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In Draculas garden

TIME : 2-23 16:04:16

In Dracula's garden

Romania: land of creepy castles, full moons and fanged bats lurking in dark corners, no? That’s what I was thinking as my plane descended through its swirling clouds; I half expected Vlad Tepes¸ to float past, innocent virgin clutched beneath his cloak. But as I battled for breath the next day – hiking in the greenest, freshest forest I’ve ever seen – meeting a vampire was the last thing on my mind. Bears, however, were a different matter.

This unspoilt gem of Eastern Europe, teetering on the brink of EU entry, is home to the continent’s largest population of bears outside Russia. They even occasionally turn up in towns – Brasov’s city-savvy beasts regularly raid the local dustbins. But I was headed to the country’s north, to Maramures Mountains Natural Park. Romania’s newest national park, it hides more than 100 wild bears in its 1,500 sq km of virgin forest.

Maramures borders three other national parks to form one of the biggest protected ecosystems in Europe – the Carpathian Mountains. Although this region has incredible biodiversity – wolves, lynx, golden eagles and capercaillie to name a few – it sees almost no tourists. 

“The problem is the lack of infrastructure,” explained Costel Bucur, project manager at Maramures. “Accommodation, trails and guides have been virtually non-existent until now. We are busy creating walking trails and mountain huts. It’s not on a big scale, but that’s how we want it to stay; we’d rather encourage a smaller number of visitors who will really appreciate this pristine environment and help us keep it this way.” 

Fat drops of rain clattered against the truck  as we endured the hour-long, bone-crunching ride from Maramures town to a shepherds’ mountain camp. Smoke rose from a primitive shelter, bundles of provisions hung from the rafters away from hungry dogs, and the tootling of a horn drifted across pens full of sheep. 

“Are they using that to communicate with other shepherds?” I asked Costel as the noise echoed up the valley. 

“No,” he smiled. “They are probably just keeping themselves amused while the kettle boils.”

Romania has been called the green lungs of Europe and, as we battled breathlessly through thick, damp forest three hours later, it was easy to see why. But Costel didn’t stop chatting as he hiked along. Soon we got on to the topic of wildlife. 

“It’s incredibly rare to see wild animals in the daytime, especially wolves,” Costel told us. “Usually they hunt at night. Now, in early summer, livestock is moved from the villages up into the mountains to take advantage of better grazing. All the commotion disturbs the wildlife and makes sightings even less likely. But this has been delayed this year because of the rain, so the wolves are hungry. In low cloud, fog and rain, they come and take livestock in the daylight.”

I asked if he had ever seen a wolf. “None of the park rangers have ever been attacked,” he reassured me. But then his eyes narrowed… “One night, when I was a child, I lay awake listening to wolves howling outside my window. In the morning I discovered they had broken into our barn and eaten our horse – all that was left was the chain around its neck.” 

I shivered as a drop of rain trickled down my back.

Two hours later we emerged – uneaten by wolves – from the trees onto a high pasture covered with delicate wild daffodils. Straight ahead was a clearing full of old wooden huts. I peered through a window at the sparse interior – a tatty blanket, a sooty fireplace, rickety shelves and faded posters on the walls. 

Dotted high on the mountains, these huts are where the cowherds live in the summer, guarding their cattle against the bears and wolves as they graze in the alpine pastures. The huts are abandoned the rest of the year, surrounded by a sea of unruly dock leaves. We were early: the herdsmen hadn’t arrived. But when they do, the dock leaves will be harvested for animal feed and fires will be lit to stave off the mountain chill. 

Costel found a hut with a broken lock and we all huddled inside while he unpacked lunch – a spread of typical shepherds’ food: juicy homemade salami, radishes, peppers, cheeses and glistening slabs of smoked pork fat. We washed it down with apple Horinca, a hard-hitting Romanian firewater – a cross between Calvados and caustic soda. 

Fortified by our high-cal picnic, we climbed for an hour, crossing another peak to gaze down over rolling meadows and thick swathes of forest covered by the golden afternoon sunlight. The snow-capped outline of Pietrosul perched on the horizon – at 2,305m, this is the highest of the eastern Carpathian Mountains. 

I scanned for bears and wolves; ever-present in my thoughts, they remained hidden from my sight. Everything was still and quiet.

The silence was broken by the tinkling of bells. A few minutes later, a line of cattle plodded into view, followed by a family laden with packs of provisions. They nodded quickly as they passed – they had another two hours’ climb to the huts and the sun was already sinking. 

As they toiled upwards, we headed down, following a path to a solitary hut spewing a plume of smoke. 
Here the shepherds had already settled in. A huge flock of sheep huddled on the flat ground, guarded by fierce, shaggy creatures – half dog, half wolf.  

A gruff figure emerged from the hut, arms folded across his chest. Costel greeted him warmly and his defensive stance melted away. He called inside and three more shepherds ventured out. They passed around a plate of urda, a crumbling white ewes cheese, and a packet of salt to dunk it in. 

It was absolutely delicious. The shepherds beckoned us inside: a huge pan of milk was gently warming over the fire and muslin-wrapped rounds of cheese hung from the shelves. We shared out the last of our Horinca and gave the shepherds the leftovers from our lunch – fresh food is precious in this remote place. 

It was still a two-hour walk to reach the base camp, and the shadows were gathering. Our path dipped gently in and out of the forest – it was downhill now and we relaxed into easy conversation. It was only when I crept off into the forest for a call of nature that I became aware of noises: rustling leaves; snapping twigs. Was that a growl or just the trees creaking in the wind?

Suddenly I realised I could no longer hear my companions. And it was getting quite dark. My heart raced as I glanced around the impenetrable forest and stumbled quickly back down the path. I’m not sure if it was the vampire stories or the big bear-shaped shadows that seemed to loom behind every tree that spooked me. We hadn’t seen a single trace of bears or wolves – but that was exactly how I wanted it to stay.

For now, at least, a day in the pristine wilderness of Dracula’s garden was excitement enough.


Getting there

The author traveller with Romanian Affair (