The 360-degree views stretching out from the top of Sibiu’s medieval clock tower could be unchanged since the Saxons called this city home centuries ago. A boy stretching out an attic window below uses a long pole to clear snow and ice from the roof while his mom stands on the cobblestone street below ensuring no one gets inadvertently impaled by a stalactite. Within the crumbling watchtowers and walls, the traditional houses crammed into the old town maintain their authentic charm. The only indicator that this is 2019 and not 1719 are cars that keep to the roads and suburbs that discreetly surround the quaint scene.
The midground views all around are made up of fallow winter fields that slowly draw the eye to the dramatic background – the towering Carpathian mountain range runs east-west in the distance as we look south upon it. They look an impenetrable, snow-capped barrier rising up and piercing the sky with their sharp edges. At first, with the sun glare, we thought the snow atop the mountains were clouds but as our eyes adjusted the true enormity of the range revealed itself. We were like snails perched atop a rock looking at the Great Wall of China, gazing left and right in awe, trying to assess how far it went each way and if it was possible to climb over.
We were going to need to climb over it certainly. Because we’d promised to meet up with our new friend Ursula who’s walking 8000 kilometres across Europe from Ukraine to Wales. The spot we’d decided to meet was in the midst of those peaks in a tiny mountain village called Obarsia Lotrului.
This blog is the fourteenth of a series tracing our journey over land and sea to Australia, starting in Ukraine. We’re hoping to make the foreign familiar for you by showcasing the unique and universal details of the places we go and the people we meet. To get all our posts, videos, and exclusive content subscribe to our weekly newsletter here. For short, absorbing snippets of our adventure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Hitching to Transylvania.
We’ve recently become fans of hitchhiking. Having been in a few situations where public transport was unavailable, and extortionate rates with private cars were the only option, we’ve tentatively stuck our thumb out. To our surprise, we’ve had success every time. We’ve never waited longer than 45 minutes and I would say our average wait time is closer to 10-15 minutes. To say there are no risks is incredibly naive, but as a couple we’ve had nothing but overwhelmingly positive experiences. Most of the time, it’s the characters who pick us up who provide the most entertainment and insight into the local culture. The journey from our guesthouse amongst the mountains in Ceahlau National Park to the city of Sibiu proved no different.
It was a crisp morning, the sun was just starting to poke light through the mountains and pine trees. A virgin dusting of snow covered the road, no cars had gone by yet. We threw the rucksacks on, still a bit stiff from the ascent the previous day. Closing the guest house front gate as we exited I spotted a car pulling out of a driveway 100 metres away. It turned towards us and was heading the way we wanted. We stuck our thumbs out and Ivan, a travelling cleaning goods salesman, drove us the 10 kilometres to Bicaz – the town situated at the entry point to the National Park and along the main road that takes one west into the tourist-haven of Transylvania.
Next up was some sort of ride-sharing taxi that we weren’t aware was a ride-sharing taxi. We sat with a noble-looking old man, his cane, and his plastic bag of tomatoes in the back seat. If I could speak Romanian I feel he would have given me a simple, profound message to move forward through my life with. Alas, he climbed out in a ramshackle village and our driver took us 30 kilometres further on our journey. Our driver was even pleasant enough to stop for pictures through the stunning Bicaz gorge once he realized we were eagerly gawking out the window at the scenery. He dropped us off at the end of the gorge at a small roadside restaurant and charged us a meagre $4.
It was sub-zero outside and snow was starting to fall lightly. There was an uncomfortably snappy wind that drove the chill a little further into the bones. I was hopping from leg to leg with my hands buried in my jacket pockets. Within 10 minutes, however, we were out of the cold and riding with Petr who was driving to Cluj to consult for an engineering firm. He was keen to practice his English and Beth was even keener to oblige. Our continued strategy is for chatterbox Beth to sit in the front who loves to ask our drivers everything from: Where are they going today? To: where are they going in life? I sit in the back and generally enjoy the shifting scenery in silence; enjoying a rare moment of introverted time.
We left the mountains and gorges and entered a plateau of farmland that went on and on peacefully, much to my delight. Our two hours with Petr finished at a crossroads of a small town called Praid. We were heading south from here; Petr West. We said goodbye, Beth knew his life story by that point. I hadn’t heard a word.
Within minutes a man in a van picked us up. He was a lorry driver who’d been away working for 4 weeks. He was coming home for 3 weeks to spend time with his wife and two young kids – 5 and 2. He proceeded to drive like he hadn’t seen them in decades and I was starting to get a little worried he may never see them again, such was the maniacal approach to overtaking and adherence to speed limits. We got out in Odorheiu Secuiesc, fortunate not be a Romanian road safety statistic.
A retired welder, a hockey dad, a maniacal mechanic who detoured to run an errand while leaving us in his car alone with the keys in the ignition were the next rides that day in an order I don’t recall.
