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How the Prince and the pap ended up as neighbours – in Transylvania

By Andrew Eames
Last updated at 4:19 PM on 14th September 2009

Celebrity photographer Duncan Ridgely quit five years ago and relocated to Breb, a horse-and-cart village where Prince Charles owns two homes.

During his life as a paparazzo, Duncan Ridgely spent years photographing Prince Charles: now the two are neighbors.

The unlikely duo both own wooden properties in the remote village of Breb in northern Transylvania, where Romania shares a border with the Ukraine.

Duncan Ridgely
A new life: Duncan Ridgely and family in deepest Romania where houses rarely sell for more than £5,000.

The village is one of dozens in the Maramures region, which is still an almost medieval, horse-and-cart society, with wooden houses and churches set in a landscape of rambling oak forests and hillsides of wildflower meadows.

Everything here is organic and sustainable, though it would never occur to the locals to use those words.

In short, it is just the sort of place Prince Charles loves, and he came to Breb in 2004 as Patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET), a British-based organisation dedicated to preserving Romania’s villages.

Prince Charles’s two houses in Breb, as well as two others in the Saxon villages of Malancrav and Viscri, 150 miles to the south, were actually bought for the trust.

For Ridgely, on the other hand, this is home and he is relocating his portfolio of four local wooden houses – priced from £400 to £2,500 – around a fifth property on the fringe of the village which he is turning into the family home and an away-from-it-all holiday complex.

For half the year, this is where Ridgely, 45, lives with his wife Penny, 47, and three children Sasha, 16, Claudia, 13, and Angus, 12. The other half of the year he spends at his equally exotic home in the remote Siwa oasis in the Egyptian desert.

‘We chose Maramures after five months travelling round the Balkans,’ says Ridgely.

‘There is no crime, and the people are friendly and don’t have a problem with foreigners. It is the last truly peasant culture in Europe.’

Idyllic: The nearby village of Botiza in the Maramures region, which is still an almost medieval, horse-and-cart society

It doesn’t, however, have anything approaching an expat community although, along with the Prince and the pap, there is also old Etonian writer William Blacker, who describes life in Breb in his book, Along The Enchanted Way.

But buying in Transylvania is not easy because there is little in the way of estate agency for the region’s traditional houses. Everything has been sold by word of mouth, and property rarely sell for more than £5,000.

The new-builds sold to foreigners at the ski areas around Brasov bear no relation to local property prices, and those involved in the business are ’95 per cent cowboys’, according to Ridgely.

To make a village purchase you need to identify your ideal location, ask around for properties that might be for sale, and speak a bit of the language, because you will have to CORBIS deal with the owners direct. And you will have to be prepared to negotiate.

‘Nothing has a price attached,’ says Ridgely. ‘Not even a bag of cement. And nothing’s for sale, but everything’s for sale. If you see something you want, you sit on the doorstep until the man of the house appears, and you’re in business.’

But the process can be lengthy, as you have to establish who is the registered ‘owner’, usually a long-gone great-grandparent, and have a tribunal ruling to get the ownership name changed. This can take a year, depending on whether there are any objections from family members.

None of these barriers seemed insurmountable to Ridgely, but then this is a man who, five years ago, decided that he’d had enough of the rat-race, and set off with his family in search of a ‘paradise on Earth’ to start a new life.

En route he bagged two acres of a Croatian island (£19,000), seven acres of Transylvania (£26,000), and 50 acres of the Siwa oasis in Egypt (a bargain at £50 an acre).

They had a family conference and settled on Siwa as the place they preferred. Here Ridgely set about creating a Siwan house that he rents out for ‘adventure villa holidays’, which are all about getting embedded in the local community.

And this is his plan for his houses in Breb, too.

So has he met his illustrious neighbours? ‘William Blacker and I have waved at each other once or twice. And we did meet Prince Charles and Camilla, but in Siwa. I think the man is following me round.’


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