LEAVING RUSSIA IN OUR WAKE, we crossed the rushing Narva River, guarded by an old fortress, and then we were in Estonia. The town of Narva was modern and inviting and we were swept off into the Estonian countryside feeling immediately that we were in a different country. Bizarrely, even the blue skies returned as we left the Russian border behind…
We arrived in Tallinn at 3:30pm with not a shred of information about the place. All we had was the phone number of a ‘Global Freeloader’ host named Evli, and we dangled from it as if on a string. We found an ATM at the bus station to give us some Krooni then dialled. Luckily Evli answered and she and her partner Ants kindly came and collected us and took us to their cosy apartment in the leafy suburb of Manniku. There we spent a pleasant evening snuggled inside as the cold dismal conditions outside cast more than a shadow on our intentions to begin an epic cycling tour…
The next morning Ants gave us a lift into the old town and we shivered all day as we explored the beautiful city. Herring gulls the size of chickens squawked above perfectly preserved medieval buildings painted in pastels and joined by rough cobbled streets. Although it did feel rather unlived in, the shops traded only in souvenirs and by mid-afternoon Toompea and Raekoja Plats was alive with tourists and entertainment. A car rally from Germany filled the town square before we returned home for another nice evening in the suburbs.
There we went for a walk around our neighbourhood. Not far from home we could wander through sandhills by a lake, pine forests, and an old Soviet military installation with crumbling watch towers and broken razor wire fences.
IT WAS BRIGHT AND SUNNY the next day, and we had decided to make an excursion to Lahemaa National Park, 60 kilometres back along the road to Narva. At the bus station we waited three hours for the 11:30am bus to Rakvere which dropped us off at Viitna. There we found the puhkekusula where we paid 350 Krooni for a room in a cabin deep in a pine forest and set next to a tiny idyllic lake. To get our bearings we hitched a ride to Palmse for a look around then spent the afternoon hiking around another glacial lake at Viitna.
The following morning we took the school bus to Vosu, then hiked six kilometres around to Kasmu where we found a room at Lainela Hostel, beautifully situated on the seashore of the Gulf of Finland. The only other guests were an Austrian couple, Heidi and Stephan, who we had already heard about from a mutual lift giver to hitch-hikers!
It was so nice there that we spent a couple of days walking in the area. We made a circuit of the northern tip of the Kasmu Peninsula where the pine forest floor was carpeted with thick green moss and erratic boulders were strewn large and small. In the silence we heard cuckoos and gulls, and on our way back to Vosu for supplies we were thrilled to spot an elk, we ventured in pursuit but she somehow disappeared into the woods.
We also hiked to a glacial lake set right next to the western seashore, and went for strolls along the beach at both Kasmu and Vosu, where we were surprised to see someone taking an afternoon dip in the glass like waters!
THE NEXT DAY BEGAN AT 5:30am when we took the bus back to Tallinn for what was to be another great day. Evli cooked us a deliciously traditional Estonian meal for lunch which consisted of blood sausages and bacon, pickled and fried cabbage, potatoes, and a soda called ‘Kali’ which tasted strangely of chocolate.
In the afternoon we went swimming at the city’s largest pool complex and experienced sauna for the first time. Evli and I sat naked in a small room which was so hot I could barely breathe. It was about 80 degrees celsius, and the locker key burnt my skin if I accidentally touched it.
Next we drove down to the harbour and hitched a ride on the volunteer coastguard runabout to Aegna Island. The sea was choppy and we were all exhilaratingly soaked to the skin during the thirty minute journey. After drying off in the sun we explored the northwestern corner of the island by ranger buggy and by foot, settling on a wild camp right on the beach where we made a bonfire, barbecued saslokk, and at 10:30pm watched the sun set behind the string of ferries which chugged across to Helsinki.
Waking to the sound of the gentle swoosh of the sea is the best way to start any day, and we ate our breakfast on the sand, then spent the morning exploring the rest of Aegna, again by foot and the ranger’s buggy. It was a wildly beautiful place with houses sprinkled in the pine forests, idyllic except for the fact that every winter the island is joined to the mainland by a frozen sea…
The runabout made a special trip back to collect us and the return ride was a pleasure on a sea of calm looking across to the turrets and spires of the Tallinn skyline. So that’s where we headed for the afternoon. ‘Old Town Day’ celebrations were in full swing and we saw folk dancing, the Tallinn University orchestra performing in the main square, and a spectacular swing competition where men out-dared one another on a five metre long steel swing on which they had to complete a full circle!
The next day was Sunday and we were invited to join in on a picnic. Evli’s parents, Ants and Saani wanted to go salmon fishing so we first went to a farm at Valkla where we had our two prize catches grilled and smoked, then headed to the beach to enjoy them. We contributed some South Australian shiraz, Evli’s father Ants provided the vodka, and he and Dave proceeded to get plastered as everyone dined on an Estonian feast of fish, salads, black bread and rhubarb cake which Saani had baked. We had a wonderful time and at the end of the afternoon Saani wrapped me up in a big motherly hug which made me melt…
In the evening we went into the old city, met Evli’s uncle Hiino, and checked out the rest of the town festival. The military orchestra provide backing for a variety of vocalists, then at midnight we went on a ghost hunt led by the Estonian ex-Prime minister. We didn’t find any ghosts but it was very strange to wander the old cobbled streets in the half light with a crowd of people listening to ghost stories in Estonian.
In the morning we all overslept so there was scramble to get ready. Evli and Ants went to work, and having abandoned our cycling plan, we went to the bus station. It was time to say goodbye to our amazing hosts and move on. They had taken so much effort to show us the best of their city and we had had such a great time staying with them. So we felt a little melancholy as we boarded our 9:30am bus to Haapsalu for the 100 kilometre westward hop.
HAAPSALU WAS A NICE TOWN with lots of great places to stay – except that few of them were actually open for business. Eventually we managed to find Erna at Mesilane Guesthouse on Lembitu, a one hundred year old cottage with a garden for us to pitch our tent in.
The town was very laid-back and we enjoyed just strolling around, exploring the 700 year old Bishop’s Castle ruins, promenading along Aafrika Beach and looking at birds from the bird tower. In the evening we did some of the improved self-catering which Evli had introduced us to – if one knew where to look excellent hot meals could be had for not too many Krooni from the supermarket. So we ate baked stuffed cabbage rolls, potato and salad, then sat around in the garden chatting with Orek, a Swedish cyclist en route to Hiiumaa.
That night our tent was baptised with rain for the first time, and by morning the weather had deteriorated to the point that we spent the entire day hunkering inside the cottage. Orek kept us company for many hours as he looked gloomily at the conditions before setting off, then Erna called in to check on things and made us a little nest behind the kitchen in lieu of the tent for our second nights stay. She was very kind, and like everyone in this corner of the globe, her eyes boggled when she learnt that we were from Australia. We made ourselves at home, cooked some pelmeenid for dinner, and watched television – a new season of ‘Skippy’, then ‘Home and Away’ overdubbed in Estonian with an expressionless male voice. Fortunately we were saved from ‘Mister Bean’ when the rain finally stopped at 8pm and we were able to go for a walk and enjoy some afternoon rays of sunshine with the birds down by the spa hall Kuursall. Great crested grebes bobbed and dived, and mute swans fussed over cygnets. We also met a mad Italian who was riding a motor scooter from Venice to Beijing and our conversation was recorded by part of his entourage!
We headed off the next morning. We placed the key under the mat as per Erna’s instructions and wandered down to the Veetorn stop to catch a bus to Rohukula harbour. Our Venetian pals were there too, and the ‘Ofelia’ was filled with cars and passengers before sailing out to the open water of the Hari Strait and across to Hiiumaa Island.
WE LANDED AT HELTERMAA AND hopped on a bus to Kardla, the islands main village, an attractive and friendly place. There we stocked up on provisions and sought information, then following Orek’s recommendation, headed off to find the RMK Kalurikoja forest hut…
The 3pm bus to Kalana dropped us off near Kopu, though the driver looked doubtful as we got down at nothing more than a small wooden signpost marked ‘RMK’ and set off down a track into the forest. After three kilometres we reached our destination, it materialised through the pine trees like a mirage, a log and wood shingled hut set in a clearing right by the beach. We had the place to ourselves and made the most of the wonderful situation. Swans glided by as I had a cursory wash in the halcyon sea, we sunned ourselves on a boulder, walked on the pebbly beach, and went to sleep next to a crackling fire which we made in the hut’s fireplace.
Dawn broke on a cloudy day and by 9am we had set off to do some exploring of the Kopu Peninsula. We hid our bag in the bushes along the trail then struck off in the opposite direction to look for Kopu lighthouse. After that worthwhile detour we continued along a hiking trail through the forest for ten kilometres to Luidja, a seaside village with another RMK facility for us to utilise. The Forestry Commission campsite was excellent, in a grassy clearing was a choice of two shelters for us to pitch our tent under, and a lot of care had been taken to make it a nice spot, right down to the tree trunk sculpted into a ghoul to swallow our rubbish! A short walk away was the sea, where beach combing turned up treasures like a swan egg shell and a fossil. But the weather closed in on us, and by 6pm we were sitting forlornly in our shelter eating a rudimentary meal and looking at our prospective bonfire site languishing in the rain.
That was when the fun started. A group of cyclists from the Czech Republic arrived to take the other shelter and we were warmly invited to spend the evening with them. They were eleven people, and only one, Jan could speak English, but after some Czech beer, homemade rum, herbal spirit, and an entire litre of slivovice the conversation flowed regardless of language barriers – “SUPER!”. We rolled into our tent at 10pm and didn’t feel the cold until we woke shivering in the morning!
Thankful for the shelter, we packed up dry and after our goodbyes caught the 9am bus back to Kardla.
THE CUSTOMARY ACCOMMODATION RUN AROUND ensued. No answer at our first option, manager missing at the second option, went to tourist office who phoned second option and found no beds available, so ended up back at the first option where we were met by Ivy who was happy to have received a call from the tourist office. We were beginning to understand that spontaneity wasn’t a common Estonian trait.
Anyway, the Tiigi Puhkemaja was very comfortable, our room was in the loft and we shared the rest of the house with a procession of Finnish couples and Herrman, the eccentric German whom we had already met in Haapsalu. We made the most of our accommodation here, we washed our clothes, cooked dinner in the kitchen, and slept for at least ten hours in heated comfort each night!
One night only became two because of more foul weather, and another entire day was spent trapped indoors. The most activity we managed was working up a sweat in the steaming wood-fired sauna after an unsolicited weekend workshop of lectures on European linguistics led by the inexhaustible Herrman.
On Sunday the weather had still not improved but we had to escape. There was only one bus during the day to Kaina, so at 12:30pm we waited at the bussijaam with a few other hopefuls and were eventually whisked across the island to the south coast settlement.
KAINA WAS A VERY SPREAD OUT village, but we followed the directions given and found Peedu Puhkemaja, which turned out to be the home of the bubbly Viivi who tucked us into the front room, proudly showed us her guestbook, then packed us off on bicycles with her best sight-seeing instructions.
As we peddled off down the road the clouds gave way to blue sky and we had a great afternoon exploring Kassari. We stopped off at the hundred year old chapel, then rode down the narrow isthmus of Saare Tirp and walked to the very tip until it felt as though we were standing in the middle of the sea. We continued to Orjaku where we watched birds in the lagoon, although we saw no greylag or barnacle, so Dave had led me on the proverbial ‘wild goose chase’. And we returned home through a landscape of straw-coloured reeds.
We were just resting on the front porch when Viivi returned from a song festival in Kardla wearing traditional dress, she happily posed for a photo then sent us off to the sauna to get warm and clean.
In the morning she was busy in the kitchen when we woke up. I was met with a giant bear hug, and an enormous breakfast was lavished upon us – chicken kutleti, fried eggs, omelettes, salad, black bread, pasta, cold cuts, Saaremaa cheese, homemade cranberry juice, coffee and stritsel cake. While we ate Viivi drew for us her family tree, checked the weather forecast on the internet and returned disheartened mumbling about museums and churches. When we pulled out our hiking map and told her that we wanted to sleep in a forest hut, her eyes lit up and she raced off to consult with her husband Peet, returning with a plan which didn’t involve us waiting for the 2pm bus then hitching to Ognu. Instead we piled into Viivi’s car and she drove us cross-country.
We stopped along the way at the home of the woman who made all the fantastical wood-carvings that we’d seen. Her garden was full of devils and bears and all kinds of creatures created with a chain-saw.
Onward we went past Leluselja to Metsapere forest hut, from there we would walk and Viivi roared off with a wave and a toot.
It was only an hours hike to our destination and we got over half way before the rain began to spit. We found our way along unsignposted trails by timing our pace, and the Tihu forest hut appeared through the trees just as we were beginning to doubt it’s existence. Tihu hut was very basic, but there was a fireplace inside so we made it as cosy as possible and watched the rain fall for three hours.
At the first opportunity we made a break and headed off down the soggy track to Tihu Jarved, a wonderfully remote lake in the middle of a marshland reached by a plank walk only a kilometre or so from the hut. By the time we got back and dried out there was only blue sky above and we were gobsmacked at the wildly unpredictable weather.
Later we ventured back to the lake to see it in a different mood, the colours were amazing and in the tannin hued water we spied life as if from another world – horn-shaped snails, bright red submarine bugs, and fish like we’d never seen before.
Viivi’s breakfast kept us going until 6pm, then after a dinner of Italian baked beans and Hiiumaa bread we opted to return to Metsapere to spend the night. It was 8 o’clock in the afternoon when we finally lobbed back to find it even more beautiful beneath a blue sky. In the evening we sat enchanted on the tiny pier in the lily pond next to the hut, and during the night we spotted deer grazing in the adjascent clearing. As we prepared to leave in the morning there was a male sprouting the new seasons antlers foraging nearby, and Dave spotted a wild boar as ravens squawked atmospherically from deeper in the forest.
By instinct we found our way to a main road after an hours walk, and popped out of a mosquito infested marsh just south of Ognu in time to intercept the thrice weekly bus to Kaina!
Viivi welcomed us back with bowls of hot soup, and we spent the afternoon relaxing. We munched on freshly cooked rhubarb from the garden and local yoghurt. Then just as I was dozing off in the hammock amid the cranberry bushes we were ordered into Viivi’s car for a ‘mini excursion’.
In the evening we made our own meal, finished off with kamakreem, an Estonian dessert made with keffir, sour cream and kama flour, then sweated in the sauna which Peet had cranked up to over 100 degrees celsius!
In the morning we had to be up early to catch our transport, but that was no reason to skimp on breakfast. The spread was just as lavish and Viivi piled up our plates crooning “eat, eat…”. Knowing that we’d been filled to bursting point she then drove us the few hundred metres to the bus stop and gave us each a big hug goodbye. To us it was just amazing that someone who had been taking guests into her home for thirty years could still have so much love to give to a couple of travellers from the other side of the world…
The bus took us to Soru Sadam in plenty of time to catch the 9am ferry to Saaremaa. The crossing to Triigi took only an hour and from there we had to continue by our own steam, because public transport didn’t reach that corner of the island.
We walked for about six kilometres before hitching a ride as far as Angla. To do us this huge favour our driver didn’t even break his mobile phone conversation! At Angla we checked out the hundred year old wooden windmills which sat picturesquely next to fields of green, then walked for another fifteen minutes before hitching a second ride all the way to Kuressaare with a mechanic in an old Russian car.
KURESSAARE WAS MORE LIVELY THAN expected, a tourist town but with a nice ambience. We gleaned the scant information which was available to us, then waited for the 4pm bus to our chosen destination – Karujarve. After a forty minute ride with a bus load of creepy-looking people, the driver set us down at a very unlikely spot next to an ‘RMK’ sign. The Dejevo camp site was supposed to be nearby, but we couldn’t find it and gave up defeated after two hours of searching. It was a totally bizarre place, a former Soviet military installation, and everywhere that we wandered there were abandoned quarters and cavernous bunkers buried in the forest.
It was too late to move on, so we settled for a wild camp next to the rifle range. It wasn’t too bad, we made a campfire and the next morning managed to pack up and shelter in a sentry post before rain came.
When it fined up we made the mistake of hiking to Kalja, an eighteen kilometre round trip to see Saaremaa’s karst region. It turned out to be a few rocky hollows in the ground reached only by following a tick infested path, and the only highlight of our excursion was the sight of a posse of five wild boar at the Suure Tollu picnic spot.
Traffic was light and we walked most of the way, only getting a lift for the last three kilometres to Karujarve Kamping. Our talkative driver drove us right to the office and we were able to rent an A-frame cabin on the shore of the lake for the night. And in the morning there was a bus at 8am back to Kuressaare, so we boarded and strangely found ourselves again surrounded by another selection of oddballs…
Back in town we had already sussed out our accommodation options and headed straight for Anne and Ulo Roos Guesthouse at Tuule II. Anne and Ulo were in Tartu for the weekend, but an auntie put us in someone’s bedroom at the back of the house and we spent the day at leisure just strolling around Kuressaare.
