Hiking the Carpathian Mountains in Romania

By Don fuchs 20 August 2014
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For Romanian mountaineers, climbing the country’s highest peak is practically mandatory.

We meet Coco in the historic Saxon town of Sibiu. Coco is tall, strong as an ox, has black, curly hair and is in an unshakable good mood. Coco is a mountain man and if you are considered a friend that’s where he will take you. It’s his idea of a good time.

Richard, a videographer from Sydney, and I catch up with him in a cafe on cobblestoned Piata Huet, the main square of Sibui, where we consume buckets of coffee and monster servings of apple tart with cream. Coco is also very fond of home-distilled tuica, a powerful alcoholic concoction made of plums, pears or whatever fruit or berry is available. Without tuica life would not be complete in Transylvania. Especially not in the mountains.

Coco is itching to head for the hills. Although hills may not be the right word. He is taking us into the Fagaras Mountains, a 70km chain of incredibly steep and rugged ranges. They rise straight out of the flat Olt Valley and “look like an evil, impenetrable wall of doom, something like a Lord of the Rings outtake” as the Lonely Planet guide to Romania would have you believe.

The Fagaras Mountains form the highest and most dramatic part of the Carpathian Mountains that rim Transylvania like a gigantic horseshoe. Hidden in the tangle of sharp ridges, deep valleys and impressive peaks of the Fagaras chain is Romania’s highest mountain: Moldoveanu Peak (2544m).

This is where Coco wants to go. It is a “patriotic duty for every self-respecting Romanian mountaineer to climb this mountain at least once in a lifetime”, he says.

Carpathian mountain highway

To avoid the long and exhausting ascent from the valley, you can take the Transfagarasan Highway, which offers easy access to the wild mountains. The road is one of the follies of the late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Built to expand ego rather than infrastructure, the highway is Romania’s highest sealed road and tackling it is an adventure in itself if you consider the country’s mad drivers.

The road switchbacks out of a steep valley, climbs past the tree line, snakes higher still in more spectacular switchbacks, and then leads through a tunnel to the south of the main range. This ultimately opens the way to the capital, Bucharest. At the northern entrance to the tunnel is Balea Lac, a beautiful mountain lake. Here, Cabana Balea Lac and Vila Paltinu offer accommodation. We take a room in the Vila Paltinu, once Ceausescu’s hunting lodge. His personal apartment is preserved in its original condition: drab and uninspired in good communist tradition.

Coco is pumped up from the exhilarating drive up the Transfagarasan Highway and, as it is only early afternoon, suggests a warm-up before we tackle the big walk tomorrow. So we head up towards Paltinu Peak (2399m). It is late September and the slopes are blushing with the red autumn leaves of blueberry bushes. With a bit of luck you can spot chamois. Coco tells us he once saw a bear up here.

The wind is coming from the south, bringing moist air, swirling clouds, and a gloomy atmosphere. The well-marked track leads to a saddle and then further up to a steep ridge high above Balea Lake. The steep slopes are covered in brown grass. Snow patches from an unexpected autumn dump cover the shadowy, north-facing slopes. In the distance, the peaks are silhouetted in different shades of blue. At the other end of the ridge, Iezerului Peak (2417m) rears up. Hidden behind the mountain is Lacul Capra, another beautiful mountain lake. Towards evening, with the darkening clouds, comes a promise of early winter and we head back to Vila Paltinu.

Three steps from death on the Sava Capra

Early morning. The air is crisp. The promise of winter is gone. Overnight the wind direction has shifted to the north and polished the sky. Perfect walking weather. From Balea Lac it is a steep ascent to Sava Capra (Chamois Saddle) and Lacul Capra. So far familiar ground. Past the lake, the view towards the east opens up. We look into a forbidden world of extremely steep slopes, sharp peaks, sheer drops and jagged ridges. In winter this terrain would be avalanche hell.

Coco points out a rock spire where two Romanian mountaineers died while attempting a winter traverse of the Fagaras Mountains. “Romanian mountaineers are crazy,” he says, with a shrug. Every now and then we pass a cross in memory of someone who has died in these mountains. A little further on, while traversing under intimidating walls towards a saddle, we meet Dan Marcu and his 15-year-old daughter, Alexandra.

Alexandra, lithe, agile and forever smiling, is training to become only the second woman in the world to climb the seven continents’ highest volcanoes. She is carrying a monstrous pack and their plan is to camp close to Moldoveanu Peak, climb the mountain in the morning and walk back – an epic hike.

