FOREWORD

This book was not originally written for you. Nevertheless, it may well transform your perspective on hiking and the Carpathians. At least this is what it has done for many. 

The Carpathian Games was intended for a circle of nature-loving fellows in the early 1980s in Czechoslovakia. It was published unofficially since its “truths were not for everyone’s ears.” However, words of the text were so touching that people would copy them on typewriters and circulate it amongst friends.

Some read the Carpathian Games as an account of the desire for freedom during communist times. The author of this book, Miloslav Nevrlý, led a scout group disguised as a tourist sports club, because scouting was banned after communist armies invaded the country. In the mid-1970s, Míla (short for Miloslav in Czech) started taking the group to the Romanian Carpathians, mountains where tourists, rules, maps and surveillance were scarce. They hyperbolically named their fellowship the ‘Society for Exploration of the Romanian Mountains’. Those few summer weeks provided the much-needed remedy of freedom. The far-away mountains became an exercise field for woodcraft and scouting virtues.

Others read the Carpathian Games as a transformative text. Míla uplifts hiking from a pastime activity into a source of wisdom. Referring back to generations of pilgrims, he finds a connection with the universe while on voyage – at the mercy of the elements and good will of strangers. He describes the deep joy of a mystic born from what the rest of the world would consider misery. To invite everyone into this fellowship, Míla intimately addresses the reader as a “little brother,” which has nothing to do with gender.

For some, this is the ideal hiking guide to the Romanian mountain ranges. It does not list transport options, trails and shelters – quite the opposite. The text brews intimate personal experience with a brief sketch of each range. Thus, the half a century old descriptions remain atemporal, despite the fact that the Romanian mountains are changing with the fast development of the country. The author, a professional naturalist, roughs out the places and leaves it upon the hikers to find their way.

After reading several games and mountain depictions, you shall understand why the translation into English was a must. Many of us had difficulties describing to fellow hikers the essence of the book that brought thousands of Czech and Slovak pilgrims to the Romanian mountains. Meeting there, they quote from the Carpathian Games by heart and read the book while sitting around campfires. Accept the invitation, the fire is about to start burning.

Michal Medek, Editor

A BROTHERLY WORD IN OPENING

The Indian may not know much, but what he does we would do well to heed.

JOE HAMANN in his book On the Trail of the Wild West

THOUGH IT MAY SEEM I start far afield, little brother, persevere. It is a virtue. Once upon a time, before mighty Indian chief Good Fortune (whose name Spanish missionaries translated centuries ago as Bona Ventura) began speaking to his little brothers – dark-headed Indian boys who would soon be men – he said to them: “Listen and let your hearts be filled with zeal!” Then he was silent. Placing one hand on the head of the nearest boy, he drew a circle with the other in the darkness. A great, enormous circle.

The fire crackled, and the boys sat as still as river minnows. In the darkness surrounding the fire, in the unending circle that stretched out in every direction, they could sense the world. Knowing nothing of it made them yearn for it all the more.

And Good Fortune began. He spoke of grasslands and wild horses that thundered freely across them. And though it was a still night, the boys could hear their distant whinnies. He spoke of lakes and shadows cast by mountain peaks. And though it was a windless night, the breeze that rushed over the crystal waters smelled to the boys of salmon. He spoke of deserts where the sky was a dusty haze. And though it was a chilly night, the boys could feel the white-hot desert sun and taste sand and thirst and freedom in their mouths. He spoke of dark fissures in gleaming chasms so deep there was no telling what lay below. And though it was a dark night, the boys glimpsed a bright-winged eagle soaring high above the cliffs in the sunlight. He spoke of endless lake-filled forests so vast it was beyond their comprehension. And though they sat around the fire, they could feel the silky coats of lynx, and the harsh twigs of bushes, and their feet caught firmly in cold marshes. Such was the power of Good Fortune’s words.

They listened and were filled with zeal. At that moment, the whole world belonged to them, and they yearned for it. But he spoke of more than the world and its lands. He spoke of the games of solitary hunters and pilgrims. The beauty of frosty mornings, the glory of summer’s dog days. The virtues of both full bellies and hunger. Of things that contradict and yet together are beautiful. Birth and death, each as fitting as the other. Of how in Indian lands, all things are good, and even bad things help those who love good to serve good. But here the missionaries transcribing Good Fortune’s words went a bit far; the Indian boys were still too young and eager. Little dark heads! They understood horses and grass, fish and lakes, eagles and treasure, even sand and dust clouds. And after all, why not? All things have their time. When dancing days have passed, other days come.

