Castles, Counts, caverns and (potentially) record-breaking chimney cakes… we sent our palinka-loving correspondent Josh Ferry-Woodard to track down the best things to see and do in Covasna, Romania.

Covasna County is a beautiful, bucolic region of Transylvania. It’s a place largely untouched by the hands of change: where many families still travel between villages on horse-drawn carriages and artisans ply trades passed on from generation to generation. It’s a land of mansions and castles (there are over 160!), where you’re never far from a shot of palinka, a pot of goulash or a Romanian brown bear.

…many families still travel between villages on horse-drawn carriages and artisans ply trades passed on from generation to generation.

Interestingly, over 70% of the people living in Covasna County are not actually Romanian – they’re Hungarian Szecklers who were stationed here in the 15th century to defend the eastern borders of the Kingdom of Hungary from the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War Transylvania officially became part of Romania. However, the Szecklers are a proud people who chose to maintain their own traditions, folklore and way of life, which explains why the region has, to some extent, managed to escape the throes of homogenisation.

Keep reading to find out what kept a group of international travellers and myself busy during our time in Covasna…

Covasnan Castles, Counts & Legends

Grilling Lard with a Blacksmith

Joseph, a blacksmith in the village of Tălișoara, gave us a great introduction to the warm hospitality and traditions of the region. He showed us his impressive arsenal of handmade tools, told us to stand back while he smashed splinters of burning ember around the workshop and explained how the only real difference in technique between his work and his medieval predecessors’ is the use of an electric fan to regulate airflow to the stove (in the distant past apprentices would wear themselves out by blowing through a tube directly into the flame).

Joseph Covasnan blacksmith
Joseph in his workshop

Regrettably, Joseph has been unable to enlist the support of an apprentice because most of the village youth have upped sticks and moved to the city. However, in tourism he has found a way to share his craft with the world and I could tell he was enjoying it – never more so than when he grabbed a pair of tongs from the fire and used them to grill fat slabs of white lard onto bread. Grinning widely, he served the salty snack (which would give the clean eaters of Instagram nightmares) alongside shots of palinka, the local peach brandy.

Living it up in Castles

Covasna is teeming with castles and mansions. In the past the local aristocracy used them as living, holiday or hunting residences, but today even foreign commoners are permitted to visit many of the most enchanting.

Castle Hotel Daniel
Castle Hotel Daniel

I was even privileged with the opportunity to sleep two nights in one of them. Castle Daniel (read more here) has been stylishly renovated and turned into a boutique hotel. Highlights from my stay included tucking into cauldron-stewed venison goulash in a grand dining hall with 16th century wall paintings, learning to decorate my own gingerbread treats, being serenaded by a choir of Szeckler folk singers and late night, wine-stained discussions on the folly of contemporary Brazilian, British and Spanish politics.

Daniel Castle Varghis
The second Daniel Castle

In the neighbouring village of Varghis, a ten-minute horse and kart ride from Tălișoara, lies the Baroque spires, towers and turrets of Daniel’s sister castle (which actually looks more like a castle than the original). I was particularly interested in a wall painting with hidden depths… I learned that back in the day, the noble Daniel family used to store their most precious items in a wooden compartment hidden behind the artwork’s crafty fascia. You really do have to look beyond the surface to find the value in some pieces of art!

painting safe compartment
Sneaky

Drinking Palinka with a Count

There’s nothing to stoke delusions of grandeur like toasting a shot of palinka with a real life Count while he regales you with stories of Prince Charles and a beat-up Jaguar that has journeyed around the world.

Palinka shot count kalnoky's guesthouse
Fireside palinka shot

We were lucky enough to be invited into Count Kalnoky’s ‘pub’ for a fireside beverage and a chat. Having fled the country during the Communist era, the Count’s family raised him in Paris – although he mentions that he did visit the village of Tălișoara once with his father, only to be chased out of town by the ruling regime. His castle (Kalnoky Castle) was used as a potato farm during his exile but nowadays it houses the Museum of Transylvanian Life.

Surprisingly open and humble, the Count was a charming host.

