The Transylvanian Alps


Back in April, I received a Facebook message from an old colleague from Bendigo who is now living and working in Bristol, asking if I wanted to go hiking in Romania in June.  Looking at my travel schedule, June was good for me so it was all good to go!

Anyway, after a few messages back and forth, we decided to go for the Făgăraș Mountains also known as the Transylvanian Alps and specifically, up Moldoveanu, the tallest peak in Romania.

Fast forward to May and we hadn’t really planned the details but we figured that we would just decide when we get there.  Therefore we booked our flights in and out of Romania, bought our maps of the region and set off!

Getting in

Departing Riga at around 11pm, I arrived in Bucharest at 2am with plans to sleep in the airport until Daimo arrived at around 11:25am.  Luckily for me, there was a nice quiet area after exiting the baggage claim hall where I could lie down and use my pack as a pillow…  Though I was awoken a few times by the noise of a vacuum cleaner, the airport police nor the cleaners cared about me (or the other 5 people sleeping around me).  After waking up at 8am, I had possibly the most expensive cups of coffee in my entire life (coffee and a croissant cost $25USD???) whilst waiting for Daimo’s flight to land.  Luckily there was free Wifi in the terminal so I was able to suss out the transport to the city.

Anyway, with his Ryanair flight arriving on time, we headed downstairs, changed a bit of money, then bought our contactless transport card to take the 780 bus from the airport, straight to Gara du Nord train station.  If you’re travelling as a group, you can charge all of your fares on a single card, by simply pressing the “2” button on the contactless scanner on the bus, then tapping on, then repeating for any other passengers in company- quite a handy system!

Upon hearing that I was going to Romania, a friend gave me a quite a shock after she shared with me a video of “Bruce Lee” the king of Romania’s tunnel underworld…  I have no words to describe the situation, so just watch the video below….

The entrance to the tunnel system is right in front of Gara du Nord, the main train station in Bucharest.  I managed to take a snap of the hole whilst passing by in the bus…

Note the hole in the ground...
Note the hole in the ground…

Apart from these people living underground, the other huge warning we got from anyone and everyone (including locals) was to not trust the taxi drivers as some taxis are operated by the mafia.  Basically, we were warned that if you want to take a taxi, make sure you make a booking using the electronic terminals available.  There, you will receive the number of the taxi and the driver, who you should confirm with before entering the taxi.  Some mafia run taxi’s look exactly the same as the legitimate ones and under no circumstances accept an offer for a taxi. If you do, the following scenarios will eventuate:

  1. You will be driven into the middle of nowhere and the taxi driver will demand a ridiculous payment for your return to the city.
  2. Another person may jump into the taxi, threatening to assault you unless you pay up
  3. The taxi driver will drive you to your destination, with your luggage in the boot and demand a ridiculous sum, otherwise he will drive off with your stuff…
  4. Or a combination of any of the scenarios above…

This is such a problem that there were huge signs at Gara du Nord, warning people of this…  Luckily we made it to Gara du Nord on the bus, without having to try our luck with the taxis.  There, it was pretty easy to put any extra baggage we didn’t want to carry on our trek into storage and catch the train all the way to Brasov, where we planned to take a local train then to Zarnesti, at the foot of the Fagaras Mountains.

Huge signs inside Gara du Nord warning of the dodgy taxis..
Huge signs inside Gara du Nord warning of the dodgy taxis..

Note: If you are ever searching for train timetables in Romania, go here.  It’s the official site that’s hard to find and it’s available in English!

A bizarre night in Brasov

Taking the 15:30 regional express train to Brasov, we arrived on the dot at 18:10.  From there, the next intercity train to Zarnesti was at 8pm.  However, we were told that a bus departs to Zarnesti from Brasov every half hour, so we decided to go with that to save a little bit of time…

Walking out of Brasov Station
Walking out of Brasov Station

Big mistake.

After enquiring about the bus, we were told it does not depart the combined train and bus station which we arrived at.  Instead, we had to go to “Autogara 2”, not “Autogara 1” but “Autogara 2”.  The directions from locals was basically, walk down the main street (pretty obvious), take the third right at the round about and then you arrive at the station.  In total, the walk was around 3km away.

How hard could that be right?  Well, unfortunately for us, it was lost in translation that we should walk all the way to the end of the street and then turn right, not at a roundabout, so instead of heading here:

Where we should have gone...
Where we should have gone…

We ended up here….at some hotel:

Where we did go...
Where we did go…

By this time, it was 7pm and so cutting our losses, we walked to the hotel and asked them to call a taxi to bring us back to Brasov station to take the train to Zarnesti.  However, when we arrived, the lady at the ticket office told us that there were no more trains to Zarnesti that day for reasons unknown, even though we swore there was one at 8pm.    Therefore, we decided to take another taxi from the rank (we basically waited for a taxi to drop off passengers, and hopped in the same taxi if the passenger didn’t have a black eye :P) to take us straight to Autogara 2.

