Yesterday has been a very full day – in the best possible way. I wrote a whopping seventeen pages in my (small) notebook – I brought only one because I thought that would suffice for a month in Romania. But by now I only have eight empty pages left. After only two days in the mountains my heart is full and my head is brimming with stories. That’s why I’m taking today off – or rather, have decided today needs to be a processing day. It’s pouring it down outside so that makes it easier for me to reconcile myself with the fact I’m not hiking today. Not that I feel bad about it – not at all this time. These past two days have brought me so much that I really need to sit down and think, write, sift through the stories, the images, the recollections, the conversations. It’s going to be quite a task, and a long read. If you don’t feel like reading, there’s pictures. I won’t blame you.
Three days ago
Three days ago I still felt like shit. I had arrived in Braşov a couple of days before and felt absolutely drained. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Montenegro with my husband – my first proper holiday in years – but it cost me something too. Being a highly sensitive person who loves and needs heaps of alone time it isn’t all that easy for me to spend two weeks with someone 24/7, not even when that someone is the person closest to me. But we did well and had a good time so I feel grateful and accomplished. After that I continued on my own – I took a night train from Bar (Montenegro) to Belgrade (Serbia). It had a three-hour delay which meant I didn’t get to see the most beautiful mountain scenery on the way because we were stuck in a tunnel for two hours while the sun set, and that I only had one hour to spare in Belgrade before my bus to Timişoara left. I spent three days there trying to recharge my battery a little which sort of worked; then hopped onto another bus to Braşov, where I arrived feeling dazed and shaken after seven hours over bumpy roads in a stuffy vehicle – battery empty. In Braşov I mostly slept and, like I said, felt like shit. All the noise, the traffic, the motion – it left me feeling frazzled, raw and depleted.
Two days ago
After I had slept enough to gather courage and my belongings I got up early and caught the train to nearby Zărneşti, from where I took a taxi to Măgura, a mesmerizing village in the hills between the Piatra Craiului and the Bucegi. Although I’ve visited both massifs various times and have even walked from one to the other I had never been in Măgura. I arrived around noon, pitched my tent in the backyard of Villa Hermani and to my amazement felt better instantly even though I’d had a short night. So I stuffed my daypack with the bare necessities and set off for a first exploratory walk around Măgura and the neighbouring village of Peştera. After a few kilometres I arrived at an intersection where I suspected I’d have to turn right, but I felt hungry so decided to take a break to eat and consult my map and compass. I’d barely sat myself down or I heard someone shouting from up the hill I was facing: a farmer with a rake over his shoulder asked where I was going. Upon my reply he started shouting instructions, most of which but not all I could hear – there was a fifty-metre gap between us. After the sugar of the chocolate had kicked in I turned right, then looked for a path to the left – he had said something about ‘after thirty metres’ but I couldn’t hear what followed. The path I was on definitely went in the wrong direction so I turned around and tried left instead, looking for a way up – instead I bumped into the man again. ‘I told you, turn left after thirty metres and cross the stream – there is a little path going uphill,’ he said, not unkindly. So that was the part I’d missed. He accompanied me there, meanwhile trying to tempt me into coming to his house to drink a little ţuica with him. Just before our parting I asked if I could take his picture – he was quite a character. He agreed on the conditions that 1) I be in it too and 2) I email to him. (Which reminds me.) As a finishing touch, he suggested he plant a kiss on my cheek, to which I consented. Afterwards he anxiously asks me whether it didn’t upset me, but no, I assure him, he need not worry. So kind and sweet, and cheeky. There is a path alright although barely visible to the ignorant eye. I proceed uphill while we exchange final greetings, shouting again.
I pass by a farmhouse; the farmer confirms that I’m on the right track to the Bat’s Cave. At the top of the hill I climb over a fence and turn right onto a reassuring gravel road. I soon arrive at Peştera Liliecilor, the Bat’s Cave. Turns out the cave is 307m long ‘of which 109m constitute an active gallery’, as the info panel at the entrance informs me. Triggered, I mount my headlight and let the mouth of the cave swallow me up. It is big alright. A few dozen metres in two green eyes stare me in the face and scare the living daylight out of me – except there is no daylight. It turns out to be a small dog, which henceforth acts as my guide. At the point where I think I can’t continue the dog leads the way through a low but wide opening – I hesitate for a minute but then creep through too. I find myself in a circular dome, like a theatre almost. I can hear the bats squeak but never spot one. The dog moves on; so do I. The tunnel seems impossibly long; the shapes hanging from the ceiling and sprouting from the walls are grand and grotesque at the same time. When a red arrow points up a steep slippery pile of rocks I decide this is where I turn round. If I die here no-one is going to hear me scream, except for that dog and the bats. Back in the circular hall I have a brief surge of panic: which hole did I come through again? Coming in it seemed like there was only one opening, but now I see there are multiple holes in the wall. Fortunately, it doesn’t take me more than a minute to find the right one, and I make my way back to the exit as fast as the slippery, mud-covered rocks will let me. Outside I inhale deeply; I feel relieved. It was a little scary and tricky, but well worth it. The rest of the walk is fairly uneventful; I decide to cut it short because my initial plan turns out to be fairly ambitious considering I left late. An 88-year-old-woman sitting next to her three sheep complains of her aches and pains; a young man asks what I’m scribbling down in my notebook; another old man blows me a kiss then states that he just did that. I arrive back at Villa Hermani feeling so much better than in the morning, and exuberantly greet my Saxon host.