Walking in the Footsteps of the Pied Piper

Varghis Gorge is a scenic national park embellished by towering limestone cliffs, verdant forest, icy freshwater streams, ominous wildlife warning signage and a network of caves. Wary of bears and snakes, we hiked through the gorge until we reached some rickety metal stairs leading into a deep, dark cave.

Varghis Gorge bear warning sign
CAUTION! BEARS!

Once inside the cavern, encased in stalactite shadows, our guide Andorkó told us of a local legend:

“You’ve probably all heard of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the infamous rat catcher who lured 130 children into a cave? But what you probably haven’t heard is that many people believe this very cave – Mesteri Cave in Varghis Gorge – is the point at which the Pied Piper and the Saxon children re-emerged from the underground.”

Pied Piper cave varghis gorge
The Pied Piper’s cave

Andorkó was quick to add that most historians do not necessarily agree with this version of events. Nevertheless, the tale certainly added to the mystique of Mesteri Cave.

Chimney Cake Festivals, Peat Bogs & Bears

World Record Breaking in Saint George

Now, Sfântu Gheorghe (easily anglicised into ‘Saint George’) may not have the historical landmarks or wild party reputation of Bucharest but the Covasna County capital does have kürtőskalács, sweet Szeckler treats known as chimney cakes. The local snack is made by wrapping sweet yeast dough around a spinning cone-shaped spit. The dough is basted with sugar and butter and roasted over charcoal until golden brown.

chimney cake festival saint george
Spinning chimney cakes

During our visit to Saint George a kürtőskalács festival was taking place and the region’s most notorious chimney cake making families were competing to be named number one. The square was bustling with hungry children leading their parents from stool to stool to try out each of the subtly different tasting kürtőskalács. There was even an attempt at the world’s longest chimney cake, although it turned out that nobody remembered to phone the guys from the Guinness World Record Book.

The world's longest chimney cake
The world’s longest chimney cake

We visited the city again a day later and, to my surprise, the square retained its fizzing spirit. This time the city was celebrating the region’s natural sparkling water and it turns out there are festivals held in town pretty much every week of the year. Any excuse to get the palinka out!

This time the city was celebrating the region’s natural sparkling water and it turns out there are festivals held in town pretty much every week of the year.

In addition to a love of festivals, chimney cakes and palinka, the people of Saint George also appear to enjoy a bit of street art. It’s always nice to spot a few interesting murals around a town but I was especially impressed considering the region’s staunch commitment to maintaining traditions – many of which were explained to us during a tour of the Szeckler National Museum.

Szeckler National Museum stained glass
Prince Tsaba, son of Attila the Hun, in the Szeckler National Museum

Traditions that particularly piqued my interest included:

Horses wearing red tassels to ward off the ‘evil eye.’

Couples hanging chairs on the door after an argument to warn off visitors (the original ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ sign).

Men making wash bats to give to women: if she accepts the ‘gift’ she will wash his clothes and marriage is on the cards, if she drops it close to her feet he knows he has a chance to improve and impress her in the future, but if she lobs it off a cliff he needs to get back on Tinder the fizzy water festival scene.

Taking in the Delights of Peat Bogs & Smelly Caves

It’s said that if a Szeckler man tells his wife he loves her (post wash bat) he won’t say it again, but he will let her know if the situation changes. And it’s this distrust of romanticism, I believe, that led to a natural volcanic healing mofetta being named the ‘Smelly Cave.’

It’s said that if a Szeckler man tells his wife he loves her he won’t say it again, but he will let her know if the situation changes.

We ‘bathed’ in the dry, sulphuric smelling spa cave for around five minutes before strolling back through the deciduous forest. Although the high levels of carbon dioxide left me short of breath and slightly nauseous, the ‘treatment’ is believed to cure headaches, rheumatism and skin conditions.

lake santa ana beer
Honey beer beside a volcanic crater lake

Not far from the Smelly Cave lies the picturesque, pine-fringed volcanic lake Santa Ana, where I enjoyed a 9% ABV honey beer made by a Transylvanian brewery that loves to take the mick out of Heineken.

