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.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...