By Ellie Buchdahl

From sunrise over Ceahlau to sunset into the Bucegi valley, from snow-capped peaks to edelweiss, from lush forests to jagged cliffs – you can’t say you’ve lived in Romania until you’ve experienced her mountains. And to experience her mountains, you’ve got to stay in her mountains. 

Cabane (singular – cabana) are dotted all over the peaks of all our country’s ranges – and they are an experience in themselves. Neither a guest-house (because that’s a pensiune) nor a bunkhouse (refugiul) nor youth hostel (hostel), cabane are something very special. The closest equivalent is probably an Alpine hut. Cabane typically have a range of sleeping options, from two-person rooms to dorms sleeping ten or more. They’re manned by staff whose attitude will, I promise, warm the more often you stay. There’s usually a kitchen that offers some form of kibble. And – most importantly – there is a decent stock of beer, tuica and palinca.

One night in a cabana sandwiched between two days yomping about the hills is more than enough to banish the back-to-school September blues – especially as so many are relatively accessible from Bucharest, even if you don’t have a car. 

Pack your backpack, your boots and your best bottle of homemade visinata and come and join the overnight crowd at one of these…


1. Cabana Malaiesti

An idyllic spot nestled above a forest, beside a stream and in the shadow of the Bucegi mountains, Cabana Malaiesti is nothing if not picturesque. In summer, horses gambol among sprays of flowers; in winter, it’s a snow-dusted scene rivaling anything that Elsa from Frozen brewed up even in her craziest moments.

This is a great place for a day hike. The beer is cold-ish, the food ranges from simple and tasty to simple and diabolical, and the cake can be exceptionally delicious if you get it on a good day.

The only smudges on this crystalline perfection come from the less-than-luxurious toilet facilities – a row of pongy hole-in-the-ground jobs – and (if you’re an old miser like me) the hordes of guitar-strumming tuica-gluggers who descend upon Malaiesti each Saturday night. 

Getting there and walking around: Malaiesti isn’t car-accessible (thank goodness, most hikers would say), but it’s a doddle to get to from the train stations of Sinaia and Busteni. The most direct footpath, via Cabana Gura Diham and Diham, is a nice day’s hike. If the snow’s not too avalanchey and you’ve got some decent crampons, it’s still possible in the winter – and my goodness, Malaiesti is beautiful in the winter. If you’re coming from Busteni, drive or taxi it up to Cabana Gura Diham to avoid the tedious tarmac road. Alternatively, in the summer, you can try one of the “top-down” routes from the Bucegi ridge via Omu Peak. 

2. Cabana Valea Sambatei

This fairly basic hut in the Fagaras Mountains is a great springboard for a morning assault on Romania’s highest mountain, Moldoveanu (2,544m), or one of the peaks nearby such as Dara or Hartopul Darei.

The bedrooms are charming if you’re into rickety floorboards, heating provided by old-fashioned wood-burning stoves and scratchy blankets that bear the marks of a thousand previous hikers (a sleeping bag or liner is recommended). The rooms are incredibly hot, even in the dead of winter, and particularly if you’re in one of the dorm rooms where the mattresses are very snugly pushed together – but at least that means you’re unlikely to need those blankets. Keep a headtorch nearby for when the electricity generator gives out and you need to take a nocturnal trip to one of the (luckily indoor) toilets.

Food is available in the form of a couple of main courses – potato and pork, potato and sausage – ciorba, and of course, the beige bomb that is MBS, mamaliga cu branza si smantana or polenta with cheese and sour cream. For breakfast, they’ll whip you up an omelette.

Getting there and walking around

You can get to Valea Sambatei from Sambata de Sus (there’s a train station here) or Sambata de Jos, and walk up past Brancoveanu Monastery, which is nice, peaceful spot. As mentioned above, there are great Fagaras hiking options around.

3. Cabana Curmatura

Curmatura has to be the number one Piatra Craiului cabana, complete with cabana cat and huge bear-like dog (answers to the name of Muki). Many people just stop here for a ciorba and a piece of their stupendous prajitura cu ravaş (like a fortune cookie but in cake form). The place is packed with hikers at the weekend, who fill the sunny picnic tables outside in summer and the cosy dining hall in winter.