We were on the move again the next morning, up early, walking through the empty streets to catch the 7:45am minibus to to Parnu. It was a beautiful morning and as we crossed the causeway between Saaremaa and Muhu the sea was so like glass that it merged perfectly with the sky to make the horizon invisible.
From Muhu, the MS Viire shipped us back across to the mainland and we continued through the ubiquitous forested Estonian landscape to Parnu.
IT WAS STILL EARLY, JUST after 10 o’clock, but Parnu looked like a pleasant town so we opted for one more night in Estonia and set off to scout for accommodation. The camping green at the rowing club was a thirty minute walk out of town, but it was in a great spot by the river and a cute little cabin was just 190 Krooni.
Parnu was the country’s summer capital, so we spent the afternoon checking out the beach culture down at the supelrand. The water temperature was 16 degrees, and the air temperature was an agreeable 17 degrees. The locals were bikini clad, we were happy just to remove our polartecs! As it was necessary to walk over a hundred metres out to the water to be anything more than ankle-deep, swimming was time-consuming so soccer and volleyball were popular, as was sunning on the sand grooving to the DJ’s sounds. It was very pleasant.
Back at the rowing club we spent a comfortable night in our cabin, glad that we hadn’t pitched our tent seen as it was raining when we woke. We enjoyed our last loaf of Estonian black bread, so full of seeds and whole grains that it tasted like cake, and some delicious hazelnut flavoured yoghurt, then set off for the bus station relieved that the rain had stopped.
Our Eurolines bus bound from Tallinn to Munich pulled in for a 9am departure and the three hour ride south to Riga was only broken by the border crossing. On the Estonian side we simply coasted through with a wave and a smile, on the Latvian side at Ainazi an expressionless woman in a green uniform boarded and scrutinised the face of each passenger, taking only ours and three other passports for stamping. In a few minutes we were on our way again.
IT DIDN’T FEEL LIKE A DIFFERENT country, everything appeared the same including the scenery. We followed the coast, often catching glimpses of the Gulf of Riga. Only when we got off our double-decker super coach did we detect a subtle difference in the people around us. We heard the Russian language often spoken, and the mood was a little curt.
We found an ATM at the bus station and once cashed up with Lati, went immediately to the ticket window to spend some. For 90 Santimu each we paid our fare to Sigulda, a one hour minibus ride away with a hostile Russian driver.
In Sigulda the routine was the same. The tourist office did a ring around for us, and we wandered around to Rasas 2 to be met by Galina, whose house doubled as a ‘bed and breakfast’, though for 12 Lati we only got ‘bed’! Galina was very nice, happy that we would be staying for more than one night, and delighted by Dave’s efforts to speak Russian to her.
We spent the afternoon exploring our new environs, and sat at Makar’s Kempings chatting with a Dutch guy, Jannes and his wife for a few hours down by the Gauja River. In the evening our supermarket meal was quite good, cepti kapostu titeni (stuffed cabbage rolls) with salads and haricot beans, and for breakfast the Latvian bread was even blacker and flavoured with caraway seeds.
As soon as we set foot outside the first few spits of rain began, and by the time we returned from our six hour hike around the Gauja Valley the misery had well set in. We still found enjoyment though, walking along the river to Big Devil’s Cave then back along the escarpment to Krimulda Manor, and the Gauja flowed tea coloured through the lush greenness of the valley. We continued on to Gutmana Cave, an overhang decorated with centuries of graffiti and spurting spring water said to
remove wrinkles – we have to admit a quick splash. On our way home we picked up our dinner at Elvi’s supermarket again, and that night it was chicken legs with potatoes, zirni ar speki (beans with bacon) and salad.
The rain continued into the next day, and we were only motivated to explore for a few dryish hours in the middle of the day. We hiked around the top of the southern escarpment to some great view points which offered mystical peeks up the valley to castles and manors protruding from the forests. That night we added to our menu of Latvian dishes a damu salati (carrot salad with walnuts and sultanas).
It wasn’t raining the following morning, so we grabbed our first chance of a clear day with both hands, and headed off on a canoe trip down the Gauja River. We packed our camping essentials into a waterproof sack and walked down to Makar’s Kempings for an 11:30am start.
It was ‘Ligo Nakts’, midsummer’s eve, and we did our supply shopping along the way at Elvi’s where rollicking folk music blared and the staff wore flamboyant floral crowns to mark the celebration. Down at Makar’s we were surprised to spot a kitted out Landcruiser with NSW registration plates! It’s owner, Alan from Tamworth, was the first Australian that we had met in six weeks, and we were happy to have a chat with an intrepid old-timer on his way from London to Vladivostok. After an all-to-brief conversation we were bundled into a car with our hired canoe on the roof and driven to Cesis, 45 kilometres upstream. There we began our river journey back to Sigulda with bands of Ligo revellers all set for a big weekend.
We paddled for an easy 15 kilometres that afternoon, drifting through a thousand shades of green in the Gauja Nacionala Parka, spotting sandpipers, the blue flash of kingfishers, new families of mallards and goosanders, and fluorescent dragonflies.
In the evening we found an excellent place to wild camp on a sandbar on the left bank just beyond Skalupe. It was warm and sunny and we spent the evening watching the crepuscular activities of a beaver who occasionally sat on the opposite bank scratching his belly.
It was still light when we went to bed at 11pm, and when we woke in the morning there was a huge bunch of purple flowers mysteriously planted in the sand outside the door of our tent. We tied them to the front of our canoe when we made our 8:30am start.
The Gauja was even more beautiful in the early morning, it was quiet and peaceful, and around every bend vistas and colours unfolded – long green grasses on the waters edge, layers of different kinds of trees and sandstone cliffs combined to make us feel that our 32 Lati adventure was actually priceless.
It was a very leisurely day back to Sigulda, and Turiada Castle was already in sight before it began to drizzle. We even made it relatively dry to Makar’s just before a downpour at around 5pm, and after we pitched our tent it remained dry for the entire night! Lucky!
Again we met some interesting people at this riverside campsite. An American named Sig and his eighty year old Latvian father sparked up a conversation with us, they were on an emotional journey into the past and the old man was full of spirit. Of course there were less interesting individuals also, like the German couple vacuum sealed inside their super-camper complete with satellite dish on the roof…
The sun shone on us as we packed up the next morning and hiked back up the forest trail to Sigulda to catch the 10am minibus back to Riga.
AFTER A STROLL FROM THE BUS station we found a room at the Saulite Hotel on the edge of the old city and spent a really pleasant afternoon wandering around. Riga was charming and laid back, still in a holiday long-weekend daze, it’s colourful old buildings bathed in sunshine, the pastels and medieval bricks striking against a deep blue sky.
We ended up staying for a couple of days, roaming to every corner from the cobbled lanes and laukums to across the Akmens Bridge over the Daugava River. We poked around the old zeppelin hangars which housed the central market, sampling Latvian pastries and a big bag of mouthwatering cherries as we checked out the goods on offer. We even took part in a public discussion with the fledgling environmental movement in Rats Laukums, and delved into the country’s turbulent past in the Occupation Museum.
Our accommodation at Saulite was friendly if not comfortable. Builders climbed on the scaffold past our window and the toilet down the hall was so small that it seemed like an afterthought, the button was like what contestants would press on a game show. Our room was also our meal venue and our tastiest discovery was a chicken dinner from Rimi supermarket with roast potatoes, pasta salad and maizite mantinga (heart shaped crusty buns smothered in grains and seeds).
Rain was with us again when we departed Riga. The 7:20am bus to Kolka drove through the morning mist across the Daugava River and straight up the coast through the forests of Kemeri National Park, stopping at the small seaside villages along the way.
Kolka felt like a lonely place. We walked from the bus stop being eyed suspiciously by the few parishioners on their way home from Sunday mass, and followed the road north through the village to Kolkarags. There we stood at the very tip of the cape, before us the Gulf of Riga and the Baltic Sea merged their gentle lapping waves, and a few miles offshore a red lighthouse sat, even lonelier.
The rain had just about evaporated by that time, and we considered our limited options, deciding to try our luck hitching on the gravel road heading south down the Livonian Coast. The second vehicle to pass picked us up, a yellow truck with a burly driver took us eighteen kilometres to Mazirbe, another attractive seaside village.
WE FOUND ACCOMMODATION AT ‘KALEJI’, the rambling home of a lady named Gunta who rented the upstairs rooms to guests. We got our bearings by taking a long walk into the Slitere National Park. We had already used up all of our hitching luck for that day, and it took us almost two hours to hike the ten kilometres to the inland lighthouse – but it was worth the effort. The lighthouse sat on the edge of the Slitere Cliff, once the shoreline of an ancient ice sea, and the view to the coast from the top was superb. At the bottom of the cliff a nature trail took us through a bogland where we found tiny orchids in flower, and in the surrounds we spotted a golden eagle and numerous damoiselle cranes. We got a ride back to the village on the TWICE WEEKLY bus which happened to pass by right when we were ready to return!!!
We spent our time the following morning checking out the coastal strip of Mazirbe village. The beach was sandy and dotted with fishing boats and the remains of old wooden piers. From an old Soviet watchtower we enjoyed views up and down the Livonian Coast backed by the thick forests of Slitere National Park. Behind the beach the village remained lost in a time warp, and even without a common language we managed a short conversation with a friendly fisherman, as gnarled and photogenic as the cottages nestled amid the tress.
To leave Mazirbe by bus there was only one option. At midday we waited next to the paddock by the little shop and the same bus with the same driver that had taken us to Kolka turned up for the return journey around the coast. We went only as far as Roja, chatting along the way with a wacky Canadian named Thomas. In the village of Roja we were pleased to spot a connecting bus to Talsi and it took us through timeless rolling countryside to our destination.
WE LOVED TALSI IMMEDIATELY AND indulged in a leisurely stroll around the town centre before calling into the tourist office to introduce ourselves to Ilze, our fellow Hospitality Club member. If not for her invitation to stay we would not have visited lovely Talsi, so it was really a serendipity.
We walked to Ilze’s family home on the northern edge of town, a big farmhouse with an interesting vegetable plot, and met her lovable mum and dad. We were allotted the space upstairs and fed a delicious dinner of new potatoes, pork with a dark and tasty sauce, and preserved tomatoes.
In the morning we slept in, and a bright-eyed Ilze brought us fresh strawberries and milk, left some bicycles at our disposal, then dashed off to work.
We had a great day. We cycled 26 kilometres through the surrounding countryside, first to the hilltop grave of Amenda (friend of Beethoven), then on to Skede and the church at Lauciems and back to Talsi. The farmhouses sat in fields of yellow canola and red poppies, and storks tended their young in flamboyant nests perched on the power poles. For lunch we bought tasty zograusu tarts from the Eva bakery and cycled home to arrive fifteen minutes before an entire afternoon of rain!!
We met Ilze at work in the evening and together went for a walk around the old town before dinner. Mum had cooked a simply delicious soup of fish and potatoes, and we were implored by Ilze and dad to stay another day. We couldn’t resist being made to feel so welcome – so we did…
In the morning Ilze brought us fresh goat’s cheese and tomatoes from the market, and we set off on another cycling jaunt – this time a 65 kilometre round trip south to Sabile, another ageless village set in rural splendour. We sat above the River Abava enjoying the tasty goat’s cheese with black bread and some apricot serbets, then returned via Abava Rumba, a beautiful waterfall picnic spot. When we got home mum was busy preparing stuffed cabbage rolls, and after we met Ilze at her office we got to taste them for dinner, mum was really a great cook…
We were up early in the morning for our onward journey. We said our farewells in the garden with Duzas wagging his tail at us, then dad very kindly drove us to the bus station, our bag full of Talsi cheese, and our hearts warm from the open hospitality we’d been shown.
The 7:16am bus to Liepaja was tortuously slow, grinding to a halt in each small town we passed through and servicing far flung villages along gravel roads. We arrived in Liepaja with just fifteen minutes to spare before the midday bus to Klaipeda – the next one wasn’t until 7pm.
After buying our tickets we found some delicious pastries to spend the last of our Sentimu coins on, then boarded for the one hundred kilometre journey south along the coast.
CROSSING THE BORDER INTO LITHUANIA was a mere formality. We sailed past the Latvian post at Racina and got our stamp at the Butinge post. We were in Klaipeda by 2pm and were happy to stretch our legs on a walk across town to the ferry pier, stopping en route at an ATM to fill our money bag with some Lithuanian Litu.
The ferry across to Smiltyne only took ten minutes, then we stepped straight onto a bus heading down the Curonian Spit to Nida. The national park was magnificently beautiful with heavily forested dunes carpeted with grasses and wildflowers. We rode a long chatting with a cute ten year old boy named Nikolas and his friend who lived in Juodkrante and liked Elvis – “thankyouverymuch…”
In Nida we narrowly escaped the clutches of a tarantula-tout named Ingrida, and were instead taken by the mild-mannered Leena who, for 50 Litu, rented us the spare room in her apartment in a Soviet blockhouse central to the harbour. We were becoming familiar with Russian apartments by now, and this one was quite spacious and well appointed with padded walls (!) and a toilet capable of flushing tissue – our home for three days while we explored the fragile Curonian environment.
We exhausted ourselves on some of the myriad trails which criss-crossed the spit. We climbed up to the top of Parnidzio Kopa for a stupendous view across the dune to Kaliningrad. Over on the beach we walked the few kilometres south to the red signs prohibiting us from beachcombing our way into Russian territory. And we walked through the forests alongside the lagoon to the village of Preila on a twenty kilometre circuit, returning via the beach, picking up fragments of amber which washed up with the waves.
Nida’s tiny harbour was exceptionally pretty, and one evening we watched sail boats set out from it on glassy blue water while a storm raged with black clouds and lightening on the other side of the lagoon.
For our meals we gravitated toward a Russian-style cafeteria unappetisingly labelled “Valgykla”. But it had a nice water view and we could both eat for under 14 Litu, choosing from dishes like saltibarsciai (cold beetroot soup), guliasas, kotletai, and cepelinai (zeppelin shaped globs of potato flour stuffed with meat and served with sour cream and fried onion).
We left Nida on a cloudy Sunday morning. We said goodbye to Leena, then wandered down to the harbour to find that the same bus which had brought us would take us back to Smiltyne.
BACK IN KLAIPEDA WE ASKED at the information office about a festival which we’d heard about in Zemaiciu Kalvarija, and their subsequent enquiries revealed that that very day was the main event, and the last bus left in less than thirty minutes. We scrambled across town, dumped our bag at the Travellers Youth Hostel and raced to the bus station one minute late, but still in time for the bus.
It took us eighty kilometres northeast, stopping in every village along the way, and we arrived just in time to see the pilgrims leaving! We walked forlornly around the stations of the cross, the grass freshly trampled by the mornings fervent activity, the rain bucketing down. We headed to the villages 400 year old church and witnessed the final event for the day – the extravagant funeral of an old woman. A sombre procession entered the gates and the coffin was opened on the front steps in the pouring rain, then all went inside for a choral service. The funeral was interesting and the village beautiful, but the two hour bus ride back to Klaipeda was extremely tedious since we’d missed the pilgrimage.
The hostel was okay for the night, with an eclectic array of fellow travellers for company – a Hong Konger named Jacqui studying in London, Lewis, a Khmer/Chinese Thai Australian living in Switzerland, and a Brit named Claire working in Slovakia.
The next day we teed up our meeting and travel arrangements to Lumpenai, and spent a very leisurely day exploring Klaipeda. We bought an amber trinket, a 50 million year old fossilised mosquito, in the Teatro Aikste overlooked by the theatre balcony where Adolf Hitler had once addressed a crowd. And we checked out the goods on offer in the produce market, where strawberries for 3 Litu per kilo were delicious and we lunched on traditional cepelinai.
WE ROLLED SOUTHWARD FOR TWO hours to the small village of just a couple of hundred people, and were met at the bus stop by our ‘Global Freeloader’ host Mantas and his brother Vilus. Together we laughed about the remoteness of our location and Mantas declared us to be the first Australians to visit Lumpenai!
His house was in the centre of the village, a one hundred year old red brick structure in the process of being lovingly renovated. Vida and Pietras, his mum and dad, made us feel as honoured guests in their home. Our names were localised to Deana and Davidas and we were welcomed with great interest and a meal of tasty boiled sausages.
