Researching Romania I came across a week-long hiking trip through the Carpathian Mountains with UK company Exodus. They are an adventure tour company who run short-term trips for all levels of adventure lovers. A little unsure what we were signing ourselves up for (7 days of mountainous hiking – were we mad?), the ‘Carpathian Culture’ tour turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of our trip. I was sure I was going to die from lack of fitness on multiple occasions, but loved the experience in spite of myself.
The tour group had a nice mix of people ranging in age from us through to a few couples in their early 60s. Josh and I were definitely the least fit of the bunch – thank heavens it wasn’t a group of agile 20 and 30 somethings!
We stayed at a large, comfortable guest lodge in a town called Magura – 3 hours north of Bucharest. The basic itinerary was as follows:
Day 1: Meet at Bucharest airport. Transfer to our village guesthouse at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains.
Day 2: Daywalk visiting Kalibash villages, learning about the history of the settlements.
Day 3: Visit to the bear sanctuary. To Bran (Dracula’s) Castle; return to guesthouse.
Day 4: Day trip to Saxon village of Viscri, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; lunch in traditional farmhouse.
Day 5: Horse drawn cart trip to Birza Valley, walk through mountains and ancient forest; optional bear watching in the afternoon.
Day 6: Drive to Brasov to explore the medieval marketplace; eat at a local restaurant and late afternoon meet staff from the Beaver Reintroduction Programme for a field excursion to a beaver site.
Day 7: Walk through the spectacular Prapestile Zarnestilor Canyon; visit shepherd camp to see traditional cheese being made.
Day 8: End tour, transfer to Bucharest airport.
Day 7 was the hardest day of hiking, and the most rewarding. Josh has mapped the walk we did each day to give a sense of the altitudes and distances we covered.
The guest lodge was a very homely place with a menagerie of loveable pets. A husky, a labrador, a burmese, another cat who was very lionine, and a small white puppy whom the hostess had rescued from the roadside a week prior to our arrival. Puppy was named ‘Urs’ (bear) but he was such a cute and bitey little thing that he earned the nickname ‘Chewy’; the tour guides misinterpreted this as though Star Wars ‘Chewbacca’, so we think the name will stick!
Our guide, Cosmin, was delightful. A former forestry engineer, he became disillusioned with the politics associated with forestry and turned tour guide. He was excellent – never made anyone feel bad for being slow or labouring, nor looked bored at what must be similar questions from each group each time he guides. He had a way of pacing his walks which meant he had the same pace whether uphill, downhill or on the level and was calm. chatty and humorous.
Throughout the walks we travelled through meadows filled with wildflowers – including wild herbs such as thyme, mint, comfrey and chamomile. The scenery around our guest lodge was incredible – snow-capped mountain ranges and lush green valleys.
The walking was really quite difficult at times but I’m glad we did it. On our last day we had a difficult mountain climb up to a shepherds’ summer camp. When we arrived they were skinning a calf which had died overnight. The summer camps are essentially a rectangular, 3-roomed, wooden hut with earthen floor. In the main room a large fire-pit is constructed in the floor to service a large cauldron for boiling milk for cheese and cooking. Outside a fence is erected to pen the stock overnight and the shepherds sleep outside with them, their rather vicious guard dogs keeping watch for predators – wolves and bears. A dangerous job.
During the day, the herds are walked through the mountains to feed on the lush grasses, promoting milk production. The herd is milked 2 or 3 times a day and the milk turned into two types of cheese – one a ricotta-like soft cheese, the other a very tasty mild cheddar with a smooth and creamy texture. The shepherds sell the cheeses to locals throughout the summer. It made me understand how ‘cottage cheese’ got its name, from the cottage cheese industry. At the camp we were treated to a cheese and polenta lunch. It was so tasty and filling after a very hard morning’s walk. Simple, rustic but wholesome.
If you get the chance, go!