I already know that I want to go back to Romania. One week barely scratched the surface of a country, like Mongolia, that really deserves to be better known, especially by nature-lovers. My goal was to visit the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania to see part of the largest remaining areas of the ancient European forest and, if possible, see and photograph European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos). I got all that and much more!
Romania is a modern European country and is a member of both the European Union and NATO. Above is the bread section of a large grocery store in a shopping mall in Bucharest, the capital. I love visiting grocery stores in different countries and seeing what’s familiar and what is new. Also, in the bigger stores, how things are designed and laid out. This store was very well done.
One of many colorful flower stands we passed on our way north out of Bucharest. I booked a custom trip with a British travel company, Wildlife Worldwide. In Romania my trip was handled by Atu Travel. I had a wonderful driver/guide named Laurentiu who was knowledgeable about all facets of the country.
My first happy surprise was discovering the storybook traditional architecture as we passed through this town. I’d love to go back there for a few days of sketching and painting.
Lilacs were in bloom everywhere we went. These were all grab shots from the car since we didn’t have time to stop.
The first morning Laurentiu took me to this “castle”, Peles Castle, which is really a palace that King Carol I had built in the late 19th century. It has over 170 rooms decorated a variety of historical styles. Unfortunately it wasn’t open when we were there, but i did get to see the grounds.
Rasov Castle, perched on a hilltop, is visible for miles around. We didn’t go there, but I did get some photos. It dates back to the 14th century.
Like Mongolia, livestock herding is still how many people make their living. The Romanian shepherds use two kinds of dogs: large strong ones who guard the flock from predators like wolves and smaller quicker dogs who move the flock. Here’s an example of each.
Our next stop was a trail is that leads up to a monastery, the Colti Chiliei Hermitage. It was a lovely wildflower-filled walk.
The interior of the chapel.
The site dates back to the 15th century, when local people took refuge in the mountains to escape the Ottoman Turks. The next two photos are of a cave up in the woods above the hermitage.
It is still a place of pilgrimage and worship today.
The surroundings are very beautiful. In the foreground is a Romanian-style haystack.
Logging of the ancient forests has become an issue in Romania in recent years. The government is cracking down on the corruption that feeds the illegal logging. Laurentiu told me that every truck is tracked and that legal logs all have a red dot on them, like the ones in the photo below.
That evening we went to the first of two bear hides (“Hides” are small raised up huts with a large area of glass on one wall). We arrived along the road early and went for a walk. It started to rain. By the time we met up with ranger it was really raining. We were also down in the trees where it was pretty dark. All to say that while I got quite an eyeful of not just a bear, but wild boar, I didn’t get very good photos. But I knew I’d have one more chance.
First up was a family group of European wild boar, which was great since they keep to themselves and are not often seen.
They grazed and poked around, then startled and moved back into the trees. A few moments later a small brown bear showed up. There’s “bait’ in the can, chocolate and grain. I wasn’t thrilled about this, but it’s the only way visitors have a chance of seeing the bears, which are a major tourist draw.
After going head down into the can, the bear suddenly alerted.
A little more time passed. It got darker and the rain came down harder. It was finally too dark for photos. But….the boars back at the edge of the trees seemed to collectively decide “what the heck?” and came charging out, chasing the bear away! Laurentiu said that he had only seen this once or twice before in all the times he’s taken visitors to the hides. I may have to do a painting of it sometime…
The next day was what turned out in my mind to be The Hike. Laurentiu described it to me and I wondered if I was up for it since I hadn’t done any hiking since last year in Mongolia, we were at around 2000 ft. and I live more or less at sea level. But this was my chance to really get out and up into the forest and mountains, so off we went.
We started by walking through the Zarnesti Gorges, quite well-known to serious birders.
It was lovely and cool trekking between the limestone cliffs, although I don’t recall that we saw a single bird. Soon enough, we reached the trail up into the mountains and for the next 3-4 hours I was thoroughly tested, going up slopes that were sometimes 30 degrees. With my camera pack. The photo below is the one that shows part of a section I’d just come up.
As we got higher up where it was flatter and more light could get in, an understory appeared with a variety of wildflowers like these forget-me-nots.
We finally came out of the trees into the sub-alpine zone. The small building is where the shepherds live in the summer. More below.
And here’s our goal, the Alpine Hut. Which had a spectacular view. And cold beer. We were able to refill our water bottles from a spring before we started down.
There were even dogs to pet!
As we headed across the meadows we started to hear the sound of sheep and bells. I saw them down in the trees a fair ways below us, but there wasn’t time to stop. They came up quickly, though, and I got a few photos. The shepherds are moving up onto the mountain for the summer, staying in huts.
We still had 2 1/2 to 3 hours to go. This was a last look before we descended back into the forest.
I had to put the cameras in the pack since the trail was slippery from the previous night’s rain and we had to very carefully pick our way through a lot of rocks on the trail. My hips and then my knees started to hurt but there was nothing to do but stop when I had to rest a bit, otherwise just keep going. When we came into an area with ancient old growth beech trees I had to stop and have Laurentiu get a camera out for me. It had a magical feeling of ancient beauty. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole hike and made it all worthwhile.
