Wednesday 23 November 2016

Roaming In Romania: Part 1 - Red Lake

Day 1: Arrival

Some years ago, we had an eventful and not entirely satisfactory holiday in Romania. The tale of our two weeks in the Bucegi and Fagaras mountains would require a post all of its own – suffice it to say that our interest in Romania waned a little, and as a result it rather dropped off the holiday radar. 

Not that any of our misfortunes were the fault of Romania itself. No, the travel company we used and the guides we travelled with were to blame, not the country, which still held an allure that had been dampened but not entirely snuffed out.  

Over the course of the intervening dozen years those embers had been fanned, not least by the writings of Nicholas Crane, Patrick Leigh Fermor and William Blacker, until a chance e-mail made mention of a trip that looked just the job, and re-ignited the feeling that Romania remained “unfinished business”.  

Our trip focused on the north of the country, up towards the borders with Moldova and the Ukraine. We flew into Bacau, a small airport with a whiff of “former airbase” about it, met our guide, Costin, and driver, Gelu, and made the transfer to Lacu Rosu (Red Lake) in about two hours, arriving after darkness had fallen.

Our room at the Vila Adele was simple, but clean and tidy, and after a quick freshen-up, we went for dinner at the nearby Hotel Lacu Rosu – described as “Soviet” style in our trip notes, but much nicer than that sounds! – where we had a lovely meal of chicken soup, goulash and gnocchi, and tiramisu.

Day 2 – Walk in Bicazului-Hasmas National Park on Hasmasu mountain.

18.03k  / Ascent = 1288m / Descent = 1254m

We awoke to a cool morning, but with the promise of a fine day ahead. After breakfast, we made a short transfer to the far end of Red Lake for the start of our walk on the limestone massif of Hasmas mountain (pronounced like “hash-mash”).

Starting out along a broad gravel road, we soon cut off to the left and began to climb in earnest, following grassy slopes and tracks through the woods. Eventually, we came to open pasture dotted with sheep and a handful of shepherds.

A new refuge cabin made for an obvious landmark, and we saw what we think we're Ravens circling in front of the limestone cliffs above.

Crossing the open area, we climbed again up a narrow valley beside the summit and circled round the back before making our way up to the summit cross.

Here, what we had actually done became apparent. Having made our way up to the edge of a limestone crest from the gentler slopes behind, the rocky escarpment was now evident, the views really opened out in all directions, and the formation pretty impressive to behold.

Heading back down to the main track, we picked up Missy G’s hat (which she had thought lost) and stopped for lunch on a grassy bank with views to the mountains lying in rank after rank into the distance – relaxing in the sunshine, we already felt a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of our normal lives.

After cutting through more trees and crossing more open ground, we eventually reached a staffed mountain refuge where we would’ve stopped for a drink (the temperature had risen to around 28°C this afternoon) except they were too busy cutting logs to be able to serve us.

The refuge marked a busy intersection of paths, with routes going off in various directions along the ridge and down to the valleys, and it was the only time all day we really saw anyone other than the odd shepherd.

A long descent followed, through the woods to reach Gelu and the van at the edge of the town of Balan.

A sign at the end of the path mentioned about Wolves, and apparently there are some in the Bicazului-Hasmas National Park (although that is not why it is designated as such). I don't know how many animals there are there, and apparently they don't really attack livestock except in extreme circumstances. Or, thankfully, hikers.

It was a lovely day and a reasonable work-out considering the distance and altitude stats. Returning to Lacu Rosu, we changed and then went for dinner. Tonight it was goulash soup, schnitzel or kotlet with vegetables and a cake for afters. Very nice!

Day 3- Ceahlau

14.75k / Ascent = 1506m / Descent = 1438m

Breakfast this morning was notable for the presence of a group from London. I think they were a bit non-plussed to find another English group there, let alone one that was going hiking.

Ceahlau (pronounced something like “Chay-hlow”) is another mountain massif, often likened to a fortress as the view from the south side is of a long limestone ridge with a turret-like summit at each end and rocky battlements between. It is quite dramatic when viewed in full from a distance.

It's also quite formidable when viewed from close up at the start of the path from Izvoru Muntelui! After a couple of hundred metres along the road, we picked up a path through the woods. 

Tackling Ceahlau head-on wouldn't work – it's much too steep. This path looked to find a slightly more accessible way around the left hand end of the ridge, and although it may have been “easier” it was definitely far from “easy”!

The route was continually testing, varying between “quite steep” and “practically vertical”, and with our summit goal over 1000m above our heads there was work to be done.

In the first hour, we gained over 500m along forest paths of various sizes, In the second hour we shinned up a narrow ravine for a further 350m, and finally reached level ground for the first time since the start.

For the third hour, we followed an undulating path made more taxing by fallen trees and rockfall rubble. But at least there were wild raspberries to eat to help us on our way!

After a final climb of around 100m up a narrow shute, we popped out at an open area and could see the Dochia hut ahead of us. Fifteen minutes later, we were resting our weary legs, eating lunch and drinking mugs refreshing mountain tea.