For our days final drive to Sighisoara a warm, older man picked us up. He was the local florist in Sighisoara. The role suited him, as we drove with him he seemed like the kind who would take care and pride in trimming the perfect rose, wrapping it carefully and taking delight knowing that his craft would communicate love from one to another.
Just like that, after meeting countless friendly Romanians of mixed driving attitudes we were in Sighisoara.
While still not swooning over Romania, I had to cut it some slack. We’d come in February, not exactly prime season. Sighisoara was a microcosm of what Romania is like for tourism in winter: closed. The cobblestoned streets and pretty, homely cafes were deserted. Snow melted silently in the unseasonably warm sunshine. The tourist office occupied a cavernous hall in the old town, just one attendant occupied the desks and he woke from a slumber when we walked in. We felt committed to at least browse and I noticed most of the brochures promoted sunny escapes to Turkey and Greece. That’s what’s best to do in Romania in the winter: leave. Because of the unpredictable temperatures even winter sports like skating and snowboarding weren’t guaranteed. Perhaps returning to Romania in the summer or fall might do it justice. Or perhaps Romania just sucks.
To my delight, there was a train from Sighisoara to Sibiu. We boarded and for 3 hours sat looking out the window at untendered farmland and ramshackle villages; corrugated iron and cinder blocks the dominant feature. I didn’t care though, I was on a train. Although when the toilet overflowed and the smell wafted through the carriage we all smothered our mouths with jackets and scarfs. Things got worse as the man near the window refused to open it. Beth nearly throttled him. The smell dissipated excruciatingly slowly and we pulled into Sibiu gasping for fresh air.
Sibiu, intentionally or not, is an island of tourism perfection in a sea of Romania’s half-measures and ineptitude. Pedestrianized, cobblestone streets lined with a satisfyingly diverse range of cafes, bars and restaurants all converge onto an enormous main square that houses one of Eastern Europe’s biggest Christmas markets. While the markets weren’t there now, it was still delightful. An outdoor skating rink was being well used. Two medieval clock towers sat in each corner while the rest of the square was ringed by colourful old buildings. They were all squished together almost leaning on each other. All the triangular roofs seemed unusually tall. The red clay tiles seemed to stretch as high as the 2-3 storey buildings themselves. Each roof had two hatches halfway up it’s exterior that looked like half-closed eyes. It was like a pack of drunken heads surrounded an almighty square waiting for a show.
We only intended two nights but stayed four. It was nice to finally be somewhere in Romania worth staying. We dined, we drank some wine, we wandered the old walls, we explored the crumbling fortresses, we climbed clock towers, and sometimes we read books in bed and yawned freely. Well done Sibiu, maybe you can go and consult every other tourism board in Romania.
Sibiu to Obarsia Lotrului.
We’d been planning for a few weeks by this point of our travels to meet up with our new friend Ursula who is walking 8000 kilometres from Ukraine to Wales. We agreed to meet her halfway through her Carpathian mountain crossing, restocking her with food supplies and catching up with wine and chocolate in a village called Obarsia Lotrului. Doing some research, it seemed it was going to require some hitchhiking to get to her from Sibiu. According to google maps there were only around five houses in Obarsia Lotrului – four of them guesthouses for a newly built ski hill nearby. I doubted a bus served the remote mountain village. There was a train halfway though, to a town called Lotru.
You won’t find the $3 train ride from Sibiu to Lotru in any glossy travel brochures or on any Top 10 lists for train rides. But for value and insight into Romania’s shifting landscape it’s unparalleled. The train meanders along a river that glides through a valley. The valley cuts through the Carpathian mountains from north to south. A newly paved road runs along the river full of petrol tankers, truckers and domestic tourists headed for the ski hills. Sometimes alongside the road, and sometimes underneath it, sits the old dirt single road that still carries the occasional horse and cart. We passed small, seemingly ad-hoc mining sites that looked abandoned mid-project. Lone men in tatty clothes fished in the river with primitive rods. Plastic debri gathered in inlets where the flow of the river couldn’t carry it downstream. A flock of sheep and a shepherd relaxed on a picturesque grassy knoll across the river. Crumbling industrial buildings with smoke stacks that look like they haven’t coughed up anything in years half-filled the train window occasionally. An enormous hydro dam reduced the river to a trickle halfway through the valley. Around every river bend our train revealed new, stunning mountain scenery with a sprinkle of the real Romania below. The traditional and the modern Romania sat sharply contrasting each other at every bend. The traditional fit; the modern felt ugly and invasive in such a beautiful landscape.
At 11am we jumped off in the small town of Lotru which was nestled in the valley. From here we needed to head 2 hours west – climbing up all the way into bear, wolf and ski country. We walked a few hundred metres down the only road heading west out of town to stick our thumb out.
