Transylvania, in central Romania, had been on my list of places to visit for a while, so when I read Along the Enchanted Way, William Blacker’s lyrical account of his time living there, I knew I had to go before it changed forever.
The opportunity to visit a place where the flower-rich meadows had never been ploughed, where the horse and cart was still the normal mode of transport, and hay was cut and stacked by hand was irresistible. In Britain we have television programmes recreating these things, but in Transylvania it’s still an everyday reality.
Experience has taught me that expert help and local knowledge are invaluable on this type of holiday so I travelled with Naturetrek on their seven-day “Wildlife of Transylvania” tour. This particular holiday wasn’t focused exclusively on the botany of the region; it also included the wildlife, which is as diverse and interesting as the flora.
A mixed group provides the opportunity to dip in and out of other people’s interests as well as pursue your own passion. I enjoyed observing the way the birdwatchers strode off gazing upwards at a distant dot in the sky, while the butterfly enthusiasts flitted across meadows and then stood still as statues as they attempted to photograph a particularly choice specimen. We plantspeople had it easy by comparison: we just had to look around, confident that anything that caught our eye would neither flutter off nor fly away.
Our minibus had not long left the airport, and we were still driving across the treeless plains surrounding Bucharest, when shimmering lakes of intense blue appeared in a landscape littered with abandoned factories.
But this was no watery world. While British cornfields are stained scarlet by poppies, these fields take their colour from cornflowers, which occur on a breathtaking scale.
As the road began to leave the plains behind, we wound our way up through forested mountains and along fertile valleys with views of steep alpine meadows towards the Brasov region.
Darkness had fallen by the time we reached our comfortable guesthouse in the village of Magura, a good half an hour’s drive from the nearest tarmac road along a bumpy track that winds steeply through dense forest.
The morning revealed the village to be perched along the crest of a hill, offering panoramic views of the valley and surrounded by alpine meadows with an extraordinary diversity of flowers.
Although I enjoyed all the locations we visited in Transylvania, I spent a deliriously happy week just botanising in these species-rich meadows.
Yellow rattle was the dominant plant in many of the pastures, ensuring the low fertility which allows wild flowers to thrive. Glossy yellow trollius hovered above fragrant orchids, clovers, campanulas, hardy geraniums, oxeye daisies, viper’s bugloss, ajugas, scabious, thyme, thistles, hyssop, salvias and dianthus (to name but a few). This rich diversity is thanks to a combination of terrain (too steep for machinery) and traditional methods (meadows cut by hand and grazed only by sheep).
It was the height of haymaking during our visit, yet nowhere in the mountains did we see any sign of mechanisation. Even in the valleys, where there was the occasional tractor, it seemed that scything by hand was still the preferred method. Whole families set to, cutting, turning, piling the horse-drawn carts impossibly high with fragrant hay and then stacking it into conical haystacks. At the beginning and end of the day, murderously sharp scythes were slung over shoulders as the families made their way to and from the meadows.
The verges were as enticing as the meadows, with shady and sunny habitats providing endless variety. In the shade, the soft yellow Digitalis grandis was coming into flower, while carpets of alpine strawberries provided snacking opportunities.
Pink Chaerophyllum hirsutum, so desirable in our gardens, defeated ranker plants to become the dominant feature of a damp shady bank.
I found a Clematis alpina growing among rocks and nearby a patch of large-flowered blue aquilegia was growing in long grass. On the sunny side of the street, so to speak, were campanulas, thymes and salvias all thriving in the free-draining soil.
Verge of delight
Observing the conditions that plants choose for themselves in their natural habitat really is an education when it comes to growing plants well.
There were so many plants to get excited about – some very familiar, others less so. The prize for the most bizarre plant must go to the semiparasitic cow-wheat (Melampyrum nemorosum) with its bright purple bracts and yellow flowers.
My revelation of the week was walking through damp meadows thick with Cirsium rivulare, the rich pink thistle which I now realise is well out of its comfort zone in my free-draining sandy soil. The clue was there all the time in its name: rivulare means “brook-loving”. No wonder my poor plant survives rather than thrives in the sunny border at the base of a wall.
These damp meadows were also home to astrantias, thalictrums and so many colchicums that, come the autumn, the entire valley must be a haze of lilac. Also common in the boggiest areas of damp meadows was the white false helleborine Veratrum album — an attractive but deadly plant that must be the Transylvanian equivalent of ragwort.
A surprising find in an area of scrubby woodland where we had gone to watch golden orioles flitting among the trees was Narcissus poeticus growing alongside marsh orchids in a patch of damp rushy ground.
Although my interest was first and foremost botanical, I hugely enjoyed other aspects of the holiday. Who, after all, wouldn’t be thrilled to sit in a hide at dusk and watch 14 wild bears, including six cubs, visit a feeding station? Or to watch eagles soaring overhead?
Each day, as we walked through different habitats, we were guided by our Naturetrek tour leader who had travelled out with us and a superb local guide, environmentalist Istvan Kovacs.
He was eloquent about the dilemma facing Transylvania’s flora and fauna, explaining that the population of the region has a less romantic view of their way of life than visitors do. They hope that European Union grants will make life easier, but Istvan fears that in the process much could be lost.
So, if a timeless landscape, mountains and pure air with abundant flowers and wildlife appeal to you then you will love Transylvania. But you should go soon.