Mantas was then keen to take us sight-seeing so he and Vilus drove us all around the nearby Rambyno Regional Park. We walked to the banks of the Nemunas River and looked across to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and stopped by a cemetery at Bitenai where we saw the still-maintained graves of people who were alive when the First Fleet had just reached Sydney Cove! We checked out a farmhouse further along the river which hosted an entire colony of breeding storks, there were twenty nests perched in the pine trees. We visited ‘Raganu egle’, a bizarre 150 year old ‘spruce of witches’, and we drove along the ‘oaken path’ which was really intended for 4WD vehicles, but the Stankus’ old Audi was out for an adventure!
Back at home Vida and Pietras were waiting poised at the barbeque, but first a quick tour of the school next door where they were both teachers. We were introduced to the cat ‘Gardekas’ (meaning ‘bastard’!) then we got to the business of the barbeque – it was 11pm by the time we washed down our chicken saslykai with Svyturys beer, and we chatted until the wee hours knowing that the next day was a public holiday in commemoration of the coronation of the Grand Duke Mindaugas in the 1200’s! Everybody slept in…
Breakfast was a lavish affair of omelettes and pork, and after that we went to visit grandma, who lived in a village about 15 kilometres away. Grandma took us on a grand tour of her neighbourhood which centred a round the horse stud where she worked. We had a look around the stables and Mantas was keen to experience ‘horse back riding’, so he and Dave went for an exhilarating gallop in the training arena with Vilus, grandma and I cheering them on. There were over 400 horses at the stud and we went off on a romp around the paddocks to find some breeding mares. Approaching a herd of about one hundred animals led by fearless grandma, we had the unusual experience of being surrounded by horses and foals all crowding us for a nose rub.
Back at grandma’s house we got coffee, sandwiches and a hug before returning home for a brief rest. Vida and Pietras were busy preparing pelmenye for lunch and these homemade dumplings were delicious fuel for an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood and down to the river. The area was completely unspoilt, farmers milked their cows by hand out in the paddocks and took their urns to the co-operative in horse-drawn carts.
The rest of the day was spent chatting, watching television and snacking. Sweet afternoon tea merged into savoury afternoon tea, then dinner which was fresh fish from the Nemunas.
After breakfast the next morning life went back to normal in the Stankus household. Mantas headed off to work in Pagegiai, while Vilus and Pietras walked us down to the bus stop to wave goodbye. Our stay in Lumpenai had been a precious opportunity to experience genuine Lithuanian hospitality and to meet and make friends with such a great family.
The bus which took us from Lumpenai carried us westward 150 kilometres to Kaunas, from where we changed to a minibus to continue on for another 100 kilometres to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
A SMALL LEAFY CITY OF 600,000, Vilnius was immediately likeable. Someone had passed our e-mail address on to a friend who lived in Vilnius and he had invited us to stay, so we called Laurynas then had a wander around the old Centrum for a few hours before meeting at the belfry in Cathedral Square.
Laurynas was a really nice guy. He drove us to his place, an old cottage in the character-filled central suburb of Zverynas, and we spent the evening with he and his girlfriend Giedre in the sunshine on their cosy back deck. Later they casually gave us a key and left us for the night, wishing us a ‘bon voyage’ for the next few days which we would be spending in the uplands. We were touched that such unconditional trust could be given to us by these wonderful people.
But we expected that they would come back, so over breakfast the next morning we tried to figure out exactly where we were, and how to get to the train station. A excursion to the end of the street revealed that we were in Treniotos Gatve, and an SMS to Laurynus answered that we could take trolley bus number 1 from Kestucio Gatve – easy.
At the train station we bought tickets to Ignalina and rode in a spanking new inter-urban for two hours northward. From Ignalina instinct took us toward the road to Paluse and we easily hitched a ride with a couple of guys from a canoe hire centre – Sarunas even gave us a map of the national park for good measure!
AT THE PARK INFORMATION CENTRE we overcame some communication difficulties to get a room in a summer house in the forest behind the directors office for the bargain price of 20 Litu. And there we stayed for four blissful days of relaxing and enjoying the nature of Aukstaitija National Park.
Our most energetic day saw us on a nine hour hike following a trail across the lakelands to Ginuciai. The birdwatching was excellent, and we walked through time-warped villages as well as the forests which surrounded the lakes. But our plan to hitchhike back was only successful four kilometres from the finishing post, at least our friendly driver took us all the way to our door!
On other excursions we hiked around Lake Tarama on the botanical trail, and south of Paluse to Lake Kavinis where we actually had a refreshing swim in it’s tannin coloured waters, along the way keeping our eyes peeled for way-marks and wild strawberries which were abundantly in season. The forest floor was plushly blanketed with mosses, lichens, grasses and berry bushes. Berry picking was actually one of the great pleasures of Aukstaitija, and by the end of our stay we were making dedicated sorties, returning with commercial quantities of blueberries, our fingers stained purple from our booty.
Most nights we ate at the Piratu Bar in the village, and gastronomically it was pretty hit and miss. Sometimes it was semi-nutritious and tasty, sometimes not. I generally stuck to the raw herring and potatoes, but the cepelinai were okay and the blyneliai were superb (pancakes filled with cottage cheese and sultanas, drizzled with chocolate sauce and served with sour cream).
WE RETURNED TO VILNIUS RELAXED and recharged. Our train arrived back at about midday, we made our way without fuss to Laurynus’ place, let ourselves in with the key he had entrusted us with, and spent the afternoon wandering around the old city. We climbed Gedaminas Hill for a bird’s eye view, marvelled in the amber galleries, and listened to the new president, Valdas Adamkus’ inauguration speech outside the presidential palace. He was clearly a popular choice and well received by the cheering crowds.
In the evening Laurynus only came home fleetingly to burn some CD’s for us, then we went to the White Elephant to meet Giedre and some friends for the evening – we walked home and they spent the night somewhere else!
The following day was also interesting. We met Vita, another traveller on the ‘Freeloader’ network. We went to a cafe for a while then back to her place, a blockhouse apartment in Nauja-Miestis. Unfortunately Vita had to go to Kaunas for the week so we couldn’t spend much time together, but had she arranged to leave a key for us to stay there if we wanted, and we said our goodbyes.
That evening we invited Laurynus and Giedre to dinner in their own home. We were happy to be permitted to do something for our hosts and it was my thirty-seventh birthday, so we cooked pasta and bought Italian wine and a cake, ‘tortas gintaras’, amber torte. I was even given a spontaneously assembled gift (of amber) and had ‘happy birthday’ sung to me in Lithuanian.
We ended up being invited to stay for a couple more days at Laurynus’ place. We cooked dinner for he and Giedre each night, and they slept at either her aunts or his mothers house! One evening they took us on an excursion to Kernave, a village thirty kilometres away where we climbed ancient castle mounds and walked along the banks of the River Neris. It was the place of that King Mindaugas’ coronation, and was much more atmospheric in the twilight at 10pm with our friends than Trakai was the next morning at 10am with strings of tourists. But Trakai Castle was really beautiful sitting on an island in pretty Lake Galve, just like a picture.
On our last night Giedre’s sister Gintara and her Karellian boyfriend Kostyr joined us for dinner, and it was a very pleasant evening with a few Svytury’s and some local music…
The next morning we were up early for the 8:30m bus to Lazdijai. We put the key under the door, trolley bus number 7 took us to the bus station, then we rode southwest through pine forests and fields for three hours.
Lazdijai bus station was a huge disappointment, the timetable showed no promise of anything going in our direction, and quizzing the parduotuve attendant produced a firm shake of the head. We bought some ciboreki while fending off the attentions of a tipsy Pole who was insistent on giving us 10 Litas.
We wandered off down the road to the Suwalki turn-off, found a likely place to stand, scribbled the names of some preferred destinations on the back of a redundant train schedule, and took turns at sticking our finger out. We waited for about an hour on this lightly trafficked route, most drivers politely indicated their inability to oblige, but eventually a nice old Polish man from the village of Zegary stopped and we were on our way. He spoke only Polish and Lithuanian so communication was of the “me Trazan, you Jane” style, but he really wanted to chat and we somehow managed to get our messages across to each other.
AFTER ABOUT TEN KILOMETRES WE reached the border crossing and joined a cue of cars waiting to be processed. Our Australian passports produced a surprised exclamation from the Lithuanian guard, and at the next window they were handed back by the smiling Polish official. Then we sped off into Poland, driving past tongue-twister road signs and green forests.
After five kilometres or so our driver, Eugenow, apologetically deposited us just outside the village of Ogrodniki. We made an adjustment to our destination board and admired our lakeside location, thinking that at least if we couldn’t get a ride we could camp nearby…
But we didn’t have to worry, within thirty minutes another nice man stopped to offer us a lift. He wasn’t going exactly where we intended but we jumped in anyway. Jan spoke English and was also up for a chat, he lived in Suwalki but kindly drove us thirty kilometres out of his way to Augustow – our target for the day. He left us outside the tourist office taken aback by the kindness of the Polish people that we had been lucky enough to meet on our first day in their country.
In the tourist office we were given a map and directed to a private room ironically located in Ulitsa Kosciuszki. From an ATM we filled our money bag with Zloty and paid forty of them to Asza for our very comfortable room. By this time we had figured out that there was a one hour time difference, and locally it was still only 2pm, so we had the afternoon to establish our first impressions of Poland.
Immediately obvious was the friendliness of the people, and the language they spoke which sounded similar to Russian, but rendered unpronounceable by means of a torturous spelling system. Also there were suddenly children everywhere. From Hong Kong to Vilnius children were an endangered species, especially in the Russian Federation most people simply chose not to have them – but here they were abundant!
On the food front things looked pretty dismal, kotlet schabowy from a cafe on the rynek was a poor choice, and even the supermarkets were uninspiring, though in the produce market we found delicious peaches and strawberries, and cherry trees everywhere were loaded with fruit. We also picked wild raspberries along the forest walks around town. On the shores of Lake Necko we sunned ourselves with the weekenders. Everybody sat strategically waiting for the sun to routinely peek out from behind the clouds, then bikini-clad flesh was bared in a flurry before the sun disappeared again.
In Gabowe Grady we sat outside a church of the obscure Starowiercow Christian faith, though we saw no other sign of the ‘Old Believers’, but on the return to town we picked blueberries in the forest, ate them with local hazelnut jogurt and followed a path by the tranquil Augustow Kanal to complete a twenty kilometre circuit.
Our efforts to organise a kayaking trip eventually led us to Jan Wojtuszko’s place. Over a map of the Czarna Hancza we planned a rough itinerary, negotiated a price of 120 Zloty for four days paddling, and ironed out the few logistical questions we had. Food would be “no problem”, we could get any essentials along the way, “bread, milk, beer…”.
SO ON MONDAY MORNING WE left our pack behind at Asza’s place and walked around to Jan’s for an 8am start. Our kayak was loaded onto a trailer and we were driven thirty kilometres or so to Bryzgiel on the southern shore of Lake Wigry, where the two of us were left to find our way 103 kilometres back to Augustow.
The weather was fine as we paddled out onto the lake past forests fringed with reeds, and across waters clear enough to see the tendril-like plants growing from the sandy bottom. Birdlife was prolific and included large flocks of cormorants which swirled around us when disturbed. Navigation wasn’t a problem, Wigry Church at the northern end of the lake was a beautiful landmark when it eventually came into view across the reed beds, and to the left of that we followed white markers which led to tiny Lake Postaw and then down a kayak-width passage hemmed in by reeds which marked the beginning of the Czarna Hancza.
The river was quiet and we drifted along with the current, looking down into the water which was like an aquarium with exotic submarine grasses and plants, even flowers, and tiny red-finned fish darting around them. Next to us on the water iridescent blue dragonflies landed on the reeds which coloured our entire surroundings pale green. We followed this meandering wonderland for ten kilometres, pausing for a hearty bowl of bigos (cabbage and sausage stew) from an enterprising riverside farmer, and being escorted occasionally by mute swans warning us away from their cygnets.
At 5pm we settled for a camping spot just beyond Mackowa Ruda, 24 kilometres from our starting point on Lake Wigry. The campsite was in a pretty forest clearing, and the Czarna Hancza here was just a few metres wide and completely shaded. But by the time we’d been for refreshing swim our camp was swamped with obnoxious Germans who didn’t seem to notice our existence. A thunderstorm saw us confined to our tent for the evening. We watched tiny red frogs shelter inside our tent and listened to a German singalong.
The next day the sun woke us at 4am and we dozed to the sounds of the morning, birds twittering and Germans snoring. We were on our way by 8:30am. Gliding smoothly over the swaying aquatic grasses we passed a variety of landscapes, some farmland, then into the darkness of the puszcza where the forest shaded us from what had turned into a beautiful day.
At the village of Sudziany Las we bought homemade jam doughnuts for a Zloty each from an old lady on a little pier near her farmhouse, and the scenery continued this way, it was several hours before we even saw any other kayakers.
By midday we’d reached Fracki, and we stopped for supplies before a lunch break just down stream. The afternoon was very warm, almost hot, as we meandered artfully to a quiet campsite called ‘Gorka’, just below Dworczysko. It was 4pm and we had paddled 36 kilometres, so we made our camp under the oak trees and enjoyed a bath in the river, which was still narrow and swift flowing.
During the evening we were joined by a trio of kayakers and were happy to have their company. Adam was Polish, Roberto, Argentinian, and their lingua-franca was that of their Italian friend, Paulo. They had enough stuff to mount a polar expedition, and invited us to join them for Polish pudding with Italian flare (a dollop of Nutella) and Argentinian enthusiasm, before everyone had an early night.
In the morning we were woken by the sound of a woodpecker looking for his breakfast and the sun shining brightly on our tent. Shortly afterwards, just as we were contemplating yesterdays bread with hazelnut spread, a little red Polski Fiat drove up to us and a young girl climbed out with freshly baked blueberry muffins. They were still hot!
We had left our friendly camp by 9:30am. Our multi-national mates were just having breakfast, and Adam waved us off as we began another day of paddling.
The scenery downstream of Dworczysko was magical. We drifted for about ten kilometres deep into the forest, drinking in the solitude and the beauty. In Jalowy Rog we refuelled on pancakes and ice cream from a little shop that we found a short distance down a dirt road, then we left the Czarna Hancza to continue it’s way into Belarus. Instead we turned west into the Augustow Kanal, immediately noticing the difference in the aquatic vegetation and the stillness of the milky green water.
The first thing we faced was the Sluza Sosnowek, the giant wooden gates of the two hundred year old lock rising formidably above us, blocking our forested route. When the gates opened we followed a large group of kayakers through into the lock chamber and clung to each others boats as water gushed in from the other end, gently taking us up a couple of metres. We paddled with the group for a short distance to Sluza Mikaszowka and repeated the process to reach Lake Mikaszewo, a breathtakingly beautiful Mazurian lake. It was several kilometres long and we paddled down the centre of it’s deep olive green waters ringed by forests of pine. At it’s far end we re-entered the Augustow Kanal and paddled a couple of hundred metres to the next sluza – Perkuc.
There were no other kayaks waiting, so the lock was operated just for us and Dave looked so small and vulnerable waiting alone at the bottom of the chamber for the flood gates to open.
We continued along to the smaller Lake Krzywe, and then to Sluza Paniewo, a double lock which lifted us up another six metres in a spectacular gush. Here we passed some mad wooden rafts going in the opposite direction, each had several tents pitched on board as well as a bonfire site already lit for preparing the lunchtime saslyk. They had been crafted to fit into the sluzas and a very good time was being had by all…
We zipped across Lake Paniewo looking for a suitable camp site, then back into the canal to finally emerge onto Lake Orle. This was a small lake with farmhouses scattered around the shore, and we spotted a likely place to camp on the southern side, 23 kilometres from our starting point that morning. The pole namiotowe ‘Lecha’ was high up on a bank behind a fringe of pine and birch forest. It was 5pm and we took our pick of the camp sites before our wash – and bathing in a Mazurian lake was just as sublime as it sounds.
From the shop in Plaski we bought more ice cream and breakfast supplies, then went back to watch a magnificent sunset which turned the whole sky pink and purple thanks to some rumbling thunder clouds. There were a handful of other campers by then, and a lovely old man came on his bicycle to collect three Zloty from everyone.
It rained a few drops through the night, and in the misty morning we packed up early and had glided away by 7:30am. The still tranquility was priceless. At the first sluza we came to the operator was nowhere to be found and we had to porter our kayak up to the next level, which made an exhausting start to the day.
But that was quickly forgotten as we paddled beyond the lotus filled Lake Gorczyckie and into the longest stretch of the canal. It was dark and heavily forested, the only sounds were of the birds.
It was after 10am by the time we reached Sluza Swoboda, and it took us down a couple of metres in just a few minutes, then we crossed Lake Studzieniczne before entering the last lock, Przewiez, which dropped us down again to lake Biale, with it’s jade green water, yachts and other leisure craft. It was a long but scenic paddle across to Lake Necko for the final leg back to Augustow. We arrived just after 2pm feeling exhilarated about the journey we had completed together, and marvelling at our luck with the weather. We made our way back to Asza’s place for the clean up and one more night in her comfortable room.
