Discovering the charms of Romania's heartland

Thanks to tradition and communism, Transylvania is an old fashioned land full of bears, wolves and shepherds with a strong sense of tradition

5 mins

This is fresh – since the rain,” whispered Katharina. Our guide gestured to a dinner-plate-sized paw print on the edge of the track, claws pointing into the forest. Fat drops of rainwater still splattered from the leaves around us, and thunder rolled over the nearby Faˇgaˇras¸ mountains – the remnants of the early evening storm that had brought down a tree across the path to the bear hide, forcing our small group to leave the van and continue on foot.

We hurried through the Transylvanian twilight, following the local forester, who staggered under the weight of a red sack full of maize and chocolate. Twice he froze, and stared into the forest, straining to decipher some realignment of the shadows, before relaxing and plodding on. We crossed a stream, swollen by the rain into an angry, muddy torrent, and arrived at a wooden shack, raised off the ground on stilts.

A natural amphitheatre

There was no doubt we were in the right place. The timbers of the hide were lacerated with claw marks – deep territorial gouges stretching 3m up the walls. “Don’t worry. They usually only come this close when there’s nobody inside,” Katharina told us – with the minimum of reassurance.

We huddled up the stairs into the dark, wood-scented viewing area. In front of us, through a huge window, was a clearing: a natural amphitheatre carpeted with butterbur plants, and hemmed in by birch, beech and spruce. The forester was tipping the contents of his red sack into hollowed-out logs; on the far edge of the clearing, a decayed cow’s carcass hung on a metal gantry like a sacrificial offering. It began to rain again. We peered into the gloaming, and listened to our breaths, and waited.

For the first-time visitor, Transylvania comes with a lot of mental baggage. Thanks to the Dracula industry, Romania’s heartland exists in the popular imagination in a kind of permanent Middle Ages, a land of fearful peasants, salivating beasts and the odd Gothic castle inhabited by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Of course, you know it’s all nonsense: you know modern Romania is a member of the EU, has troops serving in Iraq, and that the Count was a lurid fabrication anyway, as reliable a guide to the modern country as Sherlock Holmes is to London.


And yet…

you drive away from Bucharest airport and the cars are outnumbered by horses and carts. And yet, thanks to a rural economy arrested by 40 years of communist rule, meadows stretch as far as the horizon, and shepherding is still a way of life. And yet, as you turn off the highway into Transylvania, and the cloud-capped mountains start to rise around you, you gaze out over dark swathes of intact forest, home to more large carnivores than anywhere in Europe outside Russia. And by now, your fleeting disappointment at what there isn’t (vampires) has been replaced by astonishment at what there still is.

Transylvania's many different guises

In reality, there are many overlapping Transylvanias. There’s the one that serves up the fangs and garlic for visitors to Bran, ‘Dracula’s Castle’. There’s the genuinely medieval one of Saxon villages and fortified churches (favoured, among others, by our own Prince Charles, who has strong links with the region). There are the hikers’ haunts of the Faˇgaˇras¸ and Bucegi mountains, parts of the Carpathian range that sweeps south from Ukraine through Transylvania and on towards Serbia. And there’s the Transylvania I was most interested in: the one of forests, wolves and bears.

Romanians may not have many reasons to thank Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, the increasingly maverick and vain communist dictator they ousted (and executed) in 1989 – but their forests are one. In the 1950s he introduced a policy of selectively logging mature native trees, and extracting them by horse, allowing young trees to grow in their place and avoiding the ravages of large-scale clear-cutting. Combine this with the ancient tradition of shepherds and their flocks coexisting with carnivores (rather than wiping them out as pests, as in the West), and the 20th century was relatively benign for the country’s predators (if not for its citizens).

As we waited in the hide, we knew the woods around us were home to around 25 European brown bears, a fraction of the 5,000 roaming the country. And they didn’t disappoint us. After we’d been watching for an hour, the forest to our left rearranged itself subtly, and a large female emerged.

Over 2m high, she ambled cautiously across the clearing, her thick fur gleaming. She reared up to the feeding trough, swatted aside its tree-trunk cover as if it was a jam-jar lid, and muzzled deep into the sweetmeats inside. Although we had come with fair hopes of a sighting, it was not guaranteed, and we watched in awe as this implausibly massive animal – could something so big really exist in a European forest, outside a fairytale? – had its evening snack.

We were spellbound, but there was more to come

Over the next hour, we saw a dozen different bears come and go, each one arriving alone and scenting the air for rivals: a scarred, 400kg male with a prize-fighter’s snout; a skittish female with slender, manicured claws; an aggressive young pretender who mock-charged newcomers. For the grand finale, when night had almost fallen, a mother and two four-month-old bundles of fur appeared. The cubs’ pink tongues flickered hungrily into the chocolate, and when another male nudged into the clearing, they demonstrated their remarkable tree-climbing skills by scooting 10m up a nearby spruce, paw over paw, for safety.  

It was time for us to depart, and we quietly left the hide and walked briskly back along the track. Although bears are not natural aggressors, surprising them would be the last mistake you’d ever make – quite literally. One of the keys to their conservation has been minimising unscheduled encounters with humans. Getting a free snack from the forester deep in the woods, for example, deters them from the longer trek to the rubbish bins of nearby Bras¸ov, one of Transylvania’s largest cities, where their inherent risk is harder to manage. And with only a handful of people using the remote hide – no visitor centre or souvenir teddies here – the bears are mainly left alone to continue their natural omnivorous foraging.

