The Great Făgăraş Adventure; Roadside camping; Uphill walking; Cable-car; Crossing the mountains on foot; Trapped in the mountains as darkness falls; A very cold and windy night; In which I am as sick as a dog; Stumbling down the mountain; Donkeys!; Collapsing at a pension; A ride on a logging truck to Dracula's Castle; Through Curtea de Argeş and Bran back to Braşov, inexplicably; Lorenzo's lost wallet; Back to Sibiu again at last

Our plan for hiking was this: Pack the bags and take the bus to a village called Cârţişoara at the foot of the northern slope of the Făgăraş range, and then hike up the road which crosses the mountains, the Transfăgăraş. Our map had chalets marked at 600 and 1200m altitude. The 600m chalet was 7km or so up the road, and the 1200m one was 18km on. We weren’t due to arrive in Făgăraş until 5:30 pm, so I wasn’t sure how far we’d get before we lost the daylight. After that we’d play it by ear. The idea was to cross the mountains on foot and then - somehow - get to Cetatea Poienari - Poienari Castle, billed as the real Dracula’s Castle. From there we’d make our way back to Sibui. Somehow. As you can see, our plan was very vague on all the details - we had learned by now that Romania is very hard on carefully-thought-out plans.

The bus to Cârţişoara didn’t leave until 4pm, so we used the morning to reconfigure the gear and buy food and equipment. Sheryl was brining her little day-pack with her personal effects, and I was bringing my big pack with my stuff, the camping equipment, and the food and water. The rest of it we were leaving in storage at the hostel in Sibiu. My pack was a lot heavier than I’d hoped for. It was fine with just the clothes and equipment, but once I’d added the food and 6 liters of water, it was a lot heaver - maybe 20kg at a guess. Food for the trip was a bit more difficult than I’d expected. All the little supermarkets downtown were useless, so we had to walk for half an hour to the outskirts of town to find a big supermarket. I’d decided to bring three days of food, and followed my usual rule of 2000kcal each per day. Other people need more, but neither of us are that big so we can get by with less. I managed to find a decent assortment of food - mostly dry pasta packets and sauces, and some hard pretzel bread. I added in some tuna for the first night, and some other heaver things. Trial mix was an issue, but we managed to improvise some sweet muesli with fruit and nuts mixed in. I only really departed from my usual shopping list when I got concerned about protein and decided to add a thick dried length of sausage, which was a serious gamble as there was every chance we’d both take one bite and throw it away in disgust. I added a small bottle of vodka and a big bar of chocolate, to be administered as needed. 85Ron (about CAD$35) lighter and a few kilos heaver, we walked back to the hostel. I wavered and stopped on the way for another canister of gas for the camping stove, and I’m very glad I did - we ran out of the first canister on the second night halfway through dinner.

The manager of the hostel had helped us out by calling the bus company to confirm the bus schedule I’d found on the internet. This was our first setback. He said that the bus was running, but only as far as Porumbacu de Jos, two villages closer to Sibiu than Cârţişoara, because of road construction. But when we got to the bus station - a chaotic insane mess of shouting, shoving crowds, and tried to ask, we were told by one impatient Romanian-only-speaking ticket agent that the bus was okay to Cârţişoara, and by another that the bus didn’t leave until 5. Very confused, we decided to try hanging around on the platform to try and spot our bus. This was even more chaotic and confusing, and neither of us could make head nor tail of the platform signs. I kept watch while Sheryl ran to the train station. I’d checked trains earlier but couldn’t find anything - hence the bus - but she came back at a run saying that there was a train leaving in five minutes which would get us to Scoreia, which was only one village away from Cârţişoara. We gave up the bus as a bad distraction and headed for the train. It was a Personal train, and so quite slow, but we got to Scoreia station by 5pm.

