Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Stunning Landscapes, Outdoor Activities and Plum Brandy in North-Western Romania

As part of the Transylvania region, the north-western part of Romania is usually associated with Count Dracula. But in actuality the area is free of vampires and rich in stunning scenery and opportunities for outdoor activities. The karst formations of the Apuseni Mountains, the Crişul Repede River and the caves and waterfalls around them make for an ideal destination, still left largely off the mass tourism routes, for hiking, rafting and rappelling enthusiasts.

The area is also perfect for a weekend getaway, even from more remote parts of the country. contributor Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu managed to pack three days full of open-air activities, a quick tour of the historic city of Cluj and even stop by for some plum brandy, to discover that going to the area makes for a surreal experience between two work weeks.

Text and photographs by Sorin-Alexandru Cristescu

Day one

We leave Sibiu early in the morning with a coach for Cluj. As we advance deeper into the Transylvanian plateau, the clouds dissipate and make place for a magnificent summer sun, even though it's the end of September.

We pass by fascinating places: Câlnic with its handsome fortification, Sebeş, Lancrăm, Rapele Rosii, Alba Iulia, the Aiud Citadel, Turzii Gorges and, after almost four hours, we see Cluj, at our feet, stretching over and among the green hillocks.

We get off the bus in the centre and head for the old town. First we enter the Orthodox Cathedral, with its beautiful golden Byzantine mosaic, and then we wander around the narrow streets of the old town until we reach St. Michael Cathedral, built at the middle of the fourteenth century. It is a beautiful Gothic building, supple and vigorous, with a simple but elegant decoration both on the exterior and inside.

In the small square next to the cathedral, a folklore fair is taking place. The villagers, beautifully dressed in colourful traditional clothes, present to the public their pottery, wooden musical instruments, vibrant rugs and home-made sweets.

The city is full of life and the atmosphere is energetic, probably partly due to the many students who are going to start the new academic year at the city’s university in two days.

We head towards the train station, where we catch a train to Bratca, a village in the Apuseni Mountains, where we’re headed to do some rafting. We take the slow train, which takes over two hours to cover the nearly 100-kilometre distance from Cluj.

At first, we see plains and hillocks out the window, which gradually start to be replaced by the Apuseni Mountains’ karst landscape - tall rocks and caves, emerging abruptly from the river banks; smooth, green ridges inviting you to climb them.

Towards the evening we reach Bratca, where one of the rafting trip’s organisers meets us and takes us to a hostel in the village centre. We leave our baggage there and go to the organisers’ tent camp, on the river’s bank, just outside of the village.

Even though we are not up in the mountains, the air is fresh and cool and the silence is almost deafening.

We head back before too long and go to sleep, as we know it’ll be a short night.

Indeed, at about 6 am, when it is still dark outside, some more friends arrive from Bucharest. They have taken the direct train to Bratca immediately after finishing work on Friday afternoon and now, on Saturday morning, they find themselves in the opposite corner of the country, exhausted after the sleepless night, but excited to start the rafting trip.

Day two

After a frugal breakfast, we head towards the camping site, where the rafting trip is to start. The day appears in all its splendour: even though it's early in the morning and we are among the mountains, the sun is shining strongly and we are outdoors in t-shirts.

The process of choosing the neoprene suits and trying them on offers many comical moments and takes us much longer than expected. It seems like the organisers are completely unprepared and we pump up the boats ourselves. Finally, around lunch we manage to get going - altogether we are two big boats of six people each and a small one with two of us.

The river is pretty shallow and slow, but there are regions where we feel the adrenaline rise together with the level of the water. The river takes us past magnificent caves in the rocky walls, reachable by picturesque suspended bridges. At one point, we stop in order to do a wall rappel, although less than half of us dare to take part. We hang at 50 meters above the riverbed - the adrenaline reaches its peak, the landscape around us is stunning, but we are too focused to admire it. The rappel ends with a plunge into the water from a height of about three meters and our friends recover us from the river with the pneumatic boat.

The experience is demanding enough so that most of us are unwilling to continue the rafting trip, except for a few enthusiasts. We get back to Bratca on foot, first walking next to the railroad, then past orchards from which we stock up on some supplies without much hesitation. We must look quite strange, entering the village in our neoprene suits – as the villagers squint at us, they seem to be thinking the circus is back in town.

We buy some more food from a store, then have a warm dinner, followed by a dreamless sleep.

Day three

It is the first day of October, but it looks like July. The sun shines strongly in the sky, the hillocks around us are green and it is t-shirt weather again.

After yesterday’s experience, we decide not to do rafting today, especially since the organisation seems to be really poor. Instead, we decide to go for a hike in the surrounding region.

We take the slow train, which stops at the Peştera flag station, from where we cross a suspended bridge and reach the portal of the Vadu Crişului cave. We visit the cave and admire the awesome formations and the long, hidden galleries. We climb the ridges, which offer us superb panoramas over the Criş Valley. As we hike, we come upon strange waterfalls, flowing above mosses that stubbornly cling to the rock.

We head back but on the way we stop by a tiny factory for pălincă, or plum brandy, which is a true jewel on the Criş River shore. After we stock up on some brandy, we get our baggage and wait for the night train that takes us back to Sibiu and some of us go directly to work.

As I walk through the town’s sleepy streets, I get a surreal feeling that the whole trip was a dream. There is something very surreal about leaving your comfortable office chair on Friday evening, directly getting on a train that takes you to the opposite corner of the country in about ten hours, where you hike, do rafting and rappel, just in time to catch the train back on Sunday evening and reach the city on Monday, when you jump directly back into your comfortable office chair.

Practical Information:
In addition to getting there by bus or train, it is of course possible to get to the area by car. The biggest city in the area, Cluj, is about 440 kilometres from the capital, Bucharest. Going by car takes about 5 hours. Cluj is about 460 kilometres from the Serbian capital Belgrade and driving time is about 6 hours. From the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Cluj is about 680 kilometres away, with driving time just under 9 hours.

This article is courtesy of the Romanian website

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