Good Fortune lives no more. Neither do those he spoke to of the world and its games. But new little heads have since been born. Blond, brown, black. And let us hope that the joy of simple things and clean lands has not faded, and the pilgrim still delights at what he encounters there. When I was as young as those Indian boys, silent as a river minnow, I, too, yearned for distant lands, strange animals, unfamiliar people, anything and everything. Books and travelogues, hundreds of them, they were my Chief Bona Ventura. They told of northern tundras and southern deserts, Mongolian plains and Alaskan mountains. Yet those were lands beyond the boundary of my circle. Back then, my circle was not endless, it was small and wiggly.

It looked like this:

Map of Czechoslovakia
map of Czechoslovakia

Little could we travel then, and it was certain I would not glimpse taigas, deserts, fjords or dark-haired girls when I yearned for them most. I was left no choice but to set forth into my little circle of unique and winding form. I journeyed not broadly through the infinite circle of the world, but deeply through the little circle of my homeland. Though it was by virtue of necessity, it proved a wonderful circle indeed. Beautiful! I traveled mostly alone. On foot. For nearly a quarter century. Thousands of kilometers. It was a remarkable circle, containing all a little dark head could desire. Great rivers, majestic mountains, waterfalls, icefalls. Traps for lynx, cliffs for eagles – many species of eagles. Salty plains and hot prairies. Soft sands, steppe grasses and grazing horses. Lakes of sturgeon, riparian forests, unbearable swarms of mosquitos, still river bends, teeming with turtles! Mountains as far as the eye could see. The purest, loneliest of lakes. Craggy labyrinths abundant in the unforgettable sweet scents of plants whose names are ever sung in praise. Endless eastern beech forests ruled by black boar. Desolate peat bogs that fill a lonely little head with fear and gloom. Muddy sheer-banked rivers where bee-eaters, most colorful of birds, make their nests. Moose and salmon. Wolves and bears. Wildcats. Native girls singing beneath polonynas in words you cannot understand. When they dance, your fists clench and eyes moisten in gladness. Shepherds in wool coats, the ancient fragrance of sheep pastures. Gales! Wood for a thousand fires and as many solitary nights.

In that winding circle I experienced all I had read about in books of distant lands, all I had so yearned for. I experienced moments that seemed so glorious to me, yet I know there are not many who would even notice them. Hunger, cold, thirst and adventure that many would think nothing of. Fears and joys they would laugh at. I have seen lands whose peace, purity, loneliness and beauty will forever remain etched in my memory. And yet those who walked with me did not even raise their eyes; they just passed them indifferently by. They can go to the devil, it is their loss! They have lost their childlike soul.

Then something began happening to the blessed Slovak land of my youth. At first invisibly. There were ever more restrictions, smells, foreigners, obesity, asphalt. Thirty years ago, I pitched camp in Roháče at the far end of Látané Doliny. I carried in enough food for a month from the town of Zuberec, and during the four weeks I spent in that rainy valley, I saw no one. But today? A waste of words. I hated hiding like an outlaw in mountains I had spent so much time in alone and where I had done no harm to anyone. Like a timid animal, it was time to move on. And so I went east along the Carpathians until I came to Romania! I fell in love with that land as blindly and ridiculously as an old man who, to the laughter of all, falls in love with a young girl. But it gave me back my joy, little brother! I discovered mountains so deserted you do not meet a soul. Mountains of sweet waters and uncharted forests. Where you can play ancient games upon pastures and cliffs tops. I was reminded of how Slovakia, northern Hungarian land, looked so many years ago. For in Transylvania, time still passes lazily by, and gazing from mountain tops at midnight, you see no human lights in the valleys below, just dark forests and endless plains.

And now I’ve come to the important part! For though I lack much, if not all of Good Fortune’s blessed wisdom, I wish to tell you of Romanian mountain ranges and the games that can still be played there.

I have little hope you will listen or be filled with zeal. Yet it is still worth a try, for each continent, land and age has its own little dark heads, its soft sands, its eagles, its freedom and its nocturnal glimmering fires.

