By Simon Parker
The Scottish writer and broadcaster Muriel Grey humorously divided outdoors lovers into three distinct categories: ramblers, scramblers and danglers. Ramblers amble along lowland paths while scramblers head for the peaks with the joyous expectation of using all their limbs to clamber over anything in their way to reach the summit. Danglers – the climbers – are the true mountain gymnasts with their own lexicon of graded routes up vertical rock faces and a penchant for black Lycra.
Romania seems to stretch, enhance and blend these very British definitions. Ramblers, emerging from their guesthouses, can enter a rural landscape unchanged for hundreds of years and explore fortified churches that might have jumped straight out of a Tolkien novel. Using cable cars, they can also enter the world of the scrambler, enjoying magnificent vistas from 1500m+ without the sweet and aching legs that would be required in many other nations. The scramblers can themselves move up a level due to the addition of permanent steel chains and cables on many mountains that allow those with a head for heights safely to ascend and traverse tricky sections that would have otherwise only been accessible to well-equipped danglers. Not being a dangler, I can only assume that they have a plethora of prime locations to practise their art while the winter gives them dramatic playgrounds on the high ridges and ample opportunities to scale frozen waterfalls.
But there’s something else that’s very special about hiking here. I think the late James Roberts came closest to putting into words when he wrote that: “The unique attraction of Romania is its ability to offers truly wild mountains in close juxtaposition to very civilized life”. You only have to walk a few minutes from the tourist hot spots of Sinaia, Bușteni or Brașov to find yourself very much in the territory of the bear, the wolf and the lynx.
The obvious place for low-cost but surprisingly good quality gear is Decathlon, www.decathlon.ro/ro/magazin, They now have four stores in Bucharest.
If you have a slightly bigger budget, Himalaya, www.himalaya.ro is probably the best specialist outdoor shop in the city.
The North Face have good outlets at the Promenada and Băneasa malls.
However, a trip to Braşov might give you more buying options. There are at least three outdoorsy shops on Strada George Barițiu/Mureșenilor along with Himalaya and The North Face on the pedestrianised Str. Republicii.
While brands like Mammut, Solomon, The North Face and most of the major boot bands can easily be found in Romania, you need to consider mail order, or a trip, to the UK for Mountain Hardwear, Mountain Equipment, Lowe Alpine, Berghaus and Paramo products.
The brilliant Zenith maps (zenithmaps.com) now cover most of the main hiking areas and come in useful small 1:25,000 and 1:30,000 scales and are made of weatherproof paper. They are not always that easy to find in Bucharest though. The popular red Ben Alpin maps are found in most hiking shops but the smaller scale makes them less useful. The Muntii Nostri maps are also popular but have the same problem with the scale.
Where to Hike
I’m going to be writing a series of route descriptions in OZB for one day hikes over the next few months. However, to whet your appetite, these are just a few of the many options for exploring the high places in Romania.
The Bucegi Massif
Covering over 300km2, the Bucegi National Park is one of the most accessible and varied mountain areas in Romania. I would strongly recommend a visit to the famed ‘Sphinx’ rock formation and Heroes’ Cross on Vf. Caraiman. Access to this popular part of the mountain can be from either Sinaia or Buşteni, either on marked trails or, via the cable cars in these two towns. The northern access routes from near Râşnov are, in my experience anyway, much more interesting for serious ramblers and scramblers. The hike up to Cabana Mălăieşti and then on to Vf Ţigăneşti, Vf Scara and the 2505m Vf Omul is an outstanding (if very long) day trip.
The Ciucaş Massif
Famed for its karst scenery and willy-shaped rock formations, the Ciucaş mountains are about the same distance from Bucharest in the car, and offer a quieter alternative Bucegi massif. Their lower height also means you can bag some stunning peaks at almost any time of the year. The most popular access point is the forest road to Cabana Ciucaş and then either west to the 1,954m Vf Ciucaş or south east to an excellent ridge containing Vf Gropșoare (1883m), Tigăile Mari (1844m) and Zăganu (1817m).
This 14km jagged ridge is quite simply a scrambler’s paradise. There are a number of day possible routes from Zărnești that offer a total body workout with the aid of a few well-positioned chains. However, it’s the prolonged sections of generally easy scrambling up clearly marked pitches that make it such an enjoyable mountain to explore. For the slightly less adventurous, or those pushed for time, Piatra Mică, at the northern end of the ridge, is a relatively easy day hike with just a few easy sections using chains. For those wanting to keep their hands away from anything metallic, there’s a lovely circular hike up to Cabana Curmătura, to enjoy lunch with some stunning views before descending into the Zărnești Gorge.
Valea Lui Stan
This is a very different day out. Valea Lui Stan is a relatively short (about 11km) gorge walk/adult playground using lots and lots of ladders and cables. I’ve done it twice without getting wet, although it’s certainly a trip for a warm summer’s day. I would imagine children aged 10 upwards would absolutely love it. It’s a circular route, parking near the Vidraru Dam at the start of famed Transfăgărășan road.
An excellent way to explore Romanian’s mountains is to go with a group, although the most popular ones might differ from those in other countries. These are in fact tour operators: you pay a small fee for coach travel from Bucharest to the mountains and then hike with qualified mountain guides. The groups can be large: 20-50 people but they effectively function as clubs as you’ll see the same faces on each trip. The two that I’ve hiked with, Terra Incognita and Călător Prin Romania both have FB pages and trips tend to fill up very quickly when they are advertised.
Terra Incognita is probably the biggest and each trip usually includes between one and three English speaking guides. The hikes vary from the easy to the very challenging and there you’ll often find other expats participating in their trips. Their FB page is www.facebook.com/travel.to.romania/ and you can contact their owner/founder, Edward Răzvan on 0732338273
Călător Prin Romania is a smaller outfit but is also attracting non-Romanians and can be contacted via their FB page: https://www.facebook.com/calatorprinromania2018. As with Terra Incognita, the trips tend to fill up very quickly.