Friday 28 October 2016

Emily Hourican: Our off-grid holiday to Transylvania

Short breaks in Europe

Emily Hourican

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Emily Hourican
Emily Hourican

A trip to Transylvania has Emily Hourican pondering vampires, emails, and those holiday roads less travelled.

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The Airbnb host's message read: "You need to know that there is no telephone signal and no possibility of internet connection".

She was right. We did need to know. Because this is not usual in our lives. I cannot remember the last time I went somewhere without any hope of contacting the outside world. Patchy connections, I'm used to. But entirely without? It feels almost sinister. Like  a Roman Polanski film.

Her message answered my eldest son's query anyway - "Will there be Wi-Fi?" he had asked anxiously a few days previously, phone in hand, fingers twitching over it. When I said I doubted it, he looked as if he might be contemplating making alternative arrangements.

This, I tried to explain to him, was A Good Thing. Exciting. Off-grid. I didn't, at that stage, know we wouldn't be able to make phone calls, either. "What if . . ." I began to think, in the wake of our host's message. And, of course, there are always a million 'what ifs'. What if someone gets sick and we can't contact anyone? What if someone at home gets sick and they can't contact us? Most likely scenario - what if we can't find the house, and spend hours and hours driving around the Carpathian mountains, until finally we are forced to find a cave, turf out a bear or pack of wolves, and sleep in it?

We are off to Transylvania for a week's holiday, and I am starting to realise this will be a holiday unlike any I have had in many years. Possibly ever. Usually, going away involves France, Italy or Spain. Countries I know well. With languages I speak, to varying degrees of fluency. With currencies that are the same as our currency. With political and social systems I feel I understand. With ATMs on most corners, and restaurants and supermarkets that are easily negotiated. With well-worn tourist grooves to slot into.

All of which makes these holidays a pretty familiar kind of beast. Predictable almost, in a nice way. Quite like going to, say, Kerry, but with better weather. Heading off to Transylvania ticks none of those familiar boxes.

We will need to work out how much money we'll need and change that into Romanian leu. What will the food be like? Will anyone speak English? Apparently, they speak a little German. But if so, do I remember enough from my two years studying it aged 14 and 15 to communicate the basics? Speaking of basics, what kind of shops will there be? Will there be any cafes or restaurants? And if so, what will they serve? And all this before you even begin to factor in vampires.

It feels like an adventure, far more than any holiday I have been on since going to Russia back in 1999, when the shops were still mostly empty of food, and we once walked for hours in St Petersburg before finding a restaurant. Hours. Following careful directions, as if making our way to a speakeasy in Prohibition-era New York.

Preparing for Transylvania reminds me of the holidays we used to take when I was a kid. To Greece, for example, or Portugal. My dad would calculate how much money we needed (never enough), change it into drachma or escudos, and walk about with thick bundles of cash about his person, like a Mafioso. When the money ran out, as it invariably did, there was all sorts of trouble about finding a bank and getting more. We drove into tiny villages where people didn't exactly worship us like gods, alas, but were certainly very curious.

What I do know about Transylvania is that there will be the cleanest air in Europe; a mountainous arc of 1,500km stretching from the Czech Republic to Romania (our bit), taking in Bulgaria, Poland and Ukraine, with no industry and, in Transylvania anyway, precious little traffic. There will be mountain lakes to swim in, forests to explore, meadows to walk through and Saxon-era villages.

And, for the first time, when I put the out-of-office alert on my email that says "I will be away with very limited access to emails . . . " I will really mean it.

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