IN SEPTEMBER, THE EUROPEAN NATURE TRUST HOSTED A GROUP OF FRIENDS ON AN EPIC CYCLE RIDE THROUGH THE CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS OF TRANSYLVANIA, ROMANIA. HERE IS ONE GUEST’S ACCOUNT OF THE JOURNEY…
We did it! We cycled Transylvania eastwards from Balaban to Zabola, through some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable, and there were some special treats along the way.
Our group assembled at Bucharest airport on a hot September afternoon and set off by bus northwards towards Transylvania. Crossing the wide, flat plains of Wallachia and the oilfields around Ploesti, it was difficult to imagine the mountainous terrain to come. But, as we approached Sinaia, where the Romanian Royal Palace draws crowds of tourists, we began to climb through wooded foothills and saw the massive Bucegi range appear on our left, sloping steeply down into the Prahova Valley. Passing the graceful Cantacuzino Castle at Busteni, we crossed into Transylvania.
We turned southwest at Rasnov, nestling below its imposing fortress, and made our way down to Bran, where the atmospheric “Dracula” castle dominates the town. We left the main road and wound our way up into the Balaban hills to our first night’s stop at the Inn on Balaban. We dismounted and walked the last few hundred metres, and were struck by the solitude, and majesty of the 360-degree views.
– THE INN ON BALABAN © SAM SUTARIA
The inn is a delightful house perched on a ridge, with panoramic vistas of mountain pastures, woods and stark rocky slopes. We settled in as Jimmy, our photographer/videographer, flew his drone and did some filming to make the most of the fading light.
At dinner, we met Costi and the three women from Regatul Salbatic, or ‘Wild Kingdom’, which is The European Nature Trust’s mobile educational initiative in Romania. The team gave us a presentation on the superb work they are doing to bring conservation to schools in Romania, using specially fitted out and painted buses. It is especially important to try to influence youngsters in favour of conservation, given the threat to Transylvania’s flora and fauna from the likes of illegal logging and hunting.
– WILD KINGDOM EDUCATIONAL BUS © SAM SUTARIA
After dinner, in the darkness outside the Inn, two of the women then performed a kind of dance involving swinging coloured lights or flaming pots; not for the faint-hearted, and very impressive. Some of us then retired to bed, while the more musical elements began an impromptu party with much singing and merriment which, according to different accounts, ended between midnight and 2:00 am.
– FIRE DANCING © JIMMY CAPE
The next morning started with a hearty breakfast after various garbled attempts to say ‘Buna diminiata’ or ‘Good Morning’ in Romanian. We met our cycling guide, Sergiu, and his co-workers Iancu and Marcel. Iancu would accompany us by bike, while Marcel both drove the backup vehicle and – a most important additional function – was on standby to perform massages. After we were fitted out with Sergiu’s excellent Romanian-made “29er” mountain bikes, we set off.
– SETTING OFF © JIMMY CAPE
As we descended into the valley at Moieciu de Jos, the clouds opened; this was the only day of the entire trip that we had any rain. However it didn’t last very long, and by the time we began climbing up the other side, it was dry again. The first hill was long and at times quite steep, and it certainly had the heart pumping. It was followed by an equally long, fast, gravel descent, winding down through the forest.
Sergiu challenged anyone who could, to cycle up the last stretch to the house at Magura where we were having lunch. It was so steep and bumpy that, even if you were strong enough, you had to be perfectly balanced to stop the front wheel lifting or the rear breaking loose. Only Tristan managed it the first time.
– A STEEP APPROACH © SAM SUTARIA
There were no more big hills for the rest of the day, as we wound our way through tranquil villages and along peaceful valleys to the night stop at Sinca Noua. Here we stayed at Equus Silvana, a leading ecotourism destination and centre for horse riding. It was from this base that, at dusk, we headed by car to the nearby Stramba Valley, where one of the highlights of the trip awaited. After driving up the valley for about 30 minutes, we left the cars, met up with a local guide, and walked on up through darkening beech forests alongside a babbling stream.
After we left the cars we were asked to keep our voices down and avoid making noise. Then, as we turned off the track and crossed the stream on a narrow wooden footbridge, we were asked to keep totally silent. At the other end of the bridge, we climbed some steps into a raised wooden hut and took our seats in front of a large window. We made neither sound nor light and waited. Then, after about 15 minutes, someone hissed, “There’s one coming down out of the trees from the left!”
