The Gifts of the Earth and Their Forgotten History — Korond I.
What geology gives, the human breaks. But some make sure we remember.
“In Korond, every person is a potter,” writes the celebrated Hungarian traveler and ethnographer Balázs Orbán². Today, 150 years after his chronicles were published, pottery is still the heartbeat of the community known to everyone in Transylvania and beyond. It’s what made Korond an epicenter of folk art.
Yet Balázs Orbán dedicates his entry of Korond to something entirely different: “Korond’s chief landmark is its bath… one of the most prominent and beautiful of our baths,” he writes. “Hidden in the shade of tall trees are homely-looking, porched houses that can accommodate nearly 500 guests.” Then he meticulously highlights a captivating history that, for reasons social and political, has been eroded through the centuries and obscured even to most locals.
Back in July, I spent a week uncovering its rich cultural heritage and history. By the end, it was undeniable: from its aristocratic bathing culture and renowned aragonite mining, to its traditional ceramics and the last amadou makers in the world, Korond is a cultural gem unique not only in Transylvania but in all of Europe. In three articles, I’m describing why.
Korond (Corund in Romanian) is a municipality of five thousand, albeit with a distinctly rural feel. The village is extensive in length, flowing along the curving road, enclosed by lush green hillsides, pastures, and forests. We are at the gate of traditional Szeklerland, home of the Székelys — ethnic Hungarians living in the mountainous region of East Transylvania, their backs up against the Eastern Carpathians.
But Korond is unlike the other Szekler villages on the country road. Its wealth and prestige are unmistakable the moment you reach its stretched-out borders. Large houses pop up, with architecture a blend of traditional village dwellings and newly built suburban homes. There are warehouses, and yards filled with construction materials and brand logos of international firms — a rare sight in rural Romania. There’s a widespread sense of development and prosperity singular for a countryside scenery.
When the road first diverges, we get a glimpse of why: dozens of wooden stalls, booths, and houses all along the main road, selling everything from cheap wicker baskets to renowned local ceramics adorned with folk motifs bearing a thousand words. It’s the pride and symbol of the local community. The lively street market stretches out for a whole kilometer, as grocery stores, bars, fast food restaurants, and the main square striate its lively fluster and haggle. Despite the sun’s unrelenting blaze, there’s an upbeat life here: cars and buses stop here every minute, as tourists take a shopping respite on their journey into mainland Szeklerland.
Yet Korond has an enigmatic history. It’s an outsized village most people think grew out in the last 30 years of post-Communist mercantilism. But chronicles and letters from centuries ago describe it as a thriving community, arguably even more renowned than today. The gifts of its Earth made Korond a unique destination in Eastern Europe. In the 1800s, it was visited from faraway lands for its exceptional, healing baths. Later, it was prized for aragonite mining and carving that took this community’s work to the World Fair in Paris and, eventually, to the Louvre Museum. Yet barely anyone knows its history: the locals don’t learn it, the passersby don’t see it.
To understand its enigmatic history, I sought the help of Zoltán Pál, a geographer and former academic in Cluj Napoca, now the head of local tourism in Korond. He is a portly, bald man with smiling eyes and a slight rhotacism that is happily embracing the local accent. With impressive expertise recalling a 19th-century naturalist, he firmly believes Korond to be the most exciting place on Earth. He explained to me the extraordinary science of the ground below our feet.
In the early Miocene epoch (23 million years ago — ‘mya’), the entire Carpathian Basin was connected to an ocean called Paratethys and was filled with water⁴. Plate tectonic activity raised the nearby Carpathians, which encircled the larger Pannonian Basin, and created a separate, smaller sea called the Pannonian Sea⁵. More tectonic movement and sedimentation elevated the Apuseni Mountains and their surroundings in West Transylvania, slowly cutting off the Transylvanian Basin from the water supply of the Pannonian Sea⁴. Meanwhile, the Carpathians kept rising and eroding⁶, and the climate of the time evaporated the water in the basin⁵, leaving behind a 300m layer of salt deposit on the arid seabed. As the Carpathians further eroded, they laid vast amounts of sediments on this layer of salt⁶.