After 5 minutes a young lady picked us up who could take us about a third of the way. She’d just returned from a job interview at a pharmacy in Lotru. She’d recently returned from London with her husband and two young children. We discussed Brexit a bit and, up till then, I hadn’t really thought about the impact it would have on so many Romanians. I’m ashamed to say I’d been mostly concerned about the value of my own British passport. There are over 2 million Romanians living outside Romania but inside the EU – many in Britain. The uncertainty around what the future holds must be incredibly stressful not just for the Romanians in Britain but also the families in Romania receiving much needed funds from hard working moms, dads, daughters and sons in the UK. Mulling all the permutations of Brexit, we hopped out in her home town and she instructed us to walk further west a bit and someone will probably be coming through heading towards Obarsia Lotrului.
As we stood on the side of the only road for miles in the snowy mountain scenery I had an irrational voice growing in my head. We’d waited 15 minutes and not a single car had passed. It suddenly seemed a real prospect that we’d end up stuck somewhere remote and wild come nightfall with wolves howling in the distance. Averting my attention from these thoughts was a large, playful-looking dog that came bounding up the road towards us. He was big, shaggy, and desperately in need of a bath. His white coat was matted and full of grit from lying on the side of the road. He was endearing though and I couldn’t help but pat his excited head. Then I remembered we were trying to hitchhike and I didn’t want motorists thinking we were transporting this polar bear acting as an excited puppy. But when I tried to stop patting him he wagged his tail and nudged my hand. I couldn’t help it – 15,000 years of evolution compelled me to pat the dog. He then proceeded to pee on my bag and 15,000 years of evolution was immediately dismissed. I shooed him away. He came back. He wagged his tail and nudged my hand. I defiantly ignored him, arms crossed while looking down the road hoping for a car to come. He nudged my hand again. I caved and patted him with a forgiving smile. Beth rolled her eyes.
After thirty minutes or so a car came along – a nice Mercedes. These kind of cars never picked us up and today was no exception; wealthy folk awkwardly avoiding eye contact as they sped by. Followed closely behind though was an old man with a solid moustache and comically soviet-esque winter hat. He stopped and I thought the passenger door was going to fall off as I opened it. It was a rickety buzz box of a car, a small black hatchback – I couldn’t determine the make. I questioned its ability to get us up into the peaks. A language barrier meant I couldn’t determine his destination but we got in anyway knowing there was only one road west and we were on it. He cranked traditional ballads up on his radio and we sat in a comfortable silence – the kind where everybody present doesn’t feel the need to try to fumble over a language barrier repeatedly. We drove through more jaw-dropping mountain scenery for thirty minutes or so. Not a single car came the other way and my mind bounced between concern about our chances of making it to a bed tonight and awe at the beauty of our surroundings.
It turned out that more than one road goes west and our friend dropped us at a fork, us requiring to go left and he right. We were 17 kilometres from Obarsia Lotrului. Without a soul in sight it was blissfully, yet also alarmingly, quiet. We decided to start walking. We had about 15 kilos of luggage each plus groceries for a few days along with resupplies for Ursula. The worst case scenario was we would be there by nightfall after 4-5 hours of walking. Well, that’s not true. The worst case scenario was we’d be eaten by wolves or bears. I’m not sure which would be worse, I decided it wasn’t worth assessing.
We walked about seven or eight kilometres. I complained the whole way. Beth had been developing a cold so was also suffering. My pack was starting to dig into my shoulders and I was contemplating abandoning some supplies, at least the whole cabbage we’d brought with us. One car passed in that time and I was actually quite crestfallen and angry. “You bastard, we could die out here” I whispered through gritted teeth to myself as he sped by, awkwardly trying to avoid eye contact. Shortly after a small silver hatchback stopped to pick us up. He was only going to the ski hill a few kilometres down the road but anything would do at this point. We got in. With Brexit now on my mind I asked him what he thought of the EU. He was a self-confessed Euro-sceptic. He conceded that while France and Germany gave a lot to the Eastern European countries he was concerned about the lack of productivity within Romania’s economy. He said with all the regulations coming from the EU most of Romania’s production had shut down. The train ride to Lotru certainly confirmed that – abandoned mines and dilapidated industrial buildings and all. He felt Romania had become a market for Western European businesses. He feared a recession for Romania. Lacking any tangible knowledge of macro economics I listened intently but couldn’t agree or disagree with anything he said. Besides, it was a short ride and we suddenly found ourselves only four kilometres from Obarsia Lotrului once he parked up at the ski hill. We walked the rest of the way which was painful. I tried my best to encourage Beth on through her cold and fatigue. We arrived at the chalet finally, exhausted after a long day. I collapsed onto a sofa with my pack still on and Ursula, with a concerned face, asked how far we’d walked. I told her. She’d just walked double that distance that day and had walked from Kiev to Romania over the past 5 months. She, understandably, had no sympathy. We cracked open the wine and chocolate, laughing at what felt very real fears just an hour or so ago.
You can learn more about Ursula’s walk here.
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