Saturday, 7 March 2020

Bears and The Transfăgărășan

Thanks for a good time Bucharest... but it's time to head for the mountains!
Bucharest at night.
Enjoying the warm summer evenings in the capital.
I had just returned to Bucharest after an amazing few days up north in Maramureș county. I'd used overnight trains, caught irregular local buses, walked miles along country roads and even did a spot of hitchhiking. I never felt in danger with any of these things as the people are genuinely extremely friendly and open, even when they didn't speak English. I ad the chance to discover this part of Romania in a relaxed and carefree way, finding accommodation where and when I wanted without a hitch, and moved I even around quite freely considering I didn't have a car. I would have loved to have had a car, as it is pure freedom in cases like this - but I felt very proud of myself, how I was able to get around and work everything out, and do it alone. So, after waiting nearly 4 hours for the night train by hanging out and sharing beers and stories with a few locals, I was very tired and ready to sleep. There were no bunks available for the trip back, but I was so weary that it really didn't matter and before long I was waking up as the train pulled back into the capital. I grabbed the metro back to the centre and had some breakfast, then a much needed shower and load of washing. I had 3 more days left in Romania before and so my mind was already at work, trying to figure out where I could go. I'm sorry to say that staying in the city wasn't really an option for me - after the beautiful countryside of Maramureș, staying in a big, bustling (and dirty) city, it would have just depressed me. I needed something different, something new, something with adventure. Ideas were coming to me, plans being formulated and searches on Google made.
To the mountains!
Curtea de Argeș.
Curtea de Argeș.
The cathedral in Curtea de Argeș.
By lunchtime, a decision had been made. The plan was to rent a car, head out of the city tonight, Friday, be back late Saturday night and ready to leave for the airport on Sunday. I asked a few friends and locals about places to go, and one place kept coming up - Curtea de Argeș. The County of Argeș isn't far from Bucharest, a drive of an hour and a half (with good traffic), and I was told it is very beautiful, with a lake and lots of mountains and forests. I was heading off with my Summer Camp colleague (and good buddy) Glenn, but as he was working till 5 it was my job to get the car. There is also the fact that he doesn't drive. Fine by me - I love driving, and in a foreign country makes it a little more exciting! I got the airport bus from the centre, which is very cheap (less than 2 euros!) and efficient, jumped off at the airport and got a lift from the car rental place to get my car. For some reason these guy's don't have an office at the airport, they just stand near the florist with a sign, which may seem a little strange but that's how it works here. The company, Klass Wagen, was fantastic - they spoke English, had good prices and their services was great. I don't normally plug companies like this but these guys deserve it! So before I knew it, I was in my ride for the weekend (a white Dacia something or other) and driving back to the city to get my travel buddy for the road trip. It was much easier, faster and safer with the airport bus to be honest - Romanian drivers are mad! Bucharest drivers even worse - madmen on a mission! As I excited the road and slipped onto the highway, I realised that I wasn't heading back to the city and so pulled over at a petrol station to check. It was true, I was continuing north and there was no sign of a way to go back. I did what anyone else would have done - I followed the locals. We queued in the middle of the road, facing the oncoming speeding cars, waiting for a break in the river of vehicles to do a U-turn! 5 minutes and a bucket of sweat and a few swear words later, I was heading back to the city centre.
Poenari Castle.
Lake Vidrau.
Castle closed due to bears. Excellent!
Castles and clouds in the moutains.
Things were quickly packed, and we got in the car and were ready to head off. It was around 6pm and we looked at the GPS - it had been a 1.5 hour trip, but now we were told more than 2.5 hours! Looks like everyone was leaving the city tonight as well. We chose to relax and have dinner before we left, hoping that the traffic would settle down. We chose a little neighbourhood restaurant, away from the busy, tourist centre, and weren't disappointed - local food at local prices! Romanian Mici, grilled, spicy pork sausages and chips with a beer (0.0% for the driver of course) was just what was needed. We got back in the car and the traffic had died down to normal standards, so we set off for the weekend road trip north! Driving was ok, mainly highway driving, and we cruised along, stopping once for a bathroom break about half-way. Of all the times and places to stop, we ran into 2 friends who were also getting out of the city for the weekend! Small world! Along the way, Glenn was on navigator duty, as well as being in charge of finding accommodation. With a few wrong turns in the dark and late 'turn left NOW' directions, we made it to where we would be sleeping for the night. That part he did fantastically well and we scored a nice little hotel in the mountains at a bargain price too. We enjoyed a beer on our balcony while playing our favourite card game "loser," before retiring for the night very excited about the day ahead. Just before sleeping, we read some reviews of a castle just down the road from us - bears had been spotted and was closed until further notice! This is exactly what we wanted to hear - wild bears on the lose! What a way to top off a great time in Romania by seeing some furry little creatures in a real wild environment.
A shepherd and his dog.
The flock grazing on a mountainside.
Selfies on the dam.
More selfies.
