King Charles’s guesthouse in Valea Zalanului, Romania.Credit...Andreea Campeanu for The New York Times
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By David Segal
Reporting from Transylvania
There isn’t a front desk or even a lobby at the Prince of Wales Guesthouse, a trio of rustic buildings beside a 350-year-old village in Zalán Valley in Transylvania. Check-ins are handled in the communal dining room and den where a woman, who is the cook, hands over an antique key. It will open the door to one of seven rooms, all of which look as though they were furnished with a Romanian edition of House Beautiful, circa 1740. The only contemporary touches are electric kettles, radiators and bottled water.
It’s the royal treatment, King Charles-style.
On Saturday, the English monarch will be crowned with all the bunting and pageantry that has made the British royal family peerless masters in the fine art of pomp, with festivities that begin with a processional from Buckingham Palace.
That is only the most famous of the king’s residences. He bestrides a real estate empire worth $25 billion, according to Forbes, a portfolio that includes 56 cottages, 12 homes and seven palaces. The guesthouse is far from the most luxurious, but it offers this singular distinction: For about $200 a night, meals included, commoners are graciously welcomed.
The king has owned this property since 2008, and he vacations here for a week nearly every May, bringing along friends and a retinue of security. It’s a quiet corner of the world where time seems to have stopped about a couple centuries ago, and the king has often described it as one of his favorites. Which suggests that the man in the middle of what will be the planet’s splashiest shindig this weekend far prefers the stillness and privacy he finds about 1,500 miles away from London, on unpaved roads and rugged woods near the Carpathian Mountains.
And while guests who visit here shouldn’t expect to meet the latest Windsor to ascend to the throne — when he’s present, the place is booked — they can wander around the same premises and explore the same verdant meadows. Those who nab what is still called the Prince’s Room can also sleep in the same bed.
King Charles has rhapsodized about the charms of Romania for decades. “There is a sense of age-old continuity here,” he explained in a story last year in The Spectator. “A virtuous circle where man and nature are in balance.” He’s also explained this affinity as a matter of heritage. He is related, he says, to Vlad the Impaler, the one-time ruler of Wallachia, a region to the south, and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
“Transylvania is in my blood,” he quipped during a 2011 television interview. A variety of sources, including a British tabloid and the Romanian Tour Store website have backed him up on this, asserting that he is Vlad’s great-grandson, 16 times removed.
More definitively, the king is related to Countess Claudine Rhédey von Kis-Rhéde, who was born in Transylvania and is a great-great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.
Still, the king’s fondness for this area is more about forests than family. Green spaces and old villages in the United Kingdom tend to be posher and more manicured, said Count Tibor Kalnoky, the 56-year-old Romanian aristocrat who oversaw the renovation of the guesthouse and who, when he isn’t working as a veterinarian, helps keep the place running.
“In England, it’s more like a stage; it’s more artificial,” he said in an interview. “You can find a Gucci bag in a village in the Cotswolds, but there won’t be much muck around anymore — or chickens walking in the street, which we have here. It’s the difference between Disneyland and the real thing.”
Mr. Kalnoky, who is tall, urbane and fluent in five languages, was raised in exile in Paris, where his family resided after Communists took over Romania. He speaks with an unplaceable pan-European accent and seems ready to be amused by nearly everything — with one exception. As a count from Transylvania, he would like to cordially invite everyone to spare him the Dracula jokes. He’s never heard one that’s funny.
“Always terrible,” he said. “Always a cliché.”
Best to leave the Dracula gags to the count because he has included a pretty good one in the guesthouse. Every room comes with a bulb of garlic nailed above the inside of the door, a wink at the infamous neck biter’s most acute food allergy.
The story of how King Charles came to own a guesthouse in Romania starts with one of Mr. Kalnoky’s ancestors. In the 16th century, Bálint Kalnoky was the first documented owner of the Zalán Valley, and about 100 years later a series of houses was built for glassblowers at a nearby glass factory. That factory has long since vanished from what is today the right-next-door village of Zalánpatak, population 94.
The Prince of Wales began visiting Romania in the late 1990s. An earlier home in the historic village of Viscri attracted swarms of tourists, The BBC reported. He and the count, who is a relative, are friends, and when the then-prince asked for help finding a more secluded Romanian getaway, the count had an idea.
