Travel Story Inside Prince Charles' remote Romanian eco-retreat

Photo of Rick Ardon

The Transylvanian village of Zalanpatak is at the end of a dirt road not visible on your car GPS. It doesn’t even have a post office. But it does have a tranquillity that’s fast disappearing in much of Europe.

As I ended my drive three hours north of Romania’s capital Bucharest, I thought, where on Earth are we? 

The answer was a remote village in Transylvania where Prince Charles owns an eco-retreat that keeps Romanian traditions alive.

The medieval village of Zalanpatak is at the end of a dirt road not visible on your car GPS. It doesn’t even have a post office. However, it does have lush Transylvanian forest and a tranquillity that’s fast disappearing in much of Europe.

At the Prince’s private nature retreat, you’re greeted by eye-catching buildings containing carefully restored furnishings and traditional Romanian artefacts, staying true to the Saxon way of life that arrived here hundreds of years ago.

Here, we enjoyed the camaraderie of like-minded travellers from England and Hungary, all at peace with the enchanted atmosphere of this special place.

The charming manager Gabor told me Prince Charles visits once a year for six nights in May, with only two bodyguards because the Romanian Government closes down the village while he’s there.

The retreat is also closed to guests who, for the rest of the year, have a choice of rooms including the royal room that belongs to the Prince.

One English guest who arrived after us joked how glad he was to find it before dark because of the legend of Count Dracula, whose castle at Bran is only 50km away as the bat flies.

He may have kept driving if he knew Prince Charles has a distant bloodline connecting him to Count Dracula.

As you gaze past the pastel buildings in hues of blue and brown, you’re captivated by the lush green of the Transylvanian forest behind the retreat. 

On a Sunday, we were treated to a horse and cart adventure into this mythical forest, guided by locals dressed in traditional outfits. At the first elevated stop, now known as George’s Meadow, Gabor casually tells us Prince Charles gave it to his grandson Prince George as a first birthday present.

The young prince’s meadow is extraordinarily picturesque, with hundreds of wildflowers.

In the quiet of a hot afternoon, I wandered back down the unpaved road into the village.

I found the only shop by chance, when I noticed one of the rustic homes had a different door. I wondered if I was poking my nose into someone else’s business but I was warmly welcomed inside by a Romanian couple who spoke virtually no English, and I no Romanian.

Because it was the end of my warm walk, I asked optimistically if the village had a bar.

“Beer,” the shirtless man said. 

“No, but what about a beer garden,” I asked.

“In my garden,” he said with a big grin, and took me through a side door to another topless neighbour drinking beer on a bench. I had found the only bar in the village.

After bidding farewell to the beer and the bar, I walked back along the dusty road wondering if Prince Charles had been there, too.

Then a big horse came out of nowhere, taking itself for a walk, trotting past me up the street and into another house, leaving me pondering how strong that Romanian beer had been.

I must have looked surprised because a couple of craggy septuagenarians stooped by age and hard work laughed as they cheerfully returned from the fields. 

The horse and cart is still the main form of transport in this isolated village, and its roads are the only place the saying “no news, no shoes” doesn’t quite fit — because of the distinct possibility you’ll put your foot in it.

As you watch for horse manure, elderly folk quickly sweep soil into the potholes to make the road smoother for the next cartwheel. 

There are no footpaths here and, as you walk down the dirt road, you realise there are no tourists. Just the curious adventurers hanging out at Charlie’s place.

Dinner at the Prince’s retreat is a communal affair in the 19th century dining room, featuring another fireplace. We had an excellent chicken crepes followed by grilled local beef.

I was going to describe the impressive fireplace as baronial but in Romania the aristocrats are counts. Prince Charles also has a stake in the quirky Count Kalnoky’s Guesthouse half an hour away in Miclosoara. I was counting on meeting the count but sadly he wasn’t counting on meeting me. 

There was no TV and no internet, so the worries of the world were far away. Instead, I pondered how life must have been here through the ages, complete with organic apple trees outside my front door and an internal doorway to the bathroom that was only just above waist height. The almost limbo-like bend into the bathroom made me realise how short people were just a few generations ago.

Outside that night, the sky was awash with stars in the absence of any other light. It happened to be the night of the astral shower known as the Perseids, with falling stars streaking across the sky above.

As I left this romantic Romanian royal retreat, I wondered if I’d ever find such a pure place again.

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