Thursday, 13 December 2018

Beautiful Brasov


Even rainy and misty days are beautiful here.

Real wolves.
Bears!!
Summer was going well and it was 2 weeks till freedom for the teachers and staff, and I think we were starting to feel it! Every week a new group of kids would arrive - for some of them it would be their first camp, but most had been before and I knew many of them. As good as they were, weekends for still for me. This weekend a few of us headed down the road to the Liberty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, just outside of Brasov. Founded in 1998 by Cristina Lapis after she saw 3 bears in a small cage outside a restaurant. These bears were used to attract customers, some just for show, others for photos or to perform tricks even. From small beginnings, Lapis now has over 70 rescued bears and grounds of 160 acres. We paid our 60 lei ($20) entry fee to get in, sadly to get my camera in they wanted to charge a further 50 lei ($17), for reasons they didn't really explain, so I decided my phone would be enough - if it was good enough for photos, then I'd come back. At first I was disappointed and saw absolutely no bears at all for the first 15 minutes, but we moved to another part of the part and saw 4 bears all playing together, right in front of the fence. I couldn't believe it - there is nothing like seeing a brown bear this up close and to see them interacting in such a normal way, not bothered in the least by the visitors. I had kind of tuned out by what our cranky guide was saying - partly because of what I saw seeing in front of me and partly because she was just plain grumpy, yelling at people for being to close to the fence or the fact that they'd moved away from the group a little to get a better view. I really enjoyed this visit - the sanctuary do a fantastic job and rescue many animals in need. The bears are never taken from the wild, instead saved from a miserable life attracting customers at restaurants, or from roaming city streets at night sifting through rubbish bins. Please visit them and help them continue their good work!

Horse and cart - still very much used here.
A cat in the fields.
Beautiful even when it's rainy and cloudy.
The Romanian countryside.
We moved around the park (not all 160 acres!), and while walking down a path, something darted in front of the group, going from one patch of forest to the other! Our guide explained that some of the wolves had free reign on the grounds - wolves! We saw some of them a little further on. I'd never seen a wolf before and I thought these ones were absolutely gorgeous! There was one 100% wolf and a few others that were only 50% true blood. The male wolf was much bigger than his watered-down brethren, but they were all impressive. I've since looked up some wolf facts and was amazed to find out that they only live for about 5 years in the wild! These creatures are all amazing and can be found in Romania - so it truly is still an undiscovered wilderness here for the most part. All of the bears have names too, Max being the most famous in the sanctuary. Rescued from a restaurant, poor Max was completely blind when rescued in 2006, most likely from his owner beating him around the head as a cub. It gets worse. He was chained up outside a restaurant to attract tourists, but also to have photos taken with them - his sense of smell was destroyed due to the owner spraying his nose with a capsicum-style spray, so he couldn't smell people and panic, and he was blind and so wouldn't react to flash photography. We saw Max, sleeping away on his back, but unfortunately I didn't get a good look. Sadly, while writing this blog I found out that Max passed away shortly after my visit at the age of 22. It was a good morning out, and one that I'd do again next year when I return to Romania. The drive back was also lovely - a storm was moving in and the clouds made the scenery very dramatic, the the dark storm clouds, the high mountains and Rasnov Citadel overlooking the town. Sadly not all of Romania is beautiful mountains and forest - although the towns are usually very pretty and quaint, with people painting their wooden houses in bright colours and tending little gardens, we passed a huge concrete monstrosity from the past. A big, abandoned apartment block, which I could only really describe as Soviet-style, sat on the edge of Zarnesti. I walked past it to take a photo, feeling a little ashamed and a little scared - it wasn't the nicest of neighbourhoods and didn't want anyone catching me photographing it. The little shoe box cubes were all once a place where someone lived, small, concrete but cheap and plenty of them. The real sad thing was just behind this block were several others that were being lived.

