Forget the scary vampires! Transylvania is a place of breathtaking beauty and rich cultural heritage
With my binoculars raised, I scan the hills for bears. The quiet song of the late summer birds and the ringing of cowbells seep through the open window.
It’s not what I expected from Transylvania, in central Romania – much loved by King Charles III. My assumptions about this enigmatic land were far off the mark. For it is not a place of hidden intrigue and crumbling Gothic castles, separated from the rest of Romania by the Carpathians.
That’s Bram Stoker’s fault. When he wrote Dracula in 1897, using the 15th-century Wallachian nobleman Vlad Dracula and a good dose of superstition as inspiration for his count, he gave Transylvania an ‘eerie’ reputation that it has struggled to change.
Medieval: Lizzie Pook visits Transylvania and discovers that her ‘assumptions about this enigmatic land were far out of order’. Pictured is the village of Biertan and its UNESCO-listed fortified church about 30km from where Lizzie stayed
But if you remove that eerie facade, you’ll find a pleasantly crowd-free corner of Europe full of natural beauty: nature with great diversity, horse-drawn carriage villages and the misty Carpathians, home to wolves, lynx, eagles and brown bears.
Progressive things are also underway – one of which is Bethlen Estates in Cris, my base and where I scour the landscape for bears and other creatures.
The small hamlet of Cris is the ancestral home of Count Miklos Bethlen, who was forced to flee Transylvania in 1948 when communist troops moved in. But he never left his children’s village and dedicated himself to supporting the community and restoring its historic buildings.
When he died in 2001, his wife Gladys and their son Nikolaus promised to continue his legacy and use savings to buy dilapidated and abandoned houses with the aim of turning them into chic guest houses.
Already a cult place to stay, the resulting Bethlen Estates lures the cool year-round crowd to Transylvania as a pioneer of historic design mixed with ‘wilderness luxury’. Until now, however, rooms were only available on an exclusive basis (you would have to book them all).
But with the opening of the new Corner Barn, a four-bedroom guest house, they can now be booked individually.
Lizzie bases herself on Bethlen Estates in Cris (pictured), which combines historic design with ‘wilderness luxury’
Bethlen has opened a new four-bedroom guest house called Corner Barn. Upstairs is one of the double rooms
“This is a home where guests should have a good time,” says Lizzie. Upstairs is the living room of Corner Barn
Inviting: The Exterior of The Corner Barn
This is a home where guests are expected to have a good time, although you will often see Countess Bethlen scurrying around the estate chatting with the guests.
Making sure no one goes hungry, Chef Robert Tordai serves hearty Romanian and Hungarian dishes from the Kitchen Barn. Expect beef goulash cooked over an open fire, pressed duck, beef cheek with sautéed beetroot salad, and traditional fluffy papanasi donuts.
The estate provides an ideal base from which to explore the Transylvanian countryside, with guests setting out on foot, horseback or snowshoeing. Temperatures can drop to a bone-numbing minus 20 degrees in winter.
Bethlen’s Kitchen Barn (pictured) serves ‘savory’ Romanian and Hungarian dishes, such as beef goulash
One evening I beg the Countess to allow us to look for bears. In a typically relaxed manner, she forces a local contact to drive us in his old Land Rover through the valley to where the animals are sometimes spotted.
We park and we wait, and wait, visited only by loofah-tailed red foxes, little spotted eagles and grazing red deer, their antlers mighty and impressive. The sun sets and bathes the dense forest and fields of wildflowers in a hazy amber glow. Then it’s gone. We feel bears in the sky, but we haven’t seen any.
Transylvania has kept its secrets. After all, this is one of Europe’s greatest wildernesses.