Scoreia, the village proper, is not at all near the station. In fact the only way we saw to actually get to the station was by a footpath through the fields. A few people had gotten off the train at the same station, so we followed the. When we reached Scoreia, we were at last inside the bounds of our topographic map of the mountains. Our map showed a secondary road (read: “dirt track”) from Scoreia to Cârţişoara, but it wasn’t clear how to find it, since the village was only a yellow blob on the map. We made our best guess and then showed our map to an old lady sitting at the crossroads. She nodded and showed us both her teeth and waved us ahead, so we took the road. As we left I joked to Sheryl that the woman was really only twenty-one. The old lady steered us halfway wrong - her road led us back to the highway, but there as another road that led off in the right direction. We followed it for five or six kilometers, through fields and past one horse, seeing the twinkle of a church spire’s tin roof in the distance marking our destination. The mountains loomed massive and dark on our right. They sucked all the afternoon light into them and bulked there with a thick black swirl of cloud hiding their peaks from view. They looked the perfect Transylvanian abode of vampires and so forbidding was their aspect that I wondered nervously what we were getting ourselves into.

It took us a little over an hour to reach the village of Cârţişoara, Sheryl protesting that we were going the wrong way the whole time, right up until we saw the sign with the name of the village. We passed through without stopping, nodding greetings to the villagers left and right. They were all friendly and smiled and waved back. It was nice to be out of the bigger towns from a little while. It didn’t take long to pass through Cârţişoara, though - the place is tiny. One man coming out of his shop offered us a ride, but I declined with thanks, for two reasons. First, I wanted to walk, because it was a nice night and I wanted to see some of the countryside; and second, because I’d heard that there was a thriving local industry based on ferrying people up the mountains and I didn’t feel like paying for a ride.

It was a pleasant walk through the country, with fields on one side and a little river on the other. The river side of the road was lined with tents set up, and cars and campfires - or at least the smoky clouds of people trying to light campfires. We walked until we lost the light, entering the foothills and unfortunately passing all the good camping sites. We had to settle for a strip of scrubby grass by the side of the road. It was filthy - strewn with trash everywhere and with a stinking drift of tissue at the edge of the trees where people had been using it as a toilet. We’ve unfortunately found this situation throughout the country, and the Transfăgăraş was no exception. It pains me to say it, but Romania is the dirtiest country we’ve seen so far, by a long shot.

It was dark by the time we had the tent set up and dinner cooked, and then the people in the tent beside us invited us over to share their fire. That was nice, we hadn’t felt like making one and the night was getting a bit chilly. It made me nervous about he temperatures at the higher altitudes, since we were only at about 600m, I reckoned (In fact we were rather cold that night, even with our silk sleeping bag liners). The Romanians with the fire told us that there was supposed to be a bus up the mountain to Bălea Cascada at 7, and they said they’d wake us up in time to catch it, since they were planning to take it themselves. I sort of wanted to walk all the way, but I figured if the bus was there, then I’d take it. Better than hitching, anyway, though I figured we were above the bounds of enterprising locals. The Romanians, by the way, confirmed this story - they were offered a ride by someone asking 100RON (about CAD$40) to take them to Bălea Cascada, which is only about 18km from Cârţişoara.

We woke up at 6:30 on Tuesday morning, shivered and went back to sleep until 8. It had been a cold night and we knew we weren’t going to be able to have breakfast and pack up in time to catch the bus. The Romanians woke up at 8:30, so they weren’t taking it either. We were packed up and one the road by 9:30 and they set out shortly after us, but overtook us quickly. A couple of kilometers on we overtook them in turn, sitting by the side of the road, and that was the last we saw of them until two days later.

The road itself was nice, a steep series of hairpin turns up one of the mountains. We made one brief exercise in a shortcut between loops, but it was hot, scratchy and seriously steep, and no fun at all for me at least, with the pack, so we decided to stick to the road after that. The pack was heavy, but not intolerably so, and the weather was fine and the views good, so I was enjoying walking. Sheryl made a few pointed comments about hitchhiking, but I wanted to walk. It took us about three hours to cover 11km of steep uphill road, in the end. We stopped a couple of times for photos or snacks, once for insect repellant to drive away the cloud of at least 30 flies that had decided to circle me incessantly, and once to fill up the water bottles from a roadside tap. We debated purifying the water first, but we’d been told that water in the mountains was okay, so decided not to take the time. We reached Bălea Cascada at around 1pm. It’s a big waterfall at 1200m altitude. There were a bunch of cars, people and souvenir stands, but most important for our purposes, there was the lower terminus of a cable-car.

