Charlie Ottley: Romania’s Unofficial Ambassador to the World

Charlie Ottley requires no introduction to anyone with the slightest interest in Romania. He’s made some magnificent documentaries about this country, he’s covered almost every square centimetre on his trusty Harley and his latest series “Flavours of Romania” is currently at number 1 on Netflix Romania. Here Charlie tells about how he was first introduced to this country, what he most loves, what he likes least and other nuggets and all in his own inimitable style. 

My first experience of Romania was with friend and conservationist  Paul Lister who brought me here in 2010 with a view to creating a conservation documentary, loosely masquerading as a travel documentary for Travel Channel. I immediately fell in love with the wild forests and Carpathian mountain scenery and the hospitality and kindness of the Romanian people and decided I wanted to do all I can to help. So was born Wild Carpathia which with the help of HRH Prince Charles became the most viewed documentary ever made about Romania and was subsequently screened all over the world.

This led to the Romanian government commissioning us to make a second and third episode which also ran on Travel channel. With the first three episodes of the series we tried to cover all the different geographical areas of Romania. The more I travelled the country the more I discovered and the more I fell in love. There is nowhere else in Europe you can experience such vast mixed forests, such cultural diversity and a medieval heritage that still exists in many areas today. It is these traditional farming techniques and absence of pesticides, fences and fertilisers that has created probably the most biodiverse country in Europe. Of course all that is now changing and fences are going up across the country as forests are coming down and Romania is in danger of making all the same mistakes that other western countries have made over the last hundred years. It’s a shame because I believe tourism could become one of the biggest sources of revenue for this country. And I’m not talking about halting progress but focusing more on conservation and preservation of nature and patrimony as we move forward. These two aspects of a country’s evolution define its future identity. Those nations who keep their heritage intact and preserve their wild spaces tend to become the most affluent and sophisticated countries, take Norway for instance. 

So as I got to know Romania better I realised there were more films to be made, more causes to fight for and more to be done. I have been lucky to be in a unique position here. Although I was a Travel Channel presenter for ten years I am not so well known outside Romania but here I have been given the chance to make a real difference and hopefully help to effect positive change. This is why I am still here and this is why we continue to make films – by promoting all that’s fragile and beautiful in this country I hope we can convince enough people to care about these things and pave the way for a greener future. 

Three Romanian things I can’t live without – walking in the Carpathian mountains, Bucegi, Ciorba de Pui (chicken soup) and Earl Grey tea in the morning. 

What frustrates me (about Romania) – the cynicism of the Romanian people when it comes to foreign help or support. But I can’t really blame them – they have been lied to by consecutive governments, by the media, watching public funds end up in private bank accounts, while the lack of promised investment in roads, hospitals and infrastructure has been an issue for decades. In the end it becomes easier not to care, or just to suspect everyone of being on the take. Guilty until proven innocent. This is why Romanians love conspiracy theories. Because a lot of the time they are probably true! 

Flavours of Romania was an easy one for me. It constitutes the tenth series of ‘Flavours Of’ which started back in 2001 on Travel Channel with Flavours of Chile and included seasons on Columbia, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, Scotland, Greece and Peru. I wanted to do one for Romania to show all the cultural aspects as well as nature and conservation. It gave us a chance to focus an entire episode on each historic region so I was able to go much deeper than in Wild Carpathia. It took us seven months to film, during which I rode the bike nearly 20,000 kilometres around Romania and discovered so many amazing places. The series was sponsored by Carrefour and we had plans for screenings in store and Flavours merchandising with a cook book and t-shirts etc but it never happened. The show was screened on TVR, KanalD and Digi but it didn’t get seen by that many people until Netflix decided to screen it a few weeks ago. So you can imagine how surprised we were by the response. 

What do I see as the Future for Romania by 2030: I think it all depends on how the government runs the country over the next few years but if we put conservation at the heart of progress I think Romania has the chance to be the greenest country in Europe. But this depends on preserving non intensive farming techniques, possibly through subsidies, and encouraging eco-torusim in areas of outstanding natural beauty in order to maintain existing biodiversity. So discouraging the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers and limiting fenced areas and herd sizes etc. This also depends on legislation in the first place to categorise these areas in the same way that Romania also needs to list historic villages and have decent enforceable planning regulations to properly protect buildings and monuments as we do in other parts of Europe.  And of course sustainably management of forest areas with selective felling and  the mandatory replanting of existing species to protect Romania’s wild areas. It involves better waste management, and change in public attitudes to litter and fly tipping, and more green energy suppliers.  High speed trains that link major cities faster than by driving so there’s less incentive for people to use their cars for work. And of course better roads, with more tunnels where possible as we see in Spain and Italy.  All these things will help make Romania the number one wild tourism destination in Europe as well as one of its greenest and more prosperous nations. 

Next year we will be making Wild Danube which I want to have ready for National Romania Day 2021 to premiere on all the major channels before we offer it to Netflix. In the next five years I want to have all the buildings on my property in Sirnea restored and converted to accommodation space so I can offer them as self-catering holiday lets with the help of local people and services. I would also like to find properties in the wooden villages near Toplita to do the same thing and help boost tourism in these remote, beautiful but incredibly poor areas by employing local guides, local food producers and helping to create businesses. If possible I would also love to have a place in the Danube Delta, ideally close to the Black Sea.

 Favourite phrase in Romanian – Ce sa fac!

Romania can show the world the cultural and financial value of holding on to heritage and traditions while building a greener high tech future and that these things need not be mutually exclusive

Number 1 Romania moment? Too many to choose from sorry! Picking and eating wild cherries in the mountains, seeing Flavours of Romania get to number 1 on Netflix, Being handed the Cross of The Royal House of Romania by Her Majesty Margareta, getting through a TED talk without running out of things to say, strange though that might sound coming from me. Singing and playing guitars around a fire with close friends in beautiful locations. The list is endless.


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