As Halloween approaches, there is no better time than this, to write about our scary adventures in the Carpathians. What comes to mind when you think of The Carpathians? Werewolves, vampires, Dracula right? I too, was expecting that when I booked a trip for us to Romania. You remember the Birthday postcard project?
We woke up, to the sound of the alarm at 5 am. There is always last minute packing, or something else, that needs doing just before you leave. We finished everything, and waited, for the taxi to take us to the airport. There had been a storm all night, and it carried on in the morning. The sound of the thunder and the blaze of the lightening made this trip seem all the more exciting. It was a dull, dark sky and a gloomy day, all the way up until we took our designated seats on the aeroplane.
3 hours later, we arrived in Bucharest, the capital city of Romania. It welcomed us with a clear blue sky. Within twenty minutes, Sunny nudged me and pointed to a beautiful structure in front of us. It was like a scene from an old Agatha Christie novel. We realised this was the hotel we were staying in. Grand Boutique Hotel. The name itself was rather splendid. The hotel did not disappoint either. The structure inside, made me feel like I had gone back in time, to the roaring 20s. I felt under dressed. I wanted to be wearing my pearls and rubies, a beautiful head dress with an elegant cigarette holder in one hand.
I gave my suitcase to the concierge, who took it and gallantly led us to our room.
“Wow,” Sunny said. He stared all around, impressed by it all. The decorations in the room were quite magnificent too. The super king sized bed, the armoire, the clothes hook, the writing desk, the chair, it was all very majestic. We were brought back to the world when we heard a knock on the door. I went to open it. It was the same concierge, who had let us up to our room. “Madam, your contact awaits you in the bar,” he informed me. We put our stuff away, freshened up and headed down to the bar.
Our contact in Bucharest was Christina. She was a pleasant woman. She greeted us with a sincere smile and offered us a drink. Since it was a warm day, we both decided on an ice cold beer. After talking to Christina about our entire itinerary whilst in Romania, we headed off to explore the city of Bucharest.
It was a small city, trying hard to be very much like Paris. As we walked through the city, I noticed the beautiful abandoned architectures, and also the dull, gray concretes, probably from the communist era. The town centre was grubby; graffiti on the walls, the buildings, not looked after. “This is what England was like back in the 80s, you know.” Sunny said to me. I nodded, an acknowledgement to his statement, I did not know what England was like back then. We walked through the old town and into a busy square. “It’s trying to catch up,” he added. We walked further still, until we saw some contemporary buildings, an apartment block perhaps, or brand new offices, we couldn’t tell. “It will get there,” he finished.
The next day we were all set to head off to Brasov. A quaint little town, which was used as a base for anyone wishing to travel across Transylvania. It was a 3 hours car journey to Brasov. At first we stopped by at a castle, Peles castle. The castle was home to the Romanian royal family. It had taken influence from a lot of different architectures and styles around the world, and so, there were elements of German Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque and Rococo style. I was, however, more intrigued by the tour guide. The lady who was giving us the tour of the castle, she reminded me of the Bride of Dracula. She had a very place face, and very rosy lips. She had fangs, well not quite fangs, but her canine teeth looked quite sharp. She rolled her Rs when she spoke. Her accent was very strong. Maybe it was just me, trying to link everything to Dracula, but listening to her was making me more excited about Transylvania.
After the castle tour, we were dropped off to the town square in Brasov. Our hotel, which was quite commercial and did not compare to the one in Bucharest, was a few feet away from the square. The square was bustling. There was a market. There was a temporary stage, and a concert going on. The song was titled, “I wrote you a shit song.” There was a water fountain in the centre of the square. There were children playing and running around, a clown selling balloons, parents running behind children with balloons. The square was full of life. We walked around, trying to find a good patisserie for Sunny and a gelateria for me. We were surprised at how everything was so fresh in Romania. The cakes and pastries were fresh. The vegetables and fruits were so fresh. Every meal you ordered was fresh, even the ketchup was the tastiest ketchup I ever had.
After two hours of wandering around the square, having eaten a delicious Romanian version of cheese twist and a mango sorbet, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up. We had an exciting adventure planned for the evening. We were going on a Bear hideout!
We were greeted at our pickup point by our bear ranger. “Hello, I am the ranger,” he shook our hands. He was the ‘expert’ in bears and was to be our guide, on this exciting adventure. He wore a hat, with some feathers and a dead lizard on it. “I like your hat,” one of the ladies from our group said. “Thank you, it represents me.” He replied and started explaining the significance of each object in his hat. He seemed like a funny character to me, trying to make conversations and exaggerating things to make it all the more exciting. But, I suppose that was his job, as a bear guide.
