When people think of Romania, they think of one the Europe’s poorest country dominated by corruption, poverty and gypsies. And that couldn’t be too far away from the truth. Corrupt politicians and global economic and strategic interests have stripped this country from valuable resources. The young and educated have left behind a country that struggles to keep up with the rest of Europe. And not because it doesn’t have resources, but because the government doesn’t want to. Instead they sold the country’s gold mines, forests, minerals and lands to foreign investor for a modest fee but a fat bribe. We all know it, but nobody takes any action.
And in spite of all the above, there is still something precious left. One of the last true wilderness on the continent. At places unspoiled, this corner of heaven it’s every trekker’s dream. The last section of The Carpathians divided in 3 big mountain chains that surround the region of Transylvania. It is not just the mountains that are magical here but the well preserved medieval towns, fortified churches and castles and traditional villages that takes you back in time.
The one who’s looking for wild camping locations, doesn’t have too many choices. And I’m talking here about the true meaning of the word. Knocking at someone’s door to ask for permission to camp on the hills it is not equivalent to wild camping. No offence England. The type of camping where you stroll the mountains and stop whenever and wherever your heart pleases, pitch the tent, start a fire and enjoy solitude and nature. It is harder and harder to find these places as human activity destroys everything it touches. We dig our own grave and everybody seems to think it won’t be us the ones who have to face the consequences. But he who seeks solitude can still find it in countries like Kosovo, Armenia, Poland and Nordic countries. They all have laws though that somehow restricts it. Romania has no laws regarding camping.I mean there are but never applied so as long as you’re not on private land, you can camp, make fire, fish and stay for as long as you please. While this brings a welcomed freedom for the hikers, it also means chaos and destruction. And those who don’t care about the environment leave piles of trash behind that ends up in the forests.
Every region of the Carpathians is unique and different. They stretch for over 1500km from Central to Eastern Europe, but more than half of it lies in Romania where vasts forests are home to a diversity of wild animals. Over the years I’ve discovered many sections of this big mountain range but almost always used the huts. This year, we planned to spend two weeks hiking the highest peaks and driving between starting points to discover the central part of the country. It was going to be an epic trip.
At the beginning the weather was in our favour, except for the first day and the occasional thunderstorm in the evening but finally we had to cut the trip short due to heavy rain. Nevertheless we managed to tick 4 mountain groups, multiple peaks over 2000m and 1800km on the road visiting castles, medieval cities and caves in 10 days. Here is some info if you’re planning the trip yourself.
Probably the most known city is the capital itself, Bucharest. But if you are heading to the mountains, flying to Sibiu would be a much better option. Also the latter is a top touristic destination and a medieval city. A more vibrant night life a lot more to do than in the capital. The public transport in Romania is not the most reliable, and you won’t find much info on the internet either. Don’t worry, it’s not worse than in Italy. Local busses do go into the mountains and more remote villages from the main cities but the only info will be at the local bus station. Trains are more frequent but only access the bigger towns and villages. Both are slow but a combination of the two will get you anywhere. As always having a car makes everything easier. The main roads are relatively good but in the mountains they do get neglected and what should have been a 20 minute ride becomes 2 hours. Petrol is relatively expensive at 5.7ron/litre and we filled up the tank twice for those 1800km.
The local currency is RON – Romanian Leu, and equals to about 0.2 Euro. Romania is not expensive. At least not if you spend your time in the mountains and buy supplies from the supermarket. Some of the more fancier huts come close to Slovenia when it comes to bills. In the cities like Sibiu or Brasov, the budget needs to be considerably bigger. The parking is 3ron/hour, a beer can go up to 15ron and a main meal to 60ron. Museum entrances are anywhere from 10 to 50ron. Everything adds up and in 10 days I spent more than 1200ron. Still cheap if I you compare it with countries like France or Switzerland.
Camping is allowed anywhere as long as it’s not on private property. Most of the forest belongs to the local council. Even if it happens to be owned by someone else you couldn’t tell. Just be discrete and leave it the way you found it. If you don’t want to camp, then mountain huts are an alternative. Don’t expect Western Europe standards. It is rare to find showers and running water, but there is always a stream nearby. I am happy with a cold quick wash and the purest water you can get right from the source. Don’t even dream of wifi. Most offer a hot meal and a bed in shared rooms. Basic, simple and enough if you ask me. Prices vary from 30 to 60ron/night. Cheaper than the camping in UK. If you get caught in a storm or prefer to stay away from crowds, then one of the refuges will give you shelter and that’s about it. Made of stone or metal, most have wooden beds and a table. Sleeping bags and perhaps mats are required. But they’re free of charge.
A lot of the touristic areas now advertise on platforms like Booking.com and many locals offer their rooms for renting. Prices start from 100ron/double room and can get to over 200ron in the bigger cities. Sometimes is 10-20% cheaper to call the property directly and book with them. We managed to rent studios for 150ron/night.
Planning the trip
Since the country is not a major touristic destination and a lot of the mountain trails are not well marked or even marked at all, there isn’t much information about it. There is a Cicerone guide book but is focusing on the entire mountain range rather than sections of it. Muntii Nostrii website have decent and updated maps as well as a smartphone app which is quite useful. They also provide GPS routes which was quite nice to have as some of the days I relied 100% on it. The best is to create an account and use their online map to design you own route then downloaded it to your gsp device. There are other several websites but in local language which isn’t much use if you can’t read it.
The main signs and colours to follow depending your location are as follow: – red is for the hardest and most of the time for mountain ridges, yellow for intermediate and blue for easy. The line marks a ridge route, the cross is for routes linked to the main trail, the triangle and the circle for secondary routes coming from the valleys. A red square marks the natural reservation limit. Sometimes there might be a sign pointing the direction and times. Nevertheless a map will be the best planning tool to have. Weather changes quickly in the mountains and during summer time storms are frequent, especially in the afternoon. Plan accordingly and add an extra day for every other 5.
