By Simon Parker
What is it?
Possibly the easiest way to get into the Ciucas mountains, this navigationally simple(ish) route follows the broad and almost treeless Bratocea ridge which offers spectacular views of Bucegi mountains and beyond. At the furthest point from the start, you’ll also get some cracking views of the Ciucas peak, which confident hikers might be tempted to scale. The slightly less adventurous might be very content with the 1872m Vf. Bratocea, which you are likely to have all to yourself. It also avoids trudging up the usual and boring path/road up to Cabana Ciucas saving you over three tedious kilometres, 300m of knee jarring assent and, the hundreds of other hikers and day trippers who drag themselves up this way.
Where? Ciucas mountains, near Cheia
Difficulty? Medium-hard, but not very long.
Child friendly? Possibly not.
Distance: approx. 9km
Assent: 477m or 559 if you bag Vf. Bratocea
Do-able in winter? Nearly always, but make sure you are suitably equipped!
Potential hazards: as there is very minimal tree cover, take your shades, wear a hat and liberally apply sunblock or I can guarantee that you’ll fry even in the depths of winter.
Map: Bel Aplin MUNTII/ MOUNTAINS CIUCAS, 1:30000
It’s about a two and a half hour drive from Bucharest. Take the E60 out of Bucharest and just after you pass Ploieşti, take the clearly marked turn-off/slip road signed to Vălenii de Munte. Go through Blejoi and keep following the A1 north up to Cheia. Roughly 1.5km past this spread-out village, the road enters a series of seven sharp zigzags – not difficult unless you are stuck behind one of the numerous lorries who use this road as a faster route to Brasov. When you get to the top, you’ll be about 1km from the carpark on your right which is marked on Google maps as Pasul Bratocea and is right on the Brasov/Prahova counties boundary.
It’s worth noting that this route is surprisingly quiet on a Sunday afternoon – you’re certainly not going to be stuck for half an hour or more like you would do at the usual E60 bottlenecks such as Azuga and Predeal.
Where to eat:
Restaurant La Butuci in Cheia (as the streets in this village don’t seem to have names, use your GPS to find it). If closed, the restaurants in the larger hotels will nearly always feed hungry hikers.
Where to stay:
Booking.com will come find a plethora of hotels in Cheia, but we were quite impressed with this one:
Part 1: the track
Starting from the carpark, you can’t miss the wide track on your right, shown on the map as a white road. Follow it through a series of gentle zigzags and if you see the first of the red stripe markings, tempting you to take a short-cut to the left through some trees, ignore them, and enjoy the leisurely ascent. Within a few hundred metres you’ll soon be rewarded (for doing very little) by the first of the excellent views west towards the Bucegi mountains. The track takes you briefly into the start of the thinly-spread forest before coming to an abrupt end at a gated radio mast building, marked on the map as Releu.
Part 2: the steep bit
Just before the end of the road look out for the path on your right – it’s narrow, but quite distinct with the red stripe trail markings usually appearing on trees. On the map, it’s shown as the start of the red dashed line. This is the only section of the hike that can in anyway be described as physically demanding as you gain altitude quite quickly along the zigzagging path. You’ll soon start to see the first of the area’s famed karst scenery with “willy” shaped rock formations, Sfinxul Bratocei (a slightly smaller version on the Sphinx at Babele in the Bucegi national park).
Part 3: the ridge
By the time you reach Coltii Bratocei, the steep(ish) assent is almost over and you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. The path is now very easy to follow with 360 degree views which, in my opinion, are amongst the finest in Romania. You are initially led to left of the ridge line and then to the right of it, as you approach the crossroads at Saua Tigailor. If you feel you deserve some lunch or brunch, Saua Tigailor is a fine place to have it, soaking in the magnificent views of Vf. Ciucas.
It’s now decision time as you have a number of options for what to do next. (a) go off piste and pick your way up through the rocks for very roughly 100m to bag Vf. Bratocea – there’s a brass plate marking the summit although we found another top a few metres away that was very slightly higher. Whichever one you claim, it’s 99% certain you’ll have it all to yourself and it’s another visually spectacular snacking spot. You can then either follow your tail back to Saua Tigailor or, pick your way through some different rocks back down to the red stripe path and eventually back to the carpark (b) keep on following the red stripe markings to the top of Vf. Ciucas. It’s another 209m of very steep ascent but if you are feeling fit and are comfortable with a bit of scrambling (and coming back down the same way you climbed up….), it’s well worth it. (c) follow the red cross markings to Cabana Ciucas. This adds another 6+ km there and back and turns the hike into quite a full day. The path goes down then up and has a few steep sections, but you’ll be rewarded with even more brilliant views as well as a proper lunch at the Cabana. Just don’t be tempted to follow the road down to the A1 and do a full loop back to your car – as it will involve a very boring decent to the main road followed by some quite dangerous road walking. (d) simply re-trace your steps back along the ridge to your car and enjoy those wonderful views all over again.
Whichever options you choose, I can guarantee that you’ll have had an unforgettable day in the high mountains for surprisingly little physical effort.