And there she was: a huge, wild brown bear.
– CARPATHIAN BROWN BEAR © JIMMY CAPE
She ambled out into the clearing, took some of the food put out by the guide, and clambered about on some of the old trunks before retreating back up into the gloom of the beech forest. No sooner had she gone than a male bear appeared, somewhat slimmer and longer of leg but still a big animal. He departed, a couple more females appeared, and then – accompanied by gasps of astonishment – a female appeared with two cubs. This was a rarity and a real treat.
There are estimated to be over 6,000 wild bears in the Romanian Carpathians; more than anywhere else in Europe outside Western Russia. They are under increasing pressure from human encroachment into their habitats, which makes protection of these areas increasingly urgent.
Back at Equus Silvana, we met Christoph Fromberger, who together with his wife Barbara is one of the Executive Directors of the Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC). Christoph gave us a talk on the FCC’s project in the Fagaras Mountains, where they have purchased 21,000 hectares of forest for protection. These mountains contain virgin forest, significant numbers of large carnivores, and levels of biodiversity that no longer exist in Western Europe. Christoph gave us a real insight into the natural treasure that exists in Romania, and the challenges faced by those who seek to preserve it.
That evening, some of us took advantage of Marcel’s skills. His sports massages caused a few groans and whimpers, but we felt much better afterwards.
The next morning there was an opportunity to go out at an early hour on horseback with the Equus Silvana folks, but only the redoubtable Jimmy was fresh enough to manage it. Some of our group then had a chance to take a ride in a helicopter, to see the splendour of Transylvania from the air. We all met up again at the lunch stop, which was a sumptuous picnic in a lakeside setting, in the warm sun. This was our first encounter with a local liquid called palinka, a fiery fruit brandy.
– PICNIC LUNCH STOP © JIMMY CAPE
The afternoon’s route took us eastwards to our night stop at Miklosvar, in the Hungarian-speaking Szeklerland region of Transylvania. The last leg into the town developed into a bit of a race, as Jimmy’s drone swooped over us, filming our sweaty exertions.
Miklosvar was typical of many towns and villages in Transylvania. What made it so charming was the minimal use of concrete, steel and asphalt. Fences were made of wood, houses from traditional materials, lighting at night was just adequate, and the whole place had a rustic air which had probably not changed in several decades. This is something which has sadly been lost in Western Europe.
– TRADITIONAL VILLAGE © MAX MILLIGAN
The old hunting lodge in the centre of Miklosvar was owned by Count Tibor Kalnoky, a Szekler aristocrat whose family had recently returned to Transylvania after many years of enforced absence during the communist period. We stayed the night in a group of old houses which were part of his estate, complete with charming antique furnishings. All the metal locks, hinges, keys and other fittings appeared to have been made by hand, by blacksmiths.
We met Count Tibor in an old inn on the main street, which he had renovated, and he explained his own conservation projects over some Romanian Cuica beers. As we emerged from the inn, a small herd of cows came straggling down the main street, unattended by any human. We saw some cows turning off into the yards of houses along the street, and it was explained to us that this happened every night: the cows just come home on their own!
The next morning saw a cart trundling past our cottages pulled by two oxen, as we made our way down to Count Tibor’s hunting lodge for a tour. It is a grand old building with Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architectural features. The place had been turned from a gutted building a few years ago, into a marvellous museum giving some idea of what it must have been like before the upheavals of the 20th Century.
– HORSE AND CART © JIMMY CAPE
We set off northwards with the valley of the River Olt on our left. At the town of Barolt, we took a detour to the village of Talisoara, where we visited the workshop of a local blacksmith. The smithy had a few concessions to modernity such as electric bellows, but it was otherwise very similar to the neighbouring workshop where our blacksmith’s father had worked decades ago. A vast collection of different hammers hung in racks on the wall. We were shown examples of wrought ironwork including gates that had taken hundreds of hours to make; and then our cheerful host produced a nail from a piece of an iron bar as we watched, his hammer ringing rhythmically without pause for the five or so minutes that it took.