The cable car runs between Bălea Cascada and Bălea Lac at 2000m altitude. I was stuck on the idea of walking across the mountains, but the cable-car just made too much sense to turn down. The point of the exercise was to do our hiking up on the trails, after all, and not to spend all our time on the road. So the cable-car let us skip climbing 800 meters, which was cheating a bit, but it also let us skip 13km of boring winding road. Every cable-car in Romania up to that point had been sponsored by Coca-Cola, and this one was no exception - the whole carriage was one big logo. It took us up in about five minutes, giving us some nice views of the waterfall and the Transfăgăraş road. Toward the end of the trip, we could see that the wires ahead vanished into opaque grey mist, and the car followed soon after - it was the bottom of the cloud layer.

Visibility was about 15 meters when we got off the cable-car, and it was a lot colder at 2000m than it had been at 1200. It wasn’t freezing, but we immediately stopped and put on all our sweaters. The lake was neat. It was really dark and gloomy and the clouds kept shifting, revealing and obscuring the surface of the water and the sheer rock walls surrounding it. It looked like some sort of purgatory for the lost souls wandering its edges. We took a quick look around and noted the two chalets there. We still hadn’t decided where we were staying the night, and thought that possibly the chalets might make a good base for day-long loops on the trails. Sheryl didn’t want to stay the night in the high regions, though, and I couldn’t blame her, with her health still dodgy as it was. So we settled on a four-trail route that would take us up to about 2300m and avoid any nasty peaks, and then down out of the mountains to maybe 1350m by dusk. Red-cross trail to blue-stripe trail, blue-stripe to red-stripe (the main cross-range ridge route) and red-stripe to blue-circle, then all downhill from there - what could be simpler? Feeling reservedly confident, we bought some nice salty smoky cheese and some pretzel-like bread rings from a roadside vendor, and had a quick lunch, cold except for tea (naturally).

We set out on the trails at 2pm, and there followed the toughest hiking I’ve ever done in my life. The first section, the red-cross trail, was practically vertical - just to give us a taste of what to expect, I guess. The trail surface was very rough and broken, covered in giant ragged boulders and sliding loose stones. It was less a trail as I think of trails (a cleared path) than a marked route. It was certainly very well marked, I’ll give it that - there were fresh, brightly-painted markers never farther apart than ten or fifteen meters. It would have been impossible to lose the trail, which was good, because the trail itself was eminently lose-able, since one bunch of rocks looks pretty much like any other. When we got to the top of the slope at about 2pm we were panting and gasping. We’d stopped for short standing rests a couple of times, but my heart was racing. The air seemed so thin I couldn’t get enough of it. When we looked down to the lake to see how far we’d come, we couldn’t see anything but clouds. We thought we’d accomplished something, but when we consulted the amp and compass and looked ahead, we saw that the blue-stripe trail was even worse. Up and up and up we went, to about 2300m, curving to the southeast around the peak of Mt. Paltinului. We stopped for a fifteen minute break before the ascent to cross the ridge, and watched the clouds boil and swirl to the right of the trail. For a couple of brief moments they parted and we saw Mt. Laita off in the the distance; appearing like a magician’s trick, and then the clouds closed in again.

We were doing well at this point, after our rest, keeping up a good pace and breathing well, and we’d become acclimated to the temperature. I’d been worried that the trail would be too much for Sheryl when she was well, let alone feeling poorly, but she never spoke a word of complaint (beyond the obligatory grumbles at yet another ascent, naturally) and kept at it like a trooper. I think she may have had something to prove to herself. So did I, if I’m being honest. Once we’d crossed the ridge, the going was easier. There was even a short level stretch of alpine meadow which was astonishingly beautiful. Best of all, the cloud cover which was omnipresent on the north slopes was absent from the south, and so the views were utterly magnificent. We picked up the red-stripe trail and it led us along the southern foot of the ridge at 2200m or so.

