I remember spending my childhood vacations with my parents touring Romania and it was during those years that I visited a lot of places around the country. Things changed once we became part of the European Union and the challenge of obtaining visa’s disappeared. All of a sudden vacations meant foreign countries and Romania turned into a week end destination for me.
In the years I was busy discovering Europe, my country developed. Old towns have been restored, rural tourism has gotten a boost and a number of organizations focused on niche tourism appeared. They promote a mix of less traveled destinations with adventure activities which is appealing for anyone looking to change the pace and spend a couple of days outdoors.
In these circumstances I decided that is time to be a tourist in my own country again. I cycled the wine hills of Northern Wallachia with Cycling Romania, I traveled 2000 years back in time at Danais Dacian Camp (details here) and the latest, trekking in Piatra Craiului National Park with Prietenii Ecoxtrem.
Trekking is, to a certain extent, outside my comfort zone for I’m more a seaside girl but since I’m on a quest to see as much as possible in Romania, including the mountains, the 2 days trip in Piatra Craiului seemed a good idea.
Piatra Craiului (English: The Rock Of The King) is a mountain range in the Southern Carpathians, with Brașov being the biggest city in its vicinity. It was declared a natural reservation in 1938 in order to protect the wild beauty of the landscape and the rich fauna and flora.
There are 111 species of birds identified making this park a good destination for birdwatching. Besides birds, Piatra Craiului is home for 21 species of bats and large carnivores like bears, wolves and lynxes. For the ones passionate about plants, the good news is that you’ll find here over 1000 different plants including a flower called ”Garofița Pietrei Craiului” that grows only here and it’s the symbol of Piatra Craiului.
Our adventure began very early on a Saturday in the little town of Zărnești, the starting point of our track: Zărnești-Fântâna lui Botorog-Curmătura-Vârful Turnu -Vârful Padina Popii-Plaiul Foii.
We did not have a lot of luck with the weather as it was dark and rainy the entire day but this had a great effect on the forest. The atmosphere was gloomy, the fog was surrounding us and I felt as if I had entered the Forbidden Forest from Hogwarts. The hike through the forest was a bit tiresome but manageable. Proper boots and lots of water are mandatory.
This part of the track ended when we reached a beautiful meadow where a herd of cows were eating peacefully. The setting was an idyllic composition of mountain cliffs, an abandoned wooden hut, the caretaker of the herd who was on horseback, the red pompons of the horse and the bells of the cows that filled the meadow with their jingles.
We went further with an easy climb of 30 minutes and arrived at the mountain cabin Curmătura for lunch. I’ve heard from other people who were familiar with the place that it has a famous cottage cheese and dill pie. Too bad for us, they were out of cheese pie as the cabin was packed with tourists. On the plus side, their apple pie was equally good. Prices vary between 7 and 10 lei.
Soon after we resumed the hike I started wondering what I got myself into. The scenery must have been incredibly beautiful but the thick fog didn’t allow us to see much. In all fairness, when we started to climb some almost vertical rocks I was grateful I couldn’t see what was down. Or where down was, for that matter. I experienced several moments when I just wanted to stop but when you’re close to 1800m above ground it’s just too late to go back. I was not able to take any pictures at this point since I was too focused on hugging the mountain as tight as possible while some really spectacular falls where crossing my mind.
In spite of my lack of training, with help from the group I overcame my fear, made it to the top and it felt good. When we reached 1816m, the highest point, the sun made an appearance just to allow us to take in the dazzling view that, all in all, was worth the effort.
Despite my obvious state of panic, not everything was terrifying. I was one of the lucky ones to see two Edelweiss flowers. These odd-looking flowers are good at hiding between rocks and bushes so you have to keep an eye for them. They are rare and protected so it is illegal to pick them or harm them in any way
We took a different path for the way down that ended with the Zărnești Gorge, another pleasant surprise of the track. The Gorge is included in the the protected area of the National Park so you will not see any cars, restaurants or other elements that might tamper with the fresh air. The 5 km canyon is a spectacle of caves and trees that grew on the granitic walls. The stillness of the rocks is disturbed only by the lisp of the creek that runs by the road or the occasional bird. It’s perfect for long walks or bike rides.
We spent the night at the 7 Crai chalet at the foot of the mountain, near Zărnești. It is a rustic, non-fancy accommodation good for the travelers who want to explore the area. The 10 hours trekking tour ended with dinner and a game of charades.
The next day was sunny and I could actually see the peak where I had been the day before and I did feel a bit proud of myself.
I was there!
The schedule on Sunday started with a 2-hour mild hike to a monastery in the woods but after 10 minutes my muscles gave up so I abandoned the track. The place was cut out of "The Sound Of Music" therefore suitable for dozing off in the grass.
After half an hour of laying in the sun, taking one too many photo's of flowers and stalking a couple of bees with the camera I realized I don’t have water. There were about 5km to Zărnești and back to the meeting point. Usually walking 5 km wouldn’t be such a tragedy but considering my general body ache, it was not easy. Luckily, somewhere after I had walked half of the distance to Zărnești, a nice couple gave me a ride.
I am not very comfortable with hitchhiking, especially when alone but they looked like nice people so I took a leap of faith. They were tourists as well searching for the bear sanctuary in Zărnești. On the way back I hoped for another ride. Lady Luck didn't show up again but the scenery was pretty to look at.
It is safe to say that the Carpathians are our country’s biggest asset. For milennia they have been providing us with wood for our houses, shelter in case of danger, food for us and our animals and endless possibilities for fun and relaxation, be it summer or winter.
For the travelers who visit Romania, a trip in the mountains is a must even if just for a day. Piatra Craiului National Park is a good option not only due to the mesmerizing landscape but it is easy to reach from both Brașov and Bucharest.
To my surprise, I found a pretty up to date webpage for Zărnești, full of useful information on train and bus schedules, accommodations, climbing routes, emergency numbers or the bear sanctuary.
The track is not extremely difficult, there were people in the group (with more mountain experience) that completed it even on snowy weather but it is true that it’s not recommended for the ones with fear of heights.
Cycling seems the best way to explore the Gorge and other parts of flat land in the park. If you have your own bike, bring it as I couldn’t find a bike rental in Zărnești. However, some of the chalets in the area have bikes for rent.
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