6 October 2018

In 2011, after years of legal struggle, Count Kalman Teleki finally returned to Teleki Castle, his family’s ancestral home in Transylvania. The 17th-century ­baroque castle had been taken from his family during the Communist period, forcing him, his siblings and his parents out of their home for almost two decades.

“The basement flat where we lived was two small rooms. My father slept in the dining room and me, my mother and siblings slept in the other room,” says Teleki, 70.

“We lived in the basement for 19 years, 25 square metres [270 sq ft] for six people,” he adds, visibly moved. Romania’s Communist ­regime made life difficult for his family, who were forced to report to the Securitate on a weekly basis.

Returning the castle in Gornesti for the first time in 2011 – after a €20,000 (£18,000) legal battle and a career in real estate in ­Belgium, where he lived for 35 years – was an unforgettable moment for Teleki. “I was alone here and the castle was completely empty,” he says. “It was an extraordinary moment in my life, it was emotional.”

Teleki Castle is one of Transylvania’s finest baroque castles, mostly built in the 1700s. It is typical of the Grassalkovich architectural style. When you ­enter the grounds, a row of tall trees creates a natural path over a moat bridge, which leads to the large oak-door main entrance.
 
From here, an arched-ceiling corridor splits off to the two main wings of the castle, continuing through to the large interior courtyard. The castle’s size soon becomes apparent. “The legend says that the castle has 52 rooms and 365 windows… but nobody ever really counted them,” says Teleki.

Some impressive features survive to this day: ornate chandeliers hang from the gilded ceiling of the dining salon, large old oak doors pay homage to the castle’s long history, and traditional terracotta stoves remain intact.

The count has now decided to restore the castle to its former architectural splendour. But this will be no easy task: it has problems with its electrics and the roof. During the Communist period it was ransacked and then turned into a preventorium for children whose parents had contracted tuberculosis.

Some rooms are still adorned with paintings of cartoon characters, which Teleki says is all part of the castle’s history and will remain untouched. The courtyard, like much of the castle, bears the marks of aggressive renovation with little care for ­heritage. Throughout the castle, a mishmash of styles are on display, with small characterless rooms joined up for practical purposes in contrast with the glitzy chandeliers.
 
In the interior courtyard, to Teleki’s dismay, old natural paving stones were buried beneath a thick layer of concrete. “We tried to open it up here,” says Teleki, looking bewildered as he stares at the 3ft-wide hole and the ­potential task of opening up and restoring the old courtyard stones. “I don’t know if we’ll continue.”

With funds low and aware of the huge costs involved with restoring it, fundraising for restoration works requires him to get creative: in August, his castle hosted a 10,000-capacity music festival, called Awake. All of the proceeds – which he says are modest – go towards the restoration and maintenance of the castle.

“The problem is that we don’t have enough money to decide on one architect to design the whole project,” he says. “It would be around €50,000 and we don’t have that. I hope people come here and perhaps decide to help us for small fees.”

Furniture was donated to Teleki Castle by friends and family after he returned in 2011. Today, the castle exudes a kind of shabby, ­extravagant air, befitting a casually-dressed count keen on preserving his family’s past.

Living in the castle, which is open to the public and hosts myriad events such as weddings and cultural activities, however, is no fairytale.
 
“It’s difficult to live here because if you forget something then you have to go back 500 yards,” says Teleki. It is a sentiment shared strongly by his wife Nicole, a Belgian with Transylvanian roots. “Living in the castle is not an easy way of life,” she adds.

The Teleki family is in the process of filing an application for funding from the European Union, which they say will cost around €60,000 alone. “We need researchers, because if we want to win a European grant for the restoration of the castle, then we need an enormous amount of paperwork, including archaeological and ­geological documents,” says the count’s wife.

A small team of archaeologists have begun excavating a low fortress wall, which lies underneath the castle and is visible from inside the deep cellars. Restoration tasks at the castle are undertaken when funds and resources become available.

“The real problem is there are so few [construction] professionals, as many have gone to work outside of Romania,” says Teleki. “We know the prices in Belgium, and the prices here are exactly the same.”

The castle has 700,000 sq ft of ­garden and cutting the grass “is a full-time job”, says Teleki, standing next to a recently restored garden statue.

But does he feel at home in his castle? “No, no, no,” he says quietly but emphatically. “Transylvania is home for me, but not really this castle.”

Still, after a childhood cooped up in a Communist-era basement flat, Teleki feels relieved to have regained his family estate, something he’s reminded of regularly as he tends to the towering Ginkgo biloba tree in the grounds planted by his ancestors. “Every year, we try to make small improvements,” he says.