We’d planned only to follow the red-stripe trail for a little while, and then pick up the blue-circle trail at the source of the Paltinul stream. The red-stripe trail is the main route which crosses the whole Făgăraş range lengthwise from west to east, and rather than avoiding all the peaks and challenging places it goes right over them. The trail was deceptively gentle at first, skirting the ridge along its southern bottom edge, but soon it turned into some very rough work indeed. Half the distance was over huge piles of rock rather than on a path, and there were three or four brutal ascents to some high peaks. We realized at a certain point that we’d missed the turnoff to the blue-circle trail that would have taken us down off the mountains. In our defence, it was an easy mistake to have made - the spring that marked the junction of the trails had dried up. By the time we realized our mistake there was a lot of tough trail behind us, and even if either of us could have faced going back, there’s no way we could have made it to the end of the blue-circle trail before nightfall anyway. This was just after we had completed a white-knuckled traverse with our faces to the rock, clinging to a steel cable with a narrow crumbling ledge underfoot, so going back seemed just as bad as going forward. We were both really concerned about spending a night that high in the mountains, though. Mainly it was the wind and the low temperatures that worried me, but we were nearly out of water as well, which was a more immediate worry, since we needed water to cook nearly all our food.

There was only one course available to us - to continue along the ridge route until we reached Lake Călţun, where there was an emergency shelter operated by the local mountain rescue organization, Salvamont. Even if the shelter was full, we reasoned, there might be a place to set up the tent - there certainly hadn’t been so far, there was nothing but dramatic slopes of bare rock as far as the eye could see. And there would at least be fresh water at the lake. No sooner had we made that decision, though, than the trail became a nightmare. The map said that the trail followed the ridge, and it wasn’t joking around. One brutal climb followed another until we got to the Lăiţelului saddle. This saddle was more of a knife edge ridge between two peaks - we were crossing it from front to back rather than from side to side which is more usual. Whichever way we went, it was awful. The trail was nothing but a slender ledge with cables at head-height to hold onto, and a steep slope a hundred meters below. Half the saddle was completely exposed and the other half involved literally vertical climbing up jumbled piles of boulders. After we’d passed it, shaking and terrified, we passed a group of four other hikers coming along the trail from the other direction. They were white-faced, wide-eyed and covered in sweat, and aI have no doubt that we looked just the same. Their appearance didn’t speak well of the trail to come, but we had no choice but to plunge forward and trust to St. Jude to get us through.

Immediately after the saddle, though, was the peak of Laita Mountain at 2400m. The trail ran mercilessly straight up to the top - it had to, there were drops on either side. I have to admit that the views were breathtaking, though. On our left we could see down and out for forever, peak after peak marching away into the distance below us, and on our right was the serrated, scalloped backbone of the ridge. The clouds seethed and boiled on the right, northern side, looking like so many hellish witches’ cauldrons swirling, sending tendrils spilling over the ridge. The sun was nearly down at this point, and there was no direct light on the south slopes, but enough light remained on the north to light the clouds from below with a diabolical red glare.

It took us ages to get up Laita, and we had to stop more than once on the steep trail for a quick rest. By the time we reached the summit we were both exhausted. Sheryl was a trooper, though, she kept up a good pace and never complained… aloud anyway. After the summit the trail descended rapidly a couple of hundred meters through very broken terrain. The footing was precarious and our knees soon ached from the impacts of each footfall. Hiking downhill on mountains is just as hard as hiking uphill, a lot of the time. We’d lost even the consolation of the view, because the descent took us back into the cloud layer and we couldn’t see more than a few meters ahead. Finally, thouh, we reached the lake, after stumbling in this purgatory for another half hour, and a more welcome sight I never had than the little yellow half-cylinder of the shelter, with a scattering of tents beside the perfectly round lake. The lake was in a small depression ringed with sharp walls. It was already cold, and I noticed with a shiver two small glaciers near the water, and knew that we were in for a chilly night indeed.