After our kayaking trip we had managed to get our tongues around the Polish greeting ‘dobry’ and ‘dzien kuje’, (thank you), and at the bus station the next morning our pronunciation of ‘Bialystok’ was politely corrected but understood. We jumped straight onto a bus ready to depart and rode one and a half hours south to the regional capital.
There we changed busses, again not doing too badly with our pronunciation of Hajnowka. After another one hour ride we changed busses again for the short hop on to Bialowieza, a small village tucked up against the Belorussian border and surrounded by the primeval forest of Bialowieska National Park.
IN THE GROUNDS OF THE palace park we found the Dom Wycieczkowy, an atmospheric hotel in what was once the palace stables, and spent the afternoon strolling around the large scale gardens.
The next day we went for a walk to the bison reserve, and getting there was half the fun. Even though it was a warm sunny day, once we entered the forest on the ‘zebra zubra’ trail, all became dark and cool. Oak, hazel, alder, elm, larch, birch and hornbeam formed an ancient canopy above, birds flittered around us and frogs hopped underfoot on the marshy forest floor. We took a different route back via a four hundred year old oak forest and picked raspberries all along the way.
We spent the evening at the amphitheatre watching a small festival. Though a dinner of kielbasa (sausage), surowka (salad) and frytki left something to be desired, the performers, from Belorus, Israel and Lodz, were great, and even just watching people enjoy the balmy evening was pleasant.
The next morning we were on the move again. We had interpreted the timetable correctly, and so a minibus turned up at the bus stop at 8:12am to take us to Bielsk Podlaski, an attractive town to the east where we hoped to pick up some onward transport. At the bus station we studied our map and the destination board to find that a bus was going in the right direction in another half hour.
Having managed to avoid the local nut-job in Bialowieza, there was no escaping the one at this bus station. She stuck to us like glue until our chosen bus mercifully drove us out and on our way to Siemiatyche, 45 kilometres to the south. Our driver was in no hurry, and ambled along at sixty kilometres per hour as he clipped his fingernails with his teeth and cars passed us like we were stopped. But we were in Siemiatyche in time to catch the 11.30am bus to Lublin.
This ride took us another 160 kilometres south, a long and uncomfortable three and a half hours, but the scenery was nice as we passed fields of ripe wheat and small towns centred around grand old palaces.
LUBLIN APPEARED SUDDENLY OUT OF this rural richness, the church steeples of the stare miasto visible as soon as we hit the outskirts, and within a few minutes we were staring up at the neo-gothic castle and the row of classic buildings curved around the Plac Zamkowy. The first Polish city we visited made a strong impact.
We made our way through the Grodzka Gate and, on cobbled streets, continued through the old Jewish quarter then along Krakowskie Przedmiescie to the youth hostel, tucked into a quiet corner opposite the Ogrod Saski parkland. Our ‘dormitory’ room only contained two beds, the receptionist, Petr, was a nice guy who shared his cauliflower with us, and we practically had the place to ourselves.
For a days outing we decided to visit Kazimierz Dolny, and found a bus to take us fifty kilometres west to this picturesque town on the banks of the Wisla River. We wandered around the streets, sat in the rynek, and walked to the desecrated Jewish cemetery which had been turned into an evocative memorial of smashed headstones. In the rynek we bought apricots and raspberries, and left with an obligatory koguty (bread baked in the shape of a chicken).
We ended up spending an extra day in Lublin to soak up some more of the atmosphere, and the atmosphere had plenty of rain for us to soak up too. We sloshed around the city taking shelter occasionally in the many churches, buying fresh produce in the market, sampling another Polish street food, zapiekanki, which we vowed not to revisit even if starving, and playing ‘charades’ in the post office. Even in the abysmal weather conditions the city was beautiful.
The rain was still falling when we left for Zamosc the next morning. Our driver was deeply troubled by our mispronunciation of ‘Zamosc’, but with some concerted coaching we eventually got it past him, and enjoyed the one hundred kilometre journey…
WE GOT OFF THE BUS WHEN we caught sight of the old city, and found our way to the information centre. Finding a room for the night was not so easy, but eventually we were walking down Ulitsa Partyzantow to meet Irena and Ricard who rented us a room in their apartment. Irena spoke Italian fluently and couldn’t grasp the fact that we didn’t, but she and Ricard were very welcoming and once we were settled we headed back to have a good look around the stare miasto.
At the bus stand we met Ted, looking and sounding very out of place with his Mackintosh and London accent, and rode bus number 59 together saying goodbye outside the bakery where we bought onion bread before an afternoon of leisurely sight-seeing.
Zamosc’s rynek was surprisingly beautiful with elegant Italian renaissance right down to the gelatti-coloured buildings, and pigeons. We sat, we walked around the arcade, we climbed the cathedral’s bell tower, and wandered down to the rotunda for a sobering insight into Zamosc’s history.
Back at home Irena oversaw our meal preparation, making sure that we didn’t waste any celeriac or carrot tops, “senora, capite?”
Leaving bright and early the next morning, Ricard waved goodbye to us as we walked off into the misty rain to the bus station for the 7:30am bus to Rzeszow. The trip took just over four hours, and we arrived with less than five minutes to spare before an onward bus took us further southwest to Sanok. We passed swollen rivers, and haystacks sat in flooded fields. In most front gardens idols of Mother Mary prayed for the rain to stop.
But it continued to pour, only letting up for a few hours after we reached Sanok. We had some time to kill while we waited for the hostel to re-open, so we had a chat in the PTTK office and a look around town before the rain began again.
The seasonal hostel was a good place to stay for the night, our double room was a bargain at just 26 Zloty, and we got to cook our dinner in the industrial sized kitchen.
It poured all night and into the next morning. At breakfast we drank our strawberry kefir with long faces, then plodded down to the PKS to try and catch a bus into the mountains. We waited with others also carrying rucksacks and were teased by several phantom busses with bogus destination boards before finally something bonafide appeared after 10am to take us to Ustrzyki Gorne at 650 metres.
IT WAS A TWO HOUR RIDE through the Carpathian foothills, but our views were mostly obscured by low cloud and fogged-up windows. When we arrived we trudged off to the Kremenaros Hostel without consideration to any hiking – the rain still fell. In our damp eight bed dormitory we found Petr and Zaneta, also mourning the loss of a hiking day. Instead we drank Italian bubbly, venturing out only for a walk around the village between showers. For dinner we ate in the restaurant next door and it was good. The goulasz soup contained vegetables, and the placki Bieszchady was excellent (crispy potato pancakes with pimento-flavoured goulasz sauce and sour cream).
Later we were joined in our room by an enthusiastic East German couple who sprinted up Tarnica Peak in the pea-soup fog, and another couple of Polish men who had been hiking all day in the rain. Lights were out early in dorm 9.
In the morning we looked out the window to glimpse the first sliver of blue sky that we’d seen in five days, and we were skipping off along our chosen trail by 8am. Tarnica Peak was our target also, and we climbed on the ‘red’ trail for two or three hours through heavy woodland and then grassland to reach it. The only people we saw along the way were two border guards, and by the time we reached the summit it was blowing a gale.
We sat beneath a gigantic crucifix looking across the mountains to the Ukraine from the highest peak in the Bieszczady at 1356 metres. Other hikers began to arrive as we left, and the wind blew so strongly that the grasses rippled across the hill sides and we walked drunkenly trying to keep our footing, even our eyelids flapped in the gusts.
As we descended the Saturday hikers flocked up in droves and we passed people from all walks of life, babes in arms, those wearing sandals and singlets or hiking boots and Gore-Tex jackets, pet dogs, families, couples, even a nun! All bid us a friendly “dobry” and, depending on their level of exhaustion, a smile.
We arrived back at our hostel after six and a half hours feeling perhaps more tired than we should – these were the first mountains we had seen in almost three months! For dinner we tried a different venue near the bus stand where the service was friendlier, but the haute cuisine relied heavily on sausage, and at the end of the meal our plates were thrown in the bin. Afterwards we met Zaneta and Petr at the rock concert in a bar at the other end of the village. The band, from Krakow, was really good, a Polish ‘Australian Crawl’ with lyrics that would make even James Reyne’s eyes boggle!
We were up early again the next morning and said farewell to our Solina-bound roommates before embarking on another day hike into the surrounding mountains. This time we headed up the ‘blue’ trail to Wielka Rawka. It was a steep climb to the windswept summit at 1307 metres, where clouds raced over us changing the view from minute to minute. Blueberry bushes and flowering grasses were the only vegetation able to survive the extreme conditions, so we picked a bagful of berries and quickly continued on our way.
A short distance on we hit the Ukrainian border, clearly delineated by markers on both sides, and we followed the no-mans-land clearing for thirty minutes or so until we reached the Slovakian border, trailing off down yet another ridge. We were in three countries at once, yet it felt like we were nowhere at all – on top of a mountain, surrounded by forest and clouds, it seemed sensationally remote. We didn’t see another soul until we began our descent, and a trickle soon turned into a flood, though not like the numbers we had seen on the previous day.
We made our way down through the clouds to Mala Rawka and back through the forested gullies along the ‘green’ trail to the Sanok road, arriving back after seven hours feeling more euphoric than fatigued.
That evening we opted back to the Gospados Kremenaros where the service was worse still, but the goulasz soup and placki tasted even better with the memory of the last nights bigos.
Though the hostel was still busy, we somehow had our dormitory room to ourselves, so we got up earlier the next morning without disturbing anyone. We were on our way by 7:30am, crossing the Welosate River which, after three days without rain, had resumed it’s clear babbling flow.
The weather looked good and we carried all our belongings intending to walk across to Wetlina for the night. We slogged our way up the ‘red’ trail to Polonina Carynska, back up to the treeless meadows between 1200 and 1300 metres. Thousands of lady beetles and bees buzzed around the wildflowers, and the views across to Tarnica, Wielka Rawka, and down the valley to the Ukraine were stupendous. To the north we looked back at the Carpathian foothills as we climbed along the spine of the Polonina.
Descending was more difficult, the trail was slippery and we began passing the scores of day hikers on their way up. We rested our wobbly knees at the bottom near Brzegi Gorne and had just begun our ascent of the Polonina Wetlinska when the regions notorious weather closed in on us, and a thunderstorm had us reaching for our rain gear. It looked grim so we turned back to Brzegi Gorne and waited with a dozen or so other hikers in a small, leaky bus shelter. The rain got heavier and hikers began appearing from everywhere to the only shelter in sight, with thirty dripping school children even managing to fit inside. The paths were by this time awash and we abandoned our planned hike, fate delivered us a bus going back to Ustrzyki Gorne so we opted on…
Ustrzyki Gorne was full of sodden and confused hikers, most had aborted their forays and were looking for transport. Many were soaked to the skin, and more than a few sported the tell-tale stains of a nasty slide in the mud. At least we were dry and clean when we climbed on the next bus out of town, it was going to Sanok, so that would be our next overnight stop.
We were surprised to find ourselves back at the student hostel in the same room, usually occupied by young Jan and Jozef whose artwork was applied to the cupboard door. We made good use of the industrial kitchen, cooking a spaghetti dish which could have fed four, while our Polish cousins prepared stuffed chicken breast cordon bleu. They were still malleting the fillets when we retired to our room for the night.
We woke to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof and made the ten minute slosh to the bus station in time for the 7:15am departure to Nowy Sacz. It took three and a half hours to cover the 150 kilometres, travelling west through hills chequered with a patchwork of fields. In Nowy Sacz we changed to a bus bound for Krynica, another hours ride to the south.
KRYNICA WAS GOING OFF, IT was a happening spa town bursting with so many leisure-seekers that we had some trouble finding a room. We trudged for one and a half hours until finally finding a vacancy at Angela Pensjonat on Ulitsa Kosciuszki. There Irina involved us in an elaborate game of charades before giving up, taking us to a room and making us a nice cup of herbata.
At last we were free to check out the town and we headed first for the pump house mineralnych to ‘take the waters’. The place was huge, a gigantic greenhouse filled with exotic plants and dispensing mineral waters tapped straight from the springs. We bought our cups and spent an hour or two sampling the different flavours, and watching others do likewise. The fizzy ‘zdroj glowny’ was “super”, but it was a mix of ‘zuber’ and ‘zdroj jana‘ that was the real hit. It reeked of sulphur but tasted sensational, and was apparently very good for health. Most punters were just along for fun, but there were also the serious health-seekers with prescriptions and tankards kept aside for their personal use, one could even heat one’s decoction in a special boiling vat.
Thus fortified we sprang up to Gora Parkowa for a distant view of the Tatras, then mooched around town sampling the local delicacies of smoked sheep’s milk cheese and toffee coated walnuts, while ambling past Saint Bernards ready to pose for photo opportunities, and topiarised masterpieces in the flower gardens.
Moving on from Krynica the next morning, we took a bus heading through Rabka to get us most of the way to our next destination. Rabka bus stand was less active than anticipated, but still we didn’t wait too long for an onward minibus, and we were in Zakopane by lunchtime.
ZAKOPANE MADE KRYNICA LOOK LIKE a ghost town, it was heaving with tourists, and we walked doubtfully to the Dom Turysty. But we were surprised to find two dormitory beds available for us in a cavernous room on the third floor of the creaking old institution.
Back out on the teeming streets the crowds were being entertained by portrait sketchers and curiosities like traditionally dressed shepherds with cute woolly lambs, horse carts, and a not-so-cute python; while soaring above all this was the real reason everyone was there – the granite peaks of the High Tatra.
So the next morning we were on a minibus to Polana Palenica by 7:30am being whisked up the lower slopes, an idyllic region of wooden chalets, green fields dotted with haystacks, and valleys carpeted with giant spruce trees backed by the stark jagged peaks.
We had beaten the crowds to the trail head, and walked purposefully along the easy nine kilometre warm-up to Morskie Oko, a sublime alpine lake surrounded by pine trees and sheer rock walls still secreting patches of snow. We rested above the lake, a short way along the ‘yellow’ trail, and met Marek, who I had been sitting beside on the minibus and we had followed up, taking advantage of his local knowledge of the shortcuts. He was from Gdansk, on a short vacation, and he kissed my hand at our introduction, a Polish custom – I was putty in his hands!
We walked on and up, as we climbed above Morskie Oko the scenery became more spectacular, we were surrounded by dwarf pine, then only rocks covered in bright coloured lichens, so everything around us was shades of green. We followed the solid rocky pathway for two hours up to Szpiglasowa Przelecz, a pass at 2110 metres with views to take our breath away. Buzzing with endorphins we sprang up the nearby Szpiglasowy Peak, right on the Slovakian border, and gazed in awe at the beauty of the High Tatra all around us. Colossal valleys scooped away to the east and south, while to the north the ‘Five Polish Ponds’ were set out beneath us backed by an even more impressive granite rock face.
Back down at the pass Marek was pleased to catch up with us, and we left him resting as we began the eye-popping descent to the Dolina Piecin Stawow Polskich. We lowered ourselves carefully on chains for the first stretch, then slid down gravelly slopes, before storming down to the floor of this high valley. The views of the Five Ponds as we descended were so ubiquitously gorgeous it was like we were walking through a postcard, but it was real and it was all around us.
While we lunched at the track junction above Wielki Staw Polski the volume of hikers increased dramatically and the ‘blue’ trail which led down the valley was busy with day-trippers and long-distance hikers alike. All were friendly and again ranged from the well-equipped to the unlikely – five-year-olds, fat ladies carrying handbags, and nuns in hiking boots! The most incredible views along this stretch were below Przedni Staw Polski looking up at the Orla Perc, a path which ran along a precipitous ridge, and even that was silhouetted with scores of hikers.
The ‘green’ trail took us back through the Roztoki Valley to rejoin with our original route up, and this road back to the trail head was teeming with people, it looked more like Pitt Street than a mountain trail, and periodically the crowds parted to make way for horse carts ferrying the inert and driven by highland men dressed like the fine specimen on the Tatra Piwo label.
We completed our eight hour hike back in the car park, and in the mayhem found a minibus to return us to Zakopane. It was an amazing way to spend our twenty-first anniversary as a couple, though the dormitory room wasn’t very romantic, and neither of us actually remembered it until the following day when we were out hiking again – this time in the valleys to the west of Zakopane.
