In April 2015 along with my hiking pal Eddie Chapman I travelled to Romania from London by train via Germany and Hungary. We had agreed two years ago to do this trip, something I had suggested after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the woods and the water where the 18-year-old Fermor documents part of his experience of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul. That was between 1933-35 before the collapse of the old European order with the World Wars and before the eventual shift to communism. Fermor’s Romania was still a thriving rural culture of haymaking and rivers flowing free. What we saw was different, communism having ended and Romania now a member of the European Union, capitalism stretching its tentacles into the farthest reaches of this vast nation with its mounds of plastic waste and the invasive plant species which thrive in a free market, globalised economy. But we still saw elderly people digging their own fields each day, hay ricks in back gardens and plenty of horses ploughing fields and transporting people around. We visited on the back of a sudden cold snap and so it was still winter, nevertheless we saw some wonderful wildlife and landscapes. We are very grateful to Barbara Knowles, Róbert Biró and Laci Demeter for showing us more of the Csík mountains and teaching us about the local culture and ecology. I also would not have known about this region without the work of Nigel Spring and EuCAN who run conservation trips to that part of Transylvania.
We entered Romania by train from Debrecen, passing through to Cluj-Napoca. The manager of our guest house in the Hortobágy in Hungary had told us instead that Cluj is Kolozsvár, and is in fact a Hungarian city. This was of course not the first time we had heard about the issues between the two nations after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that saw the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary and two thirds of Hungarian territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian argument is that Magyar people have been present in what is now Romania for over 1000 years which gives them ownership (of course even that is a simplification on my part). Romanians point to Dacian settlement 1850 years ago, before the Hungarians were present in Transylvania. This is covered in greater detail by Walking the woods and the water, a book by Nick Hunt about retracing Fermor’s route to see what had changed in 2011.
The journey across the border was not what we had expected. The detritus of the failed communist system was plain to see with vast areas of industrial land and infrastructure abandoned. I like what nature can do with these ‘wastelands’ but to see people still having to live in and around these places was a shock. This, allied with the amount of rubbish strewn through what would have been species-rich farm and meadowland, was disturbing and added to the toll of the long distance travel we had undertaken. I will never forget the sight of people having to live in tents of rubbish, with plastic nailed to pieces of timber to keep them dry. The argument for good housing for all struck home here.
In Cluj I have never seen such sickly street trees with branches hacked to bits and choked by the wires that thread the streets together. Cluj as a city was best viewed from Cetățuia Hill where you can see the sensitive design of the Cluj-Napoca football stadium and the Apuseni Mountains in the distance, the city itself is a melange of capitalist-era hotels, communist apartment buildings and centuries-old architecture preserved in the old town. We had wanted to get into the Apuseni Mountains, famous for the skeletons of cave bears which were discovered in the 1980s, having become extinct 30,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered by ice.
Our next destination was the Carpathian basin in eastern Transylvania, an area known as the Csík (Hungarian) mountains. The area is accessible by train from Brașov to Miercurea Ciuc (Romanian). The region is strongly Hungarian in culture and the city of Miercurea Ciuc is known in Hungarian as Csíkszereda. I had been in touch with conservationist Barbara Knowles who, through her project The Barbara Knowles Fund, was supporting local farmers in managing the mountain hay meadows in the region, some of which are the richest in Europe. Prince Charles has recently visited to highlight the importance of these habitats.
Barbara put us in touch with Laci (pronounced Lot-see) Demeter, a local farmer and ecologist who owns a few hay meadows and acts as a local guide for the region. Laci was brilliant, with a great sense of humour. He knew all the birds and plant names in English as well as Hungarian and taught us a few of them in his native tongue. Marsh marigold, a buttercup that grows in damp ground and brooks is known as ‘stork’s messenger’ in Hungarian because its flowering in April indicates the arrival of the bird and the spring.
We volunteered with Laci to remove some of the Norway spruce brash from the meadows so they could grow uninhibited in the coming months. Laci drove us into the mountains where snow still lay on the ground and butterbur and cowslip were the only plants coming into flower. The Carpathians were still shaking off winter. We saw nutcracker, raven and heard buzzards calling from overhead.
In the valley below a group of men were working on constructing a small shelter for cheese-making in the summer months as part of a local common land cooperative. They were all being paid. How much could Britain benefit both ecologically, socially and economically from similar initiatives? The short-sighted, profit-driven focus of modern politics means we are unlikely to find out. At least Prince Charles is interested.
We were invited for lunch with the workers and feasted on a pork stew with bread and the most common Hungarian ingredient – paprika. There was also enough beer for everyone, plus some watered-down pálinka. The sun was so intense even at this time of year that we had to inch our way into the shade while the Magyars sat comfortably in full sun.
In the afternoon Laci took us to the top of one of the mountains, a gentle climb to overlook the unfolding peaks of the Carpathian basin. The meadows were still brown and wintry, snow melting under the sun’s rays. Laci pointed out the snuffling of wild boar and rolled their chocolate-like poo in his fingertips. He showed us the small dips in the ground which were evidence of the old style of felling trees – cut the roots in the soil and let the wind blow the tree over, leaving a space where the root plate used to be. It was thrilling to finally be in the Carpathians, a mountain range I had longed to see.
On our second trip out with Laci we drove to a quarry that was a good site for eagle owl and where our esteemed guide knew they bred. We passed fields being ploughed by horses, a throwback to a bygone age in much of Europe.
