Transylvanian Adventures Part 4

In the summer of 2008, I returned to Romania with Fiona. The plan was that we would spend a week tackling the majestic Fagaras ridge and then I would meet up with Matt to continue the Round-the-World-Walk from the point where we’d retreated in the winter.

The Fagaras range is a wonder indeed: an 80km ridge, which rarely dips beneath 2000m. The Fagaras are the highest mountains of the Southern Carpathians. The highest peaks are Moldoveanu (2544 m), Negoiu (2535 m), Vistea Mare (2527 m), Lespezi (2522 m),Vanatoarea lui Buteanu (2507 m), and Dara (2501 m). The range is very popular with walkers and alpinists from Romania, the Czech Republic  and Germany in particular. During the communist era, the Fagaras was a popular destination for hikers and climbers from East European countries. The East German Alpenverein in particular were instrumental in establishing a series of refuges along the length of the Fagaras range. In those days you might have expected to encounter large groups of bearded young men in robust boots and too short shorts:

The Fagaras benefit from an excellent and extensive network of paths that are generally very well way-marked with a series of red, blue and yellow triangles, stripes, crosses and circles. Most passes benefit from metal signposts.

One of the beauties of walking the Fagaras ridge route is that once you’re up, you seldom have to descend too far, unless you are staying in refuges along the way. Most of the refuges are situated a good 500m below the main ridge route, obviously requiring that extra ascent and descent at the beginning and end of each day. I can’t really offer an opinion on the refuges as I’ve never stayed in one – I always prefer to camp as I find it difficult to sleep crammed in with a crowd of snoring, farting, rustling, sighing, texting humanity. Empirical evidence suggests, however, that the Fagaras refuges are a bit on the rundown side. Personally, I would much rather carry my tent etc than do the 500m up and down to stay in one.

There are several tricky sections along the main ridge route, most notably the evil-sounding Strunga Dracului, which translates as the Devil’s Pass or thereabouts. This is a precipitous rock chimney descending west from the summit of Negoiu. The chimney has a fixed cable, but we felt that taking climbing harnesses and lanyards would be a good idea. When we read that a German woman had fallen and died of head injuries the week before we set off – we were convinced that harnesses and lanyards were indispensible. If you’re thinking about walking the Fagaras Ridge, don’t be put off – there is an alternative line of descent SW from Negoiu called the Strunga Doamnei – the Lady’s Pass – which is apparently less nerve-wracking.

We planned to allow seven days to complete the walk from west to east, which we thought would be adequate, allowing for iffy weather. We would take the train from Bucharest to Sibiu, then take a local train to the village of Turnu Rosu the following day. Turnu Rosu would be our jumping-off point to head up to join the ridge at the Saua Corbului saddle.

However, things did not get off to a flying start.  I had flown to Bucharest from London and was waiting at the Gara de Nord for Fiona who was flying from Edinburgh.

We were due to catch a train to Sibiu in the early afternoon, but there wa no sign of Fiona. I had had a bit of a brawl with a taxi driver who tried to steal my money, so I was already feeling a bit wired. The August heat was also a bit unrelaxing. Fiona arrived several hours late. Her baggage had failed to arrive – apparently it had got lost when she changed flights in Amsterdam. She’d waited to no avail and was reassured by the KLM staff that her bags would be found and delivered by courier to Sibiu the following day. We’d lose a day – but what can you do? We’d missed our train and had to hang around for several hours for the next one. It was 3am when we finally arrived in Sibiu absolutely cream-crackered.

In fact, Fiona’s rucksack actually took three days to arrive, which was a big shame; we’d lost three days – but what can you do? Well, we’d have to curtail our ambitions to walk the whole Fagaras ridge, but we’d get out there and make the best of it.

Belatedly, we hopped on the train to Turnu Rosu and, arriving in the afternoon, we stayed the night in the most wonderful pensiunea (guest house). We had a palatial room and were treated to a magnificent feast for dinner and another feast for breakfast all for about £15 all in. Things were looking up! Except that it was raining stair rods outside. We stood on our balcony after breakfast looking at the thick blanket of cloud engulfing the foothills of the Fagaras. What to do? Having been thwarted for several days already, we’d had enough of hanging about, so we donned waterproofs, shouldered our hefty packs and headed off up a track heading out of Turnu Rosu that we hoped would lead us to one of the way-marked routes up to the ridge.

