By John O’Ceallaigh
Its macabre, blood-curdling associations with Dracula could be off-putting to some, but there seems to be little doubt that the proprietors of intriguing new opening Bethlen Estates are proud of its setting in the wilds of Transylvania. After all, along with the capital Bucharest it is the only part of Romania that people the world over are likely to be at least somewhat familiar with. Indeed, the press release that alerted me to its launch had as the first, all-caps word in its subject line “TRANSYLVANIA”. Clearly the property’s PR agency also appreciates the selling point this legendary location provides even if the first paragraph of that same release does emphasise that the property is “a world away from the tourist spots of Romania’s Dracula trail” (which I thought a nice way of benefitting from the connection and recognition while simultaneously disassociating from it).
Still, travellers whose curiosity is piqued will find that this new retreat, set to open in spring 2021, offers more than enough to draw travellers on its own merits. Found in the remote village of Criş, the estate’s present-day custodians are mother and son Gladys and Nikolaus Bethlen. Their familial links with the site stretch back some 800 years, to Count Miklós Bethlen whose brethren first founded the village and built its castle, and their intention is to transform its ancient ruins into a progressive, design-conscious and socially considerate hospitality offering that will support local communities through employment, education, training and jobs creation. It’s fair to say Romania isn’t renowned in luxury-travel circles for this kind of thing, which makes it all the more refreshing.
It was back in 2007 that mother and son really got going with this project, by acquiring dilapidated buildings spread around their ancestral village and then undertaking the painstaking restoration and rebuilding work required to make them palatable to international travellers. Among the buildings they acquired were old Saxon cottages, the old house once occupied by the castle caretaker, a family manor house and an abandoned school building.
In June two of the updated buildings, each about 300 years old, will open; another will launch in October, with the trio accommodating a maximum of 20 guests. There are plans to expand the inventory in years to come, as profits from the enterprise enable other old buildings to be purchased and sensitively restored. The first tranche of accommodation options includes the aforementioned caretaker’s house, now a four-bedroom abode available solely for exclusive-use. The two-bedroom Depner House is also reserved solely for exclusive-use, while the four-bedroom Corner Barn can be rented room by room. For each property, local artisans worked alongside interior designers Stefanie de Castelbajac and Melanie Etten-Rüppell to craft authentic features. Inside guests will find kilim rugs, tiled stoves and original wooden beams, alongside sanariums, Tom Dixon lighting and more modern sculptural staircases carved by local carpenters.
Meals can be prepared and served in each residence, or taken in the central Kitchen Barn where Bethlen Estates’ in-house chef Tatiana will make traditional Romanian dishes from locally sourced and organic produce. It all sounds agreeably homely and unpretentious, with steaming goulash served on colder winter nights or fresh river trout on offer on hot summer evenings. Romanian wines are available whatever the weather, while dessert might be chunky slices of homemade blackberry pie.
Relaxed though stays here are intended to be, guests will still be encouraged to make some effort to explore the surrounding region, perhaps with the hope that they can act as ambassadors for a wildly beautiful landscape that deserves to be known for more than its association with one of the most notorious figures of modern horror. Guided hikes, horseback rides, cycle tours and winery visits can all be arranged and the surrounding landscape is well worth exploring, populated as it is with UNESCO-protected sites such as the medieval citadel of Sighisoara and the Saxon village of Biertan with its famed hilltop fortified church.
Rates at Bethlen Estates start from €250 per night, including breakfast.