Supplies can only be bought in towns and rarely at a local supermarket in the village. It is possible you might not find anything for days. It all depends of the area you’re going to. We made sure to replenish supplies every time we got back to the car.
Water can be a problem if you’re traversing a bigger area and stay on the ridge. Check the map carefully to ensure you do have access to a stream. If it’s small then it’s safe to drink. Most of the time it comes straight from the mountain. If it’s a bigger stream it might be safer to boil the water before. Use your knowledge and common sens. Take in account any change on plans. We decided to camp by a lake instead of using a refuge and ended up with 1l of water for a day.
Our goal was to explore as much as possible not only in the mountains but also the country itself. We planned to spend 3-4 days in each mountain group, then sleep in the valley to shower and buy supplies. We would have 2 days allocated to explore Transylvania as well as the last day. The major points of interests being Transfagarasan and Transalpina Roads, one of the highest and most beautiful in Europe.
Best time to go
Like in any other inland country, the best months to go are the summer ones. While early June might still carry snow in high passes, September can be a valid option. It is not uncommon to have snowfall even in July. If you plan to drive keep in mind that some of the roads are closed until the snow completely melts. For example Transfagarasan only opens from the 18th of June. While most of the days are hot and sunny, temperature reaching high 20’s and even 30’s at times, evenings become chilly and mountains are often hit by quick thunderstorms. The sun sets around 9PM and there’s plenty of time for big routes. For those wanting to avoid high heats, September is a much better option. Stable weather but a higher number of rainy days and less daylight.
As with any hiking trip, the mandatory waterproofs, hiking tops and bottoms and spare socks, underwear. A thin down jacket will come in handy for the cold evenings and a thin softshell for those windy days on the ridge. Don’t forget the sun cap and suncream. This is mountain terrain with sharp rocks and steep faces. Don’t bring trainers unless you train for a sky race, but instead take out your trusty waterproof hiking boots. First aid kit, map and compass and a GPS and if you camp, a knife and all the necessary for sleeping. Don’t forget dry bags. You will be happy to have dry kit after being soaked to the bone. Here’re a few examples of what I’ve used:
-Hiking boots: Scarpa Marmolada Pro – This is my to go boot from easy walking to via ferrata and long distance hikes. Very comfortable and performs well but the sole wears quite fast.
After a long night at Heathrow, a plane change in Vienna with a 15 minutes sprint through the airport and security to catch my connection, I finally arrived at Henri Coanda Airport where Cosmin picked me up. I was exhausted and low in energy but deep down happy knowing our journey is about to begin. First, Retezat Mountains, then Sureanu, Parang and last Fagaras Mountains. In between, many medieval cities, famous mountain roads, natural rock formations, castles, caves and other attractions.
Day 1: Bucharest Airport – Carnic
We drive on E81 road to Ramnicu Valcea, steer left via Horezu, a famous place for pottery making, and join the E79 to Petrosani through Defileul Jiului. This is a spectacular road along river Jiu gorge carved in the mountains. Lainici Monastery is a point of interest in this area. We arrive at Carnic just before nightfall, the starting point of our route. The plan to reach the higher hut vanished and we had to pitch the tent at a nearby campsite. There aren’t many options when you’re in the village. If you come by public transport, be prepared to walk the last 7km from Nucsoara. The campsite was basic with dirty toilets and a shower in exchange for a fee. After paying 10ron/person the keeper kept insisting we should get a coffee or something to eat, but all I wanted was to be left alone to pitch my tent and go to sleep.
Day 2: Carnic – Pietrele Hut – Gales Lake – Peleaga Peak – Bucura Lake
With precious time lost the previous day, we began with an early start and a tent full of condensation. A bit of a bummer considering it’s not a cheap one. We make good progress taking over a few groups and reach Pietrele hut where we’re supposed to camp the previous night. The sun came out and had to wait over and hour for the tent to dry. From the hut we take the Red Triangle trail to Lacul Gales. A sign post gives us a rough idea about the timing – 4h. There are more than 600m of altitude gain and that’s just the start of it. At first we follow the well marked path through mixed forest crossing several streams and ascending steadily. At a junction we have the option to go right via Taul dintre Brazi but giving the time, we choose to stick to the main path and continue. As we get out of the forest, the sun starts to hide behind the clouds and a cold air rushes down the valley. We were pretty close to the lake but I knew the rain will come sooner than later. Arrived at Galesul Lake, which you can’t see until the last moment, the mountain did not seem to welcome us. A dense cloud coming down the narrow pass swallowing everything in its path. It was just past mid day and we stopped for lunch but as soon as we sat down, the sky opened and it started pouring. We quickly changed in waterproofs, packed and headed uphill into the clouds. We were careful not to miss the junction right after the lake not continue on the same trail that would have taken us to Saua Vf Mare. Instead we head uphill through rocks and dwarf pines on the red cross marking to reach Saua Pelegii an hour later. The clouds dispersed for a moment and we were able to see down into the valley and the ridge towards which we were heading. To the right, the famous rock formation Coltii Pelegii. To the left, Papusa Peak just 30 minutes away. A lonely hiker in sandals was descending the steep slope without too many worries. We look back and see the sun shining on the other side but the clouds seem to follow on our footsteps and soon it starts to rain again. Sadly we decide to give up on Papusa and continue the ascent, now on a yellow cross marking, and gain the ridge 30 minutes later. It is only now that we get a glimpse of the highest peak in the massif – Peleaga Peak and its 2509m – which we reached shortly after. The clouds lifted and the sun came out just as we set foot on the summit. On top, a group of Hungarians. The view is magnificent on both sides. We look down at our final stop for the day, Bucura Lake surrounded by the ridge between Peleaga and Bucura Peaks. Happy that we finally managed to get some good views and reached our objective, we start our descent over large boulders following the same yellow cross marks. The path eventually becomes more clear and drops down from the ridge to the lake in about 1h 30 minutes.
