For British writer Arabella McIntyre-Brown, many hours can pass just looking at the view from her home in the small Romanian village of Magura, high in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. “I never take it for granted,” she says, staring out of the sitting room window.
McIntyre-Brown’s house is surrounded on two sides by snow-peaked mountains and on the other by the rolling hills on which the scattered houses of Magura are located. The village is 1,000 metres above sea level; a rural world where horse and carts are part of daily life and where the nearest shop is five miles down a mountain road.
“A lot of people don’t think that Transylvania really exists; the feeling is that it’s somehow beyond the veil, a place of mystery,” she says.
McIntyre-Brown, 57, grew up in a small hamlet in West Sussex, southern England, and went on to become an award-winning business journalist and author of an acclaimed history book, Liverpool: The First 1,000 Years (2001). She first visited Romania on holiday more than a decade ago.
That break was in the nearby town of Zarnesti and one day her group was taken to Magura. “We came up on a horse and cart and I had a very strange feeling — like being in Sussex, where my father ran a chalk pit. I felt at home; it was a very strange sensation.”
Despite the positive feelings, she returned to the UK — she was then living in Liverpool — with no plans to make Romania a larger part of her life.
Things changed the following year, however. In 2004 McIntyre-Brown was rocked by the death of her sister closely followed by the loss of her mother and aunt, all within the space of 14 months.
The experience affected her deeply. “My brain became cotton wool. I had deadlines and books due but I would just stare at the computer screen all day. I needed to change something.”
She started looking for a place to buy in the area of Romania she had previously visited. “The idea was to have a holiday home; to come out here for three months in the spring,” she says.
Initially, McIntyre-Brown focused her search for a home in Zarnesti because she felt it would be too cold higher in the mountains in winter. Yet, after one house in Zarnesti fell through at the last minute, she travelled to Magura to watch the sunset.
“My friend knew of a place up here, so we asked some local women coming back from the fields where it was,” she says. Despite its dilapidated condition, she fell in love with the timber house instantly. A few months later she bought it. “I knew if I walked away from it I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
Magura is an ancient Romanian village, one of seven that, in the 14th century, provided labourers for the construction of nearby Bran Castle, now a major tourist site due to its tentative connection to Vlad Tepes (otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler), the real-life inspiration for Dracula.
Situated in the Piatra Craiului National Park, Magura is surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in Romania. Most of the 400 or so residents still make their living off the land, continuing age-old farming practices.
“There were all sorts of rumours when I first arrived,” says McIntyre-Brown. “Someone said that I was going to tarmac the hill . . . there was a suggestion of a religious cult.
“I was a real curiosity,” she adds. “The fact that I was a middle-aged, unmarried woman was bizarre.”
Yet it was partly the relationships she formed with her neighbours that drew McIntyre-Brown to the place.
During her first full winter in Magura the snow fell so heavily that she couldn’t move her car and was trapped for three weeks in the house; the temperature outside reached minus 27C. “One of my neighbours, who lives on the other side of the village, tramped over here with a rucksack full of food — apples, milk, cheese, bread,” she says.
“And then he got quite upset when I suggested I pay him for them.”
Initially, she continued to live in Liverpool, returning to Romania when she had some spare money to invest in her home. “There were more holes than roof in the roof,” she recalls with a smile.
Then in 2010, she decided to make the move permanent. She sold her house in the UK and left the indie publishing company, Capsica, which she had co-founded. After packing up her car, she spent eight days driving the scenic route across Europe to Romania.
“I came here undead and Transylvania has brought me back,” she says.
At first, McIntyre-Brown lived off the money from the sale of her house in the UK, but gradually she took up some copy-editing work and is now planning to run writing workshops in Magura.
She is also working on her own non-fiction book. “It is a book about the world I see outside my window; the tiny stuff that goes on every day,” she says.
She is aware that living in such a remote spot may become an issue one day if her health fails. “I’m not getting any younger, but why would I want to leave that,” she says, pointing out of the window. “I think I would rather keel over looking at that in peace and quiet than rot in some flat in Bournemouth.”
What you can buy for . . .
€100,000 A four-bedroom house in the village of Bran
€1m A 15-room historic villa in Bucharest
€2m A forest measuring 13,000 sq metres outside the Transylvanian city of Brasov
McIntyre-Brown’s verdict . . .
● Peace and quiet after decades of city life
● The courtesy of the local people
● Watching the clouds and sheep go by
● Village gossip
● Every bill has to be paid in person in cash
● Few entertainment options
Bran Castle Ignore the Drac-tat stalls at the entrance, but don’t miss the castle
Prapastii A deep, narrow gorge in the Piatra Craiulu Mountains, a location used in the 2003 movie Cold Mountain
Fortified Saxon churches in Homorod, Vulcan and Cristian
Photograph: Andrei Pungovschi