Again we were up early, and on a minibus to Kiry just after 7am. Kiry was the trail head for hikes up the Koscieliska Dolina and the sky was clear blue as we followed the sparkling river up this beautiful valley clad in pine and hemmed in by limestone crags. This karst landscape was completely different to the High Tatra and we even explored at a subterranean level when we branched off the main trail for a thirty minute detour to Jaskinia Mylna. We climbed high up the side of a crag for spectacular valley views before the red way marks disappeared into a cave. We scrambled around a multi-windowed cavern for a while before Dave called out that he had found the onward path, “What? In there?”. “Yeah, do you think we can fit?”. A red way mark was vaguely visible inside a dark hole which Dave, wearing the day-pack, could barely crawl through. But once through we were able to continue for several hundred metres, balancing on rocks in flooded passages, negotiating several more squeezes, bumping our heads on the low roof, and being dripped on by prospective stalactites. Our headlamp was grossly inadequate and I was petrified that the batteries might not make the distance as we wound our way through the passageways looking for our life-line red way marks in the freezing wet darkness. Only when we popped out at the other end was I able to admit that it was fun, and we washed off in the river back on the main track.
After our adventurous side trip we continued up the valley, and finally climbed up to Iwaniacka Pass before descending into the next valley to the west, Chocholowska Dolina. We made another side trip a little higher up the valley to Chocholowska Polana, a high pasture where shepherds grazed their sheep and made oscypki by hand. In a darkened hut we bought cheese so fresh that we had to wait for the old man to press it into a mould before dispensing it straight into our hands, it was soft and squeaky on our teeth, and had the flavour of fresh cream – absolutely delicious!
The clouds had rolled in by this time and we made our way to the trail head at the bottom of this second valley with the masses of tourists ferried in by horse cart, tractor-train and bicycle. Thus completing another seven hour hike, pretty easy going except for the spelunking adrenaline rush.
We were still keen to see more, and the next day we decided to hike up Giewont. We climbed out of bed at 6:30am and could see it’s cross topped summit when we looked out our window, enough inspiration to get us on our way. A minibus took us three kilometres down the road to Kuznice and from there, at 1025 metres, we followed the ‘blue’ trail up, up, up through the clouds to the impressive granite peak at 1894 metres. It only took two hours along the well-maintained path, just the final assault was a rocky scramble involving chains and footholds. But alas, there was nothing to see. We could barely discern each other sitting side by side beneath the gigantic steel cross as the cloud sat thickly all around us, only occasionally clearing to reveal blue sky above, but nothing below. We would have looked amazing to any planes going overhead, just us and a cross on a tiny rocky peak in a sea of cloud.
We waited for more than an hour and were joined by other disappointed climbers, but we left when the top had reached it’s human capacity and began the scramble down as the masses arrived with their hiking poles, bottles of beer and other essential accessories – there was even a cute little dachshund obediently following his master.
Taking the ‘red’ trail down, we passed strings of people slogging their way up to the top, appearing like exhausted apparitions out of the mist which swallowed them again a few paces later. We also saw our Tatra wildlife highlight, a nutcracker foraging in the pine needles by the trail.
We had walked back to Zakopane by 2pm and the clouds turned to rain for the remainder of the afternoon. It wasn’t until the next morning that Giewont was visible, and rather frustratingly it remained proudly clear to see for the entire day. And we had chosen this day to rest…
Of course, we could’t do nothing at all. we climbed Gubalowka, the 300 metre high hill behind town, which provided a wonderful panorama for a picnic lunch with three English girls, Helen, Marian and Jo, whom we had met in our room. And we also spent several hours hunting in the stores along Ulitsa Krupowki for an appropriate souvenir – a new pair of shoes!
The perfect weather continued into the starry evening which we whiled away chatting with Heide and Barbara, but of course with our guidebooks and maps spread out before us it was an epic research and planning chat.
We decided that if the weather remained good we would stay for an extra days hiking, but we woke to overcast conditions and instead packed our bags and headed for the bus station – destination Krakow. The 9:30am ‘express’ was just about to leave and we lucked straight onto it, to arrive in Krakow just a couple of hours later.
KRAKOW WAS A BIG, BUSY CITY, initially unappealing. We took the tram to a hostel which didn’t exist, then walked to another before settling on the Oleandry Hostel. We arranged to meet our ‘Hospitality Club’ host Leszek the following evening then set off to have a bit of a look around the rynek for the rest of the afternoon.
After 5pm the Oleandry came to life and the multi-storey edifice was full of activity. Our sixteen bed room and those around ours catered mostly to friendly French and Japanese travellers, though an Aussie drawl could be heard somewhere down the hall. Upstairs in the kitchen we shared the pots and pans with a lovely Polish family and tasted their home-cooked bigos to discover that this traditional Polish dish could be delicious!
The next day we made an excursion to Oswiecim, a small town seventy kilometres to the west, site of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. We went with open minds, not knowing what to expect of such a place, and spent many hours trying to absorb some sense of emotion from what we saw. The thousands of photographs of the victims on the walls of the barracks was a poignant symbol to comprehend, and looking into their faces one could see fear, resignation, hatred or defiance. Some of the exhibitions were horrific, barracks full of human hair, and personal possessions of the victims, we were even able to enter a gas chamber and crematorium. But the site was swarming with camera-toting tourists and not all behaved sensitively.
Nearby Birkenau was more emotive, there were less people there and we walked along the notorious train siding past barracks and barbed wire fences to where the ruins of the gas chambers lay memorial. Behind one in particular, by a reed pond where the ashes had been dumped, a Jewish family prayed together, and is was the most powerful image that I remember.
Walking back to the train station we hitched a ride in the first car to pass, a sporty convertible with ‘GB’ licence plates! Kelv and Karen were headed back to Krakow so we scored a ride and some interesting conversation all at once…
Our next challenge of the day was finding a place to meet our new friend Leszek. Through a series of valuable SMS messages we ended up taking tram number 14 to the M1 shopping centre and found each other outside the multi-national landmark of McDonald’s. He was with his wife Irmina, daughters Alicja and Agneszka, and ring-in Hubert, and together we squeezed into their two cars and drove another thirty kilometres north to the village of Posadza where they lived in a hundred-year-old, newly renovated house. Chaos always reigns supreme in a household with children, and this one was no different. I managed to entertain 18 month old Agi while Leszek prepared dinner and Irmina’s business day continued on the phone. We ate soup, sausages, new potatoes and fasolka (yellow beans) with a bottle of French semillon that we had picked up.
In the morning everyone was ready in a whirlwind. Leszek had the children fed and dressed before they were able to wake up properly, and we were all packed into his car before 7am. His morning routine was very hectic, first to the kindergarten in Krakow with Alicja and Hubert, then to day care with Agi, and he dropped us off at the train station before going to work. Irmina had already left home at 5:30am! Our day trip to Jasna Gora was comparatively sedate!
We took the train two and a half hours north to Czestochowa and walked through this rather beautiful city with thousands of chanting pilgrims arriving by foot from Oswiecim to pay homage to the Black Madonna during the Feast of the Assumption. The pilgrims were mostly teenagers and young priests brimming with excitement, singing and cheering as their objective came into view – it was an electric atmosphere.
Outside the fortress walls they were welcomed by white-clad priests lined up on a giant podium, and we followed them through a series of medieval gateways into the cathedral complex. We first walked around the ‘stations of the cross’ where smaller groups prayed quietly and sung hymns, then we entered the six hundred year old Chapel of the Miraculous Image and shuffled with the devout to feast our eyes upon the Black Madonna, a painting which was believed to have been posed for by the lady herself. From a mezzanine above we watched them pray and shared some quiet moments in the basilica before resting in the park outside where the priests were conducting a mass for the masses.
It was the same train, the ‘Giewont’, which we took back to Krakow, even with the same friendly driver with whom we checked that we were boarding the correct train. He was a legend, having actually got out and repaired the brake system himself with a spanner set when we broke down on the way up!
We met Leszek again at the M1 market and piled back into his car for the ride home, trying to entertain Agi’s voracious appetite with grapes and precels. Irmina was late home, so we helped Leszek as best we could to juggle the processing of children and meal. We ate grilled blood sausages, kaszanka, of which Leszek was justifiably proud, with potatoes and sledz (stuffed pickled herring), all washed down with some of his father’s home made red wine.
Afterwards we were distracted from a crucial match between Poland and Real Madrid by Leszek’s expansive collection of air-sickness bags. He was one of only two collectors in Poland and we were suitably impressed, promising to contribute any rarities that we came across…
We really enjoyed staying with Leszek and his family, taking part in a typical week in their life was precious to us, and our stay was longer than intended. We had a really productive rest day, doing our laundry, making a rough plan for the upcoming few weeks, and doing some shopping to cook dinner for the family – domestic bliss. Then we thought that we’d move back to the hostel in town to give our hosts some respite and space, but Leszek looked so disappointed, even offended, at the idea that we quickly changed our plan and stayed on for a couple more days until we were ready to leave Krakow.
After a day of mooching around the city, poking around Kazimierz and Wawel Castle, we made a pretty good attempt at local cuisine when we cooked gulasz for dinner the next night. And on Saturday, the day before the Feast of the Assumption, Irmina drove us into the city and from there we took ourselves to Kalwaria Zebrydowska to witness more religious fervour. In the Basilica of the Virgin pilgrims prayed to an image of the Madonna and Child, while outside thousands more moved along in squads between the places of worship spread around the beautiful green hills, mournfully blowing on trumpets and singing hymns. Best was the ‘Church of the Tomb of Mary’, a four hundred year old replica of one which stood in Jerusalem, where pilgrims crawled past a sarcophagus as part of their devotional circuit.
Back in the city we wandered into the rynek to absorb some of the busy Saturday afternoon atmosphere. We sipped an Okocin beer with a shot of sok de piwo, as hungry Krakowians milled around at the pierogi festival. We got home via the tram and then a minibus at around 5pm to find Leszek busy in the kitchen.
For dinner he had prepared his favourite soup, the Lithuanian saltibarsciai and zapiekanki, the homemade version of which was totally delicious, like a giant omelette with potato, leek and tomato sauce. For dessert Irmina had baked a blueberry masterpiece, ciasto jagodowe, and of course throughout the meal we were entertained by little Agneszka’s adorably disgusting eating habits!
It was time for us to move on the next morning. We ate a huge and leisurely breakfast, which included more of the blueberry cake, and began our heartfelt goodbyes. Leszek insisted on driving us to Krakow bus station, and then suddenly we were alone again, but feeling delighted at the slice of Polish life that we had been so kindly invited to share.
It was 11:05am when our Szczawnica bound bus left Krakow station and took us back to the southeast on a beautiful clear day, so the verdant Podhale scenery was at it’s finest.
SZCZAWNICA WAS A PRETTY TOURIST VILLAGE strung down a cleft beside a bend in the Dunajec River. We made a quick study of the village map at the bus stand then wandered off fairly aimlessly to look for a place to stay. Down the road we asked in a likely-looking apartment house and found no room but some helpful inhabitants, the lady of the house phoned around for us while we chatted with the menfolk on the footpath, and soon we were being invited to stay just back up the road where we could see the red-haired Maria waving to us from outside her anonymous pensjonat. Our room was very comfortable, and her son Martin spoke English so we had a chat about some hiking possibilities for the next day. We then went for a wander to orient ourselves and settled for a dinner of Polish pizza, served with ketchup of course!
The weather on the following day was just perfect, and we set off down the Dunajec Gorge to where the boatman was about to pole his first customer across to the other side of the river. It was lovely and peaceful as we climbed to the top of the gorge watching nutcrackers and red squirrels along the way, and popping out of the forest onto the naked limestone crag of Sokolica. We drew in a breath at the view. We were high above the Dunajec River which snaked it’s way through the gorge at our feet, and beyond the forested valley, rising in the distance from low hills, was the massif of the High Tatra mountains looking magnificent on such a clear morning.
We continued up and down ridge lines along the rim of the gorge to the next peak, Trzy Korony (at 982 metres), and by this time the hiking masses were active and we had to queue to make our final approach to the peak which offered another bird’s eye view of the gorge and village of Cerveny Klastor far below, with the Slovakian border obvious by the landmarks mapped out before us.
We returned via the ruins of the sixteenth century monastery of Zamkowa Gora, all swallowed by the forest, then descended down to Koscienko on the main road. There we refuelled on ice cream, plums and fresh mineral water, before following the river back to Szczawnica to complete a seven hour loop. Arriving home we answered Maria’s question about our day – “super”. It was our last day in Poland, the next morning we hiked into Slovakia…
AGAIN WE FOLLOWED THE RIVER back up the gorge for three kilometres to the relaxed border post where a small collection of peoples were waiting for immigration officials to start their day. Everybody simply waved their passport or ID card, barely without breaking stride – except us… “Ugh? Australija!! moment…” The Polish guard wasn’t too phased because we were leaving, but the Slovakian side had to confer about this Australian anomaly. They checked with the Polish guy about his take on us, then went to consult his ready-reckoner before handing back our passports with a shrug and a wave, but no stamp, neither party had one… “Union…” they cried, inviting us in.
We hiked on, continuing nine kilometres up the gorge along the river bank looking up to the peaks we could identify as yesterdays conquests.
We took a leisurely two hours to reach Cerveny Klastor, passing few hikers and cyclists, but toward the end scores of rafters being poled along the international frontier. Arriving in Cerveny Klastor we had to figure out which way the main part of the village was, where to catch a bus from, and which direction it should be going in. We asked around and were soon on a bus labelled ‘Sp. Stara Ves’ going in the opposite direction to what we expected. After a short ride we were at the place on the signboard, and there we changed to a bus headed for Poprad.
It was another beautiful day and our views were spectacular as we drove through the farmland from which the Tatra mountains abruptly erupted. We could see the village we were destined for strung through the lower forested slopes for hours before we actually reached it.
After a pit-stop in Poprad to exchange our Zloty for Korun and make a top up from the ATM, we continued on our way to the Tatra. At the bus station we just had time for some freshly baked chocolate filled pastries before a bus pulled in to take us up to Stary Smokovec, the ten kilometre route passing through villages set around stuccoed churches with their mountain backdrop.
STARY SMOKOVEC, AT AN ALTITUDE of 1000 metres, was instantly appealing with the mountains towering overhead. We had three information offices to choose from and all tried to be as helpful as they could, the second offering us a smorgasbord of languages (which didn’t include English), and the third directing us to lodging – Hotel Aesculap. There we found Vincent, the enthusiastic young caretaker, who gave us a room for 400 Korun in a cosy circular building with everything the traveller needs – kitchen, laundry, and television for watching the Athen’s Olympics!
More essentials we obtained on our reconnoitre around town, ingredients for omelette, provisions, and hiking map! Vincent had taught us our first words of Slovakian and suggested a good hiking route, so the next morning we were set for a day of our favourite activity.
We were off by 7am and, ever the purists, skirted around the hikers queued at the funicular to follow the ‘green’ trail up through pine forest to Hrebienok. We paused a moment to take in the spectacular view of Lomnicky Stit (2634m) towering above, then continued across to the base of the Mala Studena Valley which we slowly ascended to increasingly magnificent scenery.
When we reached Teryho Chata and some small lakes, we were way above the tree line and able to see our route to Priecne Pass. It was jaw-droppingly steep. As we climbed the views became more and more amazing, we passed large sheets of ice and were soon pulling ourselves on chains up an almost vertical rock wall. Now we understood why it was a one-way hiking trail!
The pass was just a narrow crevice, no place to linger before beginning the tooth-grinding descent, which was fortunately less steep but no less graceful. It took us into the Velka Studena Valley, which was even more spectacular than the first. We descended slowly to the alpine tarns around Zbojnicka Chata where we took lunch, then descended rapidly along the course of the Velka Studena River which fell picturesquely down the wide valley. Again by this time there were plenty of hikers around, though not as keen or friendly as their Polish cousins. We even passed several porters taking supplies to the chata, the sight of men carrying such burdens (a beer keg for example, and two metre tall loads!) was not something we expected to see in Europe.
At the foot of this valley we re-joined our original trail near Hrebienok and again thumbed our noses at the funicular to complete our nine hour hike on the hoof.
A 7am start was becoming habitual, though the next morning we chose an easier route, walking first up the ‘yellow’ trail inside the cool of the treeline. The pine trees became smaller and smaller until they were only ankle high, and we joined the ‘Tatranska Magistrala’ trail which skirted around the outside of the massif, offering grand views to the surrounding country.
We set a leisurely pace and took long rests by the shore of the clear blue Batizovske Pleso, with the peaks of Gerlachovsky Stit and Koncista rising above, and at Sedlo pod Ostrvou (1966m), a saddle which afforded views both to the plains and the High Tatra, here crowned by Koprovsky Stit and Rysy, on the other side of which lay Morskie Oko in Poland.
After eight hours we finished our hike at Popradske Pleso elektricka station for a ride home on a slick little train. We did a routine shop in Stary Smokovec and were just plodding up the last hill when we spotted the tiny chihuahua wearing a red bandana who we had passed hiking on the high reaches of the Magistrala, and he was still bouncing along like a ball of energy!