As we started the journey to the Carpathians, he began explaining about the dense forest and how it was home to the bears, lynxes, wild boars and wolves, amongst other animals. This journey was all about the bears. We were going bear spotting, in their natural habitat. The trek to the hideout was not so bad. It was still light, but the giant trees as we entered deeper into the forest made it seem dark. We could only get a glimpse of the sky from in between the trees.
We were told not to speak or to make any noise. “Stay close,” The ranger said, “Look out for my hand actions,” he pointed to his eyes and back at the forest. The animals are watching, it meant. He pointed to his eyes and spread his hands round the forest, which meant we should watch out for the animals nearby.
He stopped rather suddenly, I was right behind him and bumped into him. “Wait”, he motioned. He pointed to some tracks on the ground, “Bear cubs,” he said. “Bear Cubs,” I whispered towards the back at Sunny, and pointed to ground, where the tracks lay. It was like Chinese whispers, each person in front whispering the information to the person behind.
The ranger climbed over some hills and picked up some wild mushrooms. They grew in abundance in the Carpathians. He handed them to me. I unzipped my bag to put them in. He turned around; and put his finger to his lip. Shh, he said. I quickly put it in my bag, and zipped it close. I didn’t want to be walking around the forest with Wild mushrooms in my hand. I was scared. I wanted free hands in case the bears attacked. Thinking about it now, I suppose, I could have thrown mushrooms at them. I certainly wasn’t going to defend myself from the bears with my bare hands. I got a bit disturbed then. The ranger wasn’t carrying a gun.
The itinerary said the guides and rangers would have a gun with them and that we would be completely safe from the bears. But, I did not see any gun. He carried a bag and a hatchet. Was the gun in his bag? Was it hidden inside his t-shirt? There was no bulge from his t-shirt to show that he carried a gun. He stopped us, in the middle of the forest and explained about the cub tracks that we had just seen, “The mother bear will be around soon, we need to walk faster to get to the hideout.” I took the chance and asked him, “Where is your gun?”
“We don’t carry guns anymore,” he said. “The tourists were more afraid of it than the bears.” We all looked aghast. “I have a pepper spray.” He said, like that was supposed to make us feel better. But we had no time to argue with him. A mother bear was wandering around and we could be their next meal. It was important to get to the hideout.
The further we went, the more dangerous and entrancing it became. Huge roots spread across the ground. Old aged, pine branches, dropped pine cones onto the path. Shuffling noises came from deep in the bushes. We saw many more tracks, wild boars, wolves, deer. “The animals are more afraid of us,” he explained. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the hideout, a small wooden tree house, with wide glass windows. Now it was all a matter of waiting.
We didn’t have to wait long. A mummy bear and her two cubs came into view, through the trees. They were foraging around for food. It was exciting. We began taking pictures and naturally, started talking rather too loudly. “Please, we have to be quiet,” The ranger reminded us. We sat and watched in wonder as many more bears, perhaps a dozen of them, came and went.
“I have two news for you now,” The ranger stated. “1. The good news, we will be safe, 2. The bad news, we need to leave soon, it will get darker and it will be more dangerous.” As soon as he finished that sentence, we heard a loud roar and turned towards the forest. The cubs were running away. They climbed up a tree. It seemed, a male bear had come in view. The mother bear stood her ground; she had to protect her cubs. The males were known to have attacked the cubs, even killing them. Soon, a fight broke through. The male attacked, the mother defended. They lunged at each other, slapping, biting, and growling.
The ranger looked troubled. That troubled me. He was our guide, the ranger. He was supposed to protect us. He had no gun! “We will wait for the fight to break and one of the bears to go away, and then we can leave. Be ready, please.” He commanded, and this time everyone was ready; ready to get up and go as soon as he said.
He opened the door of the hideout, and walked out, he rushed us out. “Hurry Hurry, please, Close the door behind, and hurry.” We ran, trying to keep up to him. We were waking fast, sprinting, for about 20 minutes or so. We then stopped. “We are 10 of us in a group,” he said. “Don’t worry, if a bear comes, we can wave it off and make some noise, they will go,” “How else, will you protect us?” another lady asked? “I have pepper spray,” he reminded us again.
My heart started pounding. We were in the middle of the Carpathians, we could be attacked by wolves, boars, lynx or bears and all he had to protect us was a hatchet and a pepper spray!