It was worth the effort, though – the summit is a long, fairly level ridge at about 1800m, with views to all points of the compass. A little hazy today, perhaps, but stunning nonetheless.

What was also incredible was how busy the summit was, especially given that the only way to get there was via routes like the ones we took (ie: not for the faint-hearted). There were families and hikers of all ages, many in lightweight shoes and seemingly ill-equipped for being in the mountains.

Interestingly, these visitors were nearly all Romanians (plus a few Moldavians, who apparently speak a heavily-accented Romanian). One local chap overheard us speaking English and came over to ask how we had come to be there. Had we run out of other mountains to visit?

After soaking all this up, we traversed the ridge, opted not to climb to the weather station, and began the long descent to Durau back down at 700m-ish.

It was a tough descent on mainly loose rocky paths – not our favourite kind of underfoot conditions. However it was marginally easier than a return the way we came up.

As we descended we passed other walkers heading slowly upwards. In all likelihood it would be dark soon after they reached the top, so we assumed they must be camping or staying at the hut.

Annoyingly, though, groups of youngsters were going up in T-shirts and light footwear, carrying nothing but bags and boxes of beer, drinking as they went and chucking the empties on the floor – not what we would have expected, really, and disappointing to see. Costin was furious.

We met our minibus at about 5.30pm, after a hard but rewarding walk – tough and spectacular like yesterday, but busier and showing a different side of the mountains. I liked the views and the effort required today, although probably preferred yesterday's much quieter walk if I'm honest.

On our return to Lacu Rosu we went straight to dinner, so tidied ourselves up as best we could in the van on the way back. Unlike the previous two nights, we ate outside undercover as a wedding party occupied the main rooms.

And what a meal it was – poached salmon with vegetables to start, a mixed grill containing a pork steak, a chicken fillet, a pork kotlet, a ham slice, a piece of bacon, a large sausage, a whole trout and chips – EACH!

We ate our fill and then some, and there was still loads left. We could only just squeeze in the tiramisu pudding!

By the time we turned in at 9.30pm, we were tired, happy and very full!

Day 4 – Red Lake, Bicaz Gorge & Sightseeing

After a slightly lighter breakfast than usual (thanks to last night’s huge meal) we began the day with a short stroll to Red Lake. Well, you can't come to Lacu Rosu and not actually see the lake, can you?

It was formed in 1837 when a rockfall blocked the stream, and the waters backed up to form the lake. Its quite shallow, and the tops of the trees can still be seen above the water. The setting is beautiful, and you can walk all the way round it if you want to, although we didn't.

We then made a short exploration of the gorge. It's quite impressive – so narrow in places there is barely room for a road and a rushing mountain stream side by side, with sheer walls, rocky pinnacles and the road twisting in hairpin bends to negotiate the narrow confines.

As we were leaving Red Lake today, we then took a longer transfer to Targu Neamt to visit the 14th Century citadel, built under the rule of Stephen the Great. It stands on a hillock about 80m above the level of the town, and requires a steep climb to reach it. Why don't they build castles a bit nearer to the car park?

Although it had been in ruins since the Polish conquest of 1691, the fortress has now been restored and houses a museum to the history of it and other similar castles marking the then border of Moldavia.

We spent a good hour looking round, then went for lunch at one of the nearby cafes. Of course, being a Sunday and with nice weather as well it was pretty busy. But we got our order in the end, and it was well worth the wait. Missy G had ice cream filled pancakes, and I had a local speciality call Papanasi (pronounced “papa-nash”) a slightly suggestive-looking creation of doughnuts with plum jam, cream sauce and sprinkled with icing sugar that was both yummy and filling!

Moving on, we stopped about an hour later in Gura Humorului to look in the ethnographic museum, and were let in specially since it was after hours. Between Targu Neamt and Gura Humorului we had crossed from Transylvania into Moldavia and the region known as Bucovina.

The museum small but very interesting, dealing in particular with the traditions of Bucovina rather than wider Moldavia. It covered traditional dress, clothing and fabrics, tools, crafts, trades, etc, and had small scenarios set out such as a Christmas table setting, a blacksmiths, a cheese-makers and a shepherd’s hut.

Then we drove to our new digs in Vatra Moldovitei. Costin popped home for the evening, so there was us, Gelu and the hostess. Although we don't speak Romanian and they didn't speak much English, we soon worked out we had a little French in common, and with that and the help of Google translate, we had a really lovely evening.

Dinner was veal and vegetable soup, pork kotlet and mashed potato, and plum cake, with water to drink and a rather delicious Myrtle liqueur!

After dinner, we had a brief stroll to the crossroads and back. Tomorrow, we have a monastery, a museum, a train ride and a hike in store, so retired for an early night.

It had been a day of much information, and I have probably missed most of what was discussed. It was also one of the few days we have spent on sightseeing during recent holidays, as we much prefer hiking.

It also made me realise just how little I know about medieval Romanian history, or any other era since then come to that, but was very enjoyable nonetheless.

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