The next day the clouds had moved in to shroud Slavkovsky Stit, so we postponed our plan to climb to it’s peak and had a rest day instead. We spent a pleasant afternoon swapping information and watching the Games in Athens with our Israeli and French co-inhabitors.
The following day postponement turned into cancellation as rain began to fall from the heavy morning mist. Not in need of another rest day, we decided to leave and took the train back down the mountain to Poprad, the Tatra mostly obscured by rolling layers of cloud, but still darkly impressive.
IN POPRAD TRANSPORT CONNECTIONS were poor and we ended up waiting several hours for a bus to Levoca, a very old town in the Spis region to the east. It was only a forty minute ride so we still had all afternoon to explore Levoca after we found a room in Hotel Faix. There was a festival going on so we listened to some music, strolled around the streets filled with renaissance mansions, and climbed a nearby hill to the Mariansky Hora for a fine view over Levoca and the surrounding countryside.
We had already noticed how different the Slovakian temperament was to the Polish, even though to our ears they spoke almost the same language (albeit with a more user-friendly spelling system), but most striking was the number of swarthy Roma mixed in with the ethnic Slovak population, and we hadn’t noticed them at all in Poland.
Culinarily, the situation was unimproved, we maintained our standard Polish breakfast of yoghurt, South American bananas and bread with honey, and a rudimentary hikers lunch of bread with pastet and cucumber.
The next morning in Levoca the weather had deteriorated to the point that we scrapped all our well-made plans, and decided to take a bus straight across the country to Bratislava. The Polish preference for twenty year old pop music also held fast in Slovakia, and so we listened to the likes of Tina Turner and Roxette as we wove our way through the Low Tatra to Martin, then turned southwest away from the rain to the undulating Carpathian foothills spread with fields of wheat, corn and sunflowers. The towns that we passed through were pretty, the houses decorated with flower boxes, the churches topped with red steeples. And from Prievidza we could see the fantastical chateau of Bojnice. But it was a long and tiresome trip which should have taken five hours but was somehow stretched to more than nine by using minor roads wherever possible and making frequent thirty minute rest stops, even though the bus had two drivers…
SO IT WAS GETTING LATE by the time we arrived in Bratislava and strode off purposefully on wobbly legs to our first accommodation choice. But ‘Bernolak’ student dormitory had closed two days before and to reach our second option we had to walk on to the train station to take tram number 3 to get to it. No-one at the train station could help us and we eventually discovered that tram number 3 wasn’t running due to the tracks disappearing at the edge of a hole in the road. We didn’t have a third option, but we saw a sign for a new hostel downtown so we walked there – they had no beds available, but were very helpful with a suggestion for a forth option, and we walked on following directions to another student dormitory on Ulica Sveradova. It was by this time dark, and we were beginning to wonder how uncomfortable the concrete floor in the train station might be, especially when we entered the reception room, asked if there were any beds, and were confronted with a firmly negative shake of the head from the lady in the office. Hoping that just meant that she didn’t speak English, we persevered with charades and she not only found us a room but even gave us a discount with our hosteling cards. We quickly paid for two nights…
After a brief information scout to the Romanian embassy, the next day was just at our leisure. Bratislava was a really nice city with loads of character and charm. We walked to every corner of the old city, and from the ramparts of the castle watched the sun set over the Danube River, Austria, and Hungary beyond. Looking over a city at night was all the more memorable because it was the first chance that we’d had to do it in months. We were now far enough south that the sun rose and set at more conventional times.
THE NEXT MORNING WE WERE up early for the 7:15am train to Budapest. It was just a couple of hours across the plains to Sturovo and Esztergom, watching amazed as an extremely thin man with a German passport ate four baguettes in that space of time. We waited at the border for twenty minutes for immigration formalities, the Hungarian official came through first and stamped us in to Hungary, then the Slovakian guy appeared. He looked in vein through our passports for some trace of our arrival in Slovakia, then knowing that communication would be impossible, just handed them back with a shrug.
Now suddenly we were in Hungary, following the Danube on it’s course from the capital, and within an hour we were in Budapest. We arrived in this big city cold, already with some Forints in our pocket which we bought in Bratislava, but with no information about the place whatsoever. So we were free of expectation, and pleased to see an information desk at Nyugati Station…
Knowing that our business at the Romanian embassy was going to be arduous, we made that our first priority. We put our bag in ‘left luggage’ and quickly walked across town to our target. The office was open for visa applications only from noon until 1pm, so we were lucky. We then had to jump through rings of fire to obtain a visa, so we were unlucky. It would take several hours to collect the ludicrous documents demanded of us, the office was closed the following day, and it would take seven days to process our applications. Almost every other nationality on earth could walk through the gates without question! Dejectedly we walked off in the company of another perplexed countrymen wearing a ‘Life…be in it’ T-shirt.
We made our way back to Nyugati, scouting for accommodation options along the way, then picked up our bag and SMS’d a Global Freeloader contact who helped to make our first day in Budapest a lot easier. We arranged to meet at Keleti and soon afterwards were walking through the streets near the station with Catherine, a Hungarian/American Cherokee comedienne – we were in for a fun night.
Catherine’s apartment was like a quirky museum crammed with retro posters and books, and after an excursion to Tesco’s we spent the evening chatting, cooking and eating buritos, and watching a Hungarian Art house movie, ‘Hukkel’.
The next morning it was back to the grind, first to take ourselves to a longer term lodging. The Orient Summer Hostel near Klinikak metro station was the best deal we could find at 2200 Forints for a bed, and we had a nice view of a botanical garden even if the place was in need of a good clean.
Then to our visa paper chase, which saw us finding our way all around the city spending hundreds of Dollars on reservations and tickets which we didn’t want and had no intention of using – it was intensely frustrating.
The following day saw us back at the embassy to lodge our applications, and again we rubbed shoulders with other bewildered travellers, some of whom were in bizarre ‘Catch 22’ situations like the Israeli who was being told that he had to wait two months for his old visa to expire before they would issue a new one!
The day after that we did the rounds collecting our train and hotel refunds (minus cancellation fees of course), then finally all that was left to do was wait…
In between our running around we had done some sight-seeing by default, and were becoming very familiar with Budapest’s public transport system, having utilised the metro, busses, trolley busses and trams. It was another beautiful city and entertaining ourselves for another week there was not really a problem.
After three days of sharing a room with a young Englishman named James we went back to Catherine’s place to hang out for a night. That afternoon was the annual ‘Budapest Parade’ which we were keen to check out, so Catherine put on her loudest pants and we wandered down to Utca Andrassy where the fun was just beginning. The parade followed the length of this grand world heritage street and consisted of fifty truckloads of party action. Technicoloured revellers hung from the lamp posts, music boomed, and dancers stuck to a rigid dress code of either hotpants or g-string and body paint for modesty, which definitely didn’t prevail.
The stately Opera House dripped with naked dancers, and trucks spewed bubbles and confetti into the gyrating crowds. Without the benefit of MDMA, three hours of this wanton pandemonium was enough for us, and we went home for a quiet night. Catherine invited Kole, a mutual acquaintance, around but he was still busy “marauding”, so we selected a movie and I cooked a vegetarian feast under the careful instruction of Catherine who was also a trained chef.
The next morning we moved back to the hostel in Sector VIII, and even lucked the same room with James who was winding up his busy Budapest itinerary as we whiled away a couple more days doing nothing in particular. We used every form of public transport available to us from the cog railway up into the Buda Hills to the tram to Margit Island for a stroll in the park, but the Citadella was our favourite place. There we could watch the tourists coming and going while looking out over the entire city spread along the banks of the Blue Danube.
In the cultural heart of the city we marvelled at the Szent Istvan Bazilka with it’s domes and colonnades, and gazed at the hand of Saint Stephen himself, shrivelled inside a glass casket.
On August 31 we had to leave the summer hostel on Tomo Ulca and had an interesting day finding alternative lodging. We left our bag at Catherine’s and in the afternoon met Kole who was in the middle of moving and offered his new apartment to us for a couple of nights while he was still in the old one. Great! Kole was a man who made a living out of getting pissed, a Sikh Canadian working in Budapest as a cycle and pub crawl tour guide. He wore a piece of barbed wire through his lip and his recently shaved spiked mohawk was framed on the wall of his soon-to-be-vacated apartment in Horainszky Ulca. A darkly interesting guy, we spent the evening with him, cleaning up his old place and enjoying the atmosphere of his balcony.
His new place was almost back where we’d started from that morning, Klinikak was the nearest metro station to his studio loft on Ulca Balazs Bela, so we easily found our way there and we also found a place to eat just around the corner. The nice lady in the Kinai Bufe didn’t know English and understood my Chinese but would only speak to me in Hungarian!
When we left on Thursday morning it was finally Time to collect our Romanian visas. With all our belongings in tow, we turned up at the embassy gate a little early to find the office already in full swing. During the week they had changed their business hours and it was just a few minutes until closing time! During the week they had also increased the visa fee, so the 70 Euro that they had demanded we bring along was now no longer enough. “But we only have 70 Euro, as you asked…”. “Too bad…”. Would they accept the difference in Forints? “Oh, highly irregular…”, despite every local in the queue brandishing Forints. Better mull that one over for thirty minutes while making busy liquid-papering out “SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF…” on the application forms. “Yes, okay”. But at a screw-you-to-the-wall exchange rate of course. This embassy represented a country, at the time, hopeful of being accepted into the European Union!!
Anyway, we now had our visas and all that was left to do was decide on our mode of transport out of the country. At the Nepligat bus station it seemed that the only way to possibly find out the fare on Romanian busses was to wait for the bus and ask the driver. That was not convenient, and not wanting to fill our pockets with a guesstimate amount of Forints, we went to the train booking office and bought two return tickets to Oradea. No, we didn’t want to return to Budapest, the return fare was cheaper than one way – of course!
We spent our last night in Budapest back at the same place we’d spent the first – Catherine’s. We cooked Thai food with the detritus of ingredients from Kole’s kitchen clean-up, then watched a ubiquitous Hollywood blockbuster from under heavy lids.
Continuing the reverse deja vu of our arrival, the next morning we caught trolley bus number 73 back to the grand Eiffel construction which was Nyugati train station, and tried to get rid of the last of our small change on provisions for the days journey.
Train number 365 left at 10am and took us halfway across the plains of Hungary through Szolnok and over the Tisza River to Bors, the border post where we said “hallo” to Hungary, before rolling on another fifteen minutes to say “hello” to Romania at Episcopia Bihor. Armed customs and immigration officials boarded, and our passports were taken off for scrutinising and stamping while our young pipe-smoking Romanian companions explained and scoffed at the rigmarole.
Formalities complete at 3:30pm local time, our train rolled on several more kilometres to reach Oradea, our stop, and we excitedly climbed down from the carriage ready to discover another new land…
WITHOUT ANY LOCAL CURRENCY WE walked, following the ‘CENTU’ signs into town. At an exchange booth along the way 7000 Forints became over one million Lei, at 23000 to our Australian Dollar, calculating how much things cost had us initially furrowing our brows, as did finding a suitable hotel. Our first two choices were closed for renovation, but we eventually found the Hotel Astoria in a rambling old neo-classical building next to the State Theatre. I tried out some Romanian phrases on Florika at the reception desk, and we took a double for 450 000 Lei which included breakfast in the restaurant, cable TV in our room, but no shower.
Our first meal in Romania was had at a cafenea on Calea Republicii, sarmale (stuffed cabbage leaves) with salad was a good introduction, and we followed the trail of ice-cream licking consumers to finish off with some cherry and chocolate flavoured ice cream.
Our objectives the next day were to find the bus station, and decide on our next destination. And both tasks were more difficult than anticipated. The bus station was well hidden in a remote corner of town. We walked, asked directions, got yelled at “But WHERE do you want to go?”, walked some more, asked again for directions (by now we were desperate enough to enlist Mormon help), walked, asked, caught a bus, walked, asked, walked, and finally found the bus station. Inside we wrote out a wish list of destinations and enquired about our options. The lovely lady at the ticket window took up the challenge and sat with us for some time explaining in careful Romanian and drawing a selection of schedules on our paper until it looked like a completed crossword puzzle – without clues.
We went to find a train schedule. We looked at maps in a bookstore. We sat in the piata, gave our return Budapest train tickets to Isa and Fred from Spain and France, watched numerous horn-honking wedding processions, and evaded the omnipresent Elder and Elder while mulling over our options.
The next morning we headed off on what was perhaps not the best choice. We waved goodbye to Florika, walked to the train station and bought two tickets to Cluj Napoca. Our train was a two-carriage express, and we whipped across beautiful rural countryside into Transylvania following the course of the Crisul Repede River as it made it’s way down narrow gorges and through tiny villages, each with it’s own silver steepled church.
We had reached Cluj Napoca by 11am, and we stalked off to look for onward transport, following our map to an obviously defunct bus stand. We asked directions, Dave uncannily able to sprout Romanian after a cursory study of a pronunciation chart, and again people were exceptionally kind. Before too long we were packed into a share taxi, zooming down the freeway at breakneck speed in a ubiquitous Dacia.
We were deposited in a place appropriately named ‘Turda’, a small industrial town, and from there we lucked straight onto a bus going to Cornesti, just us and a few scarved old ladies bouncing along, one enthusiastically pointing out our destination – Cheile Turzii, an impressive rift in the mountain to the west.
FROM THE VILLAGE WHERE WE were dropped off we walked for almost an hour up to the foot of the gorge where we found Cabana Cheile Turzii, a nice turreted building where we had planned to spent the night. “Sorry, closed for renovation…”. Mmm, we had come all that way, so we ditched our bag and went for a hike through the gorge, and a climb up to the top for some views and solitude, watching enviously as two guys paraglided their way to the cabana far below.
By the time we got back down, the picnicking crowds were dissipating and a decaying A-frame bungalow was found for us to camp in. The bar had finished cooking for the day and there was no food, sadly we munched on popcorn as darkness descended ahead of an uncomfortable night.
The toilet which I’d deemed unusable the previous evening didn’t look any better in the light of day. We breakfasted on our last remaining snack foods and set off early on the two hour trek cross-country to Turda. The gorge minus the tourist masses was really nice, and it gradually disappeared into the distance as we hiked across corn fields and a barren landscape which became bleaker the closer we got to Turda.
We hit town at the garbage dump and somehow found our way to the centu where a maxi-taxi was just filling up to take us back to Cluj Napoca. There we hiked back across town to the train station where by chance we found a bus going to Bistrita, an uneventful two and a half hour ride to the east.
Bistrita seemed like a nice enough place, but we were keen to press on, so we entertained ourselves on a stroll around town while we waited for our onward maxi-taxi at 4pm. It was in this town that the fictitious Jonathan Harker spent the night, and we met the director of the Transylvanian Dracula Club in our quest for local information. There was nothing else unusual about the place, though it did seem to have more than it’s share of odd-balls. An old lady had the most gruesome case of elephantiasis I’d encountered, and at the bus station there was a looney karaoke singer, numerous wretched-looking gypsies and an albino transexual Transylvanian.
The trip in the maxi-taxi was the best we had made in ages, our driver was good-humoured and didn’t deny anyone a ride, which meant things became a bit cramped, but what better way to get to know our Romanian brothers and sisters?
The countryside was beautiful as we made our way across to the mountains passing not only the wooden horse carts that we’d already seen everywhere, but covered gypsy wagons and giant haystacks being lovingly manicured into shape. The houses were whimsically designed with pop-out roofs and turrets, and as we continued on through the Bargau Valley and up to the Tihuta Pass, the spot where Bram Stoker positioned his infamous castle was marked with a formidable mansion, though we saw nothing more fearsome than a few garden gnomes for sale along the way. From the pass we descended into Moldovia and pine clad hills continued all the way down to Vatra Dornei, our destination at last.
IT WAS 6:30pm WHEN WE JUMPED out of the maxi-taxi and began our search for somewhere to stay. We wandered toward the camping ground and were almost there when we were propositioned by a savvy prune-faced tout who lay in wait nearby. “Pssst…” she didn’t speak any English but Dave interpreted (he must have been Romanian in a past life) and soon we were following Vika to the house of her co-conspirator Doina, on Calea Transilvaniei, our lodging for the next few days.
It was a nice house, and for 350 000 Lei we were given a big comfortable room with a balcony and, more importantly, a hot shower was just a wood-fired stove away. Vika, rather alarmingly, sealed the deal with a kiss, and Doina stoked the fire while we went to find real food and followed her recommendation to the Bucovineana Pensiune next door for some traditionally hearty local fare. Vegetable soup, corba de legume and mamaliga (a polenta creation with bacon and a full-bodied sheep’s cheese). We slept very well that night.