There are more than 20 tents and we struggle to find a good camping spot as the ground is saturated with water. After pitching the tent and a quick cold wash at the lake, we cook dinner and enjoy a peaceful evening before surrendering to a deep sleep. Swimming in the lake is apparently forbidden and fresh water can be found just by the rescue centre.
Day 3: Bucura Lake – Bucura I Peak – Retezat Peak – Loloaia Pass – Pietrele Hut – Petrosani
Once again we wake up with the first light trying to stay ahead of the forecasted evening rain. And once again I’m dealing with too much condensation and have to wait for the tent to dry. Realising that the chosen route is too long for us to get back to the car and drive to the next destination, we decide to change the plan and shorten it. We’ll have to leave Zanoaga lake for another time. Following the blue line and heading north west, left of Bucura lake on a not so clear path, we start gaining altitude and at an old rusty signpost turn west and uphill on the yellow line/red dot track through dwarf pines, rocks and green pastures. We see wild goats and marmots and the reflection of Peleaga into Taul Portii lake. After a very steep slope, we reach Poarta Bucurei. The scenery is breathtaking. High rocky peaks, glacial lakes, vast forests and deep valleys. In the distance a few white clouds appear. We continue on a rocky path under the main ridge which surprises me. After 20 minutes I spot an old signpost much higher up and realise we are on a newly marked route designed to avoid the summits and the dangerous ridge. Straight up it is then and after a short scramble we arrive right at the top of Bucura I Peak. From here there is a clear view of the entire ridge all the way to Retezat Peak. Continuing on the old markings now barely visible, we stay on the ridge until a shier drop forces us to descend back to the original path. Keeping the course North on a straightforward and not to difficult rocky path we arrive at Retezat Peak and stop for lunch and a coffee. After the mandatory photo session the long descent back to the car starts following the red band on a very steep and slippery section. Loosing altitude fast and making good progress we stop at a junction to enjoy the views and finish my dehydrated lunch. We continue downhill on the yellow band now over slab stones and dwarf pines. The going is hard and extra attention is required as some of the rocks are unstable. I can’t imagine how dangerous this would be when wet. After Loloaia South and North Peaks and another junction further down we steer right into the forest on the blue cross mark and then left when arriving at Stanisoara river. From here on we follow the left bank through the forest back to Pietrele Hut but not before soaking our feet into the ice cold water. Another 30 minutes to the car and we were ready for a real bed and a hot shower in Petrosani city. We spent the rest of the day cooking, washing clothes and preparing for the next stage.
Day 4: Petrosani – Transalpina – Poiana Muierii – Abandoned sheepfold ( Vf lui Patru)
Once again early morning and on the road to the next chapter in our journey. From Transalpina we take a forest unpaved road to Poaiana Muierii and leave the car just at the end of it. Having searched for a signed post or any sort of trail we give up and ask for information at a nearby sheepfold. Following their advice we cross the clearing to reach a pavilion. Right behind it there is an old trail blocked by fallen trees. Without seeing any signs of recent human activity we decide is best to bring out the GPS and forget the map. The going is hard and slow as we are forced to avoid the bigger trunks that block our path. Eventually after over two hours we see the first blue line mark on a tree and shortly after reach a clearing. The first now visible but we soon get back into the forest. The tracks become less visible and even with a GPS is still had to keep on course. Suddenly we hear voices and are being attacked by a pack of dogs. The hiking poles, our only defence, work effectively and most retreat apart from the biggest of them which becomes more and more aggressive. Slowly the sheep keeper arrives and assures us it does no harm even though he was biting one of my poles. We regain the trail and continue trying to slow down my racing heartbeat. There are still no other marks to indicate direction and at another clearing and an old uninhabited sheepfold we bear left through the thick tall grass and pine trees. The path widens and becomes more visible at the beginning but soon gets lost under fallen trees and we’re struggling to keep direction yet again. Slowly loosing altitude, I can see a bright light in the distance which guides us to the last clearing before Varful lui Patru.
A well deserved snack and water break, a few photos and we’re off. For some reason we’re certain that the hut will be visible from the top and with no signs or trail decide to go straight up. After a few hundred meter and old rusty signpost appears. Determined to reach the top, we ignore it and continue. Not long after, grey clouds appear from over the summit bringing with them a cold breeze. It can only mean one thing and we both know it will rain very soon. With high hopes I take charge and the decision to push ahead. It must have been no longer than a few minutes when the sky turned grey and the first thunder broke the silence. That’s when I knew my decision was wrong and precious time was lost. As the rain started we took our waterproofs and descended back to the rusted metal pole trying to find any gaps through the impenetrable forest. Luckily enough we spot another blue mark on a tree and run to seek shelter from the heavy rain and lightning. It wasn’t a shower now, but a proper storm.
For a short time the marked path takes us on higher ground and around the peak. Soon we are face with a tough decision as the forest line ends. It is never a good idea to stay under a tree during a lightning storm and after a short debate we took the chance and went out in the open field. It was raining so hard that we could barely see a few meters in front making it almost impossible to keep the right course. We took a bearing and follow it and for the next 20 minutes we prayed not the be struck by lightning. Eventually the storm passed and found ourselves on the other side. Meters away, a building still under construction. Nobody seem to answer and we dare to go in. It started to rain again and we stopped to dry our clothes and have lunch.
Not long after the sun came out and looking over the valley we could see a building with a red roof which we thought to be the Sureanu hut. It didn’t take too long for both to agree to stay where we were and continue the next day. It was a new building, with a small terrace and 3 rooms. Except the roof everything was build from wood but didn’t have any doors or ceiling. The bedroom had a table with 2 benches and a metal window. It looked perfect to sleep in and not have to pitch the tent. At a closer inspection we discovered some big tracks outside and assumed it might be a wolf. With a lot of building materials at hand and a ladder we decided to build a platform high up from the ground in case of anything showed up. Having found some bigger wooden boards they worked perfectly as a door. Being all set we enjoyed lunch and watched a breathtaking sunset over the valley.