“As he was describing his dream house, I realized that I might know that very house,” he recalled. They walked 11 miles from the count’s home in Miclosoara to what was then a group of buildings badly in need of a thorough renovation.
“When we arrived, I said, ‘Will this do?’ and he said ‘That is exactly what I had in mind.’”
The refurbishment started with one building and then expanded to include two more as the number of guests invited by the prince grew. It remains far from polished. (The word “authentic” gets prominent play on the guesthouse’s website.) Even the few contemporary touches could use a tweak. During a recent weekend stay in what is called the Dwarf’s Room — probably because the entrance to the bathroom is, for some reason, about four feet high — the heat was either off, and the room freezing, or on, and the room a sweatbox.
There are a handful of images of the king scattered here and there, and the Prince’s Room has a photograph of his mother as a young woman. This is hardly a shrine, however, and anyone seeking the thrill of walking in the monarch’s footsteps has more convenient options. A flight from London to Bucharest is more than three hours long, and the drive to Zalánpatak is another three and a half hours, some of it on unpaved roads.
Profits from operations here go to the Prince of Wales Foundation in Romania, which supports educational programming and skills training. But the guesthouse is not exactly a money machine, as the count put it. The coronavirus pandemic had a devastating impact, and because Romania shares a border with Ukraine, plenty of people are put off by its relative proximity to the war with Russia, even though the nearest Ukrainian town is more than 200 miles away.
“It crossed our minds, but it didn’t put us off, obviously,” said Charlotte Cotton, a 54-year-old Briton who was visiting one recent weekend with her sister, brother and mother. The family thinks highly of the new king, though he wasn’t the reason they trekked all the way from England. They wanted untrammeled nature, and they found it in every direction they walked.
“You can be in Scotland and feel like you’re on your own, but then you hit a road or you find a car park or a footpath with a sign on it,” said Ben Stephens, Ms. Cotton’s brother.
“Whereas here, you don’t see any other sign of human life,” Ms. Cotton continued. “No telephone poles, no cars. You don’t even hear airplanes. We didn’t see human tracks. We saw bear prints.”
Other than nature walks and meals — there are 10 different menus, including a variety of goulashes — activities are fairly limited. For about $65, there is the add-on option of a picnic and ride in a cart pulled by two horses, an employee at the reins.
One recent afternoon, the driver steered the horses for 40 minutes, then stopped and put a grate over a small fire pit. Lunch was roast rack of lamb with an Asian-style marinade, prawn tacos with pineapple salsa and a strawberry ginger trifle. Wait, those are the official coronation dishes that the public is being urged to cook. This meal was a slab of medium-well pork with a side of more pork, and mushrooms. In a nearby field, a shepherd tended to about 100 loudly bleating sheep.
The ride back went through the adjacent village, where people were tending to their yards or chasing down chickens. Without the cars and tractors, this collection of houses would have appeared at least 100 years old. Along the hamlet’s lone dirt road there is an Orthodox chapel and a Catholic church, as well as a store that opens whenever someone rings the front door bell. Just about every house has a barking dog, pets that double as bear-warning devices.
Most residents out on a recent Wednesday afternoon said they had seen or met King Charles during his visits over the years. They had waved hello when he walked down the road and occasionally exchanged a few words.
“He’s very kind, very friendly,” said Ibolya Préda, who is 87 and has lived in this village her entire life. “He shook everyone’s hand.”
A few villagers described the then-prince inviting dozens of them to the guesthouse where he oversaw grass-cutting competitions, a centuries-old tradition in Transylvania involving scythes and a lot of frenetic arm sweeping. People were divided into six-person teams.
“This guy says he was on the team that won,” said Abigél Préda, Ms. Ibolya’s granddaughter, who helped with translations during a walk. She was talking over a fence to a middle-age man smoking a cigarette. He said the prize for him and his team had been eating a plate of tokány — a dish in the goulash family — near the prince, though not exactly with the prince.
“He said that the prince had armed guards around him,” Ms. Préda said. “But they could talk to him.”
The consensus was that King Charles had done little to alter life in the village, which didn’t seem to bother anyone here. The place might leave more lasting impressions on its visitors, many of whom have scribbled glowing reviews in a guest book with the prince’s name on it. Even critics of the royals, it seems, are won over.
“Prince Charles, regrettably we remain republican,” wrote one family from London, using the British term for those who want to abolish the monarchy. “But we compliment your excellent taste.”
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