Buttercups and bellflowers

In fact, as I was discovering, not much in Romania is laid on for tourists – and that is its greatest appeal. I spent most of my time in and around Piatra Craiului National Park, an hour’s drive from the hide. The park is blessed with almost 15,000 sq km of Alpen-box mountains and wildflowered fields, punctuated by the odd woodcutter hut. In Austria or Switzerland, it would have been swarming with walkers, but other than our group, I didn’t see another visitor.

Tucked into the elbow of the Carpathians, the park is crowned by the 2,238m limestone peak of Piatra Craiului (Royal Rock) itself, still dusted with snow in early June. From the plains surrounding Zaˇrnest¸i, the park’s industrial gateway town, the land rises swiftly up through vivid foothills – dense with thyme, buttercups and bellflowers – into alabaster crags and thickly forested ridges.

Up in the highlands are a handful of villages, founded three centuries ago by fugitives from the law or religious persecution. Scattered along the valley ridges, houses are constructed entirely of wood, including the nails holding together their shingle roofs. Above them – in the lofty Alpine pastures – shepherds graze their flocks all summer, and protect them at night from the wolves and bears.

My logic:

One reason I’d come to Piatra Craiului was to catch up with Danut Marin, an outstanding local wildlife and cultural guide who was the joint winner of last year’s Paul Morrison Guide Awards. Danut grew up in Zaˇrnest¸i in the Ceaus¸escu years, and worked with his wife, Luminita, in a munitions factory before turning to guiding in the 1990s.

With his heavy build and pronounced incisors, Danut seems half-bear, half-wolf himself; certainly he has an acute feeling for the wildlife and traditional lifestyles that the park supports. He and Luminita also run a guesthouse in their imposing 1920s home in Zaˇrnest¸i, and support a variety of projects in the local community. 

With Danut, I hiked from the outskirts of Zaˇrnest¸i into the park. We soon left behind the town’s threadbare tower blocks, constructed – with a classic communist touch – facing each other rather than the mountains, denying their factory-worker residents even the solace of a fine view.

Apple poo

Buzzards wheeled overhead and cowbells clinked in the distance as we followed a winding track through 200m-deep limestone canyons, before climbing a steep shepherd’s trail and entering the conifer forest.

Immediately, Danut was alert for signs of wildlife. “This could be a lynx,” he murmured, pausing over a print on the trail. “It’s very round, and the toes aren’t symmetrical like a wolf’s.”

Moments later he pointed over my head. “Look, up here!” He reached up to some scratches high on a tree, where a bear had paused to sharpen his claws. A little later we came across a fibrous pile of bear poo, chunks of apple still visible within. “In the villages, they say you can make great jam out of that,” he deadpanned.

As we walked on, he pointed out clumps of a bright white flower. “That’s toothwort. It’s associated with the iele, the siren spirits of the forest, and they say that anyone who picks it will be lured to their doom.” Such folk superstitions, he assured me, are still alive and well, and have been one factor in the country’s conservation successes.

The wolf, for example, has a profound significance in the national psyche, being venerated by both the Dacian tribes and Roman cohorts who feature in the country’s early human history. As such, Romanian wolves have suffered far less at the hands of shepherds than elsewhere in Europe.

I was about to see what that meant in practice

After a longish uphill trudge, the trees stopped abruptly, and we emerged onto a lush, sunlit meadow. The mountain peak lay beyond, and at its base was a large herd of sheep, a few cows and horses, a wooden hut and half a dozen shepherds. Danut made the introductions.

“They’ve only been up here a few days, because the snows have melted so late this year,” he explained. “But they’ll be up here for the next five months. They’re all professionals – most of these sheep belong to other villagers, down in the valleys. The shepherds are paid to keep them alive and well-fed all summer.”

He showed me the tiny, mobile lean-to the shepherds sleep in – just room for one, plus the thick fleece cloaks that guard them from the sub-zero nocturnal temperatures. Their dogs patrol the flock, too, and provide early warning of attacks – but it’s the shepherds who must be prepared to scare off a marauding bear or wolf at any minute.

Their other (meagre) source of income is sheep’s cheese. One of the shepherds showed me inside his hut, where the ewe’s milk is matured for months before being wrapped in fir-bark and sold. Inevitably, the EU is now outlawing this centuries-old cottage industry because the milk is unpasteurised, and there are fears that traditional shepherding will decline as fewer young Romanians are prepared to undergo the rigours of this ancient profession. “They lead a tough life,” said Danut, with understatement – and you can see why a school-leaver from Zaˇrnest¸i might look west for easier, better-paid prospects.

Middle-aged but not past it

If seasonal herding does die out here, something precious will have been lost. Without shepherds, the fragile peace between man and predator would be rocked (cue culling), and the villagers’ reliance on their own livestock would diminish (cue supermarkets). You can see why Prince Charles is drawn to Transylvania, where at least the battle for a sustainable economy isn’t already lost.

My last day in Romania encapsulated what’s at stake. From the hamlet of Magura, high in the national park, we drove by horse and cart to the former headquarters of the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (see box, p75). We met the project’s sole surviving ‘tame’ wolf, Crai – petting not advised – and heard plans for reintroducing other species, including bison and beaver, in the area.

Then we hiked on, up a stream bed, through the woods again, and out above the treeline. We puffed to the crest of a hill and took in the view: dense, unlogged forests lit up by shafts of sunlight, the little-walked ridge of Piatra Craiului rearing into the cloud, cows grazing on the high pastures, eking out a living for their owners in the scattered lowland towns and villages stretching to the horizon. If Transylvania is stuck in the Middle Ages, it’s a history lesson to savour.

Related Articles