“Salt is one of the most malleable rocks. And 3,000 meters of sediment put such pressure on the salt that the salt began to migrate to the edge of the basin. It’s like when [kneading dough before baking] you press down in the middle and it pushes out at the edges.” explains Zoltán, illustrating the movement with a traditional Szekler lángos we just bought at a local food stall. He continues:
“So the salt migrates outward to the edge of the Transylvanian Basin. And salt has this property — called the diapir effect — which means it can penetrate other layers of rocks and it strives to reach the surface,” he says. “So practically, we have a ring of salt around the foot of the mountains inside the Transylvanian Basin.”
The mountains adjacent to Korond, called Harghita, are volcanic rocks developed from the late Miocene (from 6–7 mya)⁷. The movement of underground salt from the basin found a very tough obstacle here, so it kept accumulating and formed the local Salt Region encompassing the resort towns of Sovata, Praid, and Korond⁸. But whereas Sovata and Praid (located towards the middle of the basin) are built on saltier land, Korond is precisely at the interface of the salt and the volcanic rock.
The remnants of this volcanic activity are bountiful for mineral water springs⁹. The small, mountainous region of Szeklerland holds around 25% of all mineral water resources in Europe³’¹⁰. And this water has been a defining natural and cultural feature for locals throughout history¹¹. To this day, they religiously believe in their therapeutic effect, called balneotherapy: drinking from particular springs alleviates gastrointestinal problems and liver or kidney disease. Bathing is effective against nervous system disorders, cardiovascular issues, and muscle soreness. Despite the lack of rigorous research in the field, balneotherapy is practiced across the world, and has amassed hundreds of years of anecdotal evidence.
The Korond mineral water, for example, was first noted mentioned in 1729 by Count Sándor Teleki, who bottled the ‘acidic water’ and sent it to his brother suffering from phlegm (liver disease). It’s the first written evidence of bottled mineral water in Szeklerland, which, in the three centuries since, has grown into a massive enterprise throughout the country.
“Already in the 1700s, there were articles about [the Korond water] in German scientific literature,” reveals Zoltán. “And Transylvanian regional specialists and doctors issued decrees to analyze the mineral waters and observe their medicinal effects. Almost 30 water sources are working within just 1 square kilometer here,” he adds.
By the 1830s, a bathing complex of wooden houses and vacation homes was built around the village’s central stream at the Árcsó Inn. Word was spreading about the water’s special composition and rare healing powers; and by the 1860s, when Balázs Orbán visited, the local spa could house 500 people².
It was rustic but elegant: lush trees, guest houses, and flowers surrounded a boulevard built along the Korond Brook. There was even a library and a dedicated orchestra. Patients came for weeks of treatment, with the spa doctor prescribing drinking regimens of the Árcsó mineral water and fresh goat’s milk¹². They also had to bathe and take regular walks in nature.
A chariot ride took people from the main Korond Bath to the nearby Unikum Bath on Snail’s Hill — so-called because its shape used to resemble that of a shell. The Unikum Bath was much smaller than Árcsó, but its composition was even more peculiar. Records describe the water as a ’milk-white color’ — very salty, carbonated, and saturated with minerals¹².
“The Unikum is the most complex spring in the Carpathian basin, the highest in mineral content. Its dissolved substance is 156 grams/liter, which means if we evaporate a bucket of this water, 1.5 kilograms of dry matter remains.” Zoltán says.
“And at the same time, it’s very salty, very calcareous, very ferric, very sulfuric. [The different rocks] all come together, and the water is a mirror of them,” he explains. “It gets CO2 from the volcano, which makes it extremely soluble and it dissolves everything [on its way to the surface].”
The waters of Korond were especially effective against respiratory problems — even severe ones untreatable by contemporary medicine¹². These case reports caught the attention of travel magazines, doctors, and dignitaries across the Austro-Hungarian Empire¹⁴. At the same time, the emperor’s court, increasingly aware of the natural gifts of Szeklerland, wanted to create a tourist bathing culture they had so successfully done in the Alps. As such, the Korond Baths lived their pinnacle during the second half of the 1800s when patients from as far as Vienna traveled here, hoping to recover.
Unfortunately, the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century led to a rapid decline and closure of the once glorious baths. Tourism from the West was cut off after WW1 when Transylvania was annexed to Romania. In the meantime, the nearby Sovata grew into a resort town around its spectacular mountain lakes. In the 1920s, owner Gyula Gáspár’s aggressive marketing drew in visitors from all over Transylvania, but by the 30s, he amassed a large debt and had to sell the property. And that was the unceremonious end to the Korond Bath.
