Romania 2008
Carpathian Mountains & Brasov

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A flashback to one of my first self-arranged hiking trips in Europe. Why? I took a travel writing course and it brought back good memories which could be an inspiring story for my readers. It’s about my experiences in Romania as a young inexperienced traveller.

Back in 2008, my and my brother went for a trip together to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. We heard about a town/city/village Brasov, where bears were regularly seen… So, we started to make a preparation for a trip to Brasov and the surrounding area. We bought a map and a travel guide, prepared our camping gear, and off we went.

We flew to Bucharest. We were still young and naïve, so we took an overpriced taxi drive to the city in search of propane for our camping stove. Another rookie mistake: it was Sunday, so not that much was open and we left Bucharest on the train without propane, as we were ready to start the adventure, with or without warm food. We got told trains were never late in Romania, surprisingly ours was… The train station was similar to any other train station, although there were significantly more street dogs around. But that wasn’t our only mind-opener. While making our way out of Bucharest train station, people were still jumping into the moving train with open doors. Safety first wasn’t really on the table. Our plan was to get to the other side of the mountains, making our way to Brasov during a 7 days hike. Soon we realised we were going to miss our connection. We got in contact with a friendly guy checking what we were doing. We were talking about our plans: getting off the train, find a place to set up tent and sleep, start hiking the next day to the mountains. He had some doubts about our plans and was mentioning street/wild dogs and stuff. He was going to take care of us. Losing the time out of side, we just followed the guy, taking us on a train to his hometown. He had a place where we could sleep, so we assumed it was at his place, but he brought us to an empty apartment. It must have been 1 a.m. He told us he would be back in the morning and will arrange the rest of our transport to our planned starting point.

We were not sure what was happening for most of the day, but at least we had a nice place to sleep. In the morning, the guy returned with a plan, he booked a taxi for us which was going to bring us to the start of the hike. We were very grateful for everything he did for us and asked what our debt was. As genius as he was, he started talking about the Christian values and it’s all about helping people. He just hoped someone will do the same for him if he came into a situated he needed help. Soon enough the guy disappeared, leaving us with a description of where to go to meet our taxi driver. It couldn’t get smoother: we got to the meeting point, stepped in the taxi, got to our destination, paid the taxi driver with the amount agreed before, and off we went. And all of this without speaking the same language as the taxi driver, but with good local connections.

Our walk started at a monastery. There were some festivities and we checked out the Christian atmosphere: a priest was consecrating cars. Enough time wasted, the mountains were calling. One of our last signs of civilisation was an old woman selling watermelons. We thought it was a great idea and bought the smallest one available. Soon enough we regretted the watermelon, it was heavy and difficult to pack, so we had watermelon for breakfast, lunch, and snack before we finally could leave the remains behind, fully focussed on the mountain in front of us. By the evening we reached a mountain cabin at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. We had great views on the slopes and it was time to check them before the sun disappeared.

Suddenly I spotted something. It was far away, but it was moving. I could see 3 dots quite high up on the slope, one large one and two smaller ones. My adrenaline level was rising double checking if these dots were moving. I explained the location to my brother, he confirmed… It couldn’t be anything else, it must be a bear, a mother bear with two cubs. What an amazing start.

We got up early and started hiking up the slope the next morning. Soon we met a guy coming downhill with the first bear story. He left at 4 am walking with almost no light and he had met a bear on the path, but the bear ran away.

We still had a nice temperature and sunshine going up the mountain ridge, but this was soon going to change. We reached the ridge and the weather turned. These amazing views disappeared, it was getting foggy and it started to rain. Time flies when you are hiking uphill, so it was about time to look for a camping spot. We sat down and explored our options; the ridge would be nice with all the potential views we could have in the morning. The weather decided differently. Soon we saw some lightning in the distance, so we decided to make our way downhill to avoid being attacked by lighting on the ridge, which turned out to be a good decision.

Our trip through the higher elevation area of the Carpathian Mountains was almost all in the mist, leaving our imagination to enjoy the beautiful sceneries. Packed in with rain covers, rain jacket and a pair of waterproof trousers, we continued our quest. No scenery, no wood to make a fire for our well deserved warm meal … we had better moments and both our minds were following the trail, waiting for the first trees to appear, so we could have our first warm meal in days. But it wasn’t the forest which surprised us first. At one moment on our hike, we looked at each other and shouted “Pancakes!?” Not sure where and how, but we both smelled pancakes. Soon enough this smell was gone, leaving ourselves with thoughts, “Did we really smell pancakes?”, we hadn’t seen a human for days now and were far away from civilisation. It was still misty, but we kept looking for these pancakes… in the distance we saw a creature, but just at the edge of what we could see and what was hidden in the mist. Suddenly it disappeared, it looked like it flew off. Did we just see some kind of eagle? Or are our senses just playing with our minds?

All those misty days congregate into one big memory of mist, mountains, no views, weird senses, but the magical moment of seeing the forest in the distance is still burned on my eyelids. It was 5 pm, almost time to call it a day. But seeing this glimpse of trees in the distance was a boost. With the taste of pasta already in our mouth, we were dedicated: “We’ll eat tonnes of pasta and sleep at the first trees tonight!” And so it happened.