Soviet-style, block apartments near Zarnesti.
The real Romania - beautiful Brasov!
Roof tiles and lamps.
Little windows.
Although most people may think that Romania is all huge Soviet apartments, it truly isn't, not even in Bucharest. Romania is a surprising country and a truly beautiful one too. If (or when) you visit Romania, you must make a trip to one of the most beautiful cities in the country and my favourite place, Brasov. The first thing you notice on the drive into the city is the huge, Hollywood sign sitting up on the hill above the city - something they like doing here as Rasnov also has one. The new town isn't ugly, unlike most around the world when they are part of a much older city, and in fact is quite pretty, but it's the Old Town that makes this place special. The first time I came here was back in 2016, and now I've been here 3 times, but would always be happy for another visit - I don't think that smile on my face, when walking up the main street, will ever disappear. Popular with Romanians, the town has very few foreign tourists, but that is changing quickly. The shops that line the streets are cute little bakeries, clothing stores, but many are bars, restaurants and ice-cream stores, selling all sorts of yummy (and cheap) things. I love these old buildings, lined up one after the other, but all different with their roofs and coloured facades, it's a surprise I don't bump into people while I'm looking up all the time! As you enter the main square, that smile just gets bigger. The town hall is smack bang in the middle of the square and itself is a beautiful building, but somehow you are still distracted by all the other buildings around you. To add to this, the imposing Biserica Neagră (Black Church) is right there as well, its Gothic stonework towering above the other buildings. You'll probably find yourself standing in one spot then turning around to take it all in, and then you'll notice that there's always a large, white tower on the hill, churches, more roofs, and then of course the cable car up the hill to the 'Brasov' sign.

Hollywood! I mean Brasov!

The view from the Brasov sign.
The cable car.
Rooftops.
I decided to take the cable up today, as the weather sun just perfect for it, and I knew that I'd get a great view of the city from an angle that you don't normally get. There are two options to get to the top, either walking it or getting to 18 lei return ticket, of which I chose to go the lazy way. I had to wait a fair bit, as it was summer and the car can only take 20 people at a time. Once in, you realise how old and unsafe all cable cars seem, but we were in and so we went up the hill along the 573m cable at 6 m/s, climbing up to nearly 1000m for a view of the city. A short walk around the top of the hill and we were greeted with the view that I was hoping for - the city of Brasov spread out before me in all its glory. The city has a population of around 250,000, the 7th most populous city in the country. You can clearly see the central square, Piaţa Sfatului (Council Square), with the town hall building right in the middle, the imposing Black Church also stands out, and you can clearly see the old city walls encircling the Old Town, but it's the rooftops of all the houses that fascinate me the most. Even if you weren't that famous character from those popular video games, it'd be easy to jump from rooftop to rooftop, most not even having a gap between the next, but you'd need to watch for the sloped roofs and the little windows that pop out. The viewing spot is a popular tourist destination in the city, but it's also a hit with groups of young people that want to hang out, smoke and drink, and just pass time. Couples also come up here for some 'alone time' with a view, some even climbing over the barrier and finding a quiet place on the rocky cliff. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon - a few beers, a good view and some nice company.

Beer and company.

Couples retreat.

Narrow streets.
Going up!
Walking around Brasov is very pleasant. Apart from the main square, full of people eating ice creams, sitting by the fountain and dining at the cute restaurants, there are many other things to see. There is the tiny street, 'Rope Street' or 'Strada Sforii,' but The Black Church is most obvious as it is huge - you can't miss it really! Built in the late 14th Century, the Biserica Neagră stands an impressive 65m tall, from ground to its lone bell tower. The outside isn't really black, but the stone is what's called 'gritstone,' which may have given the church its strange, greyish colour. The carvings and decorations on the outside are lovely and it's a nice short walk around the grounds to appreciate these, but a visit inside is also worth it because of the very impressive church organ inside (one of the largest in Europe), as well as the largest collection of Asia Minor carpets. It also has the biggest bell in the country - weighing a hefty 6.5 tonne! I didn't go in this visit, as I was there 2 years ago, but I always looking at this church and admiring it (just be warned you can't take photos inside either!). Something else to do in Brasov is to see the small cemeteries that hold the bodies of people that fought during the '99 revolution. Although not exciting, I find it a little spooky but yet it's not something that we should forget about, and I know the Romanians haven't. Ever since the War of Independence (1877-78) the Romanians have been doing quite a bit of fighting, including WWI (when Romania gained its present day borders), local wars in the Balkans, revolts, WWII (afterwards Romania came under Soviet Ccontrol and was called the People's Republic), and then the Romanian Revolution in 1989 when the people gained their independence again. It started in the city of Timisoara and spread throughout the country, eventually ending in the show trial and execution on Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena, ending 42 years of Communist reign. Coming from Australia it is sometimes hard to imagine that people my age have lived through conflicts in their own country, even harder to imagine for European countries - we think Europe is stable after WWII but you'd be surprised at how many small wars are fought. War is a terrible thing that should be taught in schools and never forgotten lest we don't learn out lesson and they happen again.

The Black Church - Romanian's most important Lutheran church.

