The Hoteliers Preserving a Rural Romanian Heritage
Deep in Transylvania, the family behind a boutique hotel is trying to preserve its ancestral home, and revive the once-abandoned architecture of Romania’s storied mountainlands
02 December, 2022
The notion of an unexplored wilderness in Europe made me raise my eyebrows at first. Yet as we snake between the all but empty alpine hills and virgin forests leading to Cris - a back-in-time Transylvanian village that will be my base for the next two days - my suspicions dissolve before we've even reached the front gate of Bethlen Estates.
It was in this sleepy village that the late Count Miklos of Bethlen, founder of the eponymous cultural preservation project, spent blissful days skipping between the surrounding woodlands and wildflower meadows as a child. Forced to flee with his family when communism took hold across Romania after the Second World War, the count only returned to his hometown in 1967, where he discovered a left-for-dead community falling into ruins. Intent on breathing life back into Cris' cobblestone streets, he spent the next three decades drumming up charitable funds to protect the village, provide local scholarships and achieve Unesco status for Bethlen Castle, his ancestral family home.
Refurbished buildings across Bethlen Estates.
Now spearheaded by his wife, Gladys, and son, Nikolaus, the late count's legacy project, Bethlen Estates, has evolved into an ever-expanding circular tourism initiative that currently offers three high-design guesthouses - each restored from tumbledown ruins - with several more in the works. "Our aim is to channel tourism funds straight back into the preservation of the area," Gladys tells me, hoisting a wicker basket onto her shoulder as we amble around the estate. Right from the outset of the restoration project, she and Nikolaus wanted to honour the historic craftsmanship of each building, she says - a process that required the painstaking acquisition of traditional local building materials and took over 15 years to complete.
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The result is a design-driven clutch of properties - the Caretaker's House, Depner House and Corner Barn - that blends effortlessly into the tree line and higgledy-piggledy Saxon roofs beyond. There are 10 guest rooms in total: four in the self-contained Caretaker's House, two in Depner House and four in Corner Barn, the only accommodation bookable by the room. Each of the three properties is built around communal space, and all are awash with rustic-chic furnishings, reclaimed 18th-century oak beams and traditional round-tiled stoves, making my time there feel more like a visit to a family farmhouse than a hotel. Bedrooms are slightly more modern. In the Corner Barn, where I stayed, you'll find accents like contemporary-cool floor lamps and smart linen headboards. The pretty-in-pink tiled bathrooms are piled high with L'Occitane products.
Most impressive of all, though, is the estate's unwavering commitment to Cris' community through its scholarship programme. One beneficiary is Robert Tordai, the hotel's head chef. Creatively showcasing the region's natural larder - think venison heart, foraged mushrooms and goulash cooked over an open fire - Tordai's ever-tweaked set menu is geared around what he's gathered that day, with everything sourced from within 25km of the property. Much is plucked straight from the estate's grounds (such as its orchard, the fruits of which are used to make the homemade brandy I sample after dinner).
Soundtracked by the clink of cow bells and the odd clip-clop of a distant horse-drawn carriage, I spend my next day meandering through medieval villages with Peter Suciu, a tour guide with encyclopedic local knowledge who accompanies Bethlen guests on sightseeing excursions. Our first stop is Biertan, a Unesco World Heritage site home to a Lutheran fortified church that presides over the small settlement with mythical grandeur. Ringed by concentric walls and nine imposing turrets, its triple-naved, late-gothic architecture is complemented by beautifully preserved Renaissance artworks and an intricate mosaicked door.
Guide Peter Suciu, left, and Sighișoara rooftops.
Realising we're the only ones in the church, Peter smiles and leads me silently to the majestic altar, to the left of which is a hidden door. "Open it," he whispers with teenage excitement. We slip inside, and Peter points to a formidable-looking mechanism behind the door - a Chamber of Secrets-like bolt made up of 19 locks, all activated by a single key. Local lore tells that secret treasure was once held here, bolted in by a feat of engineering so show-stopping that it stole the stage at the Paris World Expo in 1900.
Back on the road, Peter and I head to the medieval citadel of Sighișoara, another Unesco World Heritage site and the fabled birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the gruesome Wallachian ruler who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula. As we stroll its postcard-pretty lanes, flanked on all sides by candy-coloured merchant houses, I half expect a gingerbread man to come winding around the corner. One of the few towns where medieval German architecture was left standing during the Ceaușescu years, it's a place where time seems to stand still, punctuated only by the hourly chime of its soaring central clock tower.
Sighișoara might capitalise on its folkloric reputation with kitsch souvenir shops, but beyond the Dracula figurines peering from every window, there's lived-in history to explore. Quiet coffee shops exist alongside lively market squares, while cinematic hilltop views stretch over the dense woodlands, including those within Breite Oak Tree Reserve, the largest grassland plateau on the continent.
One of the most well-preserved wood pastures in Eastern Europe, the 73-hectare nature reserve is home to more than 500 trees. Some are 800 years old. Each tree is a microcosm offering food and shelter for hundreds of other species, from birds and frogs to lynx, wolves and bears, as well as 476 different plants. But beyond its ecological value, it's Breite's significance within the local community that's perhaps most valuable of all, according to ornithologist Cosmin Moga.
Breite Oak Tree Reserve.
"This has been a meeting place for centuries," Cosmin explains. "People would gather here to collect wood, and during the Great Famine, the oaks' acorns were used to make a hearty purée that would feed villagers for days." Slated to become an airport or Dracula theme park during the communist era, the reserve was abandoned and left to grow wild after local protests over the planned construction grew too cumbersome to overrule. "This place holds great ecological value, but it's also a footprint of Saxon anthropology and a symbol of cultural heritage," Cosmin concludes, running his fingers across the trunk of his favourite tree. Now a listed member of Natura 2000 - a network of conservation areas within the EU - the oak reserve thrives under the protection of park rangers who roam the area day and night to prevent the poaching of fallen wood.
Back at Bethlen Estates, I meet with the hotel's resident archeologist, Zólya Levente. He takes me up to Bethlen Castle. This is the estate's crown jewel, and the place where Count Miklos spent his childhood. One of the largest fortified castles in Transylvania and the Bethlen's home for over 750 years, the castle was commandeered by Romania's communist government - to be used as a film set - but by the early 90s had fallen into disrepair. In 2007, it was given back to Bethlen Estates.
Sighișoara clock tower, left, and an old Medieval pathway.
"We've been reconstructing the building ever since, but it's a slow process," Zólya, who joined the team in 2020, tells me, as we walk around the desolate ruins. "Our plan is to turn the space into a visitors' centre." As we talk, he stops to point out the remains of an intricate Renaissance fresco on the wall of a former bedroom. It's a glimpse of the potentially rich history buried within the crumbling building.
Standing outside the castle, I drink in the silence that engulfs the surrounding terraced hills. It's a stillness that seems to belie Transylvania's turbulent past, and a symbol of the value in protecting this region's beautifully untrammelled landscape. Mostly, though, it's a sharp reminder to myself that there is, in fact, a genuine wildness still to be found in Europe, if you only look hard enough.
Read about the modern witches of Romania in Vol. 39: Ritual