Because I cut my route short the day before my plan is to return to the point where I left off. After a kilometre or so though I see a red stripe waymark going up. I look on my map and heck yes, there is another trail. Since I’m not too fond of covering the same stretch twice I follow this trail. It turns out to be much more scenic than the 112G road. When I arrive at a signpost and need to alter my course I meet with a sweet couple from Bucharest who greet me enthusiastically. We talk about where we’re headed; when I say I’m planning to walk through the Zărneşti Gorges the woman says she’s scared of bears and for that reason doesn’t want to go there. I assure them there are so many people traversing the gorge daily that she need not worry. They decide to go there the next day on the spot, but have no idea how to get there so I lay out my map and explain. They see the humour of the situation: a Dutch girl telling two Romanians where to go in their own country. I ask if I can take a picture of the situation – them and the map in between them – and they’re OK with that. We part, but within seconds the man hesitantly taps me on the shoulder: ‘Excuse me, what’s your name?’ So we introduce ourselves – ‘Mariana şi Adrian’, ‘Ioana’, ‘îmi pare bine’, and connect on facebook. Another smile on my face.
I have to connect this walk to the one I did yesterday which means I have to go off-trail for a bit; no more than 750m – and then retrace my steps. On this section, an ageing man greets me very sincerely. He is heading in the same direction so we walk together for a while. He’s got quite a pace. When I ask him whether he was born here, his solemn answer is ‘Yes, and I hope to die here too’. He’s never lived anywhere else; has been to Constanţa but didn’t think much of it. I can’t blame him. When I arrive at the point where I left off the day before I tell him I’ll take a break; he informs me he will continue down the road for a bit to collect a horse from a neighbour. My ‘numai bine’ is as earnest as his ‘buna ziua’ was.
Back at the signpost, I continue towards La Table, a node at the bottom of the Piatra Craiului ridge. Even when I stare at my phone people greet me. Shame on me. On the way to Șaua Joaca I face something extraordinary: a dressed-up dog. Like, in full costume. I wait for its owners to come closer and ask if I can take its picture, and why it’s dressed up. ‘To keep its fur clean,’ comes the curt answer. ‘If we don’t do this we land in all sorts of trouble’. Miserie. It even has a ponytail. I am well amused. I take over three women who don’t want to go much further; all four of us have a break at Șaua Joaca but they’re not sure where they are so I use all my navigational skills and gadgets – maps, compass, gps – to confirm that we are indeed at the saddle. They share their chocolate with me and I continue to La Table. The sky becomes more overcast; there is an eerie silence. Eerier still is the scenery when I enter Cheile Pisicii, ‘The Cats’ Gorge’, accompanied by an old ‘trail dog’, which I thought would be slow – but it soon beats me to it. It is much faster and more agile than me, and on top of that, it follows the marked trail whereas I don’t even see the waymarks initially. I feel humbled. Traversing the mysterious gorge requires a lot of attention. I hop from one rock to another and look out for waymarks. I talk to the dog and whistle Christian hymns to keep any real and imaginary bears at a safe distance.