Not far from the Smelly Cave lies the picturesque, pine-fringed volcanic lake Santa Ana, where I enjoyed a 9% ABV honey beer made by a Transylvanian brewery…

And the irreverent fun continued at our next destination: Mohos volcanic peat bog. Incongruous to the tranquil autumnal landscape, our guide paired camo trousers and shirt with a fluorescent high-vis jacket. He showed us a video of him playing rap music to wild brown bears and led us through the reserve bellowing facts about the orangey brown flora and fauna mock-earnestly through a megaphone.

mohos volcanic peat bog guide
Our entertaining guide
mohos peat bog
The peat bog looks better than it sounds

Scouting for Bears

Things got a lot more serious on our final excursion. Sworn to silence, we disembarked a horse-drawn carriage and walked single file through the dusky forest towards a small wooden hut. Once inside, we were instructed to turn off our flashes and wait patiently. We sat quietly for around 30 minutes as the sun began to set behind the pines causing shadows to stretch across the clearing ahead. Another 15 minutes passed before there was any sign of movement. We all pressed our faces against the steamy window, only to find that our visitor was a small red fox. Soon though, a pair of majestic brown bears joined the fox. As if standing in formation, the two bears flanked the fox and the three of them moved cautiously towards our viewing hut, to feast on the snacks that were left to entice them.

For someone who had never seen a wild bear before this was a truly magical experience, and probably the highlight of my time in Covasna.

romanian wild bear
A wild bear!

For someone who had never seen a wild bear before this was a truly magical experience, and probably the highlight of my time in Covasna.

Feasting on Traditional Cuisine

Castle Hotel Daniel

At Castle Hotel Daniel the menu oscillates between traditional Transylvanian dishes at lunch and playful reinterpretations of the local cuisine at dinner. For example, the humble lettuce soup, a staple of home cooking in the region, is transformed into a rich and creamy delicacy by the addition of certain refined ingredients and a five-hour cooking process.

castle hotel daniel
The cosy banquet hall

Venison goulash stewed in a cauldron over a wood fire took some beating, but in my mind the standout dish was the crispy skinned trout fillet served in a delicate white wine sauce with pomegranate seeds alongside stewed cabbage.

Kalnoky Guesthouse

Count Kalnoky’s Guesthouse restaurant is situated in a candlelit wine cellar. Stonewalls, iron furnishings, coats of arms and original wooden beams helped to create the warm atmosphere of a dinner party – as did the serve yourself pots of food on the table. We enjoyed a hearty meal of homemade potato bread (a Szeckler delicacy), pate and ‘black Transylvanian bare necked’ chicken stew.

INdiVINO Wine Studio

Watching the commotion of the chimney cake festival unfold before us, we savoured an extended, wine stained lunch at the INdiVINO Wine Studio. Our charismatic sommelier – long brown hair, moustache, European intonations – provided us with an ever-growing selection of palinka, red, white and rosé bottles that moved up and down the table like a sushi conveyor belt. As far as I can remember the pork-stuffed cabbage leaves in tomato sauce was tasty and wholesome. But, to be honest, it was the free flowing Transylvanian wine that stole the show.

Balvanyos Resort

Balvanyos Resort is a luxury hotel and spa enveloped within the silent solitude of a vast pine forest. We stayed two nights at the resort (full review coming soon) giving us time to appreciate the plush rooms, soak in the outdoor Jacuzzi (the highlight of an accomplished spa) and try out both of the on-site restaurants.

balvanyos forest
The place beyond the pines
Balvanyos spa outdoor pool
A spa with a view

The main restaurant served an agreeable buffet selection of cheese, salads, polenta, fried fish, and meat dishes. But I’d definitely recommend dining at the more lavish Gastrolab.

balvanyos gastrolab
The Gastrolab

Our evening began with a ubiquitous shot of palinka beside a roaring bonfire. Next up was a selection of freshly baked bread, dips and a cheese and polenta soufflé. Having gone to town on the potato bread, the main course of cabbage leaves lived up to its name, leaving me feeling well and truly stuffed.

forest balvanyos resort
Goodnight Covasna

After dinner I spent some time on my balcony to gaze out over the silent, spiky woodland and savour the clarity of the glittering stars above. Refreshed, from four days in the Covasnan countryside, I was ready to return home to the city.

Josh was invited on a press trip to Covasna County organised by Visit Covasna. His (stress-free) flights between London Luton and Bucharest were kindly provided by Romanian airline Blue Air

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