Romania in the footsteps of Dracula and Hercules

Heading towards Timișoara

After just having experienced Serbian hospitality to its full extend (read our previous blog), we decided to try hitchhike towards Romania once again. Full of high expectations we headed to the same petrol station where we spend last evening hitchhiking. After 4 more hours it seemed like no one was heading in the direction of Romania, so we decided to finally give it a rest and look for other options. We decided to take the train from the Belgrade Danube station. Because of our late decision, that turned out to be a rather exhausting race against time. The 43 kilo backpacks on Kenneth’s shoulders made the bridge over the Danube towards the station feel even longer than it already is (2 kilometers!). The blistering heat made the total speed walk of 5 km even worse.

Drenched in sweat we made it just in time to catch the last train of the day. We had never been more excited about air conditioning on a train. While the train was quite a comfortable option, it was definitely not the fastest. The 170 km took over 4 hours. This is partly due to the border checkpoints on both sides, but mostly due to the old infrastructure allowing only a really slow speed. Most crossings are unsecured and the only warning for oncoming traffic was the train honking its horn. The cozy little trainstations are no bigger than a 2 bedroom house. Laundry lines and kids waving out of the upper windows showed that in some cases the stations actually served as a home as well.

When we finally arrived in Timișoara we found a cheap comfortable room. After 4 days of hitchhiking in temperatures reaching over 40°, the shower felt so well deserved and rewarding that we couldn’t help but to sing out of relief. By the way, we deeply apologize to our drivers and fellow travelers on the train that we couldn’t shower earlier, we hope you get over the trauma eventually.

Brașov

Next morning we felt so resfreshed that we decided to immediately continue our journey towards Brașov. After all, we had a goal. Both big fans of the Romanian gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia, we were excited to discover we could see them live right next to Brașov!

We had our first experience with Über to escape from the city. For no more than the price of a bus ticket our kind driver dropped us of a a small parking next to the A1 (one of the four highways in Romania). We were immediately picked up by Adrian, a Romanian guy who worked and lived in Germany and was planning to visit his mother in Sibiu. He explained to us that there are a lot of plans to build highways, but the problem is the funding of these projects. The only one that’s finished, the connection with the Black Sea, was funded by Europe.  For us this just meant we had more time to appreciate the grand and gorgeous landscape.

Adrian give us a ride to Sibiu
Adrian gave us a ride to Sibiu

Once arrived in Sibiu we only had to hitchhike for five minutes. Like all cars, our ride increased speed rather fast after the roundabout, but he hit the brakes and stopped right in front of us, hardly making any effort to avoid the giant potholes on the shoulder of the road. A nice little local family was in the car and while they spoke little English, we managed to communicate with just a few words and a lot of effort on their part. The road from Sibiu to Brașov was the first time we could witness the assertive Romanian driving style. Taking over cars just before a turn or oncoming traffic is no exception here. Later we would understand this is to the long distances Romanians have to cover on single lane roads. But meanwhile, this made our hairs stand on end.

Hitchhiking is quite common in Romania, even for locals. So it is easy to get a ride, but it’s is customary to pay for it. It is still cheaper than bus or train though, about 5 lei (€ 1,25) for 100 km will do according to Hitchwiki. However, none of our drivers would even accept our money: “For tourists it is free”.

In Brașov we were immediately welcomed by the Hollywood like letters spelling the name of the city on top of Mount Tampa. Brașov is a medieval town South-East of Transylvania at the foot of the South Carpathians, mainly characterized by it’s busy streets with shops, bars and restaurants. All the time you are surrounded by historical buildings. Although most of them have a sign indicating they are protected heritage, they could use some renovation. Worth seeing is The Black Church (that has got it’s name due to a big fire in the 17th century), the square Sfatului with the 15th century council house in the center and Catherin’s gate, the only remaining gate to the city.
In winter the city is Romania’s most famous ski resort. We enjoyed the nice atmosphere, the medieval buildings and the nice food. Thanks to Adrian’s advice we tried some local food: sarmale and mamaliga or cabbage filled with minced meat and polenta. It’s something we can highly recommend.

We hired a car for a few days, to get to the far reaches of the country with it’s many small roads. We did return the car in Brașov, so for the morally strict hitchhikers: we didn’t advance on our main route with the car ;-).  The red Dacia Sandero made us blend in with the locals right away. Kenneth quickly adopted the driving style and drove us to Castle Bran. Castelul Bran is a 14th century fairy like keep with splendid pointy red towers. It’s one of the touristic hot spots in Romania and the small corridors of the castle only add to the chaos. The castle is nicknamed Dracula’s castle. In reality it is said to only have a vague connection to Vlad Tepes, the historical figure which Bram Stoker’s Dracula is based on. We already noticed that the name Dracula is used rather commercially for anything from hotels to local snack bars, but that only adds to the folklore. Despite all this the castle is magnificent, with its many small rooms and dark corridors it makes you feel like you are back in the days of yore.