The rain persisted and once we’d found our path, we began the long and steep haul up to the ridge. It was very, very wet. After a couple of hours of climbing, we encountered half a dozen very forlorn and wet looking tents in a small clearing, each in turn seemingly in a worse state of collapse than the previous. Nonetheless, sounds of merriment issued from within. We called out a greeting and several heads eventually emerged. A party of young German students and their teacher. ‘Niedersachsen’, Fiona informed me, recognising the accent from Lower Saxony, a province in the east of that country where, perhaps, the appeal of the Fagaras still endured in the popular memory. Anyway, they’d had enough rain for one day and had decided to pitch up for the night. We wished them luck and continued on our way.

Eventually, we emerged above the treeline. The rain was still coming down in rods and without the shelter of the trees we were also exposed to a strong breeze. By the time we reached the saddle, conditions had become officially ‘challenging’. We were making for a bivouac site and were grateful for the excellent waymarking as visibility was very poor. However, at a certain point we lost the path. We continued along what seemed the most viable route, anxiously casting around for way-markers. Nothing. We soon found ourselves on an exposed high point and we wre suddenly hit by a ferocous squall of wind and rain, which was a pretty alarming experience in our exposed position. This was really no fun and we retreated the way we’d come. Eventually, to our relief, we found some waymarkers again. We continued, confident that we should soon reach the bivouac site.

However, I became suspicious that the terrain wasn’t really doing what the map suggested it should be doing. I checked the compass and discovered that we were actually heading west back along the way we’d come; the poor visibility and disorienting squall had seemingly spun our little heads around. Given the atrocious conditions, we decided to head back as far as necessary to find a sheltered place to camp. At this point we encountered a group of very athletic-looking  young Czechs heading the other way. I think they thought we were a bit lightweight for retreating, but then they were wearing shorts for chrissakes!

We eventually stumbled upon a tent in a sheltered hollow and pitched next to it. I was soaked-through and feeling a bit demoralised. Fiona had had to talk me out of heading all the way back to Turnu Rosu, where hot showers and big dinners beckoned seductively. Our neighbours were a very sympatico German couple, they’d drawn the same conclusion as us and were going to see what the morning would bring.

It was still murky in the morning, but the rain had stopped and the wind had eased. It felt like the cloud might lift, so we all struck camp and headed off east along he ridge. We soon encountered the group of students from Niedersachsen coming the other way. They were all soaked still from the previous day and many of them were poorly equipped for the conditions. Their teacher asked to look at our map – he didn’t have one! They decided to call it a day as they realised the endeavour was a bit more than they’d prepared for. Continuing on our way, the visibility was much better and we soon saw where we’d gone wrong the previous day. The cloud was beginning to blow off the ridge and break up, offering tantalising glimpses of our magnificent surroundings. We’d picked up a head of steam and within a few hours we were beginning to make the very precipitous descent to the bivouac site at Lacul Avrig.

There were a few folk camped here and we were told that many of them had been stuck there for a couple of days because the weather had been so bad. As it was some way to the next viable bivouac site, we decided to take advantage of this wonderful spot and stay here for the night. We were soon joined by the German couple who had reached the same conclusion.

The next morning dawned calm and clear; blue skies were the order of the day. There were probably 15 or so tents dotted around the lake and there was a feverish packing up and loading of rucksacks. After breakfast and a brew, we set off east to rejoin the ridge. There was a steep and slightly airy climb up a very narrow path to gain the ridge just to the SW of the summit of Varful Garbova. That got the old heart, lungs and legs going and we were instantly rewarded with views along the Fagara crest.

We followed the path NE skirting around the flank of Varful Garbova and were then able to enjoy a fine view back to Lacul Avrig:

On we continued, amazed by the contrast with the previous days; we were surrounded by fantastic mountain vistas on all sides.

This was one monster ridge; an absolute joy on a day like this, but it could be terrifyingly exposed in bad weather. Up and over the summit of Varful Scara (266m) we went as the path swung SE along the ridge. Tucked into the lee of the ridge was a slightly forlorn-looking emergency shelter.

There soon followed a bit of a scramble on a slightly tricky rocky section along the summit of Varful Musceaua Scarii. Not a good one for a wet and windy day. My hands were to busy for pictures.

Having negotiated this section without mishap, we descended to the next saddle before launching into a short, sharp pull up to the summit of Varful Serbota (2331m). The view from the summit across to Varful Negoiu (2535m) was very impressive and not a little daunting. There are two routes to the summit of Negoiu approaching from the west. Crossing the very narrow and exposed ridge to reach the Saua Cleopatrai – to the left of the picture below – is supposed to be a ‘prohibited’ route these days, but we saw plenty of people doing it. Not for us, as we planned to take an alternative path down into the Caldera Pietroasa – to the right of the picture – where we aimed to camp for the night. We had stopped on the summit of Varful Serbota for some lunch and were soon joined by the German couple and two young German lads who were also keen to take the route via the caldera.