We started walking again, it was dark now. He used his phone as a light for us from the front; Sunny used his phone torch for us at the back. We had reached safer ground now, but we still wanted to be away from the forest and on the main road. The excitement had exhausted us. Soon, we heard sound of cars passing and saw some street lights. We were all relieved.
The next day was an easier day. We walked through the outskirts of the Carpathians, learning about the natural vegetation. I asked the ranger out of curiosity, “Have you thought of doing some kind of Werewolves and vampires related walks around the Carpathians?” So far on this trip, I had encountered nothing about vampires or werewolves. It was odd. The Romanians just didn’t seem to have come on board this vampire trend. The ranger seemed rather offended at my question, “We don’t talk and joke about things like this in Romania,” he said. “Real things and incidents have happened, we don’t talk about it,” That got me all the more curious. “Oh, like what?” I asked. He then started telling us some stories about a town being cursed by gypsy women and how people were under their spell. He told us tales of headless brides who kidnapped and tortured children. Frankly, these were very similar to stories we used to tell, as children, during our fright night recreation at my catholic boarding school.
I rolled my eyes inside my head, but I respected his belief and said nothing. I nodded now and again in acknowledgement. He then looked directly at me and said, “But it is all ok, if you believe in divinity. You don’t need to worry about this.” “I don’t worry about it. I don’t believe in ghosts,” I replied. He seemed more offended. He looked at the tattoo on my arm. “Are you a Buddhist?” he asked, “Yes,” I replied, even though I am an atheist, it just seemed easier to say yes rather than explain the tattoo and my belief and delve into a debate about religion.
“That’s why my priests don’t like you people,” he said. I was a little stunned at this, but I let it go. The poor man had probably never encountered any Aryan looking people like me and Sunny. In fact I was impressed that he even knew of Buddha and Buddhism. I changed the topic immediately, “Oh look, wild mushrooms,” I pointed. He took Sunny with him across a stream, to help him collect some wild mushrooms.
We were looking forward to a Barbeque that was awaiting us after this walk was finished. Christina had promised us some delicious meal in the middle of the forest. We took the mushrooms and headed to where the BBQ was being prepared. There was a small area by the stream. There were tree logs placed as seats and a fire pit to light fires. We decided as a group that it would be fun to light a fire. We collected some twigs and branches and started a fire. Soon we were having a delicious Romanian BBQ in a dense Romanian forest. She had prepared us some, pork, trout’s, Mich, mushrooms, beetroots, sweet onions, pickled beans, chicken, and, courgettes. It was a grand feast.
We didn’t sleep well, that night. There was a storm. Every day in Romania had been bright and sunny; the storm was like a prologue. Perhaps, a setting for the adventure that lay ahead tomorrow. For you see, tomorrow we were going to Bran castle, or as it is more famously known as, Dracula’s castle.
The storm had carried on throughout the night. We woke up to grey skies. Lightening illuminated the grey of the sky and the roar of thunder seemed to warn us of the journey that lay ahead. We arrived at Bran castle at 1:30 in the afternoon. It stood proud and dark in the mountains. It was a 15 minute walk uphill to the entrance of the castle. The path was slippery because of the rain, so it took us longer.
The castle was beautiful. It was a medieval residence and used over the years as a fort. It also served as a palace for the queen, until the communists took over. I guess, Bran castle is associated to Dracula because of Bram Stoker’s famous novel. However, the castle itself had no history or attachment to Vlad the Impaler (Dracula is based on him). We wandered, learnt and admired the history that was preserved, but we were yearning for Dracula.
There was one room out of the whole castle, dedicated to him. I knew this was it. This was the best I was going to get. I admitted defeat. We took some pictures and wandered through some souvenir shops, before heading back to Bucharest, again at the Grand Boutique Hotel.
It had been a tiring journey. The weather was miserable. We decided we would sit in the bar and drink. After freshening up at our grand room, we headed down. This time the bar man was different. He was in fact what you would imagine a bar man from the 1920s would be like. A man in his mid fifties perhaps, with a rounded belly, he wore a white shirt with a bow tie. His trousers came up and around his belly. “What would you like to drink Sir?” he asked Sunny. “Rum please,” he replied. “And for the lady,” he turned to me. “I would like some Gin and Tonic please,” we sat down on one of the elegant chairs in place. We were served some peanuts and fruits on the house. We had a few glasses of drinks.
It was a good finish to an exciting trip. We sat outside, in the courtyard. The rain had stopped now. It was just a little bit chilly. The bar man offered me a blanket, and wrapped it around me. We lighted a cigarette, a tradition on every trip we make. We took a sip of the champagne, which was offered on the house.
This was our trip to Romania. It was exhilarating and full of wonder.