Day 5: Sheepfold – Unknown Peak – Sureanu Hut – Sureanu Peak – Poiana Poarta Raiului – Luncile Prigoanei – Oasa Lake
I’d wake up, listen for a few minutes, turn on the torch and search but not find anything. I had my food tied up from a grind in the other room and afraid that a raccoon or a fox will run away with my meals. At the same time I was afraid a bear or pack of wolves will come attracted by the meat odour. Deep down I almost wanted that to happen so I can have a great story to tell later on. Our self made attic was bombproof and wasn’t worried anything would get to us. It was windy and my sleeping bag too warm. Nothing came but the morning light. We packed, ate and left taking the wide man made track just above the building. Not long after we found a stream. If only we would’ve known the day before. A few dogs from a nearby sheepfold cut the path and armed with rock we desperately try to keep them away. It’s becoming more annoying and dangerous than the wild predators. Not long after we reach a junction just before the building we assumed to be the hut and since there wasn’t anything else higher in the area we started to ascent the peak on the left. Cosmin decided to return after we got attacked once again by some other dogs and I continued determined to reach the summit. An hour later we got back together and he gave me the bad news. It was just a sheepfold and the peak, a random unnamed hill. We lost energy and time by trying to save battery on the GPS. Stupid mistakes like this can cost greatly when you’re trying to stay ahead of the bad weather.
With the route in front we come to realise the hut is no less than 13km away and the final destination another 10km at least. It was no time to let the guard down and picked up the pace just to be stopped by, you guessed it, dogs. Eventually we got through and made good progress covering 6km/hour on the well beaten track. In the distance now Sureanu Peak and the ski station became more clear and we knew the hut is close by. At last a signpost indicates the direction and time – 40 minutes on an unpaved road. Arrived at Sureanu hut we ask permission to leave our packs for an easier climb to the top. We learn that it is more of a military base rather than a public location but the sergeant is friendly and happy to help us. After a quick run to the top and back (to be read an hour and a half) a thick grey blanket covers the sky and it rains again. Forced to ask for shelter we’re welcomed with local alcohol, tuica, fresh cheese and slanina, a sort of smoked pork fat. The table is set and the food ready. Being hungry we accept humbly and thank the sergeant for his hospitality. He offers us a room for the night which we kindly decline and hit the road as soon as the rain stops.
At this point I’m pretty smashed from the alcohol and the only think keeping me on track is the instinct and the bright red cross marking. We’re heading downhill on what seems to be an old riverbed through the forest for about 20 minutes then slightly off course to avoid fallen trees and over a hill. Shortly after, the first houses start to appear at Poiana Poarta Raiului. Continuing on the paved road now, we stay on the main road and follow the signs to reach another ski resort, Luncile Prigoanei. Just after the village, the path takes a sharp right and uphill into the woods on an old river bed. We continue and reach a flatter area from where a big lake can be seen. Going downhill we make good progress and even encounter some friendly dogs which comes as a surprise. We arrive at Oasa Lake just before 7pm, pitched the tent and started a fire but no long after the rain started and we had to call it a day.
Day 6: Oasa Lake – Petrila
We had a good night sleep by the lake and luckily enough our water bottles were full as we couldn’t find any sources around. After breakfast we packed and started what was going to be a very long journey back to the car. Initially it seemed a short and pretty straight forward 4-5 hours hike. There are no markings or signs to indicate direction so we used the map. We continued along the lake shore on the paved road at first and after a few km reached a crossroad. Here our path turns left, now of an unpaved road but still following the lake shore. It is a gentle walk through the forest and from time to time heavy cars pass by. After the lake we stop for a coffee and taste some delicious wild berries found by the road before continuing. There is no change in the landscape for the next 8km apart from a junction where we stay on the main road. Slowly our will to walk starts to die and we’re wondering if we’ll ever reach the car. The road becomes muddy and soon we find out the reason. There is a massive deforestation going on and we’re deeply saddened to see our source of fresh air being destroyed. A few more kilometres and another sad scenery – hundreds of dried pine trees. Is nothing we can do but continue our journey. Not long after, hills start to rise which raises the morale a bit. Knowing the finish is near we pick up the pace and in few kilometres and several turns we finally see the car. Pretty exhausted from the unexpected long hike and high heat we’re eager to get back to the valley, this time in Petrila, a much smaller town. Driving through Cheile Jietului should have been a short pleasant ride with and an amazing landscape carved in stone by Jiet river. However the road was in such poor condition that the 25km took almost 2 hours. Arrived at our accommodation another washing session took most of the evening but I was able to do some shopping for the next day and enjoy a few cold beers.
Jiu Gorge and Transalpina
Day 7: Petrila – Bolii Cave – Bisons Reservation (Hateg) – Corvin Castle (Hunedoara) – Deva Fortress – Transalpina – Tg Jiu – Jiu Gorge – Petrila
After almost a week on the road we start to feel tired. It takes us longer than usual to get going but we’re finally on the road again. Taking a break from hiking and camping, we decided to visit and explore our beautiful country.
From Petrila we drive on E79 and not long after stop at Pestera Bolii. The cave is open but there’s nobody to cut the tickets at the entrance. We can not any longer and decided to explore at a head torch light. While not that spectacular, the 455m long cave is home to two very rare bat species. It can be explored entirely but the last section was submerged in cold freezing water and didn’t feel like taking an iced bath. Allow around 1 hour to explore and bring warm clothes.
Staying on the left bank of river Strei, on the same European road we drive through hills and Transylvanian villages. There are a lot of Dacian and Roman fortifications, minor caves and museums along the road for those interested. Arrived in Hateg, another beautiful medieval city, we keep the main road despite my persistent requests to stop for a visit. Cosmin seems to be set on the next destination which is only a few kilometres away. A natural reservation where the last 6 remaining Bisons in the country are surviving against all odds. I am quite excited as this is my first time seeing one. This majestic creature did not fail to impress. The male can reach a tone and it looks like a killing machine. They seemed friendly though, or maybe just used to being photographed all day long. With only 3000 left in the world I fear it won’t be long until they go extinct.