Stunning view of Brasov.
Brasov - my favourite Romanian city.
Brasov in the sunshine.
My 4 weeks at the Summer Camp were done, I was finally free. I'd experience more of Romania this year, things like the bear sanctuary and a real hike. I'd also gone to a large supermarket in Brasov and found that the supermarket is very strange, unlike any other I've ever visited. You get your products off the shelf, as per normal (beers are also sold in vast quantities and varieties!), take them to the check out and the person scans them for you. This is where the 'normal' things end - the cashier doesn't actually handle any money (so maybe I can't call him a cashier?), instead he gives you a ticket with a barcode on it which you have to scan on a machine a short distance away. You scan the code and it tells you how much your shopping has come to, you then pay, getting another receipt at the end of this to show the security guard before you leave. Very strange and I cannot believe this is more efficient that the standard, world-wide way of doing things - it must be a complete lack of trust with employees and money. Supermarkets also stock 96% alcohol vodka and beer in 2.5L plastic bottles! Over the past 4 weeks I'd also seen more horse and carts than in my whole life, and I would be seeing more as I travelled around the country. I find it cute and always exciting to see a horse whiz past in the opposite direction on the national road - and when you are stuck in traffic, it's probably one a few cars ahead of you. Finishing the camp, we all headed back to Bucharest to have dinner together and to celebrate. I spent a few days in the city before jumping on a train to Sinaia, a city about 2 hours north of the capital, set in beautiful mountain surroundings.

I will miss the mountain sunsets!

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Ranch in the Mountains

The Arcul de Triumf.
The Arcul de Triumf
The Zombie apocalypse.
My taste for Bucharest had been more or less sated (for now!), and it was time to head into the mountains to work the summer camp. I felt good about what I'd been able to see in such a short time in this city. I did a lot of walking as its very flat, although it's bigger than you think and wandering for hours in the Bucharest summer can be very tiring. When you're on a bus or in a taxi or Uber, you see parts of the city that you've not seen before, and as they wizz past I take mental notes to make sure I come back to these spots - sometimes it happens sometimes it doesn't. I'm happy to say that I managed to find the Arcul de Triumf this time and even walked there from the city centre. The walk was also interesting - along the broad, tree-lined avenues there are many mansions and  interesting buildings that look as though they've been abandoned - yet more sad stories in this city. Some of these have boarded up windows, walls blocking them from the street, or just a jungle instead of a garden. I wonder what happened, where did the owner go? How much would it cost to buy it? and more questions that will never be answered. The Arch is in the northern part of Bucharest, on the road to the airport and also the road leading to the mountains. It was built in 1878 in a big hurry to celebrate Romanian independence, the nation's soldiers marching underneath the originally wooden structure after their victory against the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish conflict (1877-78). After Word War I, a second arch was built, this one more permanent and more fitting as a victory arch. It was built of concrete with a plaster exterior, which sadly didn't last very long before becoming seriously decayed and was replaced by the current model in 1935, which was closely modelled on the arch in Paris. Everyone knows the famous Arc de Trimphe in Paris but there are actually quite a few more around the World - there is one in St Petersburg, the Wellington Arch in London and the India Gate in Delhi. The most famous ones are in Rome, where it all began - The Arch of Constantine just opposite the Colosseum to commemorate a military victory, just like the the Arch of Titus which is supposed to be the model for Paris'. What have the Romans ever given us, I ask.

Romulus and Remus statue in the Old Town.

Goodbye Bucharest - time for the cooler mountain weather.
It's harvest time in the mountains.
My view for a month!
I wasn't sad to leave the city - far more excited to be going into the mountains. The city is interesting and always changing, and walking around the city makes me feel like I'm in a post-apocalyptic film, or some zombie thriller like '28 Days Later,' or even 'The Walking Dead,' but on the whole I will miss it a little. We left the city behind, its monuments, busy roads and polluted air, heading North. There is only one real highway in Romania, and we weren't on it - that ones runs from Bucharest East to the coastal resort city of Constanta. We were heading North through towards Transylvania, and anytime there was a truck, a caravan, slow car or even horse and cart (yes, I'm not joking!), we had to stop or slow down and wait. Sometimes along these roads you can be stopped for 10 minutes - not for roadworks or a red light, but for a heard of sheep crossing the road. The drive was interesting, even though it took over 3 hours of winding little mountain roads. The views are spectacular at times, driving past Sinaia was lovely as the road follows the line of mountains behind the city where so many go hiking and climbing in the Summer. We finally arrived at our destination, a ranch just outside of Zernesti and not too far from Rasnov and Brasov either. The Poinana Murlului Ranch is off the 'main' road and a further 2.5 kms up a gravel road, but this extra drive makes it even more special when you get here - away from passing traffic, nearly completely isolated, and with a fantastic view as the hotel sits on a hill. For the next 4 weeks, this place would be my home... and I wasn't disappointed in the least! I got to my room, unpacked (dropped my bags) and looked out my new bedroom window - I would see a mountain everyday in the morning with the rising sun and a beautiful sunset every evening, have the rain patter on the skylight, and also a big bath to sit in and soak, enjoying all of this. The food here was also great - the owner really pulled out all the stops here and I knew I wasn't gonna go hungry!

