on this point. But I never had a hangover, perhaps because it's homemade so there are no added chemicals.
On our day off we were given a taste of Romanian culture, with visits to two World Heritage sites: the tiny village of Viscri, which has preserved its German identity in splendid isolation for centuries, and the town of Sigisoara. The latter is all churches and turrets with roofs like polygonal witches' hats, and fortified towers in which the individual guilds would hole up in time of attack, lobbing missiles at the enemy and possibly each other. Romania only extricated itself from various empires after the Treaty of Versailles, and promptly fell under Russian sway, though in the Sixties, Ceausescu gave it a degree of independence. Unfortunately, he didn't give it anything else, razing ancient buildings to the ground, plundering the economy for personal gain, and imprisoning or executing anyone who appeared to oppose him. Today, young Romanians are proud both of their battle-scarred history and the shiny new future to which they now feel they can aspire. In the countryside, they use horses for work, rarely riding - women never do - and though labourers in the fields waved and smiled when they saw us jogging past, they clearly thought we were nuts. None the less, we were welcomed everywhere, on horse or foot.
One night, we camped out in a high meadow, looked after by the two Romanian guides and various assistants, who put up the tents, made the fire, cooked, and even improvised a disco under the stars, playing the drums on fallen logs with assorted items of cutlery. Another night, we watched bears from a hide, and on our last evening we were guests in a shepherds' camp. We learnt to milk sheep, were shown the cheese-making process (sheep's and cow's milk is mixed, and the stronger cheese is matured in a pig's stomach), ate gigantic polenta dumplings that are the traditional fare, and, of course, drank plum brandy. The ferocious dogs kept to protect the herd from wolves, many of which look suspiciously as if their mothers mated with the enemy, slobbered all over us in the hope of scraps. We drove home in the dark, loaded into two horse-drawn carts, racing each other through the village. At the end of the trip, we all agreed that we were in love, not just with the country but with the people, too.
But even in Narnia there was a White Witch. Romania needs tourism and the wealth it can bring to people who are, by Western standards, very poor, but it also needs to conserve its wildlife and the natural beauty of the landscape. Christoph and Barbara, who run the lodge - Germans long resident in Romania - are involved in projects encouraging humans to live alongside wolves and bears without slaughtering them. (One of these is the much-debated plan to reintroduce the wolf to Scotland.) There were plans to build a Dracula theme park on the edge of Sigisoara. Thankfully, it was shelved but there are plenty of people out there eager to exploit and ruin the pristine wilderness.
Transylvania doesn't need luxury hotels, five-star restaurants, or even good coffee. The people have a right to a better lifestyle but tourists can cope. After all, they didn't have cappuccinos in Narnia.
The writer travelled with In the Saddle (01299 272997; www.inthesaddle.co.uk), which offers similar trips from £656. This includes transfers, seven nights' accommodation, riding and visits. Flights are not included.
Timisoara has no direct flight from the UK. You can fly from London and Manchester with Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) via Vienna. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Tarom (020-7224 3693; www.tarom.ro) fly between London and Bucharest from around £200 return.
HEALTH & PRACTICALITIES
Horseflies are vicious and will bite through your clothes. Take repellent and anti-histamine. Riding boots are not always suitable for walking, so take open-toed walking sandals. The lodge uses English saddles, so a saddle-pad will make it easier on your behind. If you want to be popular, take two.
Romanian National Tourist Office (020-7224 3692; www.visitromania.com).