The shelter was full, as we feared, but there were a dozen rings of stone built up over the years as windbreaks for tents. Sheryl got started cooking dinner while I set up the tent. This was complicated by the fact that exertion and too little water had conspired to bring on a fierce headache which I hadn’t realized I’d been holding at bay; and further by the stone ring being slightly too small for the tent and having no soil to drive the pegs into. My tent isn’t a dome tent, so the pegs aren’t optional - it won’t stand up without them. The wind had picked up something fierce, and if there was ever a night to rig a tent tight and low to let the wind slip around it, this was it. I did the best I could stacking rocks on top of peg-straps and wedging pegs between and tying guy-lines around big boulders. It wasn’t perfect or even close, but it would pass, and sometimes that’s just all you can do. The only real problem was the vestibule flap, which there hadn’t been room enough to extend properly and which, though weighed down by rocks, flapped annoyingly in the wind.

By this time I was chilled to the bone, but at least the painkillers I’d taken had had a chance to work and my head had mostly stopped pounding. Sheryl had tea and the first batch of dinner ready, so we ate and put on all the clothing we’d brought. I was wearing two pairs of socks, thermal tights, cotton pants and windproof nylon pants; a t-shirt, thermal sweater, a second sweater and a windbreaker, plus a toque and two hoods pulled up over my head. I was just barely warm enough, though I’d have killed for a pair of gloves. Sheryl had brought some chemical heat patches, but they were old and didn’t work, more’s the pity. The tent and sleeping bags are all rated for 5°C, and we have silk sleeping bag liners (a godsend, I recommend them wholeheartedly) which bring the bags down to a 0°C rating. I figured we’d be okay, though maybe a bit uncomfortable. We stripped off our outer layers and were in our sleeping bags by 9:30. It took me ages to get to sleep - everything ached and with every flap of the loose vestibule I started back awake, imagining bears and vampires and god knows what else. I slept, when I finally managed to fall asleep, like a dead man. I don’t think Sheryl ever did manage to get to sleep, though.

The morning was dark and cold - at least it sounded that way when we woke huddled in the tent. When we emerged like grubby butterflies from our cocoon, though, the weather was glorious. Not sunny or warm by any means, but with grand dramatic clouds and the most amazing, indescribable quality of light I’ve ever seen. Again, though, not warm, and we decided to forgo breakfast in favour of getting down to a lower altitude sooner. We were leaving the ridge route (thank god) and taking the blue-triangle trail down the mountains, where we’d pick up the blue-circle trail by the Paltinul river, and so be back on track for the original plan, after our huge detour.

Easier said than done, though. When we actually hit the trail, I felt as weak as a kitten and my legs were shaky. It was difficult keeping my footing on the steep downhill trail. It as tough going, admittedly - the wind was strong and the surface of the trail was all loose sliding rock - but I should have been able to do much better than I was. My stomach wasn’t happy either, it was feeling a little rebellious. Sheryl gave me an antacid tablet and that was that - I could only make it a few steps away from the trail before leaning over and heaving up everything in my stomach. I’m glad we hadn’t had breakfast - as it was, I’d lost a liter of water. Sheryl and I were both concerned that the headache from the night before and the flu-like symptoms of this morning might herald the onset of the dreaded Tick-Borne Encephalitis - I still had a few more days of the 28-day risk period to go after having been bitten by a tick in northern Hungary. There was nothing to do but go on, though, and that we did. I had to pause often for rests - I had no strength at all and my knees felt as if they would hardly support me. Twice I had to stop and actually fall into an exhausted sleep by the side of the trail. You know you’re in rough shape when you fall asleep lying on a giant cold boulder. I was quite ashamed of myself - why, I’m not really sure. It’s not as if I got sick on purpose. I just like to push myself and do things people tell me I won’t be able to do, and in this case my body let me down. It took us maybe three hours to join up with the blue-circle trail at about 1800m altitude. I had to stop again and sleep while Sheryl cooked herself lunch. I woke up to her excitedly nudging me, and looking blearily around, I saw a man leading two donkeys along the trail. One was loaded down with packs and the other was just a young one, tripping along behind (presumably) his mom. Very cute.