Just as the baths were in decline, however, a Moravian stone craftsman used the geological remnants of the water to build a new legacy here. According to the locals, this ’Szekler Diamond’ brought world fame to a community supposedly already past its peak.
The Szekler Diamond
The locals long knew that the Unikum Spring’s flow left behind beautiful, colored crystals in the soil — aragonite — the gift of calcified waters laid over thousands of years. Here it is, mentioned in Balázs Orbán’s lively description:
“A hill 70–80 feet high rises, which, with its whimsical shape and flamboyant colors attracts attention — rightly so — because it’s the most wondrous formation, the most amazing creation of a springlet. Of a springlet? Yes, a springlet, a salt springlet which arrises on the hilltop, and which over thousands of years laid down a lustrous diamond base […] One cannot get enough of the beauty of the details and the wonderful magnificence of the whole.”
This lustrous diamond, aragonite, is a crystallized form of calcium carbonate, the same molecule that forms limestone but in a different crystal arrangement. But how does mineral water leave behind aragonite? Hiking up on Snail’s hill to explore the remaining deposits, Zoltán answers:
“Before the water reaches the surface, it is slowly flowing in the cracks, but in the last few meters, it begins to lose its CO2 content”. We squat down to observe a small, spraying hole in the rock: “You hear that spraying, hissing sound? It’s like opening a can of coke. When the solution loses its CO2 in the calm flow, it becomes supersaturated [with minerals] and has a great necessity to crystallize the heaviest of its content: the calcium carbonate.” he explains. “Somewhere behind that rock, there’s probably aragonite depositing.”
“And so imagine there is a crack in the rock,” as he extends his index finger to demonstrate a canal. “And the aragonite starts to grow perpendicular to the wall. And since the water is very complex in content, the other minerals get absorbed into the aragonite crystal and they paint it and stripe it. As the water is flowing and changing, there may be an excess of different minerals. The different shades [in the aragonite] reflect the change in these ratios.”
But why can’t we then find aragonite at every mineral water source that’s rich in calcium?
“Real crystallization needs stillness and calmness. The crystallized form of a substance is less common in nature because very specific conditions are required.” Zoltán says. “It’s like the difference between striated meat and minced meat — between the crystallized form of the material and the amorphous form.”
The historical significance of the local aragonite is displayed just down the hill, in a spacious room of a large country house: the old grinding and carving plant now housing the Knop Vencel Aragonite Museum — the only one of its kind in Europe. The museum guide, Éva Sebő, is a kind but candid, seemingly no-nonsense elderly woman, with pronounced articulation reminding one of an elementary school teacher. She tells me the legend of the local aragonite on Snail’s Hill, or as some call it, Deposition Mountain:
“In those days, the fairies decided to surround this entire area with mountains and began to knead the material from which the mountains are shaped. But an old, grumpy giant came, stuck a walking stick into this material, and immediately, a small, salty stream sprung out, which has been diligently depositing aragonite ever since. That is why it’s called Deposition Mountain,” she says.
It was the largest aragonite deposit in the village, but it wasn’t the only one. The abundance of the Korond aragonite shone in 6 base colors and 70 shades. Mrs. Sebő has a captivating repertoire of these specimens:
„This very colorful, striping, banding appearance is only found in the local aragonite,” she explains to a young kid visiting the museum with his father. “And it’s recognizable because it’s also beautifully translucent. You can see the light going through it.” When carved, the Korond aragonite has a characteristic hollowness to it. Yet its surface is faultless: so lustrous, it’s almost smug. It shines and radiates whole spectra of color. In the right hands, this calcerous rock could become a masterpiece.
Mining only began in the early 1900s, when those hands were finally found. In 1895, a craftsman named Vencel Knop from Moravia was invited by the Hungarian state to teach at the Industrial School in Zlatna, a mining town near the Apuseni Mountains, some 150 km west of Korond. The aragonite deposits they ground at the school were imported from Korond.
