One of my favourite ways to start a hike is when I can walk out of a town and straight into the mountains. One perfect base to do this from is the charming town of Vatra Dornei, in the northeast of Romania. I used to be a little scared of the northeast. It is arguably the remotest corner of the country and I’ve had some negative experiences there in the past. Most recently the dog bite, and in the more distant past I thought I wanted to buy a campsite in this area. It didn’t feel right, it wasn’t a good plan and I ran away screaming. Ever since I get a little mental shudder when I think of the northeast. But not any longer: I’ve discovered the northeast is perfectly friendly and perfectly gorgeous.
After exploring the Călimani, Rarău and Giumalău mountains, it was time to venture into the lesser known Suhard. For a long time I doubted whether I should go here at all; on the map it didn’t look all too exciting. I’m glad I gave it a go. The Suhard makes for delightful walking, especially in autumn.
I walked out of town up a long concrete staircase, past the Agenția Zonei Montane and then entered the forest. A lot of trees had been chopped down in a rather sloppy fashion, so I suspected this was a case of illegal deforestation and took pictures, meaning to report it later on. When I mentioned it at the AZM later on the director reassured me: there had been a violent storm earlier in the year and the trees had to be taken down. Besides he thought few people would be so brazen as to cut in the immediate vicinity of a town. I think he had a point there.
As I walked out of the forest and into a meadow, the clouds started lifting, revealing a glorious autumn landscape with mixed deciduous and coniferous trees. Meadows alternated with forest, distant mountains competed in a beauty contest with glimmering roofs in the nearby Dorna valley. As the sun beat the clouds to it, I felt joy bubbling up from my stomach. What a glorious day; what a glorious place. The trail was easy: the ascent was always gentle and most of the time I simply had to follow a cart track. It was a long trail too: I would have to cover about 50km in two days, but I didn’t mind that. It was a delight. Isn’t it strange how much I enjoy just placing one foot in front of the other? ‘To walk with grace and ease is all I want.’ That is a line I wrote ages ago, in near-perfect iambic pentameter – I used to think I should turn it into a sonnet one day, but perhaps it needs to stand on its own. Because that one line simply sums up what I desire most.
I’m going to fast-forward here and spare you all the details of the trail. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Three encounters not shown in the pictures: a large red deer crossing my path. A bird of prey carrying a rabbit in its claws – silent drama. A shepherd scaring me shitless by suddenly approaching from behind – flock gone, but he was doing maintenance jobs and informed me he’d seen two large wolves earlier that morning. I also heard some snorting wild boars.
After about 20km I could see my destination, a little monastery called Schitul Sfânta Cruce, glimmering in the valley. As I covered the last kilometre, I heard the bells ring. I figured staying within the bounds of the monastery would be safer, considering the wolves – but as I walked through the gate I was approached by two giant sheep dogs and several smaller, but more vicious ones. A glum-looking woman appeared and asked me what I wanted. I explained I was looking for a place to pitch my tent, and half-hoped they’d have a bed for me. Despite the fact there were four buildings on the premises they offered no cazare – but she pointed to a corner where I could pitch my tent. By this time I doubted whether I wanted to stay – the dogs seemed a bit of a challenge. But I decided to give it a go and conquer my fears. I asked her about five times whether they really wouldn’t bite. She said I need not be worried. In an attempt to befriend her, I asked how many monks lived there. ‘Just one,’ came the curt reply – ‘and I am his mother.’ Right. The matron. A force to be reckoned with.
The monk himself turned out to be a little more approachable than his mother. He taught me the names of the dogs; calling them by their names really seemed to help. But I kept carrying one of my walking poles around wherever I went, because they would keep barking at me and following in my tracks – a little closer to my heels than I felt comfortable with. Especially the little black monster, Dolly, would not let go. After a while I worked out how the hierarchy worked: Dolly would ‘discover’ me again somewhere and start barking like mad; the two big ones, Rex and Mama, would come check the situation and when they discovered it was only me, would leave Dolly to her own devices.
The next morning I continued on the blue stripe trail to Omu Peak (1932m). This was one of only two peaks that were actually on the trail; the other one was Pietrele Rosii Peak (1772m). Actually no – Omu Peak was preceded by a much peakier, but unnamed peak that had me swearing because I didn’t expect to have to clamber (and I didn’t feel like it). At Omu Peak navigation got a little more difficult; there was an ancient rusty signpost that didn’t give out all too many clues. I descended west on what I thought must be the red circle trail – but there were no red circles to be seen. Nevertheless, I seemed to be heading in the right direction. I soon saw a car and two men picking herbs. One of them turned out to be the owner of Cabana Croitor, one of the cabanas at the pass I was heading towards. I didn’t even know it existed, but happily accepted his invitation to come and stay. I continued walking and saw a lady gathering cranberries; she said they would leave soon and I could hop on if I wanted to. A few kilometres down the trail they did indeed overtake me and I joined them. It was 5pm and I had about 8km ahead of me, so I was quite happy to move a bit faster.
Cabana Croitor turned out to be heavenly. The setting sun filled the cozy dining room with gold; I got a bedroom all to myself. I felt very comfortable with Liviu, the exuberant owner, and his more pensive friend Teo. They gave me space to do my own thing but also let me in on their conversations. Teo made us all scrambled eggs with the greatest care. He said he always made breakfast for his wife but never dinner; hence scrambled eggs for dinner. We conversed about my adventures and God, about whom we held different opinions and beliefs – but there was no pressure anywhere; it was just an exchange of thoughts, not a crusade. Then the topic changed to poetry, and the men took turns reciting their favourite poems with gusto. A line that stuck with me was Noi vrem pământ: ‘We want land’, from a piercing poem by George Cosbuc. You can read it here; the English translation is provided alongside the Romanian original. And you can listen to it as well: does anyone know whether this is the author himself reciting it?
We watched the crescent moon rise over the peaks of the Rodna Mountains; Liviu and Teo taught me the names and benefits of the medicinal herbs they’d been picking that afternoon. I helped Liviu make a personal dictionary in English so that he could converse with tourists over the phone; he wrote everything down phonetically. We all went to bed at night; I watched the stars from my bed, feeling absolutely content and realized I hadn’t even had any booze – but I felt like I had. Good company in the best of surroundings proved better than any liquor.
I’m writing this from Baia Mare. I’m resting for a week before I do my last hike, or hikes, in the Rodna and Țibleș Mountains. When I do them and how many more days I walk depends on the weather and my energy levels. Today is stormy; the rain was lashing down earlier and higher up it will be snowing a lot. Winter is encroaching on the mountains and although I’m doing fine, my body and mind are telling me they need recovery. Aches and pains are building up in my muscles. Stress is harder to break down. I’m beginning to build a cocoon; it becomes harder and harder to get out there and brave the elements. I love the elements, but by now I also need a little more homeliness. I’m starting to make lists of all the things I want to eat when I get home. Frikandel speciaal. Fries with mayonnaise. Pumpkin soup. Of the things I want to do to get through winter. Run. Swim. Climb. Knit. It’s time to recharge. And after that, to return, and resume.
Day One: Vatra Dornei-Schitul Sf. Cruce | Distance: 21km | Time: 5hrs | Waymarks: blue stripe, red circle
Day Two: Schitul Sf. Cruce-Pasul Rotunda | Distance: 30km | Time: 7-8hrs? | Waymarks: blue stripe, red stripe
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