The next landmark is the Devil’s Hole, a natural arch, and a steep, exposed rocky section, where old chains and steel cables help walkers across – if you can bring yourself to trust them. After this exciting interlude (the translation of the Romanian name is roughly “three steps from death”), we stop for lunch.

Coco’s moment has come. With much gusto, he starts to root around in his backpack and pulls out his treasures: a yellowish-white block of smoked pork fat, thin salami-like sausages, a lump of local cheese, a loaf of bread, some kind of prosciutto and, of course, a 1.5-litre soft-drink bottle filled with home-distilled tuica, Transylvanian moonshine.

Our aim for today is Cabana Podragu (2136m), the highest mountain hut in the Fagaras Mountains. To get there, two more peaks have to be climbed and traversed: Arpasu Mic Peak (2468m) and Mircii Peak (2461m). Then it is a steep descent to Podul Giurgiului, a beautiful lake in a dramatic cirque. On its shores lie ruins of a bivouac shelter, ripped apart in a brutal snowstorm, showing how severe the weather can be in winter.

Another climb leads us to Podragu Saddle and then we can see the large stone hut, deep down near a lake. There are only a handful walkers staying in the hut so late in the season. Owner of the hut, Corinna Josif, prepares a sweet fruit tea for us – heaven after almost 10 hours walking along roller-coaster ridges and over steep peaks.

Dinner is vegetable soup, with pork and slices of dark bread. The soup would win praise from the MasterChef judges. Then it is time for bed.

In many ways, Cabana Podrago is like alpine mountain huts were a century ago. It is a simple affair. There are no showers, the toilet is a hole in a concrete slab. The beds are bunk beds, with no mattresses to speak of. There are pillows you wouldn’t want to rest your head on without a clean cover. For warmth, each bed has two scratchy blankets. I’m glad I brought my sleeping bag. There is no heating due to lack of firewood.  

Top of Romania

Today is the day. The weather is holding, there is not a cloud in the sky.
The sun is still behind a high ridge and it is cold. On the way back up to Podragu Saddle, the snow patches – slushy yesterday – are frozen and our boots make crunching sounds. Up at the saddle, the sun hits us. Moldeveanu Peak looms in the near distance – a broad mountain with a long and sharp summit ridge. The last part of the ascent is steep and demanding. Once on the ridge, a deep cleft interrupts the otherwise easy final 15 minutes of the climb. Then the top.

A large Romanian flag flutters in the strengthening wind. We complete the usual summit ritual – handshakes, a hug, photographs, smiles – and take in the panorama from Romania’s highest mountain. The ridges of the Fagaras Mountains disappear in a distant haze. The plains of the broad Olt Valley to the north are covered in an autumn haze. It is time to head back to Cabana Podragu for a celebratory local Ursus beer and a bowl of Corinna’s fantastic soup.  

Cabana Podragu

We have spent the past three days above the tree line. Now the last day of our Fagaras trek leads us down from Cabana Podragu to the village of Victoria. We descend into a different world. Again we are leaving the hut before the first rays of sun hit its grey stone walls. We walk past the wreck of a military helicopter that crashed here a few years ago and follow the so-called “summer track” down. The track traverses steep slopes.

In winter, ski tourers have to use a different route, one less prone to avalanches. Then we arrive at the first battered trees, alder bushes with shrivelled foliage, mountain ash in bright-red autumn colours and hardy dwarf mountain pines. The dark and wild spruce forest starts just below, where the valley narrows. In the forest, there is the scent of mushrooms. Autumn is porcini season and, when the track descends deeper into the valley, Coco starts mushroom hunting.

On our way down we pass the small and cosy Cabana Turnuri. A fire is blazing in the slow-combustion stove and the warden offers us hot and sweet fruit tea. The hut is a favourite for winter expeditions into the Fagaras Mountains. Sheltered below the tree line, it is safe from avalanches and is a great place to sit out bad weather. Below the hut, the valley drops down steeply and then the track follows a bubbling mountain stream. Where it forms deep rock pools, we have a quick dip and wash off the sweat of three days. Not far from that invigorating bubble bath, deep in the sheltered valley, the first beech trees start to mix with spruce. It is here that Coco finds the first porcini.

Beech becomes the dominant tree and soon after the track leads into a forest road we pass the mouth of a mine, driven deep into the steep, forested mountainside under the orders of Ceausescu. He was searching for uranium, explains Coco. The venture failed and didn’t produce the metal. Coco starts counting down the concrete power poles, from 78 at the mine site to zero in the town of Victoria. Victoria is a particularly shabby town at the foot of the Fagaras Mountains in the broad Olt Valley. A now abandoned gun-powder factory left a gloomy industrial legacy here. Surrounded by neglected fields, Victoria was also part of a failed agricultural experiment.

