Is it possible to fit in a visit to the only spot in Romania where carnivorous plants grow in the wild, trips to two emerald green volcanic lakes, a few hours of relaxation at not one but two spas that use local thermal waters, a quick visit to a 17th century castle and some typical dishes of the local cuisine? The answer is yes, if you head to the Covasna County, in the heart of Transylvania and plan your trip well.
To achieve the above-mentioned feat, an early start is mandatory. If leaving from the capital Bucharest, in particular, aim for a 6 am take off, as, especially on week-ends, traffic can be slow, as many head to the resorts on the ever popular Prahova Valley. Situated at the border between Harghita and Covasna Counties, the attractions are easy to reach by car.
Follow the Bucuresti – Brasov (DN1) – Chichis (DN11) – Sfantu Gheorghe – Bixad (DN12) – Baile Tusnad – Tinovul Mohos (DJ113/113A) and you should reach your destination in about five hours. Roads to Brasov are good, but do put aside a bit of time and patience for the last leg of your trip, as, when heading to the Tinovul Mohos and Sfanta Ana Lake, the only volcanic lake in Romania, the final kilometres can seem like a challenge.
Set your base in Baile Tusnad
Visit Baile Tusnad in spring, and you will find yourself enveloped by the sweet and heavy smell of elderflower. The smallest city in Romania has plenty of attractions. Its air is fresh year-round, and is believed to be among the cleanest in the country. Then, the mineral waters, known and used since the 18th century, attract with their therapeutic properties. A three-hour visit at Tusnad Wellness (RON 30) gives you access to an outdoor pool with warm water as well as a regular indoor pool and a jacuzzi. The main point of attraction though, in any season, is the indoor thermal water pool with temperatures ranging between 36-42 degrees Celsius where believers and nonbelievers alike bathe and relax while taking in the warmth.
Accommodation in pensions kept by the locals, many offering an idillic setting and a front yard filled with colourful flowers, starts at RON 80 per night per double room.
Balvanyos knows how to spa
The thermal waters of Balvanyos have been known and used for centuries. Since the opening of 4 star hotel Grand Hotel Balvanyos in 1938, they have been used year-round at the hotel’s spa. Having undergone a complete makeover, Grand Santerra Spa, one of the most modern in the country, reopened last year. Excelling through the design and quality of the finishes as well as the natural materials used, it offers indoor thermal water pools and saunas as well as an outdoor jacuzzi and a special sauna in a wooden cabin whose walls are covered in fir branches.
A three hour visit comes with an entry fee of RON 45 Monday to Thursday and RON 60 Friday to Sunday.
Tinovul Mohos – a walk through age-old landscapes
A visit to Tinovul Mohos, one of the most original attractions in Romania, will allow you to take a walk on the surface of a now dormant volcano crater. Translated as the “moss lake,” it will welcome you with unique landscapes shaped by successive eruptions of volcanoes.
The walk through the natural reservation, allowed only in groups led by a local guide, will take you through a type of vegetation unique in Europe that developed in very particular conditions.
The volcano cone of the Ciomatu Massif, which hosts Tinovul Mohos, was the first to erupt. After it cooled down, it got filled with rain and melted snow forming a lake. After the volcano erupted again through a nearby cone, the clouds of ash released landed on the lake, forming a layer of peat that can be as thick as 20 meters.
Using the pathway created by bears, which live in high number in the area, the nature experts in charge of the reservation built a route that takes visitors through the main attractions of the place: the vegetation specific to the tundra.
The plants found here include Eriophorum vaginatum, a perennial plant with cotton like flowers and the star of the reservation, Round-leaved sundew, Drosera rotundifolia, the only carnivorous plant in Romania.
As the expert guide will point out, visitors should under no circumstances touch or the plant Andromeda polifolia, which contains high concentrations of poison, used by the Bulgarian Secret Service in its infamous Bulgarian umbrella assassination method.
Also, they should not to eat any poisonous plants, and above all, make sure not to get eaten by the bears that roam the area.
Step inside a stunning dormant volcano in Racos
A quaint and very picturesque village, Racos is a welcome destination after a road that, alongside great views of the River Olt, offers plenty of thrills to drivers unaccustomed to driving off road.
A short walk from the main road of the village, up an elevated alley that passes nearby the village church’s yellow and white bell tower, you will find the stunning remains of a volcano that erupted 683,000 years ago.
The dark brown and red rocks, which release hollow sounds when stepped on, have the consistency and colour of bricks or, more accurately, of the burnt layer found inside pizza ovens. Climb the steep hill, stepping among the colourful wild flowers and you’ll find yourself in front of a landscape completely alien to Transylvania.
A green lake nearby and the Basalt columns, also found in the vicinity, complete the volcanic landscape that is unique to Romania and this part of Europe.
Row on Lake Sfanta Ana
The only volcanic lake in Romania, Lake Sfanta Ana has green emerald waters and fills the cone of a volcano whose eruption was one of the most recent in Eastern Europe. Being filled by rain water and snow, its waters are so pure they have nearly the same purity as distilled water.
While swimming has been forbidden since 2017, to preserve the purity of the waters and minimise the human impact on the landscape, tourists can rent boats and row on the lake or simply take long walks on the lakeside and take in the stunning landscapes.
A 17th century castle awaits new days of glory
Walk along the Bethlen street, parallel to the main road in the village of Racos and you will find yourself in front of an impressive tall stone wall. Behind it you’ll find the partially restored but imposing Sukosd-Bethlen Castle, who is still waiting for more funds to come its way.
Started by a local foundation decades ago, the restoration process was halted when the money run out and has not been resumed since. With the notable exception of a side wall, the castle’s main features and facade remain largely intact, keeping hopes alive that one day the courtyard, today filled with wild vegetation, could welcome more than the odd tourist.
The castle’s park, which hosts at weekend terraces run by locals, is a great spot to try the local cuisine, including the famous goulash made on the spot.
Although kurtos kalacs are a familiar sight nowadays at fairs across the country, while visiting Racos you can sample the local speciality in its most original rendition.
Photos © Georgeta Gheorghe
Photos of Grand Santerra Spa © Grand Santerra Spa