If you want to stay, Cabana Curmatura also has one or two delightfully chalet-like and clean rooms – although the toilet facilities are somewhat rustic and the outdoor shower resembles a diving board with a cubicle poised to jump off the end and into the puddle in the woods. 

Getting there and walking around

The nearby town of Zarnesti has a train station, but a car makes it easier to get to the start of the classic Curmatura hike from Botorog fountain. Walk through Cheile Pisicii up for two to three hours. Once there, Curmatura is the perfect jumping-off point for Piatra Craiului’s spectacular ridge walks and epic mountaineering gullies.

4. Cabana Ciucas

Everything about Cabana Ciucas is fancy by cabana standards. It has a fancy reception, a fancy swing seat in the garden, a fancy menu in the fancy dining hall that offers everything from fish to papanasim and fancy prices too – 130 lei for a double room or 260 to book out a six-bed dorm. The only thing that isn’t fancy is the service, which is somewhat less than friendly.

There are a multitude of rooms available but book ahead as it’s very popular. And yes, of course, you can book via Booking.com.

Getting there and walking around

Cabana Ciucas is especially easy to get to if you have a car – you can even drive up here if you’re into mountains minus the movement – and it’s a good base for the fabulous walks in the craggy Ciucas Mountains. Muntele Rosu, for example, is beautiful all year round, but especially when it turns completely pink with rhododendrons in early summer. 

5. Cabana Silva

Cabana Ciucas may win on glitz, but Cabana Silva is my choice in the Ciucas Mountains for a more authentic cabana experience – helped by the extremely warm owners. It’s made up of a small hut surrounded by a cluster of smaller hut-ettes, each housing two rickety beds, a rag rug and a heater that may or may not gasp out a bit of gassy heat depending on your luck. The huge stone hearth in the main building is a godsend in the winter with a vin fiert in hand, and there is a lovely terrace bar for the summer where you can drink draft Zaganu craft lager (named after the nearby peak).

One word of caution: This is not the best place to stay in winter unless you have an Antarctic sleeping bag. The cabin can suffer from the occasional power outage, which means those little heaters are nowt but scrap. There is, of course, a nearby road, so you can always take the car-based escape route.

Getting there and walking around

Like Cabana Ciucas, Cabana Silva is a good spot for exploring the Ciucas Mountains, and it is very accessible by car from the DN1A. 

The guide’s top tips: Four more cabanas you shouldn’t miss

Refugiul Balea Tunel

Plauiu Foii

Gentiana (Retezat)

Suru (Fagaras)

(Recommended by Andrea Nutu, authorised mountain guide and one half of www.alpine-challenge.ro)

TOP CABANA TIPS

  • In theory, no cabana will turn away a hiker in need of a bed. However, if you don’t fancy a bench amid the remnants of last night’s polenta, it’s best to book ahead. 
  • Phone is the most efficient way of booking (even if a website lists an email contact) – and be prepared for a few missed calls before you get through.
  • Be as clear as you can be about the kind of room you want – two person, four person – but be prepared to be flexible if your first choice isn’t available, even if being flexible means bunking up with strangers. You’re unlikely to be given a room for one person, and those who try to book both beds of a double are not looked upon kindly, especially at busy times.
  • If you don’t think you’ll fancy the food (or drink) on offer, it’s usually perfectly OK to bring your own. Some cabane will even give you a corner of their fridge if you ask nicely.
  • Bring a headtorch. Electricity is often quite sporadic.
  • Bring plenty of tissues, wet wipes and / or hand sanitiser. Depending on the cabana, loo roll and sinks can be as sporadic as the electricity. 
  • Bring earplugs. The cabana sing-song can be great fun, but not when you’re trying to get some shut-eye after or a before a long hike. Doubly recommended if you’re in a shared dorm.
  • For general information about routes in the mountains, visit www.muntii-nostri.ro.

Photography by Paul Varga, Alin Cretu and courtesy of Cabana Ciucas

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