Back in Brasov

We take the busy E68 as the quickest route out of the Olt Valley and go straight to bohemian Brasov for a healthy dose of culture. We enjoy good coffee in one of the many outdoor cafes on Piata Sfatului, Brasov’s grandest square, and a real bed in a cosy B&B in the historic centre of town. But Coco wouldn’t be Coco if the city could hold him for long. Over our first coffee he is already making plans: to traverse parts of the Bucegi Mountains, just south of medieval Brasov.

The Bucegi Mountains are very different from the Fagaras. While the Fagaras are composed of metamorphic rock and shaped by glaciers, the Bucegi are formed from a massive block of limestone. From Brasov, Highway 1 leads to Busteni and on to mundane Sinaia. Both towns are at the eastern foot of the Bucegi Mountains and attract scores of holiday makers.

The mountains are hugely popular in Romania. Access is easy. Two cable cars transport visitors up in a few minutes. What looks like a forbidden world of cliffs, walls, spires and ravines from below turns out to be a grassy, slightly sloping plateau on top. However, the wild escarpments surrounding the plateau are the realm of serious walkers and mountaineers.

Coco wants us to see both sides of Bucegi National Park so we drive up to the plateau via a brand-new mountain road. It is a disappointment. There are huts and hotels, even a soccer field for high-altitude training. On the edge of the escarpment is a giant WWI memorial cross. Overuse of the fragile environment shows in erosion gullies. Especially busy are the surrounds of Cabana Babele – accessible by cable car – with the nearby famous rock formations of The Sphinx and The Babele. 

Cabana Omu

Past Cabana Babele, the crowds thin out. Then we are alone again. Our first goal for the day is Cabana Omu (2505m), right on the highest spot of the Bucegi Mountains and next to the meteorological station. It is a cosy hut and the warden serves fantastic Romanian soup. But it is too early to call it a day – tempting as it may be. Coco says the best part of the walk is yet to come.

Only minutes past Cabana Omu, the landscape changes dramatically. The flat and grassy plateau ends suddenly and plunges into a wild, vertical world of limestone walls, ravines and sharp ridges. Deep down, at the edge of the forest, we can see Cabana Malaiesti (1720m), an ensemble of four buildings, our accommodation for the night.

The track is rough but well marked, as it is everywhere in the Bucegi Mountains. And it is steep. Eventually we reach the dry creek bed in the narrow valley above the hut. Above us loom sheer limestone walls and spires. The area is popular with rock climbers. But today the walls are empty. Only two chamois grazing high up bring some movement to this impressive stone landscape. All around Cabana Malaiesti, mountain ash and mountain willow are in full Indian summer display. When we arrive at the hut, the sun has already disappeared behind the plateau. The temperature is starting to drop.  

Last hurrah: Bucegi Mountains

Our final day in the mountains. The track descends into forest straight away and leads around the northern side of the Bucegi Mountains back towards Busteni. It is a wild landscape. No one is on the tracks this late autumn morning as we traverse under the wild escarpment, with its steep awe-inspiring gullies and spires. Further down, rust-coloured beech trees add to the autumn display. It is the vegetation’s last hurrah before winter arrives.

For a while, the track follows the contour line before dropping down steeply to Cabana Poiana Izvoarelor (1445m). The descent to Cabana Gura Diham (987m) leads through magnificent old-growth beech forest. Low down in the sheltered valley, their foliage hasn’t changed colour yet. Among the old trees grow large porcini. The provider in Coco takes over again. He wants to impress his girlfriend, who is waiting at home for him to finish his outings with his Australian friends.

But Coco is a mountain man. We haven’t even reached Busteni when he informs us that he will be spending the coming weekend with friends, rock climbing the vertical limestone walls of Turda Gorge on the foothills of the remote, cave-riddled Muntii Apuseni, north of Sibiu.


Getting there: Qantas/Emirates connect Sydney and Melbourne with Munich, Germany. From there connecting flights with Lufthansa to Cluj-Napoca, the international gateway to Transylvania. From there, car to Sibiu and  on to the Fagaras Mountains.

When to go: The best months are July to October.  Access to the mountains via the Transfagarasan Highway can be impacted by early or late snow.

More info:
Four days to  complete the walk. There are no websites in English for trekkers. Check out James Roberts, The Mountains of Romania, Cicerone Guide, ISBN-13: 978 1 85284 295 6.