The prince has nicked my strawberries. They were here on the breakfast buffet yesterday, jolly little bundles bursting with summery goodness, but this morning they're gone. "No strawberries?" I ask my host. "No," she says. "They didn't have any at Zalanpatak for the prince's breakfast, so they all went there."
I'm staying at Count Kalnoky's Guesthouse in the village of Miklosvar in Romania's Transylvania. The Count has another property, The Prince's Retreat, at nearby Zalanpatak. The prince in this case is Charles, Prince of Wales, a long-standing devotee of Transylvania, and he happens to be staying at this very moment. And he's eating my strawberries for his breakfast.
I can't complain too much. What's the point of being heir apparent to the British throne if you can't swipe the strawberries? I'm also coming around to his way of thinking about Transylvania because this, as he so often says, is a very special corner of Europe.
Transylvania – it translates as "beyond the forest" – is Romania's heartland, cradled within the crescent formed by the Eastern Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps. Thanks to Hollywood, the home of Count Dracula is far better known as fiction than fact. But this is the most intact medieval landscape in all of Europe.
Transylvania is still dominated by Saxon fortified churches, hilltop citadels, palaces and Byzantine churches. In its craggy mountains, shepherds still guard their flocks from wolves and eagles, grazing their sheep on pastures smothered with wildflowers that pesticides and fertilisers have erased from most other parts of Europe. Even its folklore belongs to the Middle Ages – wolfmen, witches and, inescapably, Dracula.
The inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula was Vlad Tepes, a prince who was to become known as "Vlad the Impaler". At the time of his birth in the 15th century, Transylvania was a frontline state in the confrontation between Christianity and Islam – not a good time to be a prince. The Mongols were still dashing around eastern Europe and the Ottoman Turks, having recently taken Constantinople, were expanding their empire.
Under Vlad's rule, most crimes were punishable by death by impalement, thus streamlining the legal process. He was a passionate believer in law and order. In disguise, he would shop in markets and "accidentally" overpay merchants. Those who failed his test of honesty were impaled, and the highest standards of integrity prevailed throughout his kingdom.
These days, there are Dracula restaurants, Dracula souvenir shops, Dracula tours and, between the city of Brasov and Bran Castle, even the House of Dracula Hotel.
Conscripted into the myth, Bran Castle – also known as "Dracula's castle" – looks the part. Spookily towered and surrounded by forests, it sits at the entrance to Bran Pass, a narrow gap in the mountains. Despite its forbidding stance, it was little more than a customs post, and Vlad Tepes never spent more than a short time there. More recently, staff at the castle would amuse visitors by leaping from coffins, until one unfortunate tourist suffered a heart attack.
The cities and towns of southern Transylvania – most notably Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu – are splendidly endowed with palaces, great squares, fountains and opulent civic buildings. This prosperity derived from their location along a major trade route between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. The Black Church in Brasov features hung Turkish prayer rugs, donated centuries ago by the travelling salesmen of the day as thanksgiving for a safe return from the East.
The Transylvanian countryside features muddy villages where the houses huddle defensively along a main street, some crowned with stork nests, and fields where scarved women sheave corn. Horse-drawn carts are more common than tractors, water mills are used to grind corn, and village wells are a gathering point.
For all Transylvania's appeal, tourists have been slow to arrive. In 2017, Romania welcomed less than three million foreign visitors. Neighbouring Hungary, less than half the size, opened its front door to almost 16 million.
Until the 1990s, Romania was a reclusive nation, dominated by a paranoid communist dictatorship that kept the wider world at arm's length. Recovery has been slow. Infrastructure lags and tourism operators have failed to capitalise on the charm of Romania's rustic villages and richly forested mountains. But for any traveller tired of Europe's tourist hordes and looking for charisma, character and surprise, Romania is in a class all its own.
Count Kalnoky's Guesthouse is a shining example of what can be done. The cottages that once housed the estate's workmen have been transformed into pretty suites with lace curtains, hand carved furniture and embroidered linen, interior design à la Hansel and Gretel except for the underfloor heating and proper bathrooms. The daily activities program might include horse-drawn cart rides and picnics in flowery meadows, bear-watching in the forest, or walks through a steep-sided gorge riddled with caves where – according to legend – the Pied Piper emerged after he led the children of Hamelin away from their homes.
Dinner is served at a communal table in the main guesthouse's cellar, and the food is straight from the slow-food manual, rich with the flavours of the surrounding farms and fields. My fellow diners include an American and a Dutch woman working for the UN, a couple of Brits here to ride horses, a pair of Swiss birdwatchers and a mysterious Italian woman.
Well before midnight, the staff retire and leave us to it. We dine in the well-stocked cellar and with the wine – much of it from the Count's own estate – included in the tariff, conversation flows and conviviality reigns. Wine for strawberries; I feel not the slightest twinge of guilt.