Transylvania, Romania

Bethlen Estates

Style

Transylvanian family treasure

Setting

Guarded by the Carpathians

The creation of Transylvania’s Bethlen Estates is an epic tale that’s been centuries in the making. Owners Gladys and Nikolaus Bethlen are the latest in an 800-year-old dynasty that developed the surrounding area and historic village of Criş. Led by the late great Count Miklós, they’ve reclaimed their ancestral manor, Saxon cottages and farm buildings, the local schoolhouse and granary to create a truly unique hideaway – and a lasting legacy. Local artisans and noted designers have added bespoke furnishings to trad tiled stoves and wood beams and a local chef gives guests a crash-course in Transylvanian fine-dining, with the likes of meaty goulash and fresh-from-the-hedgerow blackberry cake, washed down with a bracing fruit pálinka. And gentle pursuits (snowshoeing, sheep herding, birdwatching) show off the staggering breadth of the pure wilderness surrounding you, and Romania’s preserved-in-amber medieval villages, away from the region’s more toothsome and touristy folk trails.

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A piece of local faience pottery

Facilities

Photos Bethlen Estates facilities

Need to know

Rooms

Two houses (one exclusive-use), and a barn with four rooms.

Check–Out

11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.

Also

If you’d like to know more about the country’s unique melee of Hungarian, Anglo-Saxon, Armenian, Turkish and Romanian cuisines, chef Robert offers insight in his cookery classes, which make liberal use of local flavours (rhubarb, horseradish, tarragon and garlic).

At the hotel

Acres of land, honesty bar, laundry service, concierge, free WiFi, plug adaptors to borrow. In rooms: Bose speakers, a TV with streaming services and L’Occitane bath products. The Caretaker’s House has a sauna and library too. Plus guests get a goodie bag with a small jar of homemade apricot jam, a cycling cap with the hotel's logo and a Transylvanian travel guide written by historian Lucy Abel Smith.

Our favourite rooms

The Caretaker’s House has a rather apt name as you’ll feel warmly welcomed here and the dream-team staff of Erzsebet, Tatiana and Sorin will make a fuss over you, bringing you welcome drinks and homemade cake, fixing fires and stoves and answering any burning questions you have. The sauna, library and cosy TV room just give this house the edge over the smaller, but no less lovely, Depner House.

Poolside

This summer, a 28sq m heated pool will be filled in the grounds, just by the Caretaker’s House. There’ll be loungers and parasols set around the sides too.

Spa

Book the Caretaker’s House and you’ll have a handsomely blue-tiled sauna all to yourself, plus fluffy White Company robes to swaddle yourself in afterwards. There’s no set spa area, but on request private yoga and pilates sessions and massages with a local therapist can be booked.

Packing tips

Leave the stakes and holy water; the turreted home of Transylvania’s most infamous resident may not be too far away, but the only fangs you’re likely to see around these parts will be on a wandering bear or lynx in the surrounding forest.

Also

Pets are not allowed.

Children

All ages are welcome, but there are few tailored activities aside from gentle hikes, bike rides, horse-and-carriage jaunts and board games in cottages. The restaurant has highchairs and dishes can be adapted as needed.

Sustainability efforts

The hotel is a living, breathing example of sustainable building and community support. The Bethlen family have worked hard to restore the centuries-old buildings, using local building materials and staying keenly aware of the surrounding wilds, on their estate and in the nearby village of Criş. Late patriarch Count Miklós Bethlen was a pillar of the community, bringing attention to the area’s historic treasures and providing scholarships for residents; and with this ambitious undertaking, the family has plans to continue his work.

Food and Drink

Photos Bethlen Estates food and drink

Top Table

The dining room in the Caretaker’s House seats enough for a lively gathering and it's elegantly dressed. But, with meals served to your home-from-home, anything goes.

Dress Code

As you are if you’re dining in, and pretty much as you wish if you’re dining out.

Hotel restaurant

You can choose to dine in the comfort of your own residence or join other guests in the Kitchen Barn. Wherever you dine you’re sure to be left satisfied by chef Robert (a recipient of one of Bethlen’s scholarships) and Tatiana’s hearty, nourishing, estate-to-plate fare, (or sourced within 10 miles of the property). The menu is dictated by season and intuits guests’ needs: winter nights might call for a comforting, paprika-spiced pork flekken or kettle-warmed goulash; summer lunch may be a freshly caught river trout followed by blackberry cake or pancakes filled with soft cheese; and someone craving something light may be tempted by the spinach mousse with poached eggs and foraged hazelnuts. In keeping with the hotel’s ethos, For breakfast try the local pâté or cheeses, or the zacuscă vegetable spread with truffles and aubergine and horseradish salad. It's food that gives you a true sense of place.