Satisfied we continued our way to civilisation the next day. Just a couple of houses, but there was a shop. Somehow, we figured out pancakes was on their menu, so we couldn’t resist. After a pancake and a beer, our day couldn’t get better. At least that’s what we thought. With a full stomach, we continued along the river till we found a nice place to spend the night. We were setting up the tent and preparing food, but we noticed a guy in the distance running around with two dogs. After our dinner, this guy came and checked us out. He was a very friendly guy and we started chatting about our trip and our future plans. We noticed he had one large dog on an iron chain. Suddenly, the guy asked, “Do you mind if the dog sniffs at you?” We had no clue, so “sure”, soon responded by “You have just been sniffed by a wolf” … uhm, what?! Apparently, this wolf was part of a past project in the Carpathian Mountains. The local people were meant to take care of the wolf, but they didn’t and the wolf wasn’t in a very good condition. He was building a new home for the wolf in a bear sanctuary close by. At least for him, for us, it was a one-day hike. The guy came up with a deal, he was going to give us a lift the next day, and in return, we will help him for one day on the wolf enclosure.  It was a win-win situation and we didn’t had to think about it for long, we were in!

The next morning, we were ready to go and get our hands dirty on the new wolf enclosure. First, we said goodbye to our wolf. The bear sanctuary was called Libearty and the sign had the statue of liberty, but it was a bear. Great Romanian humour. Anyway, we go in there, looked around and somewhere in the back of the sanctuary we could find some work in progress. We were going to get a tour in the afternoon, but first, some work had to be done. We weren’t totally sure if the boss of the bear sanctuary actually knew our guy was building this for wolves. The plan was to bring in another wolf as well and bring them together. We did our job, worked hard and digging the fundament for the enclosure. It was time for our tour, we started at a couple of old bears in small enclosures. These bears came from circuses and had no need for very large enclosures, as one was totally blind, the other half blind. In the large enclosure, a couple of bears were living together. These were the ‘good’ bears, which were still able the have a bit of natural behaviour. There was an observation tower for some potential scientific research. Enjoying all the bears and learning about the situation in Romania, this experience was getting towards its end.

Bear-Tarzan – It was almost time to leave the sanctuary, but suddenly a guy drove in with a bear they confiscated. They told us it was a small bear. The driver got out, he was this Tarzan looking guy with no t-shirt and long hair. He jumped in the back of the car and after some time he came out with a 2-year-old ‘cub’ in his hand. It was a decent sized bear, nonetheless, Tarzan was keeping it above his head, moving it quickly to an enclosure close by. Time to leave this adventure behind and get a well-deserved shower in our hostel before we head back into nature the next day.

Our next destination was ‘Parcul National Piatra Craiului. We also found some stray dogs on our hiking trip, which followed us for a day or two, until we met other hikers coming from the opposite direction. It happened on a four-way crossing. The dogs got confused who to follow, we saw our chance and hiked as we never hiked before. Great success, we lost the dogs.

We got almost to the end of our trip. Again, we had rainy weather and we decided to make our way to a mountain cabin to spend the night there. To our surprise, the mountain cabin fully booked. At least inside, we could still set up our tent, so that’s what we did. After setting up our tent, we got back in to enjoy the warmth of the cabin. They had some advertisements for slow food, and indeed, it took a while, but we got some nice soup with bread and started socialising with some Czech people. They seemed nice and before we knew we were playing some weird card game with them. It was not really a card game, it was about hitting each other with cards. We got offered some drinks, homemade from Czech Republic – Moonshiners 2.0. I’m still not blind, so probably it was a decent quality? To describe this long evening, in short, we ended up becoming friends with these Czech guys and they had a room for themselves with some extra space, so we slept there. In the morning we took down our tent and left together with our new made Czech friends. There was a bit of a difference, as those Czech guys had large old bags, protecting themselves from the rain with ponchos and other plastic bags. After 5 min into the hike (before 9 am), I heard some whispering behind me, “ppssst, ppsssttt, you want a sip?” The bottle moonshine came out again… I kindly thanked for the offer.

We reached civilisation number 2 and said goodbye to our Czech friends. Now it was time to make our way to Brasov and spend our final days in this city. We heard bears were seen near garbage bins here in the evening… Brasov is the Hollywood of Romania, or at least they have a similar sign. But we didn’t let the sign distract us from our goal, we found a hostel, dumped our stuff, and off we went… Looking for this one ‘bear’ neighbourhood. Our hostel owner told us we were crazy and we had to be careful, as some accidents happened with bears in the past.

Bear watching – We walked whole the way to one of the suburbs of Brasov. This must be it, but no sign of bears. All the garbage containers were surrounded by huge cages though, so that must be against the bears. Our first attempt wasn’t successful, but we got local advice: “Looking for the bears? You need to come back at 8 PM.” We took a break and looked for some supplies to survive the evening: energy drink, crisps and biscuits. 7:30 PM, we found a good spot near one of the garbage bins, enjoying some crisps and drinks. All the garbage bins were situated between the village and the surrounding forest. Suddenly we hear something in the bush. A couple of seconds later there was our first bear, casually wandering down to the garbage bins. This bear was huge, at least we thought so. It was our first close bear sighting, so we actually had no clue. 7:55 PM, They came and picked up all the garbage, as a precaution against the bears. But it didn’t take long or we spotted some first locals leaving their house with more garbage, putting it out there for the bears. So it seems like at least some of the locals liked their bears. As we were on foot, we were very careful not to distract the bears, taking pictures with no flash and not making too many sounds. We were not the only ones coming to look for the bears. A car passed by, shouting ‘Bears!’, opening their windows and taking pictures with flash. Different mentality, or just a different feeling of safety? Satisfied we returned home.

The situation in Brasov has changed. There are no bears around the city anymore, and they have a stricter garbage policy. There are still opportunities to go and see the bears more in their natural habitat. Check out this opportunity to see bears around Brasov. Or more interested in a tour to visit the Libearty bear sanctuary in combination with the Dracula castle…

Learn more about Romania, or check out our other wildlife holidays tips.
Also check out our resources page.

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