The weather wasn't great as we set off, following the windy little road through villages towards Lake Vidrau. It was cloudy and a little grizzly, but we had expected this and chose to bear with it... with the hope of seeing bears too! That's all we could think of to be honest - we could bearly contain our excitement! I step too fur with the bear puns? We stopped for  abreak at Poenari Castle, a ruin at the top of a misty mountain, and were greeted by a sign stating what we'd read before - closed due to dangerous wildife. Excellent! Bears we actually in the area! The pressure to see one was bearing down on us quite heavily (last one, I promise!). We continued up the road, zig-zagging back and forth to reach the top of the dam for a look and some photos. By this time, the weather was clearing up and we could see the blue sky. Even the temperature was warming up a little. It was a nice walk across the dam, apart from way too many tourists driving and taking selfies, some driving and taking selfies at the same time. The police were patrolling the road but without much success in stopping people being idiots. The Vidraru Dam was built in 1966 on the Argeş River and is quite impressive - 166 metres tall and arching around for 305 metres, giving you a great view of the lake on one side, and a stomach churning drop on the other. If you're a fan of the BBC show Top Gear, you'll remember one episode filmed here, when the boys drove an Aston Martin, Farrari and a Lambo in search of the unpronounceable road that is the Transfăgărăşan Highway. Glenn and I realised at this time that this famous road, considered one of the most beautiful roads anywhere in the world, was only about 50kms away. This wasn't far considering how far we'd already driven... and the fact that he's a Kiwi who lives in Poland and I'm an Aussie who lives in Spain. There was no choice really! A quick early lunch break just across the dam and then we hit the road to see that view and that famous road! We climbed the winding road, forever heading up and up, round and round, pushing the little Dacia to it's 4-cylinder pertrol engine to the limits. Not a bad excuse to stop occasionally for photos, so we did, and it was beautiful. I saw a shepherd standing on the edge of the road, wrapped up in a big raincoat, wearing a strange, peaked cap and holding a crook. This was something that I couldn't miss photo-wise - I got out of the car, walked up to him and asked him for a photo. Let me just say - if you don't ask, you'll never know... I got a few great photos there! There were also waterfalls along the way, the narrow roads parked out on both sides with people walking there too, all to get photos. This was dangerous enough, but some people went the extra mile and crossed the barriers to that Instagram moment.
Clouds and disappointing views.
The Transfăgărăşan Highway.
The Shepherd.
The Bear.
As we neared the top, the clouds and rain set in again, and we started to have doubts. Would we see this road? Was this drive worth it? Where are the bears? At the top, we parked on the side of the road and battled the hordes of people, tack shops and weather to get inside a restaurant for a beer. We couldn't see much, it was cold and we were wet. Slightly disappointed, we headed back to the car, but then the clouds just started to open up for a minute - enough to get a couple of shots off. It wasn't the amazing view that I had expected to see - but then again, it was a road in cold, rainy weather. Happy with the fact that was probably the best we'd get, we turned the heating up to dry out and de-fog, and headed down. Did I mention that we wanted to see bears? Well, no more talk about wanting to see bears... we saw out first one just around the corner. We were confused at first as all the cars in front of us stopped, then people starting leaning out of windows and screaming. We had no idea what was happening at first, but then the penny dropped as we heard them yelling 'urs!' The bear was hiding in the bushes and we could only just see it and it's head. It was bigger than I'd expected! I managed to take a few photos and after driving past, we stopped to enjoy the fact that we'd seen a bear in the wild! We were quickly on Whatsapp and social media, telling everyone we knew what we'd just witnessed. The modern age! After about 2 minutes of further driving, we came across 2 more bears. This one was eating something on the side of the road while cars stopped very close to it, all full of people hanging out the windows with phones. This bear seemed quite upset and even swiped the lead car. The third was a very close encounter - the bear was out in the open, sitting in front of his 'audience' of paparazzi iPhoneographers, clearly distressed by the attention. Glenn and I saw this clearly, but the other people either had no idea or just didn't care - they got out of their cars and got closer and closer, throwing bread towards the bear even, trying to get it to 'do something.' I did take photos, but from a respectable distance and without making noise or trying to feed it. We moved on, parked and got out for a breather - we had just seen 3 wild brown bears in Romania within 5 minutes! As much as I hated missing out on a good view of the Transfăgărăşan, that weather made the bears come out I think and we were both happier to have experienced that.
Very cute... and very dangerous! Never get out of your car!
Looking right down the lens.
An incredible sight. Bears truly are beautiful.
I could barely drive for the adrenaline that was pumping its way around my body. There is no way I will ever forget this day. Nothing else could top this for today or this trip. Seeing an animal in the wild like this is something incredible. I've been to South Africa and on a few safaris, and that was amazing - seeing animals from a David Attenborough documentary up close, including a leopard. This will remain on that same list of things that I have seen and will always remember in my life. I was very fortunate and am very thankful to the bear gods that made them come out that day. We stopped off in the city in the area, Curtea de Argeas, without much excitement to see it, even though it is a lovely place. We walked around the Curtea de Argeas Cathedral, a beautiful 19th century building, but all we could think of were the bears. We had dinner and then drove home, still thinking of the bears. I was flying home to next day, completely satisfied with my time in Romania this year - it had been busy and very fulfilling indeed. Thanks for being a great travel buddy Glenn - we make a good team, me driving, you on social media and directions... who knows who brought the bears, but it doesn't matter, they were there. Until next time Romania!
Goodbye and thank you for the bears.
Until next time Romania.

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. August 2019.

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