The Carpathian Mountains – the last European wilderness?
Jonathan Cook and his trekking companion, James, were looking for an alternative but affordable trekking destination that didn't involve flying to the ends of the earth. The Carpathian Mountains of Romania ticked all the boxes. So they bought the guidebook and got trek-planning...
Dubbed recently ‘an emerging trekking hotspot’ and one of the wildest parts of Eastern Europe, the Carpathian range covers a third of the country, with many miles of good quality well-marked paths and a good network of mountain huts (cabanas). We devised a rough itinerary of five days backpacking, predominantly in the most accessible of the four massifs – Bucegi, taking in the summit of Mount Omu, the country’s ninth highest mountain at a respectable 2507m, and delving into the heart of Transylvanian Dracula country. We also decided to take the tent so that we could wild camp if we wanted to change our plans.
Stepping off the train at Sinaia – one of the top mountain resorts in the Transylvanian Alps or Southern Carpathians – at 5pm into hot evening sunshine, we began our trek on steep steps rising from the station followed by roads passing the impressive Peles Castle. Even at this early stage the blue stripe waymarks helped us find our way before entering cooler woodland and climbing unrelenting zig zags. I'd forgotten how hard it was trekking with a heavy backpack and my shoulders began to throb. We huffed and puffed our way upwards before reaching a pleasant meadow clearing offering a fine view of the valley.
After passing a group of descending walkers who asked where we were heading at this unusual hour and looked even more surprised by the answer ‘not sure’ we decided to call it a day. Night was closing in. We pitched the tent in a flat wooded area before cooking dinner and were fast asleep before 10pm after a long first day.
An almighty storm hit during the early hours of the morning, as James and I lay cowering in our sleeping bags, remembering the talk of bears, wolves and even aggressive mountain sheepdogs that we’d read about in the guidebook. (He’d agreed to take on the sheepdogs if I took on the bears!)
As the rain eased we reluctantly surfaced and packed away a sodden tent and begun weaving our way up through the forest again. It was extremely tough going with the occasional break in the tree line offering breathtaking views down to the Prahova Valley floor.
Eventually we reached a grassy spur and surprise picnic table which we made full use of. After a further bit of scrambling and with the majority of steep climbing behind us the route flattened out as we followed the unusual bus-stop shaped route markers along the plateau. The moorland reminded us of the Lake District but on a much bigger scale, and with the bonus of no other people in sight.
As we approached Piatra Arsa Cabana the last thing we expected to see as we made our way across the scrubland was an athletics track. I was surprised how big the cabana was, proof of the popularity of the area in busier summer months and the ski season. Inside we enjoyed fruit tea, ham and eggs and a cake each for all of 15 Lei (about £3). It also provided a good opportunity to refill our water bottles before continuing on to Cabana Babele and the cable car station where we had another fruit tea and encountered two other hikers – one who was wearing a balaclava and looked surprised to see us in shorts and t-shirts.
At this point we couldn't face the planned descent with our heavy packs down into the valley before climbing back up to Omu, opting instead for the plateau-top walk to the summit of Omu and a stay at Omu Cabana. Shortly after setting off we encountered some strange rock formations, the most recognisable being The Sphinx. The sign to Omu read 2.5 hours and a wave of joy washed over us as the end of the day appeared to be in sight. Although it was late spring, as we passed above 2000m large patches of snow began to appear.
The last 45 minutes of the climb to the summit of Omu took us around a ledge path cut into the mountainside offering truly spectacular views of forested valley floors and jagged craggy peaks.
We knew we were well and truly in wild mountain country now, a feeling only reinforced by passing a pathside cross paying tribute to a young climber.
We almost ran the last yards to the top of the Omu, looking for the Cabana entrance but there was no sign of anyone. Workmen at the nearby weather station told us that the Cabana was only open at weekends and we were both devastated at the news. The next one was at least another two hours’ trekking but, rather than being blown away in the night, we opted to push on. The weather looked to be changing.
Following the blue and red path markers we began to descend rapidly, zig-zagging down, passing over more and more snow patches. With no crampons or ice axes, I kicked steps into the snow and James crossed uneasily behind. We were both grateful for our trekking poles. Once over the worst of the snow patches, we had one more precarious section to negotiate in the form of a small gully which we clambered down in the growing darkness. We then headed further down over patches of scree and snow as it began to rain and the mist closed in.