– BLACKSMITH © JIMMY CAPE
Back on the trail again, we were warned that a rather large climb was up ahead. From Batani we had to slog up over the hills to the south to reach our overnight stop. Towards the end of the climb, a kindly local chap making his way up the hill with his horse and cart offered us a tow – however, it seemed a bit like cheating so no one took advantage of his offer. At the top, we were rewarded with another splendid picnic lunch in a spot with beautiful all-round views of the valley of the Olt and hills above Miercurea Ciuc. It was time for more fresh local produce, and more palinka…
The afternoon’s route was mainly a descent into the Zalan Valley. Along the way, Sergiu stopped to show us something that again seemed uniquely Transylvanian, and a relic from a bygone age. Deep in the forest, some men were constructing mounds made of layers of wood and straw. They were making charcoal. This ancient method had long since died out in the forests of England but was still practised here. Sergiu also treated us to a lesson on Romanian history, using a remarkably accurate map drawn in the ash on the ground, with a stick.
Our night stop was at HRH the Prince of Wales’ nature retreat at Zalanpatak. This rustic ensemble of old buildings sits unostentatiously at the end of the village in glorious surroundings. After unpacking, we soaked up the views and the mellow sunset, as the cows came home just as in Miklosvar. Over dinner in the main house where a portrait of Prince Charles surveys the oak-beamed interior, Sergiu regaled us with more history, and in particular the history of religion in Romania, which is surprisingly complicated. Then we retired outside to the courtyard where we continued sampling Ciuca and palinka, and singing…
– HRH PRINCE CHARLES’ GUESTHOUSE, ZALANPATAK © SAM SUTARIA
Some of us were a bit bleary-eyed the next morning; reports of when the night’s revelry ended again varied! However, we set off on time, beginning with a short sharp hill to get the blood flowing then a fairly flat route to the southeast. At one point we passed through a forest of oaks, again something so rare in Western Europe, and really special. In fact, one of the most striking things about Transylvania is the extent of deciduous forest – and much of it is under threat, meaning considerable effort must be made to conserve it.
Lunch was another scenic picnic stop on a grassy hillside above a lake, with the usual wonderful selection of local meats, fruit and vegetables (…and palinka). One thing we did notice was that the adjacent woods were full of litter – and worse things – again emphasising how important the efforts of TENT and Wild Kingdom are to spread the word about conservation locally.
The last part of our route took us through a Szekler village with an ornate wooden entrance archway in place of a sign, and a small fortified church, one of the typical images of Transylvania. We stopped for a celebratory beer at the edge of the village before cycling the last few kilometres, to our final destination at the Zabola estate of Count Gregor Roy Chowdhury.
Zabola is another example of an old estate dating back to the 15th Century, which had fallen into disrepair during the communist era but which is now refurbished. Zabola is grand and aristocratic; with lakes, exotic trees and ornate grounds. We stayed in some very grand rooms in a large timber-framed building near the old stables.
Our final dinner together was really special, an outdoor barbecue next to a roaring bonfire. We were serenaded by a local folk band, a group of incredibly versatile musicians who could manage with aplomb everything from their local Szekler songs to Sinatra. We feasted on local specialities including a local kind of sausage or kebab. Then came a surprise: Sergiu borrowed a violin and serenaded us with a Romanian folk song while he played the instrument. He’s not just a champion downhill mountain biker and historian!
– FINAL DINNER © JIMMY CAPE
And then it was our turn. We had hurriedly composed a ‘trip song’ to the tune of ‘The Wild Rover’ and belted it out while Nick accompanied us on guitar. Easy on the ear, it was not, but it was good fun. Then it was more beer and palinka, and someone made the decision that the men amongst us would strip to our waists and jump over the bonfire. Eventually all of us, women included, jumped over the bonfire. Tristan and Sam were just completing their second bare-chested fire jump when Count Gregor arrived for a drink, with a bemused expression…
The next morning was something of an anti-climax, as we boarded the bus for the journey back to Bucharest. We would all miss Transylvania. We would miss the food and drink; the absolutely charming frozen-in-time local culture; the bears; Ciuca beer and palinka; our unfailingly charming overnight accommodation; and fantastic vistas of mountains, hills and forests. But most of all we would miss the camaraderie of the trail, the hospitality of the people of Transylvania, and our wonderful hosts and guides: Sergiu, Iancu, Marcel, Costi and – last but not least – Sam, who put the whole thing together and deserves massive credit for creating a truly memorable experience.
La revedere Romania, pana data viitoare!
BY NIGEL SMITH, TENT RIDER 2018
There are a number of opportunities to visit Romania with The European Nature Trust in 2019 – if you would like to know more, please get in touch.