While we were filling our water bottles from the river, I unfortunately dropped our water purifier on a rock and broke it. I’ve been cursing myself for it since - it was expensive and it’s an essential piece of our gear. It’s going to be difficult to replace and will cost about twice as much to buy here than it did back home. Quite a setback. I wonder how well it’s been working, though. I think my illness was caused by bad water. There was some water from a roadside pipe the day before that we hadn’t purified, though - that my have been a mistake in retrospect. Also, there was some tea I made from lake water which didn’t boil for very long, and we discovered afterwards that the purifier doesn’t do anything about microbes in the water on the outside threads of your bottle - common sense, but we’d been forgetting to wipe the threads. So there were enough opportunities for impure water without suspecting the purifier’s effectiveness.

After the blue-triangle and blue-circle trails joined, the going was much easier. We were back down out of the high altitudes and it was a bit warmer, and we’d descended below the tree-line again, so the wind wasn’t so fierce. There was an hour of pleasant hiking through pine woods by the side of the river, and I had a minor recovery. The last stage of the trail was along a logging road. The trail had been bulldozed flat for about a kilometer. The trucks were so heavy that they’d crushed the dirt surface of the road into a fine brown dust which puffed up around us at every footstep, and soon we were even more unbelievably filthy than we had been The road was the final insult, really. It was still headed downward at sometimes steep angles, and the dust was slippery so we had to be careful.

We didn’t know what, apart from the Transfăgăraş road, we’d find at the end of the trail. Our map showed a monastery and a few buildings, and I was picturing an isolated mountain monastery, which would mean that we’d be camping there or trying to hitch a ride onwards. Actually it seems our map was out of date. The monastery was there, though seemingly shut up, but there was also a bustling little cluster of a hotel and two guesthouses. I was still unthinkingly stuck in go-forward gear and mumbled something about hitching a ride, but Sheryl, taking in my state of sick exhaustion, green complexion and the white circles under my eyes, exercised her veto right and decided that we were going to stay in one of the guesthouses for the night. I was in no condition to put up more than a token protest.

Of the three places to stay, we chose the most expensive, uncharacteristically. The difference in price was only a few lei, though. We paid 120RON (about CAD$50). Not cheap, but we needed it. We picked the right place, too - the woman who ran it was very motherly, loading us down with toast, stomach medicine, and even chicken soup. I couldn’t touch a thing but a couple of pieces of dry toast, and even that was pushing it. Sheryl’s stomach was starting to bother her as well, so she couldn’t eat the soup either. We had to flush it so we wouldn’t seem ungrateful. I was barely conscious of any of it, to be honest. The instant we checking in I fell on my face for a few hours, and only woke up long enough to have toast and take a badly-needed shower. Most of the evening and the night I spent huddled under the bed covers with a fever. That broke sometime in the night, and when I woke in the morning I felt like myself again - albeit a fragile version of myself. Our lovely landlady cooked us a free breakfast which I was actually able to eat, and that was wonderful. Unfortunately it was Sheryl’s turn to feel under the weather. This was mixed news - bad for her, but good for me, since it meant that I wasn’t suffering from the dreaded Tick-Borne Encephalitis after all. Our host gave Sheryl all kinds of medicine for her stomach, and then Sheryl went to bed for a few more hours.