Hotel bar

The uninitiated should sip slowly on the house-made pálinka, a stiff fruit brandy distilled using apples, pears and grapes from the hotel’s orchard, which will undoubtedly put some fire in your belly. Those lacking a cast-iron palate should rummage around for the Jidvei’s range of golden wines (sauvignon blanc, muscat, gewürztraminer), or a bottle of Kaspar’s delicate elderflower gin in their honesty bar (in the library of the Caretaker’s House or Depner House’s living room). Or let a local guide you through the best of Romania’s bottles at a torch-lit wine tasting in the cellars of Count János Bethlen’s Manor House. If it sounds a touch ominous, never fear – the vibe is less ‘I want to suck your blood’ and more ‘I’d like a snifter of this moreish white from Cetatea de Baltã, please’, and you’ll get to try the area’s sausages and cheeses to boot. 

Last orders

In the kitchen barn, breakfast is served from 8am to 10.30am, lunch from 12.30pm to 3pm and dinner from 7pm to 9pm. Dining in-house gives you a little more flexibility and timings can be more dictated by when you’re hungry.

Room service

All meals can be brought direct to your door and, depending on where you’re staying, staff may even prepare some for you.

Location

Photos Bethlen Estates location
Address
Bethlen Estates
176 Criș Judetul Mure
Danes-Criș
547201
Romania

Bethlen Estates sits on the ancestral lands of Count Miklós, a reserve of immense natural beauty in central Romania away from Transylvania’s Gothic tourist trail, orbited by fairy-tale Medieval villages.

Planes

A limited number of flights from London Luton and some cities in Germany, Turkey and Egypt fly direct to Târgu Mureș airport, which is just over an hour’s drive from the hotel, or Sibiu Airport, a 90-minute drive away. The hotel can arrange transfers on request for €110 and €154 each way, respectively. Bucharest Henri Coandă airport is a four-hour drive away but serves far more airlines. If arriving from further afield, you’ll need to stop over in mainland Europe.

Trains

There are direct connections by train from Bucharest (a five-hour journey), Sibiu (a three-hour journey) and along the popular interrailing route from Brașov (a four-hour journey) to Sighisoara station, a 20-minute drive from the hotel. Transfers can be arranged for €20 each way, and along the way you’ll pass pastoral scenes seemingly untouched by time, so it makes for cinematic train windows. To get some ‘z’s while you’re on the move, hop on one of the various sleeper trains that arrive at Bucharest from Austria, Hungary, Moldova or Turkey.

Automobiles

Being situated by the Carpathian mountains in one of Europe’s last great, untouched wildernesses has its advantages – getting around easily is not one of them. Securing some wheels at the airport will make your trip into this remote Transylvanian region all the easier, and there’s free parking onsite. Once at the hotel, you may choose to switch to horseback, snowshoe or perhaps even one of the hotel’s vintage cars (1969 was a particularly good year for Mercedes convertibles, after all), but your own car gives you the freedom to village hop, cruise to further afield attractions and traverse the high and mighty Transfogarasan and Transalpina roads: some of the world’s most scenic drives.

Worth getting out of bed for

Bed? Who needs a lie-in when there’s a wonderland of glassine lakes, meadows rampant with wildflowers, valleys coated in pines and the most charming turn-back-time villages to discover. Granted, you may want to pause for a massage or a pilates session to limber up before setting forth into the wild, but like the bears, lynxes and wolves that prowl these parts, you won’t want to stay cooped up for long. You only need to decide how you’d like to explore – the staff can suggest several appealing ways of covering as much ground as possible. Say, hopping on a bike…the advanced cycling tour takes you to Mălâncrav to see its well-preserved church frescoes or the child-friendly beginner tour takes you on a gentle route through the surrounding forests and meadows (both include a picnic lunch). Cross-country horseback rides on Lippizzaner and sport horses from Villa Abbatis Equestrian Center are for experienced riders who are confident trotting and cantering across virgin landscapes, but a gentler equestrian pastime can be found in a horse-and-carriage ride through the valleys, with a stop in a picturesque meadow for a lunch of soup heated in a shepherd’s kettle, bacon to fry over the fire, freshly made bread and Transylvanian pastries. It’ll ease you into the languidly paced pastoral way of life that’s continued here for aeons, before you immerse yourself further into country living. With, say, a visit to the local ‘breite’ reserve with an ornithologist to spot the likes of owls, woodpeckers and buzzards alongside birds of prey and rare butterflies; or trying your hand at sheep herding with local shepherd Florin before touring his farm, trying his top-drawer produce and finishing up with a warming tot of brandy. You can also try your hand at catching Prussian carp, pike, bass and trout in the Dam of Zeta, a natural ‘fishing pond’, or in the mountain torrents on weekends. Come winter, strap on a pair of snowshoes to take a guided tour through the fragrant pine forests in the Harghita mountain.