Rasnov: climbing among the bears

After spending so much time in the city, it was time for us to head back to nature. So we headed towards Rasnov and picked a camping spot close to the Postavaru climbing area, a three star crag according to the guidebook. We arrived late and hungry, but the camping host gave us directions to some good local food. At the same time she warned us not to go in the woods at night. Under the rule of former dictator Ceaușescu no one but him was allowed to hunt. As a result Romenia now accounts for 60% of the brown bear population in Europe. That is an estimated 6000 brown bears! But since bears aren’t to eager on close encounters with humans, a lot of trouble can be avoided by yelling, whisteling or singing while you are walking in the forest as not to surprise them. We went with the singing most of the time. It might have scared away more than just bears.

Once arrived at the local restaurant we discovered it to be a secluded place guarded by several dogs from the neighboring farm. Owner and cook Mirella welcomed us. Inside the restaurant looked more like a home than a restaurant. That night we were the only guests, but we quickly discovered that had nothing to do with the quality of the food. There is no menu, but you can list your preferences and the Mirella prepares your food in the open kitchen. She prepared us nothing but local dishes, with some of the best lamb we ever had.

The next morning we went deeper into the woods to go climbing and discovered that plenty of picnic houses were used as camping spot. These Romanians seemed to be very at ease with the idea of bears in the surrounding woods. It took us a while to find the climbing spot, the writers of the topo were not that specific with their navigation so we had to try to identify the location based upon the features in the rock. We finally did find the Postavaru climbing area, which was recommended in the climbing guide we bought earlier. Rightfully so it seemed, although locals later told us there are far better climbing areas in this region. [to be completed]

After a pleasant first  acquaintance with Romanian rocks, we drove to the nearby village Cristian to attend the concert of Fanfare Ciocarlia. At first the square was pretty empty so we wondered if we were at the right spot, but half an hour before the start people started drop in. What we experienced during that performance was amazing, people already started dancing at the first hit of the drums. The music was bombastic, loud and entertaining. Old people, young people, us, … nobody could help but moving to the exhilarating gypsy music. The fanfare just kept inciting the crowd and at the end everybody just started dancing in big circles all together. It felt great, especially for us Belgians who are used to more reserved crowds, who need some warming up. This immediate engagement felt very liberating.

Sibiu and the best road in the world

The next morning the Sandero drove us back to the heart of Romania. Sibiu is a medieval city with picturesque cobble stone roads and wonderful squares and churches. A perfect place to wander around and have a drink. But we couldn’t enjoy it for too long, our next destination was far away and the road we were taking was sure to be quite a challenge for the Dacia.

We were about to take on the Transfăgărășan, a paved mountain road also known as the best road in the world according to Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson. At least our Dacia Sandero was Ferrari red. The Transfăgărășan, also known as Ceaușescu’s Folly, is a paved mountain road crossing the southern section of the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. The 90 km long road, built in the early 1970s as a strategic military route, connects the historic regions of Transylvania and Wallachia and tackles the highest of the Carpathians, the Făgăraş Mountains.

At the foot of these mountains, two guys were hitchhiking. Off course we picked them up. They were training for a trail run competition in the Făgăraş Mountains and got surprised by a storm. Their car was still at the Bâlea lake (highest point), so we were more than happy we could help.

The two trail runners we picked up
The two trail runners we picked up

As we were driving along this famous road, air was getting thinner, temperatures were getting colder and the views were getting better and better! Near the top of the pass we were treated with a stunning view, mountains that rise out of a totally flat horizon, divided by a twisting road.

If you’re at the top of the world, you have to come down eventually. We drove further descending at the other side, with spectacular sights along the way. After a dozen twist and turns the road hugs the shores of the gigantic Lake Vidraru and crosses a 165m-high dam, with a breathtaking view over the Carpathians we just tackled. Next to the dam is a statue of titan Prometheus, who once stole fire from the gods to give it to humankind and now depicts technological evolution. Next to the protection offered by the titan, the Romanians implemented a remarkable fail safe: the nearby mountains have been loaded with dynamite to create a natural dam of rocks in case the dam should ever crack. Very reassuring.

As we continued it was about to get dark, but from here on it was only 5 more hours to Baile Herculane, the climbing Mecca of Romania.