Our journey continues North to Hunedoara city at the foot of Poiana Rusca mountains. The streets are narrow and packed with tourists but we manage to find a parking spot pretty close to Corvin Castle. The gothic-renaissance building from the 14th century dominates the centre with its tall fortified walls and imposing towers. Cosmin has already been inside so he decides to wait while I go inside. They charge and extra fee for those who want to film and take photos and after paying the 35ron fee I prepare myself for a journey back in time. The castle has three large areas and several watch towers and at the time was recognised as one of the largest buildings in Europe. You won’t find any jewelries, paintings or wealth, but a simple stone built fortress against the Ottoman Empire.
Not far away from the castle, is the capital of the county, Deva. We stop yet again to visit Cetatea Devei (Fortress of Deva). Dated from the second half of the 13th century it is one of the most important medieval fortifications in Transylvania. Built on top of a hill it overlooks Mures valley and had a great strategical importance. Unfortunately it was destroyed in an explosion in 1849 and since then became an attraction for locals and strangers alike. Today the fortress was restored with European funds and its ruins can be seen from many miles away. Those who dare to venture in the forest surrounding it and climb the 163 stairs to the top are rewarded with a magnificent view.
Leaving the city behind, we now head east joining the A1 motorway through Sebes. For those visiting Transylvania, a detour via Alba Iulia and a visit to the city fortress is a must. We’ve already been there a few years back. Heading South now on DN67C, better known as Transalpina the ascent to the highest pass in the country starts at first through traditional Saxon villages and continues along rivers, lakes and vasts forests. We stop at Oasa Dam, the same lake where we camped a few days back, only this time we find ourselves on the other side. Local vendors sell anything from traditional leather made clothes to cheese, meat and pastries. I have to try a Langos filled with fresh cheese. On the way back to the car a Hungarian desert, the famous Kurtos Kalacs, makes its way into the bag. It is now afternoon and the plan of getting back to the hotel before down seems unrealistic since we wanted to drive the entire alpine road. On the move now, the only stops are for taking photos and admiring the view. At Obarsia Lotrului a sign post directs us to the right and then left not long after, following Lotru river. For the first 5km there isn’t much to impress but as the road starts to ascend the landscape changes. Zig-zaging through the mountains and above vast valleys surrounded by high peaks we arrive at Pasul Urdele. Here at 2145m it is the highest point of any road in Romania. It is very windy and very cold, temperatures dropping close to 0C and there’s a storm coming. The huge clouds forming above the highest peak in the area, Parangul Mare make for a breathtaking scenery. It takes good minutes before we dare to get out of the car. From here on the road descents to the famous Ranca ski resort that overlooks vast forests and high mountains and further down into the valley. Nearby the main road two famous caves can be visited. Pestera Muierilor, in which have been discovered human bones from Paleolithic and Pestera Polovragi, in which the legend says God Zamolxis lived. Unfortunately we arrive too late and both are closed living us with no choice but to continue our journey and make a stop in Targu Jiu city. Here can be found two important sculptures of the great Constantin Brancusi, The Gate of the Kiss and Infinity Column. Now on the European road E79, we repeat Defileul Jiului road section back to Petrila where we spend the night.
Day 8: Petrila – Parang ski lift – Carja Peak – Parangul Mare Peak – Mandra Lake
The hardest part of the camping trip has yet to come. A few kilometres west of Petrila, we leave the car in a parking lot and head up to the ski lift that opens at 9 am. It will save us over 1 hour. We pay the 16ron fee and jump on the lift. It’s old and rusty and moving very slowly. For some stupid reason, even though nobody else is waiting, the staff asks us to pay an extra ticket for the rucksacks or hold them in our lap. The half an hour journey leaves us at the top of the ski slopes, under Parangul Mic peak. After another half an hour, standing on its summit we can see the ridge ahead and distant peaks in the clouds. A bizarre and interesting scenery with clear valleys on the left and massive clouds on the right. The ridge seems to act as a brick wall against the thick blanket of clouds which are forced to rise by the cold air coming from the other side. The path continues along the ridge and soon joins a secondary one that avoided the top. We continue on easy ground to Saua Scurtu where at a junction, a yellow dot path drops to Mija Lake and another keeps the ridge on red band and starts to ascent towards Scurtu Peak. The visibility is almost zero and without much time to waste we quickly descend into the next pass from where Carja Peak could be spotted. The weather holds and the sun makes its way through the clouds. Impressive steep faces and deep valleys make the scenery. Continuing on the visible and reasonably well marked path Carja refuge comes into sight. An old stone and wood building poorly maintained and just holding up, still offering shelter for those caught in bad weather. Gaining the ridge and ascending the steep mountain face we find ourselves on the top. From here there is a gentle descent to another pass but without too much elevation loss. Staying almost always close to the ridge, one can enjoy beautiful views almost unobstructed on a clear day. For us however, clouds seem to be playing hide and seek and at times completely surround the mountain. The highest peak in the massif soon becomes visible and after a left turn and gentle ascent the metal cross and Romanian flag are within reach. With its 2519m Parangul Mare Peak is the 4th highest in the country but surprisingly quiet on that day. Sharing the top with just another couple we are able to enjoy the views undisturbed. It’s extremely windy and the temperature drops below 10C. Happy to have a down and a shell on. We take photos, wish each others good luck and continue the journey keeping the ridge for a short while. At a junction, a red doted path drops into the left valley under the main peak. With Mandra Lake in sight, we are now on a very steep and crumbly path. The terrain is loose and rocks fall with every step. Quickly loosing altitude and getting better visibility the reality hits us just as fast. With the forest line still very far away, the initial plan to reach Agatat refuge now seems like a waste of time and energy. We both agreed to camp by the lake and save several ours on both of the days. On their way up, two young teenagers ask for information. Wearing shorts and t-shirts they start ascending the steep gully but with little progress. It is already 3pm and the peak covered in clouds. With a good camping spot, the tent is up in now time and with a bit of work a stone build wall protects it from the wind. At last lunch time has arrived. Bread, cheese, sausage and bacon with vegetables are on the menu. Not going to the refuge messed up my water plan and I am left with just 1 litre for the rest of the day. The lake has clear water but too many living creatures and a quick wash is all what’s good for. It’s freezing but refreshing. A few hours later and the two hikers are nowhere to be seen. Worried that something might have happened to them, I decide to wait another hour before ascending back on the ridge where there is phone signal to call the rescue. Relieved when they finally start descending I left to meet them and made sure all is fine. It wasn’t much to do around the camp but listed to AC/DC and rest.