The next day was a rest day and it began at the Dolce Vita Patisserie eating pastries filled with sweet cottage cheese or topped with honey and walnuts. Looking around at what the other diners were tucking into, we were beginning to understand why Romanians seemed plump by Eastern European standards.
We moved on to the wet market where we bought pears, grapes and plums, then headed for the Parcul Statiune where most of the rest of the day was spent people watching. We filled our water bottle at the Izvor Sentinela and sipped the lovely carbonated mineral water as jays, tits and chaffinches twittered in the trees, and squirrels were wooed by their stone-clacking ardent admirers vying to photograph and feed them tasty morsels.
We finished the day in the Lordinu Pizzerie and stopped for some rum ice-cream on the way home.
The next day was full of misadventure. We missed the bus which would have taken us to the trail head of our intended hike, so instead we stretched our legs on the ‘red cross’ trail in the hills above town. The six hour walk was very pleasant, through pastoral land and pine forest. We spotted the most deliciously gorgeous, but deadly poisonous red spotted mushrooms, had a narrow escape from three ferocious sheepdogs, and were just making our final descent to Vatra Dornei when a thunderstorm broke spectacularly and torrentially, so we arrived home dripping.
Undeterred, the following day we took our bags with us to the bus station and managed to put ourselves on a bus which would pass through Chiril, down a beautiful green valley to the east. Our driver deposited us at the trail head and called out directions with a wave and a smile. It began to drizzle as he drove off. We shivered, it was freezing cold and we took a few moments to brace ourselves as the rain eased before taking a deep breath and heading up the road through the village and on into the mountains rising above.
But we didn’t need to worry about rain, after walking for two hours up into the alpine zone, it began to snow, lightly at first, “Is that SNOW?”, then with more vigour as we hiked higher. It was early September!!
BY THE TIME WE REACHED Cabana Rarau (1400 metres) it had been snowing on us for almost an hour, the pine trees were dusted and the temperature was plummeting. Inside the cabana life went on as usual, we pointed out the blizzard outside, but it barely raised an eyebrow, “normale”, though it was admitted to be the first snow of the season.
We sat and drank tea with an enthusiastic group of young hikers and Mao, who ran a neighbouring cabana and invited us (the first Australians ever) to stay there…
Cabana Pastorala was much more homely and we spent a very pleasant afternoon tucked inside getting to know the very mature and philosophical teenagers from Suceava. Young Adrian, a student of politics, candidly told us of the challenges ahead for his country and jokingly pointed out that “food is something to show off, but smoking is something you need”. Wanting to join the conversation, Mao brought out his mountain treasure to show us, the gigantic fossilised scull and horns of a rare European bison impressed all. And we went for a brisk walk with Andrea to a lookout point which afforded views across the Rarau massif as large snowflakes drifted around us.
More snow fell through the night, and we woke to the sound of tinkling cowbells. We were lured out into the blistering cold and scurried up the nearby peak as cowherds mustered and ice crunched under foot. The scene was wonderful.
By 9:30am we were on our way, after much communal discussion the previous afternoon we decided to traverse the mountains by making our descent to Campulung Moldovenesc. The weather still looked ominous but we opted for the ‘blue stripe’ trail which took us across toward the snow-dusted Guimalau massif, then up and down several spurs following shepherds trails through the most devine Moldovian scenery down to our destination. Farmers raked hay and tended their flocks in the verdant paddocks we traversed, climbing over stiles, passing through wooden gates, and hoping the murderous-looking dogs were well tethered. We passed no other hikers.
The foul weather held off and we arrived in Campulung Moldovenesc after four hours of rewarding hiking, then our challenge was to find our bearings and somewhere to stay.
MICHAEL, THE HUSBAND OF THE local travel agent, kindly helped us find the Pensiune Semeniuc. He had taught himself English by watching films and spoke with the heaviest Dracula accent we’d encountered. He rewarded himself for his good deed with a shot of vodka and half a pack of Marlboro’s while we chatted in the smoke-filled lounge downstairs. We rewarded ourselves with a hot shower and some good food. In a delicatessen we bought sarmale and placinta branza (baked sheep’s cheese and pastry) to go with a mountain of salad vegetables from the market. Pofta buna!
There was blue sky, sunshine, and a heavy layer of frost when we looked outside our window the next morning. It was 7:30am when we headed for the train station, along the way buying breakfast and munching on covrigi (thin twists of bread encrusted with rock salt) with bananas and sweet local milk while we waited for our train to Vama, thirty minutes down the line.
In Vama we found the road to Moldovita and without fuss hopped into a share taxi to take us twenty kilometres on to our goal. Moldovita Manastirea was the proud centrepiece of an idyllically sprawling village where the main activity was horse carts transporting urns of fresh milk or hay for the coming season. Inside the fortified walls of stone was a beautiful church, it’s exterior tattooed with five hundred year old frescoes, and the interior sumptuously decorated with more. Perhaps even more amazing was the small group of Japanese tourists admiring the artwork, they were Orthodox Christians, some were operating film cameras and one didn’t have a camera at all! Black robed nuns with round hats ruled the roost inside the vine-covered sanctuary, and we also had time to climb a nearby hillock for a fine view of the complex and the surrounding countryside.
At 12:15pm the thrice daily train whistled into the train stop below the monastery and we rattled back to Vama on tracks laid onto the footpath along the roadside. It then rejoined the main line and we were back in Campulung Moldovenesc before we knew it. There was time for us to lunch in the park, discover that ‘lapte betut’ was buttermilk, and make the acquaintance of some friendly watermelon sellers before the 2:20pm train to Vatra Dornei.
OUR CIRCUIT COMPLETE, WE RETURNED to the comfort of Doina’s home, were welcomed back warmly, and somehow managed to tell of our adventures as she removed the debris of the person who normally resided in our room and stoked the fire for our dus.
It was a little sad saying “la revedere” to Doina the next morning, but we were looking forward to a new destination and it was another beautiful day.
We filled our water bottle, now stained from the minerals, for the last time at the Izvor Sentinela, and continued with hope to the bus station, picking up some breakfast strudel on the way. But the 8:30am bus was not going exactly where we had wanted it to. We had to settle for Poiana Largului as our stop, and the even-day maxi-taxi took us back down the valley of the Raul Bistrita past Chiril for 80 kilometres to the backwaters of the Lacu Izvorul Muntelui.
Poiana Largului was just a fork in the road. We wandered over to the branch labelled ‘Bicaz’ and stuck our fingers out wondering how any would-be lift-giver would choose between us and the half dozen other pairs of hitch-hikers. Most just kept driving…
The middle-aged couple waiting at the corner were the first to score, then the couple holding aloft their trump card – a baby. The desperate-looking elderly couple devoid of road sense were more likely to end up under a car than in one. A pair of guys from Switzerland joined us at our prime spot, and finally after two hours of patience we got a ride with a nice man going to Piatra Neamt. He was a bit of a kamikazi on the mountain road, but we were happy to be mobile, and the views of Ceahlau massif and the lake below were stupendous.
In Bicaz our benefactor dropped us off at the Lacu Rosu road. We wished him “drum bun” then found some gogos for lunch and were still licking the grease and icing sugar from our fingers when our next lift turned up. We climbed into the back of a panel van for the final thirty kilometre stint through the Bicaz gorges to Lacu Rosu, then wished the two old weasels a safe journey as they drove off with greed etched into their faces. We wandered off to find somewhere to stay.
VILA 9 TUSNAD, JUST DOWN THE road was fine for us, and Andrea the young caretaker was delightful. Lacu Rosu was a pretty spot, even under heavy Sunday afternoon picnic traffic. So on Monday morning we set off for a peaceful day of exploration. We walked back down the road for a proper look at the spectacular Cheile Bicazului. The bitumen snaked it’s way down the gorge beneath four hundred metre high cliffs, culminating in a narrow crack with the rock above seeming to defy gravity. Here we found a path marked with yellow stripes leading off, and decided to follow for a three hour magical mystery tour around the back of the gorges, through forested gullies and remote villages. The cold snap had brought on the first tinges of autumn colour to the forest, so it’s beauty was even richer.
In the afternoon we circumnavigated the lake near where we stayed, it’s olive green water strangely peppered with tree stumps and noisy ducks.
After having been unable to find anything even remotely resembling a balanced meal since our arrival, we desperately stepped into the Restaurant Floare de Colt for our evening meal. Served by none-other-than Dracula’s bride (we were back in Transylvania now), the tochitura Moldoveneasca (fried assorted meat bits with cheese and egg) and pulpe de pui was streets ahead of the previous nights greasy cabanos, which still had us shuddering at the memory.
In the morning we tried our luck on the public transport lottery and waited by the roadside for something to materialise and take us on our way. A bus came by at 8:30am listing on it’s signboard a jackpot of destinations, but none that we wanted. We quickly studied our map and made a selection pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style, “okay… Targu Mures”. And with that we were off, up and over a pass to the small town of Georgheni, then across the plains of Transylvania to Targu Mures for a smooth change of bus to Sighisoara. Along the way we saw farmers harvesting potatoes and making hay while the sun shone. We passed through ethnic Hungarian towns and gypsy villages, the Roma dressed traditionally in colourful long flowing petticoats with matching head scarves, and the men in slick black pants, black vests and wide-brimmed black hats.
It was warm again on the plains, grape trellises were bursting with fruit and strings of red onions hung for sale in many villages. When we reached Sighisoara we had travelled just over two hundred kilometres in seven hours… not bad.
SIGHISOARA’S CITADEL PERCHED HIGH IN a sea of medieval rooftops offered a dramatic first impression of this fantastical town. We wandered away from the bus stop already enamoured with the place, and had walked just a few hundred metres when we met Pandrea who offered us the front room in his comfortable little house right beneath the citadel for 500,000 Lei. We didn’t need much encouragement to follow him, and we needed no encouragement to retrace our steps to the nearby produce market. We returned home with five kilos of fruit, and devoured two kilos of watermelon at the kitchen table while getting to know Pandrea and his wife Codruta. They were a nice couple and they must have liked us too because Pandrea reduced our room tarif to 400,000 Lei.
Sighisoara held our attention for three days, and just being there was a pleasure. We roamed the streets of the lower town, to nearby vantage points, and inside the citadel which was especially atmospheric at night when the streets had deserted and the clock tower tolled in the cobbled street where Vlad Dracul was born six hundred years before. The buildings were wonderfully rustic with high red tiled roofs, shuttered windows, and plastered walls painted in lively pastels. The centrum was like a gigantic living work of art.
We also made an excellent day trip into the surrounding region, first enjoying an early breakfast with Codruta’s father Medrea who was waiting for us when we got up with coffee and cake which Codruta had baked after we went to sleep. A great start to the day.
We took a maxi-taxi twenty kilometres out to Saros from where we walked to Biertan, eight kilometres along a quiet road through cornfields with herbaceous borders of cannibis. Biertan was centred around a five hundred year old fortified Saxon church which we climbed up to through a covered stairway to explore.
We walked on from there along an unpaved road to Copsa Mare, a small village also boasting a fortified church and houses which hinted of an era more prosperous. Continuing on this road for several hours, we passed more picturesque villages with Saxon churches and friendly residents ready with smiles and greetings. The only traffic which passed us all day was the odd blue Dacia and horse carts, but when we eventually made it back to the main road at 2pm, hitching a ride to Sighisoara was easy. The third blue Dacia to pass by gave us a ride and our kindly driver even refused the usually mandatory tip.
Back in town we bumped into Codruta and her mother at the market, and met them soon after at home to chat away the afternoon over more coffee and cake, looking at family photos and maps of Romania, even though we spoke no common language!
At 6pm mum gave us a peck on each cheek before going home, and Codruta invited us on what we interpreted to be a quick walk to a nearby vantage point. But she was fitter than she looked, and after her day locked away in a factory for eight hours she was in need of some air in her lungs. We hiked solidly for almost two hours, to a lake on the other side of the gypsy quarter, then bush-bashed up through a beautiful oak forest to the Vila Franka. After having already covered twenty kilometres during our earlier excursion we arrived home exhausted to tell Pandrea of our adventure. We barely had the energy to climb over the citadel one more time to the Italiana Pizzeria for an Italian meal with a Romanian touch of bitey sheep’s cheese, and a side dish of fasole with olive oil, pepper and lemon.
Back at Ecaterina Teodoroiu, Pandrea was up for a chat, so we had a very late night drinking his home-distilled raku and talking about, among other things, the long local history of his ancestors who were buried in the graveyard at the very top of the citadel.
We had to wake him in the morning when it was time for us to go, he stood sleepily in his pyjamas, upset with himself for oversleeping because he had wanted to make us coffee. It was sad to leave behind such a great homestay, and it wasn’t to be a particularly good day for us…
It had been raining all night and we sloshed off to the bus station where our maxi-taxi was late and we ate a breakfast of cottage cheese buns watched closely by several old gypsy beggars.
We had arrived in Sibiu, one hundred kilometres away, by 10am and were so unimpressed by our accommodation choices, and discouraged by the rather agressive Dragos at the information office, that we decided to leave on an afternoon train after a soggy look around the city. The streetscapes were great but it wasn’t the weather for strolling, though we had some respite in the gothic Evangelical church in which Mihnea voda cel Rau, son of Vlad Tepes, was entombed. At 2:30pm there was a train to Ucea, and we were on it for a one and a half hour ride to the east.
Ucea station was a black hole of onward transport. We walked down the highway to the Victoria road and hitched a ride for the last eight kilometres with a nice guy in an orange Dacia who spoke English perfectly.
THE HOTEL PALERMO WAS THE only option in Victoria and they knew it. It was by now too late and too wet to consider leaving town, so we took a room for 20 Euro and studied our hiking map with fingers crossed and high hopes for the day ahead.
But the rain was still falling when we woke. At 8am we analysed the conditions and decided that it was too wet to hike, so we ate a leisurely breakfast and studied our map again for an alternative plan.
At 10am we wandered off to the bus station to see what might be on offer, but the transport situation was more bleak than the weather. We looked longingly at the trail head, we looked at the sky, it had stopped raining, we decided to hike after all. Dave went on a quick provision sortie and was lucky enough to stumble upon the market place which had eluded us the previous afternoon, so he returned with milk, fruit and other treasures which we packed into my bag and we set off at 10:30am, waving goodbye to the little old lady who was still waiting for a bus or a phantom depending on her luck.
We walked off into a mist so heavy that it condensed into droplets on our bodies as we went, and it completely obscured the Fagaras Mountains which we were about to climb into. For several kilometres we warmed up on the flat stretch across to the foothills, then from an altitude of 500 metres we suddenly began our ascent. It was unrelentingly up. In two hours we had climbed 1000 metres, a gruelling trek for which we were not mentally prepared.
At 1:30pm we stopped for lunch by a spring and met the only other hikers we were to meet that day – three men coming down from Podragu Cabana. We didn’t intend to go that far, our destination was Turnuri Cabana, three hours away. But as we climbed on, the place where our trail should have forked off was not marked and we realised with a sense of dread that we would have to re-direct to Podragu after all, another five hours of hiking. To say that I was concerned would be understating, by now we were tired and were walking through long grasses soaked by the heavy cloud, so our trousers, shoes and socks were sodden and uncomfortable. The trail offered some respites, almost levelling beneath a high range for some time, but the sharp bursts of ascent were painful with our heavy packs and wet clothing. We were almost rock climbing some sections and my fear was mounting as time wore on, passing the memorial cross of some unfortunate hiker didn’t help. Around that point we had climbed to 2300 metres and extreme cold was added to our woes.
But then we spotted Podragu Lake and fear turned to relief. Shortly afterwards the cabana appeared like a mirage out of the mist, a sight enough to bring tears to our eyes. With the adrenaline rush of fear to spur us on, we had completed the five hour section in three hours. It had been the worst day of hiking we had ever had, the pleasures were few, not even a view was offered to us. A yellow-spotted salamander and the multitudes of fungi which lined the path were the only things to enjoy – along with the hike around the shore of the hauntingly beautiful Lacu Podragu.
LIVING IN CABANA PODRAGU AT 2136 metres was Corina and Dan, the two English speaking caretakers who had spent the past fourteen summers in the sixty year old mountain refuge. We were allotted two spaces in a giant six-person sleeping platform, and fed a dinner of potatoes and sausages in the kitchen ahead of an evening getting to know our hosts. We were the only hikers to arrive that day.
A delicious nightcap of sweet rum tea warmed us up and sent us off to sleep, but the next morning the weather was unchanged and our clothes were still dripping wet, so it was unanimously decided that we should have a rest day at the cabana. We did nothing all day, but an icy wind lifted the cloud higher so we could spot wild mountain goats on the slopes above and see the trail which we had followed the previous afternoon clinging precariously near a ridge top with a spectacular drop-off beneath it. I pondered the times I had stumbled along that section ignorant of the peril which had laid beyond that fluffy curtain of cloud we walked through.