Would you ever get tired of watching these sunsets?

Golden Hour in the mountains.
Paying your respects.
The village cemetery.
We arrived on Saturday afternoon, but there was little time for much apart from getting settled in and prepared for the first load of kids that would arrive tomorrow afternoon. We were invited into the wine cellar by our gracious host and treated to wine, cheeses and good conversation - camp was off to a great start! Come Sunday morning, I felt it way time to get out and see some of the surrounding countryside before the kids get here, so I grabbed my boots, umbrella and raincoat (as the weather changes in the mountains very quickly) and of course my camera. Something you really realise in Romania in the summer is the green - fields and forests, mountains and the front lawns - just bursting with colour and life. Along the road there were wild berries and crab apples, all of which you could simply pick and eat, and the kids did when they arrived - you can't keep a Romanian away from fruit within picking reach! Along the country paths, there wasn't much traffic - a few farmers and their tractors - but there were plenty of crazy dogs. Dogs that snarl, bark and chase you with teeth showing - the kind of moments where man's best friend turns into a crazy killer and could rip your leg off. Heart racing, you stand firm, keep eye contact, and move away, turning back occasionally to threaten them back. This is the country, no fences or police, so the dogs are just doing their job, but maybe a little too well. I made it to the village, an hour walk from the hotel, and found my way in the local church. A Romanian church service is a little like a Greek church service - it goes on forever and there is much crossing, bowing of heads and even kissing icons. This service was outside, as the church seemed to be closed (I'm not sure why), but small groups of people huddled around the grounds, listening to the service which played on loudspeakers, then wandered off to buy some baked treats down the road before heading home. It was a lovely, quiet experience for me - I love churches and cemeteries even, they are always interesting in some way, whether its a really old tombstone, a funny name, or just quiet beauty. After a quick bite to eat and cold drink, it was time to head back to the ranch for the first load of kids to arrive!

Such a beautiful place to be!

Curious locals.

A noisy Eurasian Jay singing away.
The misty forests of Romania.
The kids were great - some I'd met 2 years ago when I was last doing a summer camp - other I quickly grew to love within a week. Romanian kids are educated, well-mannered, interesting in learning and speaking, and just a pleasure to teach and even hang out with. The first week were the youngest kids and we all had a lot of fun with them - apart from English classes, we took them out into the playground, went for walks in the forest as well as the local Adventure Park, where they went on zip-lines. As lovely as they were, most afternoons, after lunch and before dinner, I'd escape into the woods surrounding the hotel and just go for a walk, not looking for anything in particular other than some peace and quiet and a little bit of time alone to disconnect. On one such walk, I was extremely lucky to come across a Fire Salamander making its way through the wet undergrowth. Although they are common in the area, and many parts of Europe, they aren't easy to find - the spend much of their time hidden under leaves in darker parts of the forest - today was a little drizzly and so perfect for one to come and out move around as they like damp weather. I took some photos, watched him walk a bit, resisted the temptation to touch him as I wasn't sure if they could be poisonous or not (they are and potentially deadly), smiled and continued walking happy with my find. Although I wasn't in the middle of nowhere exactly, there were houses and farms around, a village not 5 kms away and larger towns not that much further, Romania has this way of making you feel completely alone in the wild - I love it! I know there are bears in the area - they even come into the local towns and cities to scavenge for food - but was in 2 minds about seeing one. Part of me wanted to see one in person, right here int he forest where I was walking, and take photos of it. The part of me was scared of running into a big brown bear with sharp claws - they can run faster than people, climber better, swim, and are far bigger and stronger too. Luckily (or unluckily) I didn't see any, but I thought I heard one growl (I thought), then something dash off into the trees (if not a bear then I have no idea what it was!), and also a few trees that had been rubbed up against and scratched at by bears. I was happy!

Stocking up for the winter.