This was by no means an easy option. The ‘path’ was very steep and involved lots of loose rock and scree; the German woman (Francesca, I think) slipped and grazed herself quite nastily before her partner managed to grab her and stop her falling further. She was understandably a little wobbly after that. We made it down into the caldera at length, though finding route markers was a little tricky. However, once we were down it looked like a great place to camp and, unlike the bivouac site at Lacul Avrig, there was no one else there. The German contingent decided to continue on and climb Negoiu from the caldera; they would then have to descend either the Strunga Dracului or the Strunga Doamnei to get to the bivouac site and refuge at Lacul Caltun. We preferred to stay in this wonderfully peaceful spot and enjoy the evening in our own company. We could continue over Negoiu and down the Strunga Dracului the next day before abandoning the main Fagaras ridge to walk out to the north and then head back to Sibiu the following day. We wished our German friends luck and they soon became tiny figures lost against the imposing rocky flank of Negoiu.

We pitched the tent and set about doing nothing very much other than enjoying the perfect peace and solitude.

A little later, the solitude was interrupted in a not entirely disagreeable fashion by the tinkling bells and baaing of a large herd of sheep roving over the hillside nearby. In this part of Romania, large flocks are moved around mountain pastures for grazing during the summer months in a process known as transhumance. For an excellent account of transhumance in Transylvania, go to see what Paul White has to say on the subject.

The two shepherds minding the flock came by to say hello and gamely posed to have their photo taken. The tall lad was really, really very tall indeed. They both carried rather thick long staves, which I suppose might offer some defence against bear and wolves.

Off they went, leaving us to the peace and quiet once more.

Next morning, the weather looked a bit suspect, but our choice was either to bail out down the nearest valley to who-know’s-where or head up Negoiu and take it from there. We opted for the latter. It was a tough old haul up the mountain’s flank; visibility was poor and it was difficult to follow the waymarkers. I’m not a great fan of being up big craggy mountains in poor visibility, but at least we had a path to work with. We felt pretty small against the vast flank of the mountain as we crept ever higher.Amid this vast, rocky mist-shrouded landscape, several disembodied shouts echoed eerily through the murk, from where it was hard to say. Onwards and upwards we climbed until eventually we emerged onto the saddle of Saua Cleopatrai. It was a real blooming pea-souper and the rock was pretty wet, so – once again – the call went up: ‘run away!’. Well, buggered if I was going down the Strunga Dracului in this. Fiona concurred, so we decided to descend on a way-marked path to the north, which we would have joined up with later on if we had in fact gone down the Strunga Dracului.

It was a steep and precipitous descent on wet and slippery rock and scree, but it was definitely less scary than the other option. Fiona looks quite scary herself in this picture, I feel.

It really was quite some decent; down, down, down we went and eventually we began encountering a few people coming up, apparently doing a day walk up to the summit of Negoiu from the Cabana Negoiu refuge at 1546m – a 1000-metre climb.

Unsurprisingly, conditions were better further down, but it was still tough going. Some sections of path had been washed away with the snow melt and other sections were pretty overgrown. We passed the not-very-appealing-looking Cabana Negoiu and continued straight on, making for the Cabana Barcaciu which was also at 1550m, but somewhat further on.

After a very long day’s walk, we arrived at the rather rustic Cabana Barcaciu very knackered and very glad to be there. It was a great spot with great views, somewhere to pitch the tent and cold beers!

The place was also crawling with Carpathian sheepdog puppies…

…and donkeys. Or are they mules?

Tomorrow there would be the small matter of descending the last 1000 metres to the plain and then trying to hitch back to Sibiu. For now though, it was great to just relax and take it all in.

If you really haven’t had enough of my Transylvanian ramblings, Part 5 comes in the guise of a post I put up a couple of years ago: https://writesofway.com/romania/ – enjoy.

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18 responses

  1. Another fascinating read. Great to read on a sunny wintry day on the edge of the Fens with a cup of coffee and hot buttered crumpets. Definitely some food for thought her in these adventures…
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks Alan. That’s the lot now. Promise. Enjoy your wintry Fenland sunshine. The snow has nearly all melted here in Glasgow, leaving a rather filthy residue on roads and pavements; I much preferred the crunchy, pristine whiteness of a few days back…

  3. Pete, Part 4 was definitely my favourite so far. Your photos are wonderful and how similar the Fagaras looks to the highlands of Scotland.

    You have a real talent for writing and holding interest, which I am sure is a vital combination when documenting trails for walking guides 🙂 My pages usually take days of editing before I am happy with them, but you just bang yours out in hours! I also envy your ability to recall so many facts from trips made two years ago, or did you take notes at the time?