Through the day Dan caught two nice trout in the lake (he was a dead ringer for Rex Hunt, his fishing hero) and Dave helped him celebrate with a few shots of tuica, and in the evening four Polish men arrived to liven up our night. True to character Peitr, ‘Rabbit’, ‘Gringo’ and Mathieu had carried ten litres of alcoholic beverages with them and everyone was expected to join the party. At midnight we stumbled to the bed we now shared after downing numerous shots of tuica, palinca and sweet red wine to the multilingual cheers of “nasdravie” and “naroc“.
In the morning the cloud was high, there were large patches of blue sky and even sunshine. Our bed mates were still dozing when we set off, biding a fond farewell to Corina on the stone porch of the cabana with the cirque of Podragu sending an echo of the waterfall into the high altitude silence.
We began with a spectacular thirty minute climb to our first pass, Podragului, and Dan and Corina waved goodbye, their figures becoming smaller and the cabana diminishing to a dot in the remote landscape which it sat in. From the pass an entirely new panorama was spread before us. A short distance to the east we could see Mount Moldoveanu, at 2544 metres, Romania’s highest peak, while our track, marked with red stripes, hugged the mountain face to the west and led around to Lacu Podu Giurgiului before another dramatic accent to the top of Mount Mircii (2461m).
From here it was an exhilarating ridge walk along the razor sharp spine of the Fagaras Mountains. A misplaced step in either direction could have meant curtains, and we passed several more memorials to testify to this. There were three more passes to negotiate and our reverse rock climbing skills were put to the test with our rucksacks on board – it was great!!
From the Portita Arpasului Pass we dropped to cross a scree slope, then climbed another four hundred metres to the pass above Capra Lake before a final push to Saua Caprei, from where we could look down upon the spectacular Transfagarasean Road and Lacu Balea. It was a twenty minute scramble down to meet the road after almost six hours of hiking, but we weren’t there yet…
The highway heading south disappeared into the mountain and we followed it into the depths illuminated by the odd mercury vapour. It was a very eerie kilometre of hiking to emerge on the side of a cliff with the road snaking away down the mountainside. We followed for several more kilometres alternately trying to hitch and taking shortcuts until we reached Cabana Capra, a much needed luxurious night stop.
It was a bit pricey at 650,000 Lei, but we had central heating, a hot shower and a view of a one hundred metre high waterfall from our room. Downstairs in the dining room we ate our cotlet snitel in the company of a stuffed deer with numerous other pelts adding to the decor.
In the morning the sun shone on what was to be an amazing day. We began by stepping out into the briskness of 1580 metres to hitchhike southward on the Transfagarasean Road. A quick chat with Ion in the cabana revealed that it was 46 kilometres to Poienari with not even a village in between and certainly no public transport. But we were feeling optimistic and it was too cold to just stand and wait outside the cabana, so we started to walk…
The scenery was fantastic on such a glorious day, and although our muscles ached from the previous days exertions, it was an easy downhill trot. We marched for one and a half hours before the first car passed – it didn’t stop for us. Another hour, another car – it didn’t stop. Then we saw an owl. A beautiful hawk owl flying, then watching us from the forest – our special omen for good luck! The next car stopped! We had walked for four hours and had covered twenty kilometres when we decided to stop for a rest and eat the only food we had with us, a couple of apples. A car with German plates came by, our hopes faded, but the driver was a Romanian German named Ubi on holiday with his German wife, Ulrika. And they stopped, they stopped.
We drove together for thirty kilometres, chatting and comfortably watching the milestone tick by until we reached the Baraj Vidraru, a dramatic feat of engineering which dammed a narrow neck of gorge, the road disappearing into a tunnel on the other side. Our chauffeurs were out for some sight-seeing, so we got to have a look around at the dam, then continued for several more kilometres down the last hurrah of the mountains to Poienari. The castle of Vlad Tepes was spectacularly sighted on a strategic crag high above this final pass. Although in ruins, it looked as the ultimate Dracula castle should, and we wanted to explore so we said goodbye to the lift which had been our lifeline, and somehow found the energy to climb a thousand steps up to Cetatea Poienari.
Before the final winding pathway across to the castle we were met by the old caretaker who sold us a ticket with a deep-throated chuckle, “Vlad Tepes…Drac-ula…ha,ha,ha…” It was a worthwhile stop. We could have seen any would-be invaders coming from any direction from this magnificent perch, and our imaginations ran wild picturing the Wallachian prince looking out from what remained of the turreted towers.
Back down on the road we stuck our fingers out again. We couldn’t walk another step, and stood looking up in awe at the infamous castle, and hopefully at the cars which passed by. There was much more traffic on this section of the road and it wasn’t long before a white Dacia stopped for us…
OUR NEW DRIVER, CORNEL, WAS an off-duty policeman on his way home to Curtea de Arges with Alex, the young daughter of a friend. Curtea de Arges was also our destination, thirty kilometres away, so we sat back to enjoy the ride through beautiful Wallachian countryside.
We didn’t know where we wanted to be dropped off, and as we entered the town Dave fumbled in our coin purse as we wispered about how much we needed to tip. But it turned out that these matters were irrelevant. Cornel drove us to his place without question, a blockhouse close to the town centre. Alex ran inside and returned a few minutes later with Maria, Cornel’s wife who spoke English. We were greeted like old friends and invited in “please” for coffee. Inside was Maria’s daughter Veronica, a twelve year old who spoke English with confident fluency. They were delightful and before we had finished our toica and coffee we had been invited to spend the night with them. We had already had a big day, but it was far from over yet.
Washed and refreshed we headed out on a city tour with Cornel and Veronica. We hitched the short distance to the beautiful Curtea Domneasca decorated inside with six hundred year old frescoes to rival those at Moldovita. We then walked on to the Manastirea Curtea de Arges where Cornel’s police badge made our welcome warm, and we were given a special tour of the sumptuously decorated interior by the caretaker. In the church behind, we paid homage to the bones of the wife of the stonemason who was entombed in it’s walls as a sacrifice, and the atmosphere in the sanctum was solemn. Priests chanted and frail and ill worshippers sat slumped in a ring of wooden chairs. Outside we lit candles then drank from the spring of Manole while Dave slipped off to buy flowers, chocolates and beer for our kind hosts, “oh nu, nu, nu!!”.
Cornel knew every other person and it took just a few moments for a passing Dacia to give us a ride home! There Maria had been busy cooking dinner and we ate together a feast of mamaliga, branza (goat’s cheese), ciorba and roasted veal, accompanied by more toica, beer and sweet red wine made by Maria’s mother. A neighbour, Florin, dropped by for more beer and we were given gifts of chocolate and porcelain angels before a gypsy sing-song by Veronica and Maria. We fell into bed at 11pm drunk and exhausted.
When we woke every muscle ached and the alcohol still swam in our heads. Maria, a nurse, had already left for work, so Cornel made us all a huge breakfast of mamaliga, fried eggs, branza, coffee and milk fresh from the cow. “Toica?”, he had to be kidding, “bere?“, we were incredulous. Disappointed he drank alone!!
We said our goodbyes feeling overwhelmed by the special Romanian hospitality this wonderful family had shown to a couple of Australians picked up on the side of the road beneath Dracula’s castle. What to say?
Cornel walked us down to the bus stop and after kissing us both on each cheek he was gone, waving or shaking hands with every other person as he went. Our bus came along in an hour or so, and we too went back to life as usual. A bus bound for Brasov took us as far as Moeciu de Jos through mountainous country speckled with apple orchards and flocks of sheep led by hardy shepherds wearing cloaks and tall black woollen hats. The Bucegi Mountains to the east looked so stunning that even the locals on the bus turned their heads.
MOECIU DE JOS WAS JUST ANOTHER small village along this route, which sat in a valley between the Bucegi and Piatra Craiului massifs of the Carpathian Mountains. We found a home with a ‘cazare’ sign to stay in, and spent a restful afternoon considering our hiking options.
Top priority was a day of rest. We slept in, ate a mountain of sweet purple grapes, and took a gentle stroll for a couple of kilometres to Bran, on legs still hobbled from our Fagaras foray. Bran’s centrepiece castle was like something from a medieval fairytale, with more Dracula souvenirs than you could poke a tourist at. Though it was pretty low key, our farmyard garden at home with the mooing cow and the chickens was more pleasant – even if the cow did leave his mark all over our laundry…
In the morning we allowed the weather to decide our movements. It was overcast, but there was a light breeze in our faces when we looked toward the sliver of blue sky to the south – we would cross the Bucegi Mountains on foot… We said goodbye to our hosts Mia and grandma with a peck on each cheek, then made a pit stop at the grocery store for provisions.
The mountains looked mighty and impenetrable from our distant starting point at 500 metres altitude, and we had a long but pleasant eight kilometre hike to Moeciu de Sus before we even reached the trail head. From there we found our way marks of red crosses leading up a gentle valley, the houses of the village giving way to pine forest, and the road deteriorating in stages until we were following horse tracks up through the tree line to emerge on the high slopes beneath imposing limestone bluffs.
Our trail took us across to Saua Strunga, a pass at 1900 metres which we had been able to see from afar, and we dropped over the saddle into another world – the high alpine valley of Ialomita with pastures and forests protected by a horseshoe of peaks to the north.
AFTER SIX HOURS OF HIKING we found Cabana Podina near the floor of the bowl at 1400 metres, and then went for a stroll. A stream babbled through green grass and scattered pine trees to Cheile Pesterii where a small hermitage was tucked into the side of the gorge. On the hillsides some deciduous trees had already turned spectacular shades of yellow and red. It was very beautiful.
In the evening the clouds cleared away again to reveal a waxing moon and stars, but by morning all was shrouded in fog again.
We set off early and after some initial problems finding the red stripe trail which we had chosen, we were soon climbing up out of the valley on a steep path through a misty lichen forest sprinkled with exotic mushrooms. We emerged from the treeline at Lapticii Pass, an alpine meadow at 1900 metres which led down a wide monochrome valley, and then back up to a second pass at 2000 metres. Now we were above the clouds and as we dropped over the pass we encountered the first of a reluctant string of fatigued hikers slogging their way up.
For us it was a sharp thousand metre descent to finish after five and a half hours in the lively town of Sinaia. There we thought that we had tee’d up a bed, but when we called Lauro he was unable to host us that night… one door closes, another opens.
NO SOONER HAD WE HUNG UP the phone, and two people were politely enquiring of us, “cazare?”. We followed Silviu, a civil engineer who took us to his home on Strada Aosta and told us Dracula stories in his wonderful accent while drinking spritz as if it were a drip feed. He was quite a character, his living room like a museum crammed full with a lifetime of memorabilia. And at the end of his stint in the army he had been one of those to turn his gun on the Ceasescu regime.
Once our legs had recovered sufficiently we wandered down the hill into town, ironically still following the red way marks, to Boulevard Carol I, where the Sinaia festival was in full swing. We listened to music, did lots of people watching, tasted some snacks (kurtoskalcs, a gigantic roasted doughnut, and halveti) and managed to find a meal without meat or cheese (well almost) at Brutaria Deutschland. The salata de bouef was served with a artistic garnish of egg and cheek of tomato with mayonnaise dots to look like one of those fantastical forest mushrooms.
We then had a quiet night at Silviu’s place watching the Sinaia festival live on television with our host and his wife Dina. Our nightcap of homemade gooseberry liqueur was a drop in the ocean of what Silviu was throwing back, he was much more entertaining than the television.
After a breakfast of coffee and potato bread in the garden with the ducks, we spent the next morning at Peles Castle. To be one day sweating up the side of a mountain in the clouds, and the next shuffling around a royal palace in padded slippers, was quite a contrast. The palace of Carol the First was plush to say the least, and it was worth taking the tour just to hear the guides monologue in the classic Dracula drawl.
After that we finally managed to catch up with Lauro. We met at the palace and spent the afternoon with he, his wife Claudia and son Tibii, snack-tracking at the festival and visiting Silviu who was predictably intoxicated, all the better for regaling everybody with his kangaroo joke!
LAURO ACTUALLY LIVED 30 KILOMETRES south of Sinaia in the town of Campina, and we all piled into his red Dacia to zip down the Prahova Valley with the Sunday afternoon traffic heading back to Bucharest.
At home, Lauro wasted no time finding his stash of home-distilled toica, and we were soon faced with a line-up of beverages to consume. We were unwillingly becoming experts on judging the smoothness of toica, and Lauro’s cherry liqueur was particularly good! We had a delicious midnight snack in the kitchen with the two other Australians already in residence (a pair of budgerigars), and after a big sleep in the next morning Lauro called the office where he worked as a web page designer to take the day off.
We whiled away the morning chatting and eating grapes fresh and fragrant from the vine before heading for the place to find a maxi-taxi to Bucharest.
WITHIN A COUPLE OF HOURS we found ourselves in the capital, a bit rough round the edges but with a unique character (Bucharest, not us). We had cut a few corners to arrive ahead of our plan at the request of a ‘Freeloader’ host who we wanted to meet, but after waiting for three hours at the Gara de Nord we realised that Andrea was letting us down, so our sacrifices had been wasted and we ended up finding our way to the Villa Helga Hostel just off the Boulevard Dacia. It was okay, we shared our space with an overweight British diabetic who snored all night, a Canadian working at the German embassy, and a mustachioed American who introduced himself with “I’m from Am-er-i-ca”. Yep.
We were saved from all this by Petre, who sent a message inviting us to meet him at the Arcul de Triumf, and we left the Villa Helga with a spring in our step. We had not intended to meet Petre until later in the week, but he was flexible and as soon as we met him we knew that our last week in Romania was going to be special. He scooped us into his little green car (not a Dacia!) and drove us first into the country to meet his parents and granny – he took us directly to the heart of his life.
We spent most of the day in their village house in Vantori which was in the midst of reconstruction and were privileged to be included in their project. Dave sorted out their electrical problems, I did some painting, and we all enjoyed a meal of roasted eggplant and salad together in the garden with the chickens, cats and Maya, their beloved mop-haired dog.
“I want to show you something”, says Petre, appearing with that months edition of ‘Deco’ magazine. “This is my apartment in Bucharest…”, granny beamed and nodded, we looked in disbelief at the pages of Romania’s most stylish interior design magazine where our accommodation was boldly featured over several pages. Petre was a man who appreciated and liked to be surrounded by beautiful things.
Before we went home he took us into the city to enjoy his favourite places.
He showed us the most beautiful buildings, we poked around in antique shops, drank coffee in a trendy cafe, and visited Stravropoleos Church, a gem tucked into the cityscape where we absorbed the tranquility which was somehow emphasised by a young nun heralding mass, slowly circling the church rhythmically beating a piece of wood with a hammer. And he showed us his least favourite place, the Casa Poporului, a monstrous edifice looming like a ghost out of the mist.
We then picked up Adina, Petre’s closest friend, and went home to Mihai, Petre’s flatmate, who had been patiently waiting for us to return. The three of them were such good friends, they clearly adored one another and welcomed us into their triangle with such genuine warmth it was like stepping into a comfortable embrace.
The next five days passed by in a flash, Petre was the perfect host. On another of his days off he helped us find the obscure embassies we needed to procure visa’s from. Adina spent a day with us strolling amid the towering acorn trees in the Parcul Herastrau and the Village Museum.
When Petre was at work at the airport we found our way on the Metro to fill a day with more embassy visits. Looking for the Turkish embassy we asked a passerby for directions, and not only did Stefan know where it was, he took us there proudly showing off his Turkish language skills all the way to the information desk inside. Even in the big city, Romanian people warmed our hearts.
Our evenings were spent snuggled in the (now famous) living room, listening to music, eating together, and watching movies ranging in diversity from ‘Marquis de Sade’ to ‘Finding Nemo’, bonding our friendships.
On the weekend we went again to spend a day at Petre’s parents house. He and Dave laid some parquetry flooring, while granny, Mum, Adina and I transferred most of the seasons corn stock into the granary. In between we ate several courses of food to celebrate Dad’s birthday. First a sweet made with noodles, sugar and milk, then sarmale and mamaliga with pickled peppers. Next came kebabs with meat, ham, tomatoes, onion, cabanos and peppers, and finally cornestii with walnuts and a delectable torte for the birthday song. It was dark by the time we got back to the city, so we were able to have a tour by night to the dulcet strains of Queen – our last evening in Romania.
In the morning we were sad to be leaving, but it was impossible to be melancholy in the company of Petre and Mihai. We ate a long, leisurely breakfast finished off with some aromatic citron tea selected from Mihai’s exclusive collection.
We drove together to the train station and said goodbye in a sea of kisses and hugs, for us it was a farewell not only to new found friends but to a country which we had enjoyed tremendously. We waved all the way to the station entrance and then the cavernous Gara de Nord swallowed us up and another chapter of our journey began…