Suddenly, out of the darkness Cabana Malaesta appeared. It appeared to be deserted but a small boy appeared when we stepped inside, mimed the sleeping sign at us and invited us in for dinner. After some very broken German an elderly lady also appeared from her kitchen brandishing a bag of sausages to which we enthusiastically nodded. After ten hours on the trail and with bodies extremely sore, we had experienced a truly epic day and it was good to be indoors out of the rain.
No trek is complete without a wet day. Ours was Day Three. After an omelette for breakfast, with the customary (and delicious) fruit tea, we devised a route to Bran and ventured out into the pouring rain and down through the forest. We had a false alarm on the sheepdog front as three dogs appeared in the distance, but they turned out to be of the small friendly variety.
The forest opened up into a road heading towards Rasnov before we turned left along one of the numerous bridleways. Shortly afterwards arriving into a farmyard we were greeted by a lady holding a basket of eggs surrounded by a group of chickens who pointed us in the direction of Bran before saying something which I understood to be about the weather and James took to be about how tall we both were! Through a field and over some barbed wire, we joined the muddy path to Bran.
We were well and truly off the beaten track in the heart of pristine Translyvanian meadows.
This what we had both come for but I found it just a little difficult to relax not being entirely sure where we were and still expecting to meet a ferocious sheepdog around the next corner.
The sun finally broke through as the path we had been following for hours slowly turned into what appeared to be a street and, then much to our delight, through the trees we got our first glimpse of Dracula's Castle looking appropriately spooky. We had made it to Bran! With no sign of vampires (or a functioning cabana) we headed into the village centre and succumbed to the allure of a hotel room for the night with a shower and a balcony to dry all our kit for the bargain price of £12 each.
Bran is very touristy with a permanent market in the centre selling all manner of Dracula related goodies from t-shirts to medieval Dracula pies where we settled for a well-earned Ursus (bear) beer! And we couldn't come all the way to Bran without doing a tour of Dracula's Castle but in the end it only had one room dedicated to Bram Stoker's famous story.
Leaving Bran after our tour, the signs indicated Curmatura Cabana via Magura to be a modest 2.5 hours along a path that headed straight up into the forest and eventually led to a clearing offering glorious views of white limestone cliffs of the Piatra Craiului and Zarnesti on the valley floor.
Descending into the meadows below my worst nightmare was confirmed as not one but three sheep dogs appeared on the horizon and bounded towards us. We had stones at the ready to deter them, but they seemed relatively happy once we started descending towards Magura, reaching it at least four, than 2.5, hours later. It seemed to take an eternity to get to the centre of Magura and in the end we opter for somewhere closer than the Curmatura Cabana – Cabana Gura Raului on the outskirts of Zarnesti.
Our final day was a short circular day walk up to Curmatura Cabana and back through the spectacular Zarnesti Gorge. On a blistering hot morning it was wonderful to be hiking without the burden of our heavy bags. Zarnesti is a centre for outdoor activity. We passed more hikers and mountain bikers that morning than we had seen throughout the rest of our trip.
As we arrived back into Zarnesti we were sad to board the train to Brasov and from there back to Bucharest, passing through Sinaia where it had all started what seemed an eternity ago. We had survived sheep dogs and vampires and thoroughly enjoyed our adventure into one of the last wilderness areas of Europe.
Guides and Further Reading
Rural Romania is still considered an off-beat European destination. The Mountains of Romania by James Roberts (Cicerone Press) is written as a complete travel guide for the dedicated mountain walker. It describes routes and alternatives for all of the mountain areas in the Carpathians and was more than adequate in addition to the ample signposts all the way along the route.
We did purchase one map from Stanfords (www.stanfords.co.uk) – Dimap Hiking Map No 16 (Piatra Craiului – Bucegi Postavarul – Piatra Mare Ciucas) which proved a lifesaver on day three and offered additional comfort when consulting the guidebook.
Where to Stay
Cabanas (Mountain huts) offer excellent value for money. There is an excellent network left over from Communist days. We encountered varying levels with some having shower and indoor facilities to more basic. All were practically deserted during our trip but the guidebook suggests they can become overcrowded during the peak month of August where booking may be required for the more popular ones such as the one atop Omu. We used a hotel in Bran which offered a night of luxury very cheaply: www.hanulbran.ro.
Day 1: Sinaia to (a wild camping spot near) Cabana Regala (4km)
Day 2: Cabana Regala to Cabana Malaesti (26km)
Day 3: Cabana Malesti to Bran (18km)
Day 4: Bran to Cabana Gura Raului (12km)
Day 5: Cabana Gura Raului to Zarnesti via Curmatura Cabana (16km)
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