October’s Romania really outdoes herself. The ochre of the dying corn, the deep, black-brown loam, the blaze of the turning forests, the luminous green fuzz of the autumn wheat and all beneath the bluest skies. The gin-clear light adds an almost unnatural HD reality – it really is something to behold.
Late October I was fortunate enough to take a long road trip from the capital way up to the very top of the country, to within sight of the border with the Ukraine, over 600kms, to Maramures. And I travelled there to meet with a very special lady called Penelope Ridgely and to see her Village Hotel and the village of Breb. This village is now and forever linked with William Blacker’s enchanting 2009 novel “Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania”. The novel portrays a bucolic, rural idyll long since vanished from most of Europe but that still holds firm in Romania and particularly up in Maramures. It’s a life that folks – both Romanians and internationals – are visiting afresh and appreciating and they’re embracing the values it represents. Penelope is a supporter and promoter of this culture and the Village Hotel is a living embodiment.
“What we have here is community. Real proper community where we look after each other, we all muck in, we all help out,” says Penelope, “and it’s an increasingly rare thing. Round here, young people are returning from abroad – they have seen what is on offer in the UK, in Italy, Spain or Germany and they realise that what they have here is better. These villages are thriving, depopulation isn’t a thing here. We even have between 3 and 5 weddings a year in this one little village alone.” It would be an exaggeration to say this is as a result of Penelope and her Village Hotel creation but for sure she has helped and is helping.
The Village Hotel is a fairy tale concoction of four traditional wooden houses complete with big traditional wooden gate and split by a gurgling stream. Interiors are cozy, comfortable and charming. It’s quite irresistible.
Penelope is in the business of hospitality but this year has been strange to say the least. “This time last year (October/November 2019) we were booked up through most of the 2020 season, as usual, and as usual most of our bookings, over 90%, were from abroad. Up until this year the vast bulk of our guests were from abroad, people literally came from all over the world but not so many Romanians.” This year however, in so many ways and for so many of us, things have been turned on their head. “By February almost all of our bookings had cancelled due to the pandemic, it was looking bad, really bad. But then a strange thing started happening – we started to get inquiries from Romanians. So many in fact that from early June through to mid October the hotel has been full of Romanians. Most of these would normally travel abroad but this year they explored their country.” Early signs are that next year will be similar, Penelope is planning accordingly.
Originally an equestrian allrounder from the English Home Counties this charming and cheery lady embarked upon her international adventures in the early noughties with three kids and husband, first stop Sri Lanka. That was the Festive season of ‘04. The plan was to establish an eco-resort there but the devastating tsunami that Boxing Day, the worst natural disaster in modern history, put paid to their plans. They survived but it was harrowing. So to Croatia where they lived on an outlying island paradise (Vis) and then later to Egypt where they set up a resort in a remote oasis, Siwa, that still operates. By the late noughties their adventures had taken them to Pestera in the foothills of Piatra Crauilui not far from Brasov and the love affair with Romania was kindled. A trip to the far north of Romania and Breb was discovered and it was love at first sight. “As soon as we came down into the village I knew that this was the place.”
A bundle of energy, Penelope is as comfortable pushing a wheelbarrow full of logs as she is conjuring up a winning shepherd’s pie. She has something of the mother-hen about her but underscored with rock n roll and she laughs quickly and easily.
“In the UK history happens so slowly that it’s barely perceptible but here, especially since the Revolution, things have changed fast, people wanted to forget how things were but now it’s changing back again. The people around here are seeing that these old wooden houses are special, they have value, they are something to be very proud of. This culture,” Penelope casts her arms out, the village here, “is beautiful.” And there’s no denying it.
Helping people to immerse themselves in the way of life of the village is Penelope’s raison d’etre and she’s very good at it. There are a whole raft of activities for visitors to Village Hotel: crafting, hay making, cycling, riding, fishing, hiking but it’s also the ideal place to just recharge, to de-stress. There are plans for wellness related holidays and they’d be a natural fit.
“I’m very lucky, in fact I’m the luckiest person I know,” another explosion of infectious laughter. “I get to see people at their best, people really buy into what we offer here and they are happy and they go away happy and that makes me very happy.”
For more information about The Village Hotel go here: https://villagehotelmaramures.com/