Of course, it’s not all going off-trail, foraging in hedgerows, baiting glacier lakes, and wrestling bears (we may have made that last one up). This region is notable for its extremely well-preserved medieval villages and Unesco World Heritage sites. And – goths-at-heart will be thrilled to hear – Bran Castle (of Dracula and Vlad the Impaler fame) is just a two-hour drive south. Its connections to both the toothsome count and legendary tyrant are somewhat spurious, but with its top-of-a-cliff locale and many turrets, it is wonderfully cast as an eerie locus of nefarious deeds. Otherwise, there are several tale-as-old-as-time villages in orbit around the estate, and the hotel can arrange hiking or sightseeing tours (or loan you one of their slick 1960s or 1970s cars for the day). It would be rude not to stop by the family seat of Criş (it is just 200 metres from the Caretaker’s Residence) to admire Renaissance Bethlen Castle where Count Miklós’ father lived. Or stop by Mediaș (named for the cherry trees that line its streets) to see the pointy, 13th-century Tower of Buglers; see Sighișoara to bump up your Insta-likes with a background of cobbled-stone lanes and pastel-hued houses; or roam important cultural hub Sibiu, which has grand squares, houses that have stood for centuries and the art-laden Brukenthal Museum. Gastronomes rejoice, too: the Transylvanian forests are a hotbed for both black and white truffles and the hotel will happily arrange a trip out with their dogs to sniff some out in season (May through August and September to December), after which, the chef will prepare a meal with your dug-up treasures. And, take road-tripping to new heights by soaring across Romania’s two high-altitude roads Transfogarasan and Transalpina, which cut dramatically through the Fagaras and Carpathian mountains.

Local restaurants

Transylvanian dining has fully embraced the warming heft of Eastern European cuisine, while refining its own delicacies: say, paprika-spiked cabbage rolls (töltött káposzta), smoked pig fat cooked over an open fire (slanina), goulash, or creamy lichiu pie. It’s cuisine that’s tied to the land and serves to comfort and sate, so it’s well worth diving into the local dining scene. Domeniul Dracula Daneș isn’t as eerie as it sounds; it’s set on the banks of the Târnava Mare River and has a view-blessed terrace and an onsite farm, plus a fine line in traditional dishes. Cafe Martini in Sighișoara has a leafy space for alfresco meals and a menu with a lot of choices, including some international dishes. Try the papanași (doughnuts with cream and jam), meaty ćevapi or sour-cream soup. Also in Sighișoara, Italian Alte Post has a busy pizza oven – of the many tasty sorts they fire up, our favourite is the carbonara.

Reviews

Photos Bethlen Estates reviews

Anonymous review

Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this reanimated estate near the heritage village of Cris and unpacked their bottle of homemade brandy and shown off their new shepherding skills, a full account of their back-to-simpler-times break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Bethlen Estates in Transylvania…

A statuesque manor set amid the thick forests and gaping valleys of Transylvania’s hinterland, a journey into the deep bear-roamed remoteness, a mysterious count: the settings for a familiar story, no? But, this isn’t that story. In fact, we’d say the tale Bethlen Estates tells is one of love, as it follows a family digging deep into their 800-year-old roots to ensure they stand firm for hundreds of years more.

The Bethlen family have long loomed large in Transylvanian history – their lineage is one of princes, prime ministers, diplomats, writers and scientists, and they founded the nearby village of Cris, where their former castle still stands. But their journey to hotelier was an arduous one: when the spectre of communism caused the family to flee to Austria, Count Miklós Bethlen spent the ensuing years travelling back to his ancestral home, tirelessly working to safeguard the village, achieve Unesco World Heritage status for the castle and provide scholarships for the area’s young residents. With his wife Gladys and son Nikolaus, he reclaimed and restored buildings across the estate and throughout the village, including Saxon cottages, a 300-year-old caretaker’s house, longstanding barn, the family manor, local school and granary, making the beginnings of a remarkable place to escape to.

And, in this Transylvanian instance, bringing things back from the dead has proved an astounding success and a true boon to the community. Local artisans working with lauded designers Stefanie de Castelbajac and Melanie Etten-Rüppell have scrubbed down the wood beams and tiled stoves; hauled in bespoke furnishings, Crittall glass doors, Tom Dixon lighting and Kilim rugs; and – in the case of the Caretaker’s House – fitted a sauna. And, Gladys has travelled the country to research old-school construction methods and source antique fittings.

A small team of locals have been brought in to ply guests with potent homemade pálinka and picks from regional vineyards; feed guests heartily on goulash, crackling mangalica sausages, blackberry pie and ‘chimney’ cake made from estate-sourced ingredients; and guide guests through a varied programme of rustic pastimes: sheep herding, fishing in mountain torrents, cantering through the dense pine forests on horseback… Count Miklós may have sadly passed away, but the pages of this story keep turning – his family have big plans for the future, breathing new life into more heritage buildings and in doing so ensuring the Bethlen legacy.