Day 9: Mandra Lake – Gruiu Peak – Iesu Peak – Saua Piatra Taiata – Setea Mare Peak – Hornul Lacurilor – Galcescu Lake – Coast Lui Rus Peak – Taul Huluzu – Groapa Seaca Hut
Sleeping at over 2100 in the mountains where the snow never melts can never be too warm. For the first time in this trip I was happy to have a warmer sleeping bag. Cosmin was certainly not happy to have slept without a mat and a light bag. Refreshed and delighted to see the sun the new day brought with it positivist and good vibes. After breakfast and packing away the tent, once again wet from condensation even after sleeping with the doors open, we started ascending back to the main ridge. Picking up the same path a long day awaits and there isn’t time to be lost. Shortly, leaving behind Gruiu Peak, clouds start to form covering the higher peaks. The new markings avoid the main summits and it is necessary to get off the path and left on the ridge if you want to bag all the peaks. Coming down from Iesu Peak, a few tents can be spotted. We approach and greet the hikers asking about a water source. A stream comes straight from the mountain about 100m downhill from the main path just before ascending into Saua Piatra Taiata. Fresh and pure, the tastiest water but also the coldest. A few sips and the entire mouth freezes. Arrived at the col, Transalpina with Pasul Urdele are visible in the distance. At the signpost we bear right, around the big boulders and slowly gain altitude to reach Setea Mare Peak. With no visibility and cold winds, we descend quickly on a grassy path to reach a plateau and another signpost that recommends avoiding the route in bad weather. Following the red triangle now, and coming down the Hornul Lacurilor, a steep gully, the clouds blanket lifts revealing a fairy-tale landscape with glacial lakes. After lunch stop and shamefully confusing Vidal Lake with the famous Galcescu Lake, we make our way down the rocky path and through dwarf pines and join the right muddy bank of the latter. Truth to be told, the water is much cleaner and no mosquito at Vidal and what was a mistake became a smart decision. The tracks are less visible now and following the map we steer left at the end but are forced to bring out he GPS to stay on track. The ascent is short and end with Caldarea Galcescu revealing itself, surrounded by the high ridge from North and West. Cairns mark the direction as the path becomes less visible. Zanoaga Mare Lake comes in sight and so does the metal pole at the top of the pass. A steep ascent bring us back to where we started a few hours before. It is a pleasant weather and clouds start to disperse revealing a light blue sky and the sun. From Saua Taiata, our journey continues on blue tape markings, and after reaching the peak with the same name, a rocky ridge descending into the valley reveals itself. For most of the time the newly marked path avoids upcoming peaks and one has to make its way across big boulders to reach the summits. I try to tick them all but jumping from rock to rock is no easy task and eventually stay on the path. Terrain is somehow difficult and hard on the knees. Extra care is required as the rocks are not always stable and it doesn’t take much to twist an ankle. Without being in a rush we take our time and frequent brakes to enjoy the hike and the solitude. Nevertheless we seem to be way ahead of the estimate time which pleases us. The valley opens and soon dwarf pines replace the rocky landscape. The going is easier and grass fields come in sight towered by a rounded peak. Just before the ascent, a metal pole marks a junction. Descending on a blue dot, at first through pine forest and through grass fields we arrive at a sheepfold after about one hour. Continuing straight the grassy path joins an old forest road that steers right and into the forest. It drops onto the valley floor and joins the main road in about 30 minutes. If heading to the hut, turn left by the first water reservoir. This is very easy to miss as there are no signs and would be a costly mistake as continuing straight would add a few more kilometres to the ones already needed to reach Groapa Seaca Hut. Just off the main road, a few buildings and a small patch of dirt awaits the tourist. With the rooms being way too expensive at 140 ron, and no possibility to camp nearby, we have no choice but to pay the 10ron fee and pitch the tent by the hut and next to the road. The traffic is annoying and dust fills up the air. The food was expensive, too greasy and not very tasty. There is access to a dirty shower and toilets through the restaurant. That’s a hut I won’t be going back to.