Unfortunately for us, when we arrived at Autogara 2 only minutes later, the drivers there told us that there were no more buses going to Zarnesti that night.

Then, it clicked why there were no more trains and no more buses; it was a Saturday… Our next available mode of transport to Zarnesti was to take the first train the next morning from Bartolomeu Station (one after Brasov on the way to Zarnesti) at 8:16am.

Luckily for us, a street pretty much containing all the hotels in Brasov was around the corner from Bartolomeu Station, so we headed off to find somewhere to stay.

Just when we thought our drama for the evening was over, every hotel/motel we tried was full and turned us away.  After getting turned away by four motels, we tried going in individually, with/without our packs, to no avail.  How the hell can every room in this town be taken?! We were thinking… As the time neared 11pm, we were getting desperate, so after spotting a sign to the local police station, we walked towards there to seek their help in finding some accommodation.

Luckily for us, the coppers were having a pretty quiet night, so they happily volunteered to drive us around town trying to find a room – they too were confused at the lack of rooms.  So there we were, in the middle of the night, getting driven around by some Romanian cops.  After visiting 3 more places, we finally found a twin share room in a relatively new hotel… The cops told us that supposedly there is a car rally in town and therefore all rooms have been taken, however we found this very hard to believe as there were no signs of a rally… literally, no signs, people, teams, vehicles… anything!  To this day, I’m still wondering if we were simply fobbed off or there really was no more room in the town (which was absolutely dead..) Either way, we were extremely thankful to the local police.  In fact, the next morning, whilst walking to Bartolomeu Station, Mariat (one of the officers who drove us around) drove past us and pulled up to wish us good luck with our hike.

A full map our our hike is shown below:

Day 1: Zarnesti to Comisul

Right on time, the local intercity train arrived at the station, so we hopped on board and bought our tickets from the conductor via his quite-high-tech Android tablet + bluetooth wireless ticket printer (just like when you return a hire car at the airport).  In fact, Android tablets seem to be the bomb in Romania, with the taxi drivers in Brasov using them as their fare counter (linked to GPS location for distance calculated fares, as well for time-based fares, and navigation at the same time showing people where they are going).

Arriving in Zarnesti and being pointed in the right direction to the town centre, we noticed that there was a beer festival in town!  As we had arrived quite early, they will still setting up, however that did not stop the locals from starting already.  However, this did mean that there were plenty of people about in this otherwise sleepy small town, so we were able to consult the locals on how to get to the trail head.  It turns out, the best way is to book a local taxi (after checking the pre-paid rates, it was quite reasonable), but we had to wait until they could find a “designated driver” for the day who wasn’t attending the beer festival.

Sneaking in a beer whilst we waited, we set off to Plaiul Foii to begin a trek.

From the drop off point at Plaiul Foii, access to the very start of the trail head is only really accessible via 4WD (lots of mud etc).  After saying goodbye to our taxi driver, we started walking up the road, following Trail No. 15 as per our map of the Fagaras Mountains.

After 9km of walking on the road, we hit our first trail marker for the main ridge trail.  There, we crossed a stream and headed up for 2km, gaining nearly 800m.  This section was a real killer on the legs, especially with full packs weighing over 20kg on the back. Nevertheless, in around an hour, we reached a deforested clearing in the forest at the top of this hill, where we walked along an undulating, though steadily rising section leading to Vf. Lerescu at 1690m A.S.L where we had a clear view of Lake Pecineagu and the Iezer-Papusa Mountain Range to the south and south west of our location and the ridge line leading to Vf. Comisul.

With some clouds and fog settling in and after a solid 8 hours of walking, we decided to stop just under the peak of Vf. Comisul, though above the tree line to set up camp for our first night.

Day 2: Comisul to Urlea

We woke the next morning to clear skies looking south.  After heading up and over Vf Comisul, we refilled our water supplies with fresh snowmelt and pushed on, climbing up to  Vf. Berevoescu Mare at 2300m A.S.L in around 2 hours.   With a ‘fishbone’ topography, walking along the ridge line pretty much gave unobstructed views north and south, with massive ridges extending off either side every few kilometres.

With the terrain being relatively flat, we managed to power through the day with relative ease, especially compared to the climb the day before.  Spurred on by the endless pristine views, we managed to make it to just below Vf. La Fundul Bandei, overlooking the still-frozen, Lake Urlea to the North.  Overall, we covered around 18km on our second day, enough to put us well placed to reach Moldoveanu the before late afternoon the next day.

So far, conditions underfoot were pretty good.  I must say that I was really impressed with the upkeep of the trails so far, with plenty of clear and obvious trail markers and close to no overgrowth over or deterioration of the track.  We did start to see a lot more snow and ice, particularly in northern valleys which were shaded from the daytime sun and we started to experience a lot more rockier conditions both ascending and descending towards the end.

