Some of you may remember our ‘Surprising Romania’ blog about this time last year. Well last month, ‘Fitness on the Park’ (a North Adelaide Gym for experienced bodies) took a group of 20 intrepid bushwalkers on a hiking tour of Romania and via Krakow to Slovakia. It was a great way to escape some of Adelaide’s winter while enjoying Romania’s cultural and culinary delights with excellent bushwalking in the Transylvania Alps and Slovak Paradise National Park (Slovensky Raj).
Slovakia and Romania are at either end of the Carpathian Mountains, covering 1500km from south-west Romania (Transylvanian Alps) north to the border between Poland and Slovakia (High Tatras). They’re Europe’s next most extensive mountains after the Swiss Alps. From a cultural viewpoint, our trip spanned a latin country (Romania) and two slavic experiences (Krakow and Slovakia).
In Romania the food is extraordinarily good and 3 courses at every meal was beginning to catch up with us, so we really needed to work it off with some serious bushwalking. At one extreme this included a hike of 9 hours return up the back of the Bucegi Mountains (pronounced Boo-ch-edge) to see Babele, the Sphinx and Heroes Cross.
Sure enough – the cable car to take us up the mountain wasn’t operating and in a rush of optimism we walked up… but once at the top, the day’s walking just began. If all had gone to plan, we’d have walked an hour along the valley, then taken the cablecar up the 1,000m or so vertical rise to the top before setting off on a 3 hour round trip to the Heroes Cross on t’other side of the mountain.
The Heroes Cross is on Caraiman mountain within the Bucegi mountain range – a large WWI monument that is extensively lit so it makes a wonderful spectacle at night from the many towns in the valley below. Despite the long walk, it was a beautiful day and the cold beer with feet up, back in the chalet at day’s end was very well received!! Now, you may think 9 hours of walking is ridiculous but it’s done at a gentle pace and really just involves persistence (and comfy boots).
Despite a Dacian history well before the Romans, it’s a relatively new country. Formed in 1859 by merging the Wallachia and Moldavia regions, then named Romania in 1866 and it gained independence from the Ottomans in 1877 after the Russo-Turkish war. Following WWI where Romania lost 748,000 young men, Transylvania, Bukovina (northeast) and Bessarabia (south west) regions also merged into Romania, which then began seeking its identity within Europe. Before then, these regions were used by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a Carpathian Mountain fortress line to keep the Ottoman Turks out of Europe.
Once these newly merged regions became Romania, they decided a Royal Family was needed to help their country network better among other European nations. So in the 1860s, Romania advertised among European aristocracy for any blue bloods that may be interested in becoming King of Romania. Lo and behold, Prince Carol I of the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen registered interest and started his probation as Prince of Romania. He proved a success with the locals and was crowned King a while later, building Peleş Castle (Pell-esh) at great expense in ensuing years.
In the valley on the other side of Bucegi mountains within view of the Heroes Cross, we later visited King Carol’s Peleş Castle, near Sinaia (Sin-aye-a) and Braşov (Brash-of). As you can see, Peleş is a relatively new castle with extensive timber carving, electricity distribution, elevators designed-in and even two vacuum outlets on each floor!
You may also be interested in the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in nearby Zarnesti (Zar-nesht) – see: http://bearsanctuary.com/libearty-bear-sanctuary where only bears rescued from captivity roam free. Visiting humans walk along caged paths with bear tunnels underneath so the bears have free rein over the 70 hectare oak and hazel forest. As you can see here, they come out of the bushes when food is about. Interestingly, these bears don’t hibernate… presumably there’s no need as long as their carers keep up the food supply.
People often think of Romania as the source of gypsies but they originally came to Europe from northern India (Rajasthan, Punjab, etc) about 1,000 years ago. They were granted their own flag under the name Romani in 1933 and are now spread throughout Europe and also some in the Americas. Last year India recognised gypsies as the ‘children of India’. They represent 5% of Romania’s population and 6% in neighbouring Hungary. We found in both Romania and Slovakia, some gypsies have integrated well but generally most are considered socially parasitic with a reputation for not working or sending their children to school and avoiding tax, etc. There’s more about Romania in last year’s blog.
Now let’s talk about Krakow and Slovak Paradise or we’ll never finish! Krakow is a lovely city in southern Poland near the Slovakian border. It was Poland’s capital originally and has a similar population to Adelaide. It’s renowned for its well-preserved medieval old town and Jewish quarter as it was not bombed at all in WW2. The old town is ringed by the narrow but beautiful Planty Park and there are also some remnants of its medieval city wall. The central market square is the largest in Europe with its Renaissance-era trading Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica. This 14th-century Gothic church has a tower, from which a live trumpeter confirms ‘all well’ on the hour with a truncated 5 note call, commemorating a Mongol attack in 1241 where the trumpeter took an arrow to the throat, mid tune. Spare a thought for this lone trumpeter in the wee small hours of winter.
Surely you’re curious by now about Slovak Paradise?
It is much loved by the locals for its beautiful gorges and waterfalls. They make it very popular with hikers with its unusual routes that include many places where fixed ladders and steel plates are used for climbing past or walking over rocky obstacles. The pictures below of our hike up ‘Sucha Bela’ (dry white) creek bed may help you to visualise it:
Slovak Paradise is home to the world’s most diverse plant species (70 different species in one square metre). Apart from its excellent nature qualities, another reason the Slovak’s call it Paradise dates back to the old (c1299) Klastorisko Monastery on the mountain meadow in what is now Slovak Paradise National Park. In the Mongol invasion when its monks moved down into town (Levoca), they were asked where they’d really like to be. They replied ‘Eden’ or Paradise, which was the way they felt about their lovely meadow at Klastorisko.
Part of the Polish-Slovakian border near Slovak Paradise is formed by the Dunajec River (the little Danube) and rafting it downstream is popular with tourists as you may appreciate from the photos below. There is also a lovely walking/cycling track alongside the river under the trees:
As our Slovakian guides pointed out, the Slavic countries make up a huge part of the world’s land mass. When viewed as culturally similar blocs (African countries as one block, Asian countries another, European, American, etc), the Slavic countries have much in common. No doubt this was a coalescing influence for the Soviet Union.
Bearing this in mind, we understand Putin’s advisers discouraged his recent annexation of the Crimea as they feared he’d win the battle but lose the hearts and minds of Ukranians for decades ahead. They were probably right. In this context, note that Romania is Latin not Slavic and in Ceausecu’s time, despot though he was, he often disagreed with his Russian political cousins. Perhaps cultural differences showed through. Regardless, for us it was excellent to meet, converse and exchange views with well-educated peers from these Eastern European countries where we normally have limited contact.
The wrap up!
Time and space prevent more here and we really haven’t done Slovakia justice but you really should consider this Slovakian Paradise area for your ‘bucket list’. As international travel to Slovakia is still in its infancy, it’s an area best seen while it’s relatively untouched. Indeed, travel into the many other less-travelled parts of Eastern Europe is likely to unearth some similarly enjoyable experiences. Georgia, Armenia and the Altai mountains of Russia near Kazakstan may appeal for the more adventurous.
Incidentally, our Slovakian guides were surprised and most impressed with the relative fitness of our ‘experienced bodies’ – so, good work Fitness on the Park!