I suppressed another yawn. After two flights, a four-hour drive and a mere three hours of sleep, the last thing I wanted to do was hike up a mountain sheathed in snow. My eyes glided up the slopes on either side of us, where shrivelled trees stood still despite the breeze that sifted through the forest. The cold air stung my lungs and pierced through my supposedly thermal clothes. I quickened my pace, hoping it would warm me up, but just as I had finally started regaining some feeling in my numb toes, our guide asked us to stop by the side of the path.
“If you look closely, you can see footprints in the mud,” he said, crouching down by the tracks, “They belong to a marten.”
While Dan was outlining the shape of the creature’s paw, the sun broke through the clouds. I closed my eyes, savouring its warm touch on my face. When I opened them again, the forest had come to life. The trees now stirred, sprinkling more snow onto the path. Thousands of silver specks glittered around us. Suddenly, I was no longer thinking about how warm and comfy my bed had felt an hour earlier. Instead, I was gripped by the desire to conquer the mountain.
Known for their unspoilt wilderness, Romania’s Carpathian Mountains boast a rich variety of wildlife, which includes wolves, lynx, chamois, golden eagles and brown bears. They are also home to centuries-old villages and traditional farming practices which survive to this day. In fact, the Piatra Craiului and Bucegi Mountains in the Southern Carpathian range stand as a model of coexistence between man and predator, where people live off traditional, small-scale farming in an area with the highest concentration of wolves and bears.
I followed the others up a steep, narrow path, pushing aside low overhanging branches and occasionally tripping over hidden tree roots. As we reached the top of the hill, a cluster of wooden houses came into sight. Gumdrop-shaped haystacks dotted the mountainside. We stopped for a few moments to absorb the tranquillity of the place, and watched as shadows of clouds flitted forebodingly across the pine-covered slopes.
The silence was broken by the distant bleating of sheep. Farm dogs became alerted to our presence, their barking a clear warning that we should stay away. Due to the common threat of predators prowling close to habitable areas, Carpathian shepherd dogs are extremely territorial, while they also tend to be aggressive towards strangers. Thankfully, a wooden fence lined both sides of the path that cut through the village. The only thing we had to worry about was an accidental encounter with a brown bear.
Located at an altitude of 1,000m above sea level, the village of Magura is surrounded by some of the most dramatic mountains in the Southern Carpathians. There are around 400 residents in the village, many of whom make their living off the land by maintaining age-old farming practices. Horse-drawn carts and scythe-wielding farmers are still part of daily life in Magura. Even age-old superstitions remain prevalent in this part of Transylvania, especially the belief in the fearsome strigoi, or vampires.
A few farmers took in the rare sight of visitors wandering through their village and snapping photos of their livestock. As I was having a conversation with one of the sheep, a woman on the other end of the farm started waving at me. Once she had my attention, she bent down by the hutch next to her feet and picked up a rabbit by its ears. I gaped at the sheer size of the creature which dangled from her grip, then stepped away from the fence to spare the bunny any further distress.
Wanting to outshine his neighbour, the man in the next farm disappeared behind a large, hanging blanket and returned with two puppies. A chorus of oohs and awws filled the air as the little mutts jumped around playfully in the snow, under the unimpressed gaze of a stationary cow.
Besides leading their herds across the Carpathians, some shepherds also produce the much sought-after branza de cosulet; a traditional type of cheese that is preserved in a casing of pine or fir bark. The shepherds typically strip the bark between May and July, when the fir tree resin is abundant and easy to peel. The bark is later softened and hand-sewn into a cylinder. Meanwhile, the cheese is salted, shredded and kneaded, then pressed into the bark tube, where it is left to age in a cool, dark place for around two months.
The bark-aged cheese is transported to nearby town markets in carts drawn by horses with red tassels hanging from their bridles. According to local belief, the red tassel wards off the evil eye and brings luck to the owners.
Due to the lack of cooling facilities in remote mountain villages, shepherds and cheesemakers have been struggling to meet EU standards on food hygiene since Romania joined the bloc in 2007. As a result, many shepherds have had no choice but to abandon their traditional livelihood and seek other jobs.
The path forked into two directions. A cross had been erected on the side of the trail that led down the hill. In accordance with traditional funerary rites in the area, the cortège has to pass through paths that have been marked with a cross. This not only protects the body from evil spirits and ensures the safe passage of the soul, but it also prevents the return of the departed one as a blood-sucking strigoi – the very same mythical creature that fired the imagination of horror writer Bram Stoker.
As we walked away from the heart of the village and deeper into the wilderness, I couldn’t help but feel slightly unnerved by the eerie wintry silence that had suddenly enveloped us.
The houses off the main path looked deserted. Some of them were barely discernible in the thick layer of snow that coated the slopes. Barren trees speckled the hillsides, while the occasional pastel-coloured house added a splash of colour to the landscape. The striking contrast and surreal beauty of the place made it look like something straight out of a Chinese brush painting.
The Romanian Carpathians make up over a third of the country’s territory and they are considered to be the last true wilderness in Europe. Transylvania is in fact known as ‘the land beyond the forest,’ where around 6,000 bears and 3,000 wolves roam the Carpathian woodlands. Villagers have lived alongside these predators for centuries, and they continue to do so in relative harmony, despite regular attacks on livestock by wolves.
Bear attacks on people are very rare in the Carpathians. However, brown bears are descending from the mountains in increasing numbers and scouring villages for food. Shepherds are prohibited from killing the animal – their only hope of saving their sheep rests on their shepherd dogs.
The tradition of transhumance, the seasonal movement of sheep across pastures, is still widely practised in Carpathian villages. Romanian shepherds lead their flocks through dense forests and across vast pastures high up in the mountains, accompanied by their well-trained dogs. Sheep are rounded up every evening and a temporary fence is set up for them. Meanwhile, shepherds spend the night in a makeshift box which they carry with them into the mountains.
After spending the whole summer in the mountains, the shepherds return to the village, where they sell their wool and dairy products.
“The villagers always know when the shepherds are returning from the mountains,” Dan told us as we stopped by a shepherd’s transportable hut, “They can smell them way before they actually see them.”
Steeped in legend and supernatural folklore, Transylvania remains a land of mystery and intrigue, where being a witch or folk-healer is a state-recognised profession. Some villages in the Carpathians have hardly changed since the Middle Ages, and many people continue to lead a self-sufficient life.
In recent years, wildlife researchers and experts have been working hard to protect large swathes of ancient forests in the Carpathian Mountains and bring sustainable development to mountain villages and nearby towns. Meanwhile, the responsible wildlife trips organised by Dan and other tour operators have helped boost eco-tourism in the region, and Transylvania is fast emerging as a destination that proves to be so much more than the land of a bloodthirsty count.
Before returning to the village, we stopped for a quick bite along the edge of the path. A line of piled-up dark clouds moved in our direction. I bit into my lunch and our host’s homemade cheese melted in my mouth. My toes had started to go numb again, but as I stood there with two cold sandwiches, engulfed in an endless expanse of wilderness, all I could think of was how lucky I was to witness such sublime beauty for the first time in my life.
This wildlife trip was led by Danut Marin from Transylvanian Wolf
, with the help of his daughter, Dana. We stayed at Pensiunea Mosorel, a family-run guesthouse in Zarnesti overlooking the Carpathian Mountains.
This wildlife trip was led by Danut Marin from Transylvanian Wolf, with the help of his daughter, Dana. We stayed at Pensiunea Mosorel
, a family-run guesthouse in Zarnesti overlooking the Carpathian Mountains.
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