At noon, we decided to leave before we really wore out our welcome. We said our thanks and went out to the road to try and hitch a ride to Cetatea Poienari, the most traditionally Dracula-like of Vlad Ţepeş’ castles. Getting a ride wasn’t easy. Hitching is no fun at the best of times, and with two people and one big pack it was that much harder. It was a bad road for hitching too - traffic was light and nearly every car that passed was full of people. I sent Sheryl to the side of the road to do the work while I stood back and smiled inanely. I felt a bit guilty but it’s so much more likely to get ride when a woman is the one standing by the road. Sheryl alternated between the traditional thumb-up hitching gesture and the Romanian way - a sideways patting-the-dog motion at waist-height - but we had no luck for quite some time. We tried to make a game of it to keep ourselves smiling and more attractive to pick up - we psychically offered the drivers chocolate, and then when no one seemed interested in that, we offered them the toast our landlady had packed up for us to take away with us. Still, nobody picked us up. This could have been related to the two locals who started hitching not fifty meters up the road from us, the jerks. Of course they got their ride first, but even after the wife went off in her ride, the man spent half an hour chatting with someone in a white van who stopped literally in the middle of the road, straddling both lanes, forcing all the traffic to swerve around him, completely impervious to their honking. We knew we’d never get a ride while he was there distracting the drivers and making them angry, and so it proved. We nearly got a ride from a cement-mixer after the van left, but Sheryl lost her nerve at the last second and dropped her hand, so he picked up the next set up hitchhikers down the road instead. Sheryl was kicking herself for this because a ride in a cement truck would have been so cool. She swore to get us a ride in something even cooler - and she was as good as her word. She got us a ride in a logging truck! We saw it up ahead, labouring mightily to get up the hill to the main road from the very same dusty logging road we’d walked down the day before. We figured there was no way he’d pick us up since he’d taken so long to get the truck up to the road and wouldn’t want to stop again, but he did. He pulled over and we climbed the three-story ladder to get into the huge cab. The truck was gigantic, hauling maybe twenty tree trunks, each a meter in diameter and easily ten meters long. I can’t even begin to guess how much weight that much have been. The truck felt it, though - it must have been sixty years old if it was a day. The speedometer was broken, but I don’t think we ever went faster than 20kph, and slower than a walking pace whenever we had to go uphill. Still, I’ve never felt safer, in any vehicle. It was a juggernaut. If there had been an SUV anywhere in Romania and we’d gotten into an accident with it, I don’t believe we’d even have noticed - just crushed it flat and continued rattling merrily along. It was far from the fastest fride, but it was very cool. The driver was great. He spoke no English but we got along well. Rule one of hitching is that your ride picked you up because he’s bored, so you have to be an entertaining guest. And so we tried to be, joking around, taking pictures, having broken conversations with him, and offering him chocolate. He was a lot of fun, even stopping the truck to show us things and let us take pictures. He showed us a nice little waterfall, and Lake Vidraru, and stopped for a few minutes just before the tunnel at Vidraru Dam so we could take pictures and look over the edge of the dam, which is a huge impressive structure. It was a lot of fun and the best hitchhiking experience I’ve ever had. It had taken us two hours to go 40km though, and we were rattled to pieces, so we were happy when he dropped us off at Cetatea Poineari. We gave him the rest of the chocolate and, as it’s the usual practice to pay a little when hitching in Romania, gave him 10 lei (about CAD$4) and waved goodbye with our thanks.

Cetatea Poienari is perched high on a mountain, atop 1400 stairs (1400 exactly, we counted). I won’t pretend that the stairs were fun exactly, with a heavy pack on and still weak fro being sick, but compared to all the rough mountains we’d just climbed they were a breeze. There wasn’t much left of the castle, though - just a few stone walls and one room. Ţepeş apparently forced to people of the nearest town to either build or restore it for him (records are unclear which) - presumably under threat of impalement. Honestly, though, the thought of carrying giant blocks of stone up that steep mountainside makes me wonder how many of them opted for impalement as being preferable.

Back at the bottom of all those stairs we tried to decide what to do. It was either hitch north through the mountains again and take the train back to Sibiu, probably camping for the night in a field somewhere because we were too late for the train; or else hitch south to the town of Curtea de Argeş and try to figure out a bus or train from there. I was in favour of the latter, Sheryl of the former, and we weren’t able to come to a consensus. Into the fray stepped Lorenzo, a friendly Italian man vacationing in Romania. He’d rented a car for a few days, and had been driving the Transfăgăraş, but was based in Sibiu and was heading back there later that night. He offered us a ride in exchange for the company, if we didn’t mind going around with him for a while first. It seemed like as good a deal as we were realistically likely to get, but his agenda was bit too ambitious, I thought - he was planning to go to Bran, then Braşov, and then back to Sibiu, all that evening - and it was already 6pm. I thought there was no way in hell he was going to make that happen - by now Sheryl and I had had some experience of how long it takes to drive anywhere in Romania. I really should have pushed hard for him to head back to Sibiu then, maybe making a few stops along the way - it would have been better for him and for us. I didn’t though, because I didn’t want to take advantage of him. Also, I had a delusion, looking at his road map, that the roads between Curta de Argeş and Braşov were good, straight, fast roads. I really should have known better. But off we went, trying to find the monastery in Curtea de Argeş, getting lost and finding the train station instead (which looks like a monastery, in my defence), finally finding it, and then finally getting on the road to Câmpulung, the first stop ion the road to Braşov. It took ages to get to Câmpulung - the road was very rough and twisty (not to mention full of cows). It was almost 9 by the time we got to Câmpulung, and fully dark. At that point we were committed to Braşov. There wasn’t time to make it back to Curtea de Argeş and then to Sibiu even if we’d wanted to do that road again. So Braşov it was. We offered Lorenzo the choice of going all the way to Braşov and sleeping in the hostel there, or stopping somewhere between where we could put up the tent and he could sleep in the car. He wanted a shower and chose the hostel in Braşov. He and Sheryl needed food, so we stopped at a roadside restaurant, and I must have misread the map somehow when we left. The road from Curtea de Argeş met the road to Braşov at a t-intersection: Braşov was left and some other town was right. So when we left the restaurant we took the way which was the left side of the T on the map. Nothing complicated at all, but somehow we ended up going in the wrong direction, away from Braşov. I still can’t figure out how that happened. It sounds like an excuse, but I wonder if the map was wrong about that intersection somehow. That mistake cost us twenty minutes, and I feel very bad about it still.