By the turn of the century, the Korond municipality wanted a permanent aragonite mining and carving industry, so they invited Knop to move here and build it up from scratch, which he did by 1914. He began by training 24 local youths to become miners on the hillside or workers down at the processing plant. He gave workers some of the highest wages ever seen in the village.
“So at the beginning of the 20th century, this teacher-turned-entrepreneur right away puts bread on the table of two dozen local families. So it took faith and trust to get started,” Zoltán says, impressed. “But he loved this stone and he loved to dream up the art nouveau shapes and forms. And he realized that he wasn’t going to sell them here, so he looked west, his direction was Budapest, Vienna, Paris.”
In the 1920s, following Transylvania’s annexation, demand from the West was drying up. But the artistic expertise of Knop embraced the art nouveau style and its break into Transylvanian culture and architecture. Purpose found its substrate: aragonite graciously suited the art nouveau’s elegance in curves, materials, and ornaments. With Knop as the master craftsman, the processing plant carved everything from watches to church altars. And they allcost a fortune to buy.
Expertise and output peaked in the 1930s when the aragonite mine brought international fame to Korond. The quality was unmatched, and locally carved aragonite ornaments reached the World Fair in Paris and the wardrobe of Queen Maria of Romania. An aragonite fruit bowl from Korond is, allegedly, still housed in the Louvre today.
Mrs. Sebő happens to be the granddaughter of Vencel Knop. She was born in that large country house next to the processing plant. Knop died in 1941, so she never got to meet her grandfather, but she has fond memories of her early childhood in Korond. She still remembers her grandmother directing workers around the house. She recalls the aragonite blocks, as they stood ready for carving in enormous water tanks, which, when drained, left behind a cloudy white fluid trickling onto the courtyard. The kids loved that they had ‘milk’ running from the taps in the garden. But everything they had, they had to leave behind in 1948, as the family was evicted by the new socialist state coming to power post-World War II.
In the after-war period, the lack of a master craftsman meant the carving quality plunged. The aragonite mines were also coming to a depletion, but the new socialist state wanted to increase production, which they mishandled woefully:
“The coup de grâce was the dynamiting,” Zoltán says. Travertine miners from nearby Borsec didn’t listen to the expertise of the locals, and used dynamite to bomb all three mines within a few days: “The crystal imploded in on itself and was filled with a network of cracks. The processing plant permanently closed a few months after,” he says.
It meant a once again unceremonious ending to a rare natural gift in this community. Looking back, it’s rather disappointing that people didn’t sustain, uphold, or fight for these values. That mismanagement and neglect prevented future generations from experiencing them. That they were allowed to disappear. But the interwar and after-war periods were terribly harsh in Romania: people didn’t have resources to care about anything but bare necessities. When the socialists overtook, they fought hard to erase the memories and traditions reminding locals of any history, and they left communities with no monetary resources to embrace them. The result: Korond’s remarkable legacy was never allowed to be carried on; its memory completely eroded.
Embracing the past
But that didn’t dishearten Zoltán. Since moving here in 2010 after an academic career in Cluj Napoca, he almost singlehandedly embraced sharing the local history. He began as the caretaker of the local nature reserves, and with the help of university students, they began building everything up from scratch. Over the summers, they constructed an educational trail on Snail’s Hill and reconstructed the Unikum Bath. They renovated the old aragonite processing plant and founded the museum, where they have been producing aragonite jewelry with the help of a blind community they hired to grind the stones.
As the restoration of values had got along, everything else followed. Zoltán despised the state of Korond’s tourism that centered around the main road bazaar, where most tourists only stopped for a ceramics shopping spree. So he decided to bring the tourists back to the roots of this community. To show visitors what this historic village is really about, in intimate settings. They have arranged thematic experiences around the mineral water springs and aragonite. They are visiting local potters — taking tourists into the heart of a tradition synonymous with the name Korond, one I will be exploring in Part II. They also bring groups to the only traditional amadou makers left in the world (Part III).
But more than anything, Zoltán moved here for family. He grew exasperated with the grind of academia and the bustle of urban life. Since then, he’s been much happier. He can raise his three young daughters in the quiet, pristine beauty of the Szekler countryside. It reassures him “they live in the right corner of the world,” one where he can make a real difference in his community.
Acknowledgments to Zoltán Pál and Éva Sebő for their guidance and patience, and to Derrick Change for his input and editing.
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