Baile Herculane: climbing and bathing in the footsteps of Hercules

We decided to keep driving. Now more and more accustomed to the Romanian roads, the road ahead was long but 5 hours seemed reasonable. The last stretch of road was another mountain pass leading through the Cerna Valley and really tested our endurance. Small wildlife kept crossing the road requiring even more focus. Since we hadn’t seen a bear yet, we kept hoping to see one now. Our quest for bears was without avail, but around 2 am we finally arrived. The guesthouse close to the main climbing area we were hoping to stay at was already closed and the bivak place across the road was overcrowded, so we settled for a rather unsettling roadside camping close to the town center.

In the morning we checked in to Dumbrava guesthouse, where we also bought the climbing guide. Still tired from our nightly drive, we decided to devote the first day of our stay here to visiting the towns center. After all Baile Herculane was more then just a climbing destination, it was once an important Roman Spa town and leisure center. Legend even has that Hercules once stopped in the valley to bathe and rest. In more recent times, the spa town has been visited for it’s natural hot springs with natural healing properties. The town was first rebuild during the Austria-Hungarian era and then again in a less appealing way during the communist rule. It was most popular with employees and retirees, who spend their state-alloted vacation vouchers here in the hopes of getting a better health.

Today Baile Herculane has lost most if not all of it’s former glory. Because of post-communism property related issues the once impressive Austria-Hungarian buildings are in a state of decay.
Windows are smashed and the interior has been vandalized or stripped in the old center. No efforts are being made to restore these buildings or to keep people out. We got in a former hotel and the main thermal bath building. The site has an eerie feeling to it, but it is not hard to imagine how nice it must have once been.  The feeling was only emphasized by the man playing haunting flute melodies in the old square. The new center on the other hand isn’t nice in any way. The only joy we had there was eating among the locals. We had the feeling we were the only foreign tourists, and that could very well be true. Most of the Romanians we met before were surprised by our plans to go to Baile.

But we had our reasons off course. It was thanks to the Petzl Roctrip that passed by here in 2014 that we got to know the area. Together with local climbers they helped to further expand one of the main crags, ….. So that’s where we headed the next day. The walk was longer than we expected (45 minutes to an hour), but the remote location only adds to the dramatic setting of the climbing area with its majestic waterfall at the center.

On our way up we met with three Romanian climbers from Timisoara. They showed us around the crag and told us about their projects and plan to sleep in the cave at the base of the climbing site. We started out with some easier climbs and build up to the harder stuff. Convinced by the quality of climbing and keeping in mind the state of Annelies’ knee injury we decided to stay overnight with these friendly climbers.

I walked down with Andy to get our sleeping bags and mats (and the bottle of wine that we bought earlier). Once returned Andy and me collected fire wood and we shared a nice dinner followed by a campfire. The fire was keeping us warm and would hopefully deter wildlife. Danny guaranteed us there were no bears in this region, but the signs along the path suggested otherwise. Anyway, we got in to our sleeping bag and felt quite comfortable spending the night under the stars thanks to our Romanian company, even with the food hanging from a bolt over our head.

After a few hours we were startled by something going through our empty cans of food. I was relieved not to see two big eyes reflecting the light from my headtorch. We cleaned up and told our self it was probably just a mouse. Our down sleeping bags were way to hot, so I uncovered my upper body. In the middle of the night I could feel something walking over my arm. It felt like a mouse, but harder and colder. It was only in the morning when we went to shower under the waterfall that we discovered scorpion remains.

We survived the night and got up and had our measly breakfast, consisting of one and a half Clif Bar. But it did give us enough energy to try some of the harder stuff with our new found Romanian friends. Everything was graded quite hard, but we got in to a 6c+ and watched Kath climb his 7a+ project. We climbed till late in the afternoon and walked down satisfied but exhausted.

I was a little bit reluctant to get in to the thermal baths, because they don’t look nice at all and are very crowded. Anyway, it was an experience we couldn’t pass on, and our muscles could use some relaxing. We went to one of the baths frequented by the locals (which is free by the way). Most of them seemed comfortable in the water, but we felt like lobsters in a boiling pot. Even after getting used to the water, we would barely stand the temperature for more than five minutes. But after cooling ourselves down in the river we felt reborn.

Thermal baths Baile Herculane
Thermal baths Baile Herculane

We’ve now spend nearly two weeks in Romania. There were still so many things we wanted to do: Climb in the Carpatians, track bears and visit the Danube Delta. We will definitely go back to Romania some day, but it was time for us to keep going now. We promised our Turkish volunteer organization we would arrive in Turkey at the end of July. We gave ourself five days to make it from Brasov in central Romania (were we dropped off the car again) to get to Çeşme, Turkey. Find out if we made it in our next blog.

 

 

 

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