The Company of Wolves
Words Matthew Holt, pics Matthew Holt and Fiona McIntosh
In 1897, the Irish novelist Bram Stoker wrote about ‘one of the wildest and least known portions of Europe’, for which no maps existed, where every meal contained paprika, the superstitious locals repeatedly crossed themselves and an elderly count inhabited a spooky castle, venturing out after sunset disguised as a wolf. Of course, nowadays you can purchase reliable maps of Transylvania from Stanfords in London. But as for the rest of it, who knows what’s true?
Driving north from Bucharest, the drab factories and housing blocks gave way to grain fields and fruit orchards, and the Mercedes cars and trucks to bicycles and horse-drawn carts. After several hours we reached Transylvania, ‘the land beyond the forest’, famous for its bears, wolves, plum brandy and vampires. Fiona and I had come here to traverse the Fagaras Mountains, which run across Romania from east to west. We were accompanied by Razvan Radu, who divides his time between being a mountain guide and a major in the Romanian army.
We stopped to buy provisions in Brasov, admiring its medieval walls, cobbled streets, Gothic church and haunted town hall. Having lunched on trout soup and grilled trout, it was late afternoon when we finally started hiking from Sambata, first negotiating a picket line of gypsies selling berries and lucky charms. As we wound through the pine forest, past signs warning of bears, a strange grunt from behind made me jump with alarm, though it was only Razvan practising some curious form of pressure breathing he’d picked up in Nepal.
It took a couple of hours to reach the Sambetei Hut, where we spent our first night. As we approached, a giant hound came bounding up, tongue out and slavering. ‘Beware the dog, it will bite,’ shouted Razvan, arming himself with sharp stones. Dodging the barrage of missiles, the hairy beast charged right up to us and then rolled playfully onto its back. While Razvan eyed it distrustfully, Fiona tickled its tummy.
Leaving the hut early the next morning, we hiked up to the ridge at 2200m. From here, we would follow the range for some 30km, taking in Romania’s three highest peaks along the way. We were allowing five days for our journey which, while hardly a trailblazing pace, was still a reasonable challenge given the rollercoaster terrain and volatile weather, with thunderstorms most afternoons.
That afternoon we reached Moldoveanu, the country’s high point at 2544m. A thin arête led to the summit, with steel cables providing some comfort over an exposed notch. With the clouds thickening around us, we didn’t stay long on top. Descending towards the Podragu Hut, we paused to watch purple-black storm clouds churn along the ridge, like computer-generated special effects in a disaster movie. Then it dawned on us that the clouds would envelop us before we reached the hut. Exchanging gormless glances, we started running pell-mell down the steep trail, skidding on scree and tripping over boulders. Lightning illuminated the sky like phosphorus bombs, thunder boomed like heavy artillery and even Razvan, who was an ordnance expert for the military, jumped with shock when a lightning fork fizzed past. Though it only took 10 minutes to reach the hut, we were drenched to the bone.
Set in a valley at 2100m, the Podragu Hut had the cosy charm of a medieval castle. But it served pork stew and beer, and was far more comfortable than camping outside. In order to lighten our packs, we hadn’t bothered with a tent, but instead were relying on the huts and refuges that irregularly dotted our route. There was a marked difference between them. The refuges had the advantage of being up on the ridge, but were typically just dank, tin A-frame shelters. Conversely, the huts had guardians, mattresses and cooked meals, but were located down in the valleys, requiring us to descend off the ridge to reach them and then hike back up the following morning, invariably burdened with hangovers.
The trail was well marked and even when we couldn’t spot the red and white painted signs, plaques and crosses invariably signalled the way, with virtually every notch and gully hosting a memorial to some hapless climber. To be fair, there were some awkward sections, with the high level option sticking doggedly to the ridge, with metal cables and staples for protection in places.
The most challenging stretch was between Negoui and Serbota, which we came to on our fifth day. We’d spent the preceding night in the Caltun Refuge, crammed in like sardines, with seven of us sleeping there, plus seven campers sheltering from the storm. Leaving the refuge at dawn, we scrambled up chain ladders to the summit of Negoiu, the country’s second highest peak at 2535m. From here, an airy traverse led across to Serbota Peak, a couple of kilometres away. As we clambered along metal staples, we tried to ignore pitiful howling coming from the cliffs above. An hour later we came upon a sheepdog that had somehow fallen off the cliff into a cleft, where it was now firmly stuck.
As we made to climb past, the dog looked at us with such doleful eyes that Razvan was moved to suggest we put it out of its misery. Instead, Fiona volunteered me to climb down and rescue it, on the grounds I’d recently been inoculated for rabies. The dog was uninjured but in a complete state of shock, able only to wag its tail and slobber, so we had to carry it along the ridge, passing it between us on the trickier sections. It was only when we reached flat ground that it recovered its confidence and legs, and went ungratefully bounding off. In fact, for all Transylvania’s reputation for abundant bears and wolves, the only wildlife we encountered in the mountains was a herd of chamois, several flocks of sheep and some sheepdogs.
From Serbota, we followed the trail up and down and over a couple more peaks, till we reached the summit of Vistea Scara. Although the Fagaras Mountains continued west for another 15km, the main peaks were behind us now. More importantly, we’d arranged to be picked up from the road head at Poina Neamtului, some 10km to the north.
Dropping off the ridge, we descended through alpine heather and bushes thick with blueberries, which we plucked till our hands were stained crimson as if we’d killed someone. We spent our last night in the mountains at Barcaciu Hut, a charmingly rustic, ramshackle place, like Doctor Doolittle’s, with a large dog that slept in the doorway and wouldn’t budge, cockerels and hens that clucked underfoot, and a donkey that tried to steal our dinner off the table, contenting itself with Fiona’s notebook instead.
The next morning, we hiked down through the forest to the road. The taxi ride to Sambata, where we’d left our car, took barely an hour, partly because we hadn’t covered much ground as the crow flies, but largely because Romanians drive so recklessly fast.
We headed back south on the Transfagarasan Highway, climbing over the mountains on tight hairpin bends. On the way down, we stopped off to visit the ruins of Poenari Castle, perched precariously on a rock outcrop. Panting up 1400 steep stone steps, we were greeted by a pair of morose-looking dummies impaled on wooden stakes. The castle belonged to a 15th century warlord, Vlad Tepes III, whose precise achievements are obscured by time, but possibly had as many as 100,000 victims impaled to death, with 20,000 Turkish prisoners skewered on one day. Portraits show a thin-faced man with crimson lips, shoulder-length jet black hair and a moustache like a piece of sailing rope. Also known as ‘Sir Impaler’ and ‘Vlad Dracula (Dragon)’, he’s generally credited as being the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s bloodsucking count.
That evening we stayed in Curtea de Arges, a historic rural town with haystacks, donkey carts and a medieval church. Celebrating our traverse with beer, wine and, rashly, plum brandy, we staggered back to our hotel under a full moon. But we felt safe now, for we were no longer within Transylvania.