TRIP IN ROMANIA
Trekking in Transylvania
Written by Helen Morgante
“While hiking in Transylvania you must carry a wooden stake and at least one bunch of garlic.” Is that enough I asked myself as I put down the 1890 guide book and slowly moved my hand to cover my neck, wary that Hollywood may have got it right. “Ross!” I called out to my husband, “we’re gonna need a bigger stake!”
In August 2017 our band of intrepid hikers decided on the less beaten tracks of Romania and had a glorious, challenging and fearless month which included a 6-day intensive planned route trek in Transylvania. I can vouch that the guide book was misguided and Hollywood…… well that’s Hollywood.
As Professor Google tells us, Transylvania is a historical region in the central part of Romania which won back its independence from Communist oppression in the bloody revolution of 1989. Bound on the east and south by its natural borders, the inspiring Carpathian mountains hold back the rapid commercialisation of ranges we might hike through in more developed countries. Transylvania with its scenery and history nestles in this richly endowed Carpathian cradle. For us hikers new beauty is so often found in the old, be it a towering dark forests with centuries of secrets, geographic features that sit like old folk on porches watching life go by or the Transylvanian villages and small towns that predate Captain Cook’s foot touching Australia’s soil..
As an experienced hiker I know each hike reveals something of life I can’t get from a book or YouTube clip. I have walked the full length of the Heysen Trail and many other places. I have formed bonds and friendships which may not have otherwise arisen. I have found new depths and reserves in my self when I thought the well was empty. So why Transylvania? Well experienced hikers get an itch and think beyond our shores asking more than one “I wonder?” question. And to every hiker I say, if ever a book title rings true it is Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, Far from the Madding Crowd. In Transylvania, protected in its Carpathian cradle, most times you aint gonna get a crowd.
TIP: try to get at least 300-400 kilometres of hills into your legs near to the time of your trip and know your boots and pole work.
We hit Bucharest, Romania’s capital, which sprouted in 1459 as a citadel. Adelaide’s cold and wet winter was behind us and Celsius clocked in at 35 on our first day and then moderated from upper 20s to low 30s for the rest of August and let us revel in sun and light clothing.
We booked a 6 night and 7day walking tour with a Romanian company, Marian Walking Tours, before we left Adelaide. Our guide drove us the 2 hours from Bucharest to Brasov through the roller coaster and dodgem cars, trucks and carts of Romanian traffic. Good quality maps and information were given out at the briefing but one of our troop, Dana, could speak Romanian and had hiked the Carpathians in her youth, so we decided against engaging a paid guide. Routes were well marked and could be download onto a GPS if that’s your thing. But I’m a map girl and who can say when the satellites will go on the blink or a power recharge outlet will pose an existential problem to a villager or a whole village! With the good notes we received and thoroughly modern Dana with her GPS we judged ourselves to be bullet proof. Ross had acquired a well hewn hiking support stick come club with a surprisingly sharp point that would do as a stake – if needed.
TIP: not many locals have good English so if you don’t have a Romanian speaker in your group or you haven’t done it before, consider hiring a guide.
Day 1. The Piatra Mare Mountain – 8 hours and 21 kilometres.
We were picked up at 8am after a good breakfast provided by our Euro hosts. They packed each day’s food so one less essential to worry about, leaving you free to look up and contemplate the day’s ascent. It was still hot but on day 1 we climbed to the highest point in this range, the Piatra Mare (Big Rock) through cool and shadowy forests. We started at 700meters and reached 1843metres.
A highlight of the day was “The 7 Ladders Canyon”.
These ladders take you up steeply and quickly through waterfalls and narrow openings and it is a unique part of the climb that needs some strength and your wits about you as it will challenge your lung capacity and is slippery.
After ascending through the forest for 4 hours we emerged into a kaleidoscope of meadow grasses and wild flowers to find a small wooden chalet, like a nativity scene, dressed with cows with bells, donkeys, horses, sheep and shepherds dogs out for the sun. On top of that the place had the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Feeling hunger pangs we decided to climb to the highest point for lunch. We filled up our water bottles from the crystal-clear mountain stream and climbed the last 200 meters to where the sunshine embraced us and the view stretched for miles – oops – kilometres.
The day was long but it was a beauty and so we wound our way down gently through the forest on a much longer route than the ascent but easier on the knees. However, we needed good pole work as it was steep in parts with many tree roots, loose stones, boulders and very narrow paths. Our guide was waiting to take our happy but weary bones to our digs.
Day2. Bran to Magura – 5 hours 10 kilometres.
A fun start by hunting Dracula. We were driven to Bran, a collection of villages in Brașov County 30 km from the city of Brașov. The medieval Bran Castle, once besieged by Vlad the Impaler, is a popular tourist destination resembling the home of Dracula as described in Irish author, Bram Stoker’s 1894 novel, Dracula.
I tried convincing a local caped Dracula with bloodied teeth that the rules state he should be asleep until dark but I guess you can’t earn a buck if no one can see you! Touring the castle is a must and helps expunge any Hollywood induced creeps and willies.
TIP: make sure you have local currency in small denominations as in many parts cash is still king.
Then we moved our boots away from Dracula’s home to Magura, a mountain village 1000m above sea level nestled in the Piatra Craiului national park. It is a place where time stood still for so long as up until 1977 the village could only be reached by foot or with horse and cart. Old traditions are still lived by the farmers who breed livestock for their income using the open graze of alpine meadows looked over by shepherds and dogs as protection against wolves and bears.