The road to Braşov was - surprise, surprise - neither flat, nor good, nor straight. In fact it was a nightmare drive of potholed hairpin turns. Lorenzo was having a terrible time - he was exhausted and he’d been driving all day in the mountains, and he’d just really had enough. Sheryl and I felt terrible for him, but there was nothing we could do - I have no driving license and Sheryl had left her international driving permit back in Sibiu. We urged him a few times to reconsider stopping for the night but he was determined to make it to Braşov. We finally did make it there just past midnight. It had taken us six hours to drive 150km, something that might have taken an hour and a half in Italy or Canada. We had no map of Braşov, but I remembered the town well enough to get us to the hostel without getting us lost again. I’d been pretty confident that the hostel would have space for us or I wouldn’t have suggested it, and so it proved. We checked in and Sheryl and I were asleep inside ten minutes.

In the morning we’d planned to get up and out early and make for the station to catch an early train back to Sibiu. Lorenzo had offered us a ride but he was visiting a bunch of places we’d already been, and we just wanted to get back to Sibiu and have it all over. This was not to be, however. As we were finishing breakfast and just about to leave, Lorenzo came down with the news that his wallet was gone. We searched the hostel for an hour but the wallet was nowhere to be found. By this point Lorenzo was convinced that it had been stolen. Sheryl and I very very distressed by this, because, although he was good enough not to say so, we were clearly the obvious suspects, having had so much contact with him and the three of us having been given beds near each other (and away from the rest of the people in the room). I was very anxious that the wallet turn up on its own, but it didn’t before he’d been on the phone cancelling his credit cards and making arrangements to go to Bucharest to replace his identification. It was then that I happened to go to the washroom, looked down beside the toilet, and there the wallet was. It must have fallen out of his pants. I didn’t touch it, but called him to come and get it. I wish someone else had found it, though - I’m still concerned that he might think I had taken it and then changed my mind.

By then the morning was shot. Lorenzo drove us to the train station. He still seemed very unhappy and stressed, and was talking about going home to Milan. I hope he continued his vacation, though, and I wish him the best and hope that Romania treats him more kindly. Sheryl and I had thought to take the bus to Sibiu, since it left earlier, but once we’d finally tracked the right one down in the honking chaos of the bus station parking lot, we found that it was horribly crowded, would be slower than the train, and would cost us 30RON each (about CAD$6). Faced with that we decided to make a tactical retreat to the park, wait there for an hour, and take the 1pm train, which was also crowded and slow, but cost us only 2.40RON each. We arrived in Sibiu around 4pm, very much the worse for wear, and trudged up to the hostel where we’d stored our baggage. They had space for us that night, which made us very happy because it meant that we could just stop for a little while. Our first step was necessarily a shower and clean clothes - I felt very sorry for the people who had had to share a train compartment with us. Then dinner and a quick trip back to the train station to arrange our onward travel to Zagreb in Croatia the next day. And then, at very long last, our five-day-long misadventure over, we slept.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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