A fire salamander.
The start of the hike.
View from the top.
Once the weekend came around, I had more time to do more things. I left early on Saturday morning, just after breakfast time, to start a hike to the peak of the mountain that I looked at from my window everyday in the Piatra Craiului National Park. The hike started a few kilometres outside of Zarnesti, the closest town to the hotel. It was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny, but you never know when hiking if or when the weather will change - as I'd seen this mountain every day from my window for the past week and a bit, I knew that we had a good chance of clouds and even rain moving in to get us. Nevertheless, my hiking buddy (also a fellow teacher at the camp) headed off in high spirits and cameras out. We walked around the base of the mountain a little, slowly climbing up and around to attack the peak from another angle, as the main way up that we'd seen looked far too steep and full of scree. We stopped for a short snack break at a small monastery, enjoying the view and serenity of being in the mountains, just the two of us. Five minutes later we were back on the trail, heading around the back slightly and then aiming to hit the peak and then climb down another way, making a full circuit. Although I didn't have a real map or any concrete idea how we were going to accomplish this, Google showed various trails that had show far checked out, and we were following a path with signs, although I couldn't understand any of the places mentioned. The walk up quickly turned into a dangerous climb up scree - small and large rocks all piled together up the slope. The smaller stones are more unstable under your boot, but the larger ones, espcially when balanced on those small stones, can also move and being bigger, move far quicker and more dangerously. The trek up involved one hand holding the tree on the right and using my left hand to balance with one hiking pole. There were a few moment that I thought I was going to slide right down to the bottom, but mostly it was just hard work, sometimes one step forward and two steps backwards. Eventually the rocky slippery-slide ended and a more normal path started, allowing for real hiking and it also gave us time to rest, snack and enjoy the view - we were high up now. The peak that were aiming for was the Piatra Craiului, and we'd finally made it! It's only 1911m high, but the view is spectacular - you can see Zarnesti, over towards Rasnov and the fortress, our 'summer ranch,' as well as more mountains and hills than you can poke a stick at! We didn't have long to appreciate the view at dangerous looking storm clouds were heading our way - the last thing you want when on a peak! Time to hurry down

View from the hike up.

What a view!! Worth the hard work!
We made it!
A local goat watching our passing.
We got a few drops of rain on the way down and heard the thunder, but we made it down ok. We were met by some Romanians who were also running back down, slightly worried, but we rushed ahead of them, down rocky slopes and some parts with cold, and now wet, chains to help you up or down. We scrambled down and found the path down - a sloped gully with trees and high cliffs either side. It was a little hard to go down as by this stage I was getting a little tired, my knees ached a little from the ascent, and now it was steep going down and also there were more lose rocks. Going down is sometimes harder than going up and nearly always more dangerous. When the path opened up and we reached grass and fields again, we smiled an knew that we'd made it! We were greeted by sheep and their sheepdogs, but not vicious ones like in the village. We were watched as we walked by and were left alone as we meant no hard to their flock. Upon reaching the road, we knew it would be a decent walk into town, and after our hike we really needed to be there already, beer in hand. I stuck out my thumb, not hopeful of anyone picking up two tired and dirty looking hikers - but the 3rd car stopped and I couldn't believe it! We caught up to the car and hopped in. What luck! A man and his 9 year old son were our saviours, and although the boy was quiet, and I don't blame him as two sweaty strangers just got in his car, his father chatted away in English, very happy to get the chance to practise and also to meet two people who love Romania. Everyone I meet in Romania say two things "Welcome to Romania!" and "I'm sorry for our government." Romanians are so happy to see tourists come to their country, but also very sorry for the state of their country and government. I always tell these people that I love Romania and its people and that makes them smile like you wouldn't believe! We got dropped off at the station, as we didn't really know anywhere else to tell the guy where to leave us, so we said our goodbyes and thank yous, then trudged 1km down the road to the bar. The place we had in mind was full with a wedding, people in fancy dresses and suits, kids running around, so we decided to give it a miss - we were tired, dirty, sweaty and most likely stinky too, and I don't think hiking books would have quite fit, but we found a funny little place 2 doors up. I could smell the beer before I got in and hear music playing on cheap speakers. When we walked in, we were greeted (very welcomely I have to say!) but a few people drinking in the bar and the barmaid. I asked for 2 beers and was told to help myself from the fridge behind the bar. One customer asked the standard question of "where are you from?" and then said what every Romanian says: "Welcome to Romania! I'm sorry!" we chatted in broken English for a bit then we went outside to the 'beer garden' and drank our reward.

Beautiful Romania!

The views change with the weather but never disappoint.
By this time, my working month at the ranch was halfway over - it had gone by so quickly! I felt that I hadn't much time left and needed to do more, and fast! The kids so far had been great and more were on their way. The weather had held for the most part, allowing me to do some walking and hiking, and hoped it would stay that way. Let's see what the next 2 weeks hold in store!

How could you ever get tired of seeing this!

The amazing view from the top of the mountain.

Castells in Tarragona

It's Castell Time! The Concurs de Castells, held every 2 years in Tarragona. The 'pack' - forming the pinya for a Huma...