We were warned about Bears as the summer finds them on the move like us with the chance that our paths might cross. The advice was to make noise as you walk in the national parks where you are more isolated and so our ‘shoo you bears’ strategy was to belt out our renditions of Climb Every Mountain and The Hills are Alive. Did it work you might ask? Well we didn’t see bears but saw their large paw prints on our trail so as backup, Ross (our own Bear Grylls) had his torch flashing, his sturdy walking pole and a large knife on his hip which made us feel better – sort of – but with bears valour should always kowtow to discretion.
We passed through tiny mountain villages with beautiful lush meadows and nearby forests but after a sharp 2-hour ascent out of Bran we reached the ridge with brilliant panoramas from both sides. Very old villages peppered each valley with their beautiful wooden houses and churches that have withstood the communist period. We spotted our village Magura well before we hiked down into its main street to our digs for that night. Depending on your route, you can find yourself in such pretty places but they are isolated with no urban luxuries like cafes and so our Host became our cook to becalm our hunger. We had started the day at 750 meters and finished at 1020meters which seems a small number but hides the trickiness, steepness and the need to stop in wonder of the views. A case for lots of pole work with steep ascents, sharp downs and rocky trails.
I can’t leave day 2 without recalling the comic shepherd who mustered his 100-strong flock to our grassy lunch spot high up on the mountain side. They snaffled bread and cheese from our hands without an invite and the old ewes stuck their heads in our backpacks, perhaps in hope of western booty not seen or tasted in those parts.
Day 3. Magura through Piatra Craiula National Park via Curmatura Chalet and back to Magura -ascent to1055meters, 8 hours – 22km ascent of 1055 metres.
The day was a loop and as we left Magura and struck our first and only wet. We ascended through to Pestera village then into Piatra Craiului Nat Park and the Curmatura Chalet. The first part took us through combinations of meadow and forest but more open than we had seen. We passed a monastery and dairies and a few people in the early part but then found isolation with no other intrepid souls in sight. Apart from many intrepid squirrels, which to our Aussie eye are not the picture book ‘big’ we grow up with but with due respects to this fauna they resemble a rat with a fluffy tail!
Curmatura Chalet broke the tranquillity with its ‘shock’ of young backpackers from the wide world. The secret of our route was out. The Romanian clarion trumpets had given their call to the young and adventurous. Why had we not seen them sooner? Then we spotted the cross road where 8 trekking and climbing trails intersected and we were thankful for our route choice and its quiet nature. But had we not befriended a 100 sheep for our Facebook pages?
The chalet had great bean soup and coffee so we held our lunch for later. The rain delayed our departure from the chalet so we chatted with staff about our planned descent and when they saw we were no spring chickens or spritely squirrels they advised us to take an easier path instead of that recommended by our original guide. But in these parts ‘easier’ does not mean less careful as it was very slippery and tricky and muddy. Back in our digs for that night our host kindly washed our clothes and put everything in the drying room. Another great day in the mountains.
TIP: it pays to seek local knowledge as any mistake can be your last and guide books may not cover all conditions.
Day4. Simon to Bucegi National Park, ascent of 910meters, 21km- 7 hours.
A Short drive to our start at the village of Simon where we could see the ranges of the Bucegi National Park, an outcrop of the Southern Carpathiens. Bucegi was declared a protected area in March 2000 with its beech forests, limestone grasslands, alpine rivers and unique rock features such as the mushroom like Babele, translated into ‘the old woman’ and the Bucegi Sphinx, both created from the erosion of varying hardness of rock formation.
2 hours on a wide forest road led us to the monument of Jewish heroes placed there after a plane crash in the 1960s. The two steep climbs of the day led to pretty meadows and places to rest. A side trip off our route led us to “The Evil Waterfall” which only cast its unique beauty on us.
Lunching by a big boulder we soon had woolly Ovis Aries (sheep) lunch guests with tinkling bells and their own guard dogs. They didn’t seem to give a baa about our being there and when we did move on we surprised or embarrassed the shepherds and their dogs having a sleep! Could this be the career change I was looking for?
A steep narrow and hard 2km climb was made difficult because those same sheep had just come down and so the path was messy and slippery. At the top we found a sheep farm selling its cheese and were invited to buy after being offered taster plates. There were not too many signs of production control but we guessed those folk where still standing after centuries of doing this so we paid and got stuck into the offering.
Our next task was to find an abandoned hunters house which was the land mark for us to message our driver to say we were starting the descent to our pick-up point. This was our steepest yet and followed a stream all the way down so the spray and wet put us on high vigilance as some sections were bare rock. At the bottom, day 4 felt very much like a tricky job well done.
TIP: summer in these parts does not guarantee dryness so ensure appropriate soles.
Day 5. DAY OFF
Phew! Brasov for a little retail therapy, washing, resting, eating and a ‘no poles’ walking tour of the city at the end of the day, leading us into dusk.
Day 6. Postavarul Mountains, Poiana Brasov Ski Resort, 1000 meter ascent to 1799 meters, 25km and a 10-hour day.
A gondola to the top was available but no, not us, not silly old us. We criss crossed the slopes to the peak eating plenty of juicy wild raspberries on the way but leaving some for the bears.
Our first stop on the ascent was Postavarul Hut being a euphemism for a chalet, founded in 1886 at 1604 meters and one of Romania’s first significant ski and winter sports resorts. But no snow for us.
We loaded up on cake carbs and coffee before pushing to the top for lunch where it was crowded as the gondola had hoisted the hoards for the majestic views. This was a very steep 3-hour climb but the down route was longer, more breath friendly and very open.
We arrived back in Brasov to a street food festival and a well-earned cold beer and some street food knowing it was back to Bucharest next day.
Reflection is a wonderful ‘add on’ to the mind of the adventurous hiker. Until this trip, Romania and Transylvania were matters of the printed and digital pages of novels and guide books and of movie world. Hiking lets you physically and emotionally touch these places and lets them touch you. That is what I call a great hikers relationship.