But that wasn’t the end of the day! After resting and getting dinner at Guesthouse Elena, where I was staying and being treated to their excellent hospitality, it was off to the second bear hide. This time we went through a small village and into the Stramba Valley, another birding destination. It was late afternoon and the cows were going home.
So were the people, some in a very old form of transport…
I asked Laurentiu why horses and wooden carts were still used. He told me that they were less expensive and more reliable than trucks and that the horses could also be used for other tasks.
I saw nesting storks in a number of locations as we traveled around.
Once again we met up with a ranger, drove up a valley and parked. The hide wasn’t far from the road.
He’s carrying grain and biscuits for the bears. As we crossed the stream and walked up the trail I spotted this…
You can see the hide through the trees. The clearing where the bears come into view is on the other side of it.
We were getting close and the ranger stopped, saying something to Laurentiu, who told me in a very low voice that there was already a bear in the clearing! So we walked quickly and quietly to the hide and up the stairs. I got my cameras out (two Nikon D750 bodies; one with a Nikon 28-300 mm lens and one with a Nikon 80-400 mm lens). There was a bear there, a 3-4 year old female. She never saw us, just kept digging around in what looked to be a wild boar wallow.
After a bit the ranger said he wanted to go put out the bait. I was torn over whether or not to say something. A bear in the hand, who would certainly run off, or the chance to have one come in much closer. I didn’t say anything, having learned long ago in Mongolia not to second-guess the locals. And not only did Bear No. 1 come back and stay, but Bear No. 2, also a female, showed up and came right in close to the hide.
About an hour had gone by and then Bear No. 3 came in to join the party, although the females backed way off since this was a 7-8 year old male.
I was able to get a shot with all three bears.
Finally, after about 90 minutes it was getting too dark to really get anything, even at a very high ASA. Then the ranger said something. Laurentiu translated saying that the ranger had just said that we had to leave right away because there was a fourth bear! I looked out the side window of the hide and could see another smallish bear in the trees only 15-20 feet away from the hide. I packed everything up as fast as I could, thinking that, no, we weren’t really going to leave the hide with a bear right out there, were we? Yes we were and yes we did. The bear moved farther away when she heard us, so all we had to do was walk quickly and carefully, because it was still quite muddy from the rain, down the trail, back across the bridge and onto the road. The ranger asked Laurentiu if I was happy. Are you kidding? Any bear close enough for good photos would have been great, amazing, super lucky, but THREE? An excess of riches. What an evening.
The next day was for cultural sights and since I’ve been interested in medieval history for many years, I love getting to visit places from that era. Plus, having done a little research, I knew that the Mongols had come through Transylvania, including the part I was in, when they invaded eastern Europe in 1240-1241. In fact, they pretty much depopulated Transylvania on their way to Hungary. They are remembered, but not with any hostiity that I could tell. And, since it was close by, I figured I ought to visit Bran Castle, famous for it’s (completely untrue) connection to Dracula and Bram Stoker.
First we went into the medieval city of Brasov, a bustling architecturally handsome city in the older part which is backed up into a horseshoe-shaped valley. There’s still a short section of the wall left. The mouth of the valley used to have a moat. It was one of four fortresses built to defend the area, the others being Bran Castle, Rasov Castle and our next stop, Prejmer Fortified Church, a fortified monastery which belonged to the Teutonic Knights.
The town square in Brasov, showing the back of the Black Church.
Then it was on to Bran Castle. Anyone who loves castles will love this one. Forget the Dracula stuff. There are no vampires. Bram Stoker’s story was set elsewhere. And Vlad the Impaler wasn’t here either. It’s actually a reasonably comfy and elegant family home that was used by members of the Romanian royal family and is still owned by a Hapsburg Archduke. Many articles, objects, images and family momentos are there, along with real medieval armor and weapons.
The main sitting room. Notice how the old fireplace was altered to create a cozy nook.
The interior courtyard. It’s quite something to wander around through all those different levels and rooms.
Once we’d finished with the castle Laurentiu took me to a justifiably famous viewpoint. Two, in fact. One on each side of the road.
The next morning there was one last stop, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary. They have 80 bears who have been rescued from cruel and inhumane conditions and who will now live out their lives in comfort and safety, getting to be simply bears. Click on the name to go to their website. There’s also a book about them and other European bear sanctuaries that can be accessed from the site and purchased through Amazon. Here’s one of their bears, enjoying the morning sun.
And that concluded my trip to Transylvania. I arrived back at the hotel in Bucharest in the afternoon. My husband (he’d had business meetings all week) and I spent our last day in Romania checking out Bucharest’s Old City, which turned out to have drop-dead gorgeous Second Empire French architecture.
And then there was Nicolai Ceausecu’s monument to meglomania which was left unfinished when he and his wife were run to ground and shot after the fall of communism. Since it turned out to cost more to demolish it, the new government went ahead and finished it. Over 300 rooms worth. It is now called the “Palace of Parliament”. I was expecting a classic “East Bloc” ugly slabby thing, but other than the inhuman scale, it’s not architecturally too awful. Except that the site used to have the core of the Old City on it. See above…
But what’s really important is that the Romanian people have survived and are largely thriving, living normal lives, welcoming and friendly towards visitors. They have a beautiful country that I hope to visit again.