This beautiful fairy-tale land called Szeklerland, situated at the eastern part of Transylvania, once part of the Kingdom of Hungary and bordered by the magnificent Carpathian Mountains, is a region of harsh, imposing mountains, lush green pastures, tender fields of wildflowers, thick pine forests and wonderful mountain lakes; a land of breath-taking scenery, lovely villages, rich history, still-living folk traditions and the friendliest of people with warm hospitality. I had already written about the Parajd Salt Region in an earlier post, now I’d like to show you what I consider to be the top must-see natural beauties this fascinating land has to offer.
Gyilkos-tó/Red Lake/Lacul Rosu
Gyilkos-tó (literally meaning “Killer Lake”), situated 983 meters above sea-level, at the foot of the Nagy-Hagymás/Great Hagymás/Hasmasu Mare Mountain (part of the Eastern Carpathians) is one of the most beautiful lakes in Transylvania, and the largest mountain lake in Romania. This natural storage dam lake was formed in 1837 when a landslide blocked the Bicaz Valley and the several streams that flow together there filled it up. Its name is coming from the reddish alluvia (iron oxides and iron hydroxides) deposited in the lake by the Red Creek. There are a couple of local legends though, that try to explain its origin as well. According to one of them, the mountain, when it tumbled down, buried and killed a herd with its shepherds and it was their blood that kept seeping into the water colouring the lake red.
What make the lake so unique are the trunks of pine trees sticking out above the water, which are the remains of an old pine forest that used to cover the valley. The underwater section of these old trunks is conserved by the calcium and iron-oxide content of the water, but the upper part, however, is badly affected by freezing, melting and rotting that caused a lot of damage to them. Photos from the beginning of the 20th century show trees that are 3-5 meters tall but today they hardly reach 30-50 centimetres.
The beauty of the lake is even more enhanced by the limestone rocks of the surrounding mountains towering above it (the highest being 1676m). Swimming is forbidden but you can go row-boating to enjoy the dramatic landscape around you. There is also a well-signposted walking trail around the lake which takes about an hour to complete leading through this wild and romantic scenery. Another favourite activity among the more adventurous kind is hiking to the top of the Kis-Cohárd/Small-Cohárd/Suhardul Mic rising above at 1345m high, from where you can have mind-blowing views of the lake and its surroundings. (The trail leading up to the peak starts from the lake.)
Békás szoros/Bicaz Gorge/Cheile Bicazului
Situated just 5km east of the Red Lake, the Bicaz Gorge, one of the most breath-taking natural attractions in Romania linking the provinces of Transylvania and Moldavia, is a must. This fascinating canyon, created by the Bicaz River cutting through it, can be reached either by walking from the Red Lake, following the Bicaz Stream, or by car as well. The asphalted road driving through the canyon is considered to be one of the most spectacular drives in Romania cutting through 300m high limestone rocks and cliffs rising literally from the edges of the road. This exciting road inside the canyon is tightly hair-pinned with several twists and turns; a winding mountain drive with sharp and blind curves and switchbacks leading travellers over the mountain. At one point, this narrow mountain road runs so uncomfortably beneath the overhanging rocks that the section is known as the “Throat of Hell”. The limestone walls of the gorge also hide amazing caves such as the Black Cave and the Waterfall Cave. The canyon is also a haven for hard-core rock climbers.
The Red Lake and the Bicaz Gorge are part of the Cheile Bicazului-Hasmas National Park and the region also has a very rich flora and fauna.
The Harghita Mountain, the largest volcanic mountain range in Europe, is part of the Eastern Carpathians. From the top of its highest peak, the Madarasi Harghita at 1,801m, the “Sacred Hill of the Szeklers” and the theme of many Szekler songs, you can have magnificent views to the Harghita Plateau, the surrounding mountain ranges and almost the whole Transylvanian Basin. The region has a rich flora and fauna, including the brown bear, wolves and foxes who live in the rich spruce forests in the mountains. You can also choose from various hiking and mountain biking trails and paths in the summer months and of course, skiing in winter.
The Madarasi Harghita is situated 36km north-east of Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc. There is a rest-house located at 1,650m on the north-western part of the mountain, which can be reached by car. The trails start from here, the most popular of which, of course, is the one leading to the peak. It takes about an hour of easy to medium-level slight uphill hike with breath-taking panorama accompanying us all the way up. Apart from the incredible view of the whole of Transylvania, the place has a mystical, unearthly atmosphere as well with the numerous crosses, headstones, beautifully carved wooden headboards and inscriptions scattered around this sacred place of the Szekler people.
Szent Anna tó/St Anne Lake/Lacul Sfanta Ana
Visit the amazing landscape of the beautiful St Anne Lake and grab the opportunity to swim in the only volcanic lake in Romania with the purest of waters – literally – as the lake’s water purity is approximately that of distilled water’s. The lake, situated at 946m above sea-level, was formed in a volcano crater, which erupted about 32,000 years ago. It has no link to any other source of water, all the water in the lake comes from rain. Also, there is no oxygen in the lake thus, no living creatures in it either. It is famous for its healing properties and is the perfect place to get in touch with nature and relax.
There is also a beautiful legend linked to the name of the lake: According to locals, a long time ago, there were two hills. One was called Bálványos Hill (a real, existing hill today) and the other was located directly opposite, in place of today’s St Anne Lake. Both hills had a castle on top with two brothers living in them, one in each, both envious who didn’t really like each other. Once, the brother living on the Bálványos Hill gambled and won – a beautiful golden-diamond carriage with six great steeds. His brother got very envy and decided to get an even more beautiful carriage with not six but twelve steeds. But being unable to obtain the horses, he came up with an idea: he ordered the most beautiful girls from the region to his castle. He chose Anne, the most beautiful of them, and another eleven, and harnessed them in front of the carriage. It was too heavy though, and the girls were unable to move it. The brother got terribly angry and whipped Anne twice, who stood in the front. When he hit the second time, Anne cursed him. Then, a thunderstorm struck down and destroyed the castle that sank lower and lower in the rain until everything got underwater, and a lake was formed. On the lake, there were twelve swans swimming, who, eventually transformed into the twelve girls. They all went home to their villages, except Anne, who built a little chapel on the shores of the lake and lived there all her life praying. After her death, the lake was named St Anne Lake. (There is a chapel indeed near the lake that can be visited as well.)