24-Hour Room Service: Zabola, Transylvania, Romania
Saturday 11 October 2008
That a journey through deepest Transylvania should be a hair-raising experience is not that surprising. But it was the partially surfaced roads, seemingly non-existent speed limit and renegade horse-and-cart drivers – rather than shades of Gothic horror – that made our drive from Brasov to Zabola an alarming 45 minutes. Drawing up at the tall iron gates of the estate at dusk, however, our spirits lifted – this was the kind of entrance that would have made Dracula proud.
The romance continued as we rolled down a tree-lined drive, past a lake towards the 16th-century house that dominates the estate. Seized from the ancient Hungarian Mikes (pronounced "Mickesh") family by the communists in 1949, the building served as a children's camp, school and TB sanatorium before being finally returned in 2005.
Now, the new generation of Mikeses, Gregor Roy Chowdhury and his brother Alexander, are restoring their ancestral home. They have started with a 16th-century outbuilding known as the Machine House. With its whitewashed walls and open fireplaces, the six-bedroom building is comfortably rustic.
The guesthouse ethos is "home from home", which – for me at least – translates as being left to your own devices, while knowing that there is always someone on hand to cater to your whims.
Anyone wedded to standard hotel facilities may find things a little basic at first, but who needs a mini-bar when you are free to wander into the kitchen and ask Judit, the cook, to knock you up a gin and tonic? Meal times continue in the same homely vein – that is if your diet at home consists of three-course Transylvanian blow-outs: trout and wild boar are served in the dining room.
It would be easy to do little more at Zabola than enjoy the beauty of the estate – verdant in summer, a riot of russet and gold in autumn and a fairytale wonderland in winter – but there is plenty more on offer. Take the boat out on the lake, borrow a bike and explore the trails in the woods or ask Laszlo, the manager, to arrange a hiking tour, a pony-and-trap ride or a bear-watching excursion. We opted for the latter and, after a respectable tally of two bears and innumerable bats, returned after dark to find a snack and bottle of red wine waiting for us.
Zabola Estate, Mikes kastely, Zabala, Judetul Covasna, Romania (00 40 724 00 3658; zabola.com). The estate lies at the edge of the village of Zabala (Zabola is its Hungarian name), at the foot of the Carpathian mountain range. It makes a great base for exploring the countryside, which is dotted with beautiful Saxon villages, such as Viscri, whose 12th-century fortified church is a Unesco World Heritage site.
Time from international airport: The nearest town is Brasov, around an hour's drive from Zabola. Brasov can be easily reached via a two-and-a-half-hour train journey from Bucharest Nord (look for the Express or "Accelerat" services), winding past medieval villages and stunning mountain landscapes. From Brasov the hotel will arrange a transfer for 75 Romanian Leu (£17) for up to three passengers.
The six spacious bedrooms (five doubles, one twin) are refreshing in their simplicity. High ceilings and large windows make for a light and airy daytime atmosphere, while the warm rust and terracotta coloured walls, wooden floorboards and heavy, traditional linens create a cosy feel after dark. We were lucky enough to bag the "red room", with a free-standing antique cast iron bath that provides the blissful opportunity of wallowing while enjoying views of the surrounding forest .
Historic pictures of the estate decorate the walls and a leaflet recounting the tale of a roguish monk who haunts the grounds was left thoughtfully on my pillow.
Freebies: You'll have to bring your own toiletries, but you can help yourself to fresh fruit in the sitting room and are free to borrow books, board games and bikes.
Keeping in touch: Don't come to Zabola unless you are prepared temporarily to forget the rest of the world to some extent – there are no phones in rooms, but there is a main landline, free Wi-Fi and Laszlo will kindly let you borrow his laptop or mobile.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Double rooms start at €100 (£83) including breakfast. Lunch and a three-course dinner both cost €15 (£12.50) per person.
I'm not paying that: Fifteen minutes' drive from Zabola, the pretty town of Targu Secuiesc (the Hungarian name is Kezdivasarhely) also makes a good base for exploring this part of Covasne County. A double room at the basic but comfortable Taverna Panzio (00 40 7 29 103 726; taverna-panzio.ro) costs 200 Romanian Leu (£45), including breakfast.
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