Temperatures so far during the day have been quite pleasant, especially with the sun out, however in the afternoon to early evening, cloud, wind and a sprinkle of water dropped the mercury dramatically to single digits within half an hour.  This usually meant a soup-based dinner to warm up then off to bed early, ready for a fresh start the next day.

Day 3: Urlea to Ucea Mare

The next morning it again was an early start and an immediate climb up and around the ridgeline above Lake Urlea.  Right where we left off from the previous day, we started to see a lot more snow and rocks.

From our camping spot near Urlea, it was approximately 9km to reach Vistea Mare, which shares the ridgeline as Moldoveanu.  With an altitude of ‘only’ 2544m, Moldoveanu did not exactly stand out from the mountain range, but the relative flatness of the range directly to the south of Moldoveanu promised a stunning view from the top.

From the Vistea Mare refuge cabin, it was a sharp 200m climb to the top of Vistea Mare, then a scramble across a narrow and rocky ridge 350m south to Moldoveanu.  I personally found this change in terrain quite refreshing after two and a half days of ‘plain walking’.

After ‘summitting’, we reluctantly decided to head back before the afternoon weather came in.  Planning to reach Vf. Podragu that evening, we decided to stop short and set up camp early at a spot just under Ucea Mare when we started to hear and see thunderstorms heading in.

Luckily, we managed to set up camp, eat dinner and wash up literally 15 minutes before the rain started falling.

Just give it a moment…


Clouds coming in…

Day 4: Ucea Mare to the Transfagarasan

Day 4 of our trek was probably the most dangerous day we experienced.  Unlike previous mornings, the weather hadn’t cleared by the morning, so we began walking in the clouds.

The snow on the ground steadily increased as we walked along.  As we approached Vf. Podragu, our decision the night before to set up camp early was well justified as all we could see was snow and little or no places to set up camp.  In fact, the lake we had planned to camp at (Lake Podu Guirguilui) was still frozen.

As we continued to push on, we were both wishing we had our ice axes as we came across many steep slops totally covered in icy snow… In hindsight, what we did was pretty stupid, though not pushing through would have meant turning around or an unknown icy departure north or south off the mountain ridge.  Luckily, we lived to tell the tale.

After about 5 such crossings and more scrambling over rocks and across icy stretches, we hit a break in the ridge and a split in the track, 2175m A.S.L, at Portita Arpasului.  To the left was a drop down to 1600m towards the Transfagarasan, or we could continue along the main trail, ascending 300m to Vf. Capra.  Though we had enough time, conditions permitting to reach Negoiu Peak, the second highest peak in Romania,  (and were planning to if possible) the view of the main trail from this intersection did not boost our moral at all.  What lied ahead was 2km stretch, hugging the side of the ridge across snow and rock, whilst climbing 300m.

The descent to a refuge cabin, then the Transfagarasan.
The descent to a refuge cabin, then the Transfagarasan.
Where the main trail led to...
Where the main trail led

In the end, we decided to take the easy route by going left and descending, as we felt we did not have the right equipment to safely traverse the terrain ahead, especially the final ascent up the snow covered slope.

The walk through the valley on the way down to the Transfagarasan coincided with the appearance of the sun through the clouds.  Along the way down, we saw three groups of shepherds herding their flocks along the green mountainsides as well as many waterfalls and mountain streams.

After hitting the road, we saw the Cabana Paraul Caprei, one of the many mountain cabin/lodges along the Transfagarasan.  Though the operators couldn’t speak English, we managed to get a pretty good deal for accommodation that night (30 pounds, twin room with breakfast).  The restaurant menu was pretty good value as well and after a couple of long days hiking, we smashed through three mains each plus desert, again for a bargain price (20 pounds total?).

With great difficulty, we also managed to book our taxi the next day to take us to Sibiu, the largest town nearby.  From there, we planned to hire a car to drive the Transfagarasan, then train it back to Bucharest from Sibiu.

Wrapping up

All in all, considering we winged most of the trip, I thought we made really good progress over the days in the mountains.  We certainly were treated to some spectacular views, plenty of fresh air and met many helpful and friendly locals along the way to help our journey go as smoothly as possible.  I guess our only downfall was the limited research of mountain conditions after Moldoveanu and forgetting what day of the week it was when we arrived…  I’m really surprised that we didn’t see more people hiking in the Fagaras Mountains because the upkeep and condition of the trails was superb and getting there was actually quite simple, even if not all the information is available online.

It’s funny.. Go back ten years and idea of being able to fully research a trip online would have been mind-blowing.  In some ways, the internet has somewhat amplified the ‘control freak’ tendencies of some people by having all of this information available and at the same time stripping people of their confidence in travelling and relying upon the general (and more common than you think) helpful nature of people.  I’m not saying that it’s better to do one or the other; horses for courses, but I personally find ‘winging it’ somewhat refreshing and exciting.

Either way, this trip is certainly good practice for an even bigger journey ahead of me… the Mongol Rally!



Leave a Reply