    Thanks for your comments and link to my transhumance page. This is one of my favourite subjects as it encompasses so many of my passions.

    Can I ask what maps you used when walking the Fagaras ridge? Do you carry much fresh food on your trips or do you use ration packs? Your tents look good too. I noticed you had an orange one on your winter trips and a green one in your last instalment. Was your choice season related or did you just change tents?

    Cheers, Paul

    • Thanks again Paul. To be honest i didn’t think this last post was very well written; I knocked her out in a couple of hours, but thanks for the encouragment. I find that stuff just comes back to me when writing up a trip and pictures are obviously a great mnemonic cue!

      I think julian Hoffman has also written something about the transhumance recently. I was constantly amazed by the spectacle of those vast roving herds rolling out along the high mountain meadows during our summertime visits to Transylvania. I was always really impressed by the shepherds that we met as well. Living outside for weeks and months on end definitely does something to people…

      Tents, yes, we borrowed a friend’s lovely North Face westwind tent for the winter trips and I have to say that it was excellent and relatively light for a robust tent that I would certainly trust in winter conditions up to 2000m. The green tent is a common or garden Terra Nova Voyager, which I think is great for all year round in the UK, but I wouldn’t risk it in the winter high up anywhere with big, big mountains. I’m on my third Voyager in 12 years. I’m not a fan of the teeny-weeny tent as i like to have a bit of space if the weather’s bad otherwise I’d find the experience miserable. I do think it’s a good idea to be properly equipped for trips, but I think that being in good physical condition – reasonably fit, not carrying any injuries – and knowing how to take on what you’re taking on is arguably more important than having the latest kit and shaving off grams here and there. I’ve always gone in for carrying plenty of food and the fresher the better where possible. Obviously if you’re doing a five day+ trip, you can’t be carrying too much fresh stuff, but I feel that plenty of good food is a priority for me when I’m making a big physical effort. Fast metabolism!

      Everyone approaches the business of walking/trekking etc in their own sweet way and full respect to each and everyone.

      Anyway, thanks again for your interest Paul.

  4. I suppose it depends on what you mean by good. This article had a lot more detail on the various peaks in the area and the terrain associated with getting up and down them. You have made it interesting and informative at the same time so will be useful to anyone planning a trip to the area. I have linked it on twitter too, so hopefully I can drive a bit of traffic your way 🙂 Are you on twitter? It would be good if you could add a share button at the end of your pages which would make it simpler to share with lots of friends with similar interests. Just an idea 🙂 Getting back to the maps, do you mind me asking which ones you used? We are spoilt in the UK for good quality OS maps in different scales, but unfortunately this is not the case in RO.

    • Paul, maps: For walking the Fagaras we just used the Dimap 1:60,000 map, which are easy to come by and adequate for an area with generally excelllent waymarking. For other areas, I think Matt acquired some possibly 1:25,000 sheet maps from the Romanian military ordnance survey. These, I seem to remember were topographically very detailed, but they had been surveyed in around 1920! Hence you had to be prepared for unexpected forestry plantations etc. I seem to remember he was in touch with an army captain in Bucharest on the matter.

      I’m a bit vague on this as I was entirely relaxed about Matt doing all the navigating as it was his walk and he does an excellent job. I’ll send him an email and see if he can shed further light.

      Cheers Paul

  5. Wonderful, Pete! It’s great to join along through the reading. Some lovely looking lakes amongst the peaks as well and the journey sounds terrific, despite – or perhaps because – of the conditions. These Transylvanian Tales have been a real treat, and I still have one – out of sequence – to look forward to later today! Thanks for the mention as well. The piece on transhumants in Greece, called Shadow Grounds, can be found here: http://www.stephenkessler.com/rcr/rcr_2010spr.pdf

    Cheers,
    Julian

    P.S. This post was also the first place where I’ve come across the rather inventive ‘cream-crackered’ for ‘knackered.’ Is it yours??

    • Thanks very much Hoff, glad you’ve enjoyed your vicarious journey. I’d like to assert, my chest swelling with pride, that ‘cream-crackered’ is indeed self-minted. It may well be, however, I’m well aware how easy it is to pick things up along the way, file them in one of you own dusty internal archives and then resurrect them oblivious of their provenance. So – maybe!
      Thanks for reading, Julian

      • Sorry to disappoint but ‘cream crackered’ was used by most of the participants in Mr Singh’s extraordinarily tough PT sessions in class 3T back in the early 70’s. Being one of those participants the expression has stuck with me to this day, even after minimal exertion 🙂

      • Blast! At least I issued that disclaimer. I think the UK’s literally expanding population of tumpfy (Scots,coloquial) youngsters would benefit from a few sessions with Mr Singh!

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