At the quarry I was distracted by the range of plants, particularly the anemones, and the above endemic to Transylvania, Anemone hepatica transylvanica. On the way here, in Bavaria, I had seen Anemone hepatica, a beautiful purple anemone and was very happy to be introduced to this special plant.
That was not the only anemone growing in the quarry. The most famous and common, wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa), which I know well from the ancient woods of south London, was also present. This is a plant that struggles in the woods around where I live because of trampling and disturbance but in this part of Transylvania it grew in the old quarry with little to disturb it.
There were signs of mammalian life in the quarry. Fires had been set in the quarry’s depths, with broken televisions and other detritus of the modern age. There was also detritus of another kind, with this possible bear or wolf scat. It was a pleasure to speculate on what might have passed through here, in both senses of the word.
We rounded the quarry edge in silence, Eddie and Laci did, anyway. I sent down rock after rock as we made our way to the point where the eagle owls breed. Laci had been enticing us to overcome our apprehension about entering into this place by collecting a bouquet of feathers, not least this owl feather above. As we sat on the ledge where the birds roost, an eagle owl flew across the far side of the amphitheatre and out of view. Eddie missed it. He remained silent thereafter.
There was also evidence of owl prey. Laci gathered together the remnant plumage of raven and buzzard. The size of the prey of this owl is astounding.
Satisfied with our visit to the quarry, Laci drove us to one of his favourite sites, a 10-12,000 year old pond created during the last glacial period. Laci had bought pieces of land around the pond to try and protect it. Some farmers had been filling it with rubbish and trying to drain it for agriculture. It was a treasure trove of biodiversity, with the moor frog its most colourful species, turning blue in breeding season.
Laci perched on the small mounds of sod dotted throughout the pond and fished out a great crested newt as he tried to collect a sample of fairy shrimp to show to us. It was in its breeding gear, a beautiful animal that is rare in England but common across Britain to the point of Asia. Its protection measures in Britain are famous for their severity and the ensuing failure to prosecute for any breach.
We said goodbye to Laci, Barbara, our host Magda and the small village of Pauleni-Ciuc (Romanian), its centuries old spruce barns and horses. Now it was time to travel south to Brașov and then to Sinaia in the Carpathians proper.
We arrived in Sinaia excited by the ascent of the railway into mountains that would eventually reach more than 2000m. We stepped into the tourist office in search of a map. The attendant thought we were idiots, rightly so: ‘The hiking season doesn’t start for another 60 days, do you have the right equipment? I shouldn’t really give you this map.’ His English was impressive, his scolding even more so. We whimpered and said something about how we wouldn’t do anything stupid.
Our first hike was the only one that seemed accessible from Sinaia. We crossed through the railway station, literally across the tracks, over a bridge and through a pack of feral dogs (whose bark is far worse than their bite, by the way, we grew to appreciate them) and into the beech and spruce woods crowded by the snow-capped Carpathians. Entering into the mountains we were immediately met by signs warning us of the presence of bears.
We got a good whiff of bear as we made our way up into the mountains, reminding us of our true place in the food chain. Homo sapiens has, through our cognitive revolution and technological march, excelled to the top of the table in one respect but the fear of large predators presented Eddie and I with a different feeling. It was frightening and exhilarating to find the bear prints congealing in the mud. We were reminded of our fragility as animals but I felt a sense of calm from the fact that, for once, I knew my place. We couldn’t be expected to deal with a bear.
There were signs of them everywhere. We didn’t dare open our salami.
The principle timbers of the Carpathian woodlands were beech and Norway spruce (the tree of choice in the Csík region), with some sycamore and hazel. We encountered these horses dragging beech trunks down from the alpine woods to a little camp guarded by angry dogs. The whooping calls of the woodsmen alerted us to their presence.
Though we were in a truly wild landscape regarding large fauna, the rivers were in a sorry state. Many of the rivers around Sinaia, and indeed much of Romania, were concreted and dammed, some choked with plastic waste, others with logs caught on the lip of the concrete. These rivers were clearly once great but were now tamed, throttled by man.
Away from the rivers and woodsmen we hiked for hours in complete solitude with only the company of jay and nutcracker, an eerie silence pervading at higher levels beyond the sound of our boots scuffing rocks and boulders as we scrambled.
At the top of Mount Compatu a line of tracks was visible in the snow. Were these the footprints of wolf? There was absolutely no chance of encountering a wolf, but the fear simmered all the same.
Whatever four-legged animal had left those prints, it was the closest we could get to the wild heart of the Carpathians. To walk in a landscape with signs of wolf, bear, boar and more was a dream realised.
We left Romania exhausted by travel but with fond memories of the Hungarian region where we had spent time in the mountains and villages with local people. April is the wrong time to go for those who want to experience wildflower meadows and spring birds. It’s also the most dangerous time to encounter bears if cubs are present. Thankfully we only got a whiff. Romania and Transylvania has a great deal of bad press in Britain, mainly because of xenaphobic political positioning in the past few years from right-wingers (Boris Johnson) and liberals (Nick Clegg) alike and a book written by an Irishman over a century ago. In reality Romania is a massive, complicated country which cannot be generalised over and has no vampires. It is a place of great natural and cultural riches but also urban poverty and decline. Whether Hungarian or Romanian, its landscapes are species rich, wild and vast, its people welcoming and good humoured. Please support wildlife conservation and the people who enact it in this wonderful country.