At the bottom of the gorge, where it meets with the much more frequented Zărneşti Gorges, I bump into an older couple. They are shouting someone’s name so I ask whether they’ve lost someone. They are just waiting for their son though – he messaged them that he was on the Piatra Craiului ridge mid-day so they’re waiting to pick him up and drive back to Braşov together. They speak good English – they lived in Canada for ten years. We walk towards Zărneşti together as soon as their son emerges. Saying we get on well would be understating it; here is someone wired much the same way as me. We understand each other and both start pouring out thoughts while listening intently at the same time. He’s lived in Canada for nineteen years, from when he was eleven – and came back to Romania when the pull of the mountains became too strong to resist. This is something I understand. When I’m home I feel I need to be here; when I’m on the train from Sibiu to Braşov I can physically feel the Făgăraş tugging at me. I don’t know what it is with this place, these places, but Romania and its mountains keep pulling me towards them, relentlessly. I must be here. Having all these special encounters confirms that I am in the right place, doing the right thing. This is a difficult truth for me to deal with, being the inveterate agnostic and rationalist that I am. Why? Just because. Because it fits. Because it’s good. Tov. But how did I get here? You know that. Through pain and suffering and hard labour, burrowing through the soil like a mole until you see the sun – or rather, until you gain sight instead of blindness – and a view at the at times overwhelming, poignantly beautiful and harsh world. Still, I want to be able to pinpoint exactly what is what, but truth is I can’t: it’s beyond me. I can only clutch and grasp – which brings these wise words of G.K. Chesterton to mind:
“To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” (From Orthodoxy)
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
It’s just that I’m both – the poet and the mathematician – (figuratively speaking only when it concerns the latter). Apparently though, the rationalism must be counterbalanced by – yes, by what? By trust; by intuition – and perhaps by some other things. I need to learn and I will find out. Empirically.
My companion calls it ‘the energy of these mountains’. For me that is too vague a description, but the facts are crystal clear: I have to be here. I need to be here to stay, or become, sane. To be alive; to become and be my living, breathing self. We talk about ‘finding your feet’ – ‘I’ve found my mountain feet alright’, Cristian says. It’s just the rest – finding something to do, to sustain yourself with, that sustains you. We also establish that we both don’t look our age, but a good deal younger – he’s 32, I’m 33. I say my theory is that I look younger because I’m not like all these other grownups, but have preserved my childlike sense of wonder and awe. ‘You’re just plugged in differently,’ he says. That about sums it up. We part ways and firmly shake hands at the point where I have to head up the narrow red stripe trail back to Măgura, after having exchanged email addresses as well as phone numbers – you never know; one option might fail. (And it does: the email never arrives.) We both feel we must stay in touch. Afterwards I realize that I didn’t feel any ‘brain strain’ or constriction in my throat as happens so often when I’m having a conversation. It’s because I was entirely myself. I didn’t have to pose or twist to fit into a tight, strangling mould.
The red stripe trail is the loveliest little path, adorned with fragrant flowers and offering magnificent views back towards the gorge and the Piatra Craiului. I stop every minute to take pictures and/or notes. The flowers are more beautiful than the costliest bridal bouquet. It feels like a reward – not that I needed one after the splendour of this day. When I’m almost at the end of the narrow trail I see a chicken that has landed on the wrong side of the fence. It is desperately trying to re-join its fellow feathered beings by violently poking its head through the iron mazes of the fence. Worried that it will hurt or even kill itself, I call out for the owner, who comes round and throws the pui back in. We talk for a bit and he turns out to be the owner of one of the pensions I had looked at that morning with interest. He asks if I can publish the address of his pension in my guide and I will think about that, but I tell him that I’m actually looking for a pension to house a group next summer – so I’ll go back there one of these days and discuss the possibilities.
I’m like that chicken – I used to be on the wrong side of the fence, struggling to get back in and hurting myself in the process. And I needed something, some things, to throw me over the fence. Except I wanted to be on the outside, not with the clucking crowd. Among these things are depression and the jobs that nearly killed me – they made me realize that I was heading in the wrong direction and that I needed a U-turn; a leap over the forbidding fence; outside the net society had cast around me.
I suppose this is what the enigmatic word ‘serendipity’ means: meeting these people, this person, at exactly this time and place, at this stage of your life. It’s a gift I receive with near-boundless gratitude. I’m in awe of the powerful display of providence I experienced today. I feel fulfilled and nourished. I can open up again, after having had to shut the world, the noise out for too long. I inwardly bow into the very earth that so replenishes me – the earth I get along with so well. I’m home.
The birds are big.
The sky is high.
The grass grows tall.
The apples fall.
The air is warm.
The wind sends wisps
of hay across
my bare tanned arms.
I lie face up
and I breathe in
until I burst.
Except I don’t
because I’m whole:
There is no crack
this joy can’t heal:
I am at home.
I wash my face – I taste my sweat as the water rinses it off. It tastes good. Not like fear or dull labour. It tastes like adventure. Like life. The magic is real. Real is Magic.
Day One: Măgura – Peştera Liliecilor – Peştera – Măgura | 3hrs | 11km | Unmarked trails + red cross | Total ascent/descent: 400m
Day Two: Măgura – Peştera – La Table – Cheile Pisicii – Cheile Zărneştilor | 5hrs | 19km | red stripe, red cross, red stripe | Total ascent/descent: 700m
Map: Tara Branului, Eco Romania/Zenith
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