For the first time since the pandemic, Prince Charles has returned to Transylvania. When he visits the small village of Miclosoara, or, as the Hungarian locals who live here know it, Miklósvár, the weather is perfect. There’s a small breeze and a light rain has fallen, but the sun is now out. ‘Look at that!’ someone exclaims in surprise and points a finger in the air. It’s a rare sight: over the mossy rooftops, an angry jay is chasing off a stork. The storks returned weeks ago, and while some are still busy perfecting their nests most already have chicks to feed. Prince Charles looks around. The bird must be defending its own chick, he says. And there it is, a few yards down the dusty lane – a jay chick clumsily looking for a place to hide. The Prince stoops to shoo it to the relative safety of some flowers by the side of the road, saying: ‘The nest must be somewhere around.’ It’s soon spotted, right above us, under a roof.
Three years have passed since the Prince of Wales last visited. ‘It’s good to be back. At least I can see how much the apple trees have grown,’ he says. He had planted them on his previous visit. He usually comes every year around the month of May, but the pandemic put a temporary halt to that. Now, the weekend before the Jubilee, he’s back, as usual with a small group of friends – and a group of vigilant British and Romanian security officers. The Prince owns a small house in the tiny village of Zalánpatak, up in the foothills of the Carpathians, which is where he usually stays. ‘There must have been a bear nearby last night,’ he says. ‘The dogs just wouldn’t stop barking.’ What is it that he likes so much here? He’s been quoted before saying his love for Transylvania lies ‘in my blood’. Queen Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother was Countess Klaudia Rhedey, a Hungarian Transylvanian. But when asked this time, he says it’s the countryside and the people that made him fall in love with the place: ‘There is a sense of age-old continuity here. A virtuous circle where man and nature are in balance.’
When in Transylvania, the Prince usually visits Count Tibor Kálnoky, my brother. It is with him that Charles and I stroll through Miklósvár on this quiet Sunday. We visit a local carpenter, who is carving a log into a kopjafa. The word is perhaps best translated as ‘totem’. The people here plant them on graves in place of tombstones, and the tradition harks back to pre-Christian times. A kopjafa is usually carved with symbols from a person’s life. The carpenter explains to Charles what the kopjafa he is carving symbolises. A tulip at the top denotes a woman. Below it there is a diagonal cross, which means she had children. Other signs on the totem mean she was married and of modest status. It’s all there, for those who can read it.
Some years ago, Charles and his small entourage were treated to an acrobatic open-air theatre production on horseback at the local castle, performed by local gipsy children. My brother’s wife, Anna, had created the play and had spontaneously written the Prince’s security chief into the script as a character. Towards the end, the children ran towards the royal audience who were seated in garden chairs, and pulled them on to the grass to join in a traditional Transylvanian circular dance. It was a sight to behold. Was Charles surprised, I wonder? Had he been told what to expect? ‘No,’ he smiles. ‘And it happens to me all the time. Just yesterday there was a folk dance performance and at the end, they did the same thing. At 73, it’s becoming a bit of a challenge.’
We return to the castle, where children and their relatives are milling around in the garden. A local family are celebrating the first Holy Communion of their child. As Charles and his company walk around the park, the locals act as if the Prince were here every day. It is nothing special, no rush to photograph him, no waving or exclamations. Kind smiles. They do recognise him. After all, he’s visited many times. The Prince, in turn, looks and acts like he’s here every other weekend. He seems very at home in this village.
A little while later, everyone settles at Miklósvár’s ‘Stone Pub’, a cosy place where weary wanderers can rest their feet. The Prince glances up and spots another stork’s nest. The village is full of them. A pair of storks are putting the final touches to their home. It’s new, built only this year, and twigs keep dropping as the storks try to fit them into the structure. ‘Do these nests ever fall off in a strong wind?’ Charles asks. It does look a bit shaky up there on the pylon. It can happen, he’s told. As the Prince relaxes with lemonade and tea, a small plate of fruit cake is brought out for him. Charles asks if anyone would like some, before discussing the nature of fruit cake and this specific recipe. There’s a promising-looking single biscuit in the middle of the plate. Only afterwards was I made aware that this one was intended for His Royal Highness. I ate the Prince’s biscuit. It was delicious. I hope he’ll still come back.