Day 10: Groapa Seaca hut – Mija Lake – Scurtu Pass – Parang Ski lift – Petrosani
The morning brings a new day and together with it, the sun. After the usual by now morning routine of drying the tent we head off. From the hut, follow the signs, at first on the road and then at a bridge, on a forest road to the left. Here multiple markings lead the way but pay attention because very soon they split. There isn’t an indicator and once again the GPS comes in handy. A sudden change of direction to the right and uphill reveals the path and the first yellow cross mark. We will follow this through the mixed broadleaf and coniferous forest for a good amount of time. Well marked but at times blocked by fallen trees, it is a gentle climb. When pine trees and bushes start to become more dense, the path becomes less visible and attention is required. It will soon join a wider path coming from the right. Continue to the opposite direction until reaching a clearing but here everything is lost and without a map or GPS will be very hard to find the way. A couple of sheep keepers emerge from the forest and kindly point the direction. Having taken a brake we follow their tracks to the right and uphill but realise they’re long gone. Everything is confusing and there seems to be paths everywhere. Even the GPS is not able to show anything more than the correct direction so we decide to follow it hoping for the best. Spiky bushes, dead roots and thick vegetation makes it hard to advance and precious time is lost. Eventually we stumble across a wider trail and spotting the horse tracks brings relief. That doesn’t last too long and at another clearing it becomes difficult to stay on the right trail. It steers to the right and back into the forest for a short while. Times like this is where the GPS is worth its money in gold. A sheepfold, a few dogs and its master come in sight. He remembers us and points the right direction once again, uphill and left of the hut on a well beaten path. Stupidly enough neither me or Cosmin pay attention and continue for about 30 minutes reaching a field of wild berries. Realising the mistake we struggle to break through the thick forest and regain the correct position but without luck. Wasting valuable time and being upset we both agree it is best to return back to the missed junction. More of a stream than a path, it is not easy to spot if not looking for it. It gains altitude through juniper trees and thick vegetation. Eventually Mija Peak arises. Our next stop, the lake, is on the other side and the map shows no access to it from this side. The initial plan to go around doesn’t look that realistic anymore and the more we climb the steeper the mountain face becomes. We are faced with an important decision and while Cosmin wants to push for the summit and hope for an easier route down, I prefer to avoid the ascent. Holding on to branches, sometimes on top of them our progress is slow. The more we go the steeper it gets and after getting over the first ridge the disappointment of not being able to see the lake brings the spirits down. Looking up the face now seems impossible to climb and forward I go. Ironically the path coming from another hut its now visible but completely out of reach. Us and some wild goats on this steep face. If we were to fall, nobody would even know. Eventually the junipers make room to big rocks and patches of grass and the terrain becomes easier. After crossing a few gullies we emerge on top of the second ridge but yet again no sign of the lake. Now was definitely no going back and what was suppose to be an easy hike became this wild adventure to be remembered for many years to come. The silence is broken by distant voices and the weight is being lift of my chest. We’re close and minutes later groups of hikers descend from the opposite direction. They all stopped and turned their heads towards us. Two crazy hikers descending a steep mountain face. The emerald green lake welcomes us with its cold water. It is now 2.30 pm and with an hour left before the ski lift closes there isn’t much hope to get there in time. For some reason, even though both of us were exhausted, an internal fire powered by the desire of not having to walk back to the car kept us moving. The yellow dot takes us across the valley and to the other side on the mountain where after a steep ascent the path rejoin the ridge at Scurtu Pass. From here retracing the steps back to the ski lift we manage to catch the last one before it closed down for the day, covering the distance in half the recommended time. Sweating, drained of energy and hungry, but happy to not have to walk anymore, we arrive at the car. It is not that we didn’t want to hike anymore, but the time saved was very valuable as we continue our journey to the next mountain range.
After a quick stop in Petrosani for supplies, heading North on E79, the same road from a few days back, and joining the A1 West to Sibiu, we stopped in Avrig for the night.
Day 11: Avrig – Balea Lake – Moldoveanu – Balea Lake
The wind is blowing a cold air from the valley, the clouds gather above and temperature drops below 10C. Not quite the weather we’re hoping for but rain is not forecasted for the day and that is all that matter. When reaching Saua Caprei, most of the hiker were only half way up the steep slope that starts behind Balea Lake. The goal of the day, reaching the highest peak of the country and back down to the car, is a ambitious challenge. At a normal pace it would take two days to complete the task. With a much lighter pack than usual and almost running we cover ground quickly. Passing by a few tents at the Capra Lake, the poorly marked path but visible, continues straight at the junction, left of the Alpinists monument, and slowly ascends to the highest point so far. From here a steep descent brings us by a small lake where once used to be a mountain refuge. Now, a pile of trash and metal cans, the remains of poorly educated tourists. Covering the mountain slope, snow has to be crossed over to reach higher grounds. At places the red line marking can be seen. The path is wide enough for a person but well defined and easy enough. A steep ascent before a left turn brings us to the well know natural rock formation Fereastra Zmeilor. Also here a junction splits the path in three. To the left, an easier route to Podragu hut, to the right a descent route to Transfagarasan. Straight ahead and staying on the ridge we’re soon facing another famous section called La Trei Pasi de Moarte. Most choose to go to the hut for the day and avoid this short scramble. It is not as difficult as it is exposed. A few old chains are here to aid in case of snow or rain. The fierce wind is cutting right through my softshell and without moving it feels like in winter. Coming off the ridge and to the north side, there is a short descent and a traverse before ascending back to a small plateau at Nerlinger Monument, a stone structure that offers little protection from the wind while we have a snack. In sight, Miricii Peak hidden between the clouds and it’s long but less strenuous ridge. I vaguely remember how the trail goes from a few years back and without lingering at the top we make our way down the other side on steep and rocky terrain. Out of the clouds, Podul Giurgiului Lake, is now steps away. A very long but gentle ascent across one of Arapasu Peak faces take us at the junction where a few years ago we were forced to abandon the ascent being hit by a storm. From Saua Podragu, the hut with the same name can be reached in less than half an hour. With no plan to go there yet and being just half way to the top we continue in a fast paced to the next pass Saua Podul Giurgiului. Being already at over 2300m the ascent is gentle and a good progress is being made taking over several parties. The unmistakable trapezoidal giant reveals itself surrounded by grey clouds. A bit discouraged that the first time we’re reaching the top of Romania there is no visibility, but deep inside there is still hope. After a few more high passes and a short drop in altitude we come face to face with the North-West ridge. Reasonably steep but with a well beaten path the biggest enemy is nor the angle neither the altitude gain but the infernal wind that threatens to blow us off the mountain. After half an hour of struggle we reach the first metal pole and at the same time Vistea Mare Peak. Without even realising, the clouds have moved on and the sun came out. A narrow ridge joins the two twin peaks and while it’s wide enough and the path well defined it has a massive drop on both sides. Zigzagging through the rocks, at times protected by metal chains, we quickly overtake everybody else and run to the highest point just before the watch records 5 hours. The tallest people in the country, standing on top of Moldoveanu Peak with its 2544m. And what can be better than enjoying a lunch with 360 degree views over Fagaras Massif.
Having covered the distance in half the time, our energy levels are now low and the legs heavy. Surprisingly enough there are a lot of people on the summit and have to queue for the mandatory photo. It seems like the alternative via Fereastra Mare a Sambetei offers a much easier and shorter ascent as many seem to be going in that direction. We retrace our steps back to the pass and continue to keep a relative fast pace but visibly slower than before. Back at Podragu Pass I decide to choose the longer but easier route and avoid the windy ridge but also to make it more interesting. And truth to be told my water was almost gone and was desperately in need of it. With the water bottles full, from the stone built hut, one has to go back towards the pass for a few dozen meters and take the right path marked with a blue band. It is just over 5 p.m. and just as we approach Saua dintre Lacuri a group of tourists emerge from over the top. They have been walking since morning. On the other side, by a small lake at a junction and staying on the left we ascend yet another pass hoping it will be the last. To Cosmin desperation it was no sign of the ridge but a steep descent on wet grass and mud. With less fuel left in the tank, every corner seems to be the last one but then another one higher appears crushing our will to go on. Eventually a traverse of a rocky brings us under a gully just below the ridge. Back at Fereastra Zmeilor the same group of hikers we left behind on the ridge at Podragu. After all both routes seem to take equal time.There was still daylight left but now already late and with no power to climb back to Capra pass, we descent on yellow triangle marks. Just below, a newly built refuge that would have been an excellent overnight choice and would have shortened the day. The descent continues on a clear rocky trail to reach the valley floor and an unpaved road. After short time, it joins the Transfagarasan. While avoiding a few more hours on the mountain, we are now faced with a long 7km walk on the road back to the car. It became more upsetting when a tourist pulled over to ask for information then left without eve offering a ride. Trying to hitchhike didn’t seem to have any success either and the hope slowly died. Instead of a 10 minute drive we ended up walking uphill for almost two hours. But the cheery on top on the cake was an encounter with a few gypsies in the tunnel before Balea Lake. They didn’t seem to appreciate my cursing after honking at us. Back at the car the wind was blowing so hard that we felt like in a swing. Too tired and with no will of pitching the tent we both decided to sleep in the car. After 12 hours and a half of hiking my feet did not appreciate the decision and all night I had to move around.
Day 12: Balea Lake – Sibiu
The morning didn’t come with good news at all. Every bone was hurting from the uncomfortable car seat. The plan of heading back up, this time to the second highest peak, got ruined pretty quickly when it started to rain. With bad weather forecasted for the next few days we both agreed it’s time to end the chapter and move on.
And so the journey continues, further on to Sibiu, a beautiful city in the heart of Transylvania and the European Capital of Culture in 2007. The medieval old city centre has always been a magnet for tourists and for good reason. Saxons settlers have left behind impressive buildings. Accommodation is not cheap, nor easy to find in the summer months. Pretty much everything is booked and prices are above national ratio. Our studio was very close to the old town, but conditions reflected the lower price. I only recommend Alexandra Studios if you’re on a budget and dislike hostels.
The city is easily accessible on foot and most of the important attractions are located within the old town. Two days should allow enough time to explore it. Just be aware some museums are closed on Monday and Tuesdays. Not to be missed are the Brukenthal Museum, with the main building being located in the Large Square, just across the City Hall. Council Tower, built in the 12th century, offers a panoramic view for those who dare to climb the narrow stairs. The Bridge of Lies, Passage of Stairs or the Holy Trinity Cathedral are just a few of the many attractions. The best way to explore the city is to start by foot from the square and wonder along the streets and the brick wall ruins which ones protected its inhabitants from invaders. Nightlife it’s a big party of the community and with so many tourists, streets are never empty.
Day 13: Sibiu – Sighisoara – Brasov – Buzau
Next day we headed to Cibin Market. A variety of vegetables and fruits can be found here and since this was the last day before heading home, we bought wild blueberries and blackberries. The reals ones, that actually taste like fruits and have no growing hormones.
Taking a detour for a mandatory stop in Sighisoara, we add a few more hours to otherwise a boring drive back home. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, this is the best well preserved medieval cities in Europe. A perfectly preserved 16th century settlement with roots back to the roman times, cobbled streets and nine towers that guarded the citadel. The most known, The Clock Tower, oversees the valley and controlled the main gate access as well as serving as a vault. Three Fours hours should be allowed for the visit, although an overnight stay in one of the hotels inside the citadel would make for an unforgettable experience. Be aware that cash is required to pay the entrance fees for different buildings. The only ATM available is located at the hotel and it has a ridiculous 40% commission for foreign cards.
Our journey continues South-East to another medieval city with Saxon influence, at the foot of Tampa mountains. In recent years, Brasov undergone intensive development and it is now a know touristic destination. The old city centre is dominated by the Council Square and the Gothic style Black Church. Baroque buildings, cobbled streets and lively cafes entertain the visitors.
Ready to turn another page and close the chapter, we’re heading back to our home town Buzau.
In a world dominated by political interests, money and power, we forget what is the most important. Having the chance to still go back to the roots and completely cut ourselves from the social chaos it’s a privilege soon to disappear. Global warming, massive deforestation and mineral resources mining will destroy even the last drops of green left on this planet. Romania it’s one of those countries where you can still experience true wild camping. No showers, no phone connection and no cable cars to the top. The purest form of hiking, where wild berries grow and bears roam free. As human activity intensifies and ski resorts rise, plastic makes its way deep into the forests spoiling the nature. Those who love our planet leave no trace. But what about the other majority? Who is to stop Austrian investors from stealing our wood while preserving theirs? It sadness me greatly to see entire mountains stripped of their green coat. One day, nothing will be left, but until then, I shall enjoy the sacred privilege of being able to hike in the Carpathians.