I wish to describe to you, little brother, some regions of Romania as if they were fairytale lands, half realistically, half as a child sees them: simply and with a sense of mystery. Briefly in a few short lines. It is not to be the guide you may be accustomed to, the all-encompassing handbook of maps, hotels, dates, color-coded hiking trails, timetables, precise instructions on where to turn or go straight.  That is merely excess information. Those books are never necessary and, more often than not, lay waste to fantasy and independence while obliterating all urge to wander and discover. The answer lies elsewhere. The freer you travel, the better. You will try more and experience more!

You should be prepared, however, that you may not find Romania exactly as I did only a short time ago. Times there are changing swiftly too – hurry! But that is as it has always been. Each age has had to redefine nature’s beauty and wildness for itself. As did I. If our long-dead ancestors rose from the dead and encountered the wilderness of Slovakia as I knew it in all her supposed savageness, they would weep for the land that was, for it would appear wretched and miserable to them. In vain would they hunt the European bison. As for me, I hunted no bison for they went extinct long before I was born. I never knew the thunder of their feet. But I miss the solitude of the Roháč valleys, that has vanished in my lifetime. And so it will be with you, little brother! Only the games of solitary pilgrims remain unchanged. I will tell you a few of them for they brought me much joy in my better youthful days!

My opening words are now drawing to a close, and carefully as an Indian, I creep toward your camp fire. I wish to tell you something. To teach you. Yet I know not why. Afraid to cause more harm than good, I have put it off for years. I never thought to change your life, let alone take any interest in it. I only cared for the prairie grasses that run before the wind. The mountain maples that turn to gold, the sandy shores at evening along chill waters. I held all that dearer than you. The solitude of evening fires was most precious to me. I loved games too. Solitary roving games, and wildly joyful forest song that brings you to tears. And now I approach you almost fearfully! Perhaps I come because I sense in your camp both boredom and yearning. Emptiness and weariness, but also good will. Laziness and determination. Envy and eagerness. Come, my velvety little brother, it is better to give than to take! And most importantly, to awaken desire, to open your eyes, to fill you with zeal. A most difficult task. The rest is up to you.

Those last words may have sounded grandiose and delusional, but that is not how I meant them.

Let Good Fortune guide my words!

VLᾸDEASA

THE FOAL MOUNTAINS. How long it has been since I visited them. First wonder at Carpathian expanses. Carved farmstead gates in Draganu Valley; old women on doorsteps weaving, embroidering. First time a-roving. First time struggling up steep wooded hillsides toward visions of a path pointed out in fog by a shepherd’s hand. Ceaţa the shepherd called it. Fog. Who knows if the distant Slovak town of Čadca, nestled among Wallachian mountains, has anything to do with the word.

We left nothing out on our trek across the Western Carpathians; we even tried our luck with the wild horses that gallop there freely in herds. White horses, brown ravines, black horses, white clouds, chestnut horses, black forests. Green grass, dappled horses. Pastures as far as the eye can see, no sight of a shepherd in three days. But the crack of shepherds’ whips rings out across Vlădeasa from north to south.

A camp of miserable-looking shelters guarded by a sun-bleached skull. Water on ridges vanishes into mossy troughs. Like animals we eat, like animals we sleep, soaking up Carpathian freedom. If, after night, the morning sun shows its face, it spreads a silky emerald canopy out over the mountain plains. Three layers of clouds, three steps to heaven. The ridge leads us onward to the cliffs of Bihor. At the mountains’ edge not far from the headwaters of the Draganu, we turn off the ridge, descending southward from an altitude of sixteen hundred meters to where Padiş and the watery karst fortresses of Bihor await us.

Vlădeasa: wooded grassy expanses for a thousand summer fires, unpopulated.

BIHOR

THE CHASM MOUNTAINS. Land of plummeting rivers, land of mountain chasms. Nowhere in Romanian is there a more exquisite place. Waters plunge into the ground or rush forth from it. They vanish into caves to gush out again from others. Sheep graze upon the emerald grasses that surround great sinkholes, and brooks bubble into cul-de-sac valleys to flow, muddy and swirling, down into the earth. The warm Someş and cool Galbena, or Yellow River, float through karst tunnels. An abyss hundreds of meters deep plummets down into the Fortress of Ponor: water hurtles into darkness and ghostly green light streams into the depths through collapsed cavern ceilings. White cliffs above are illuminated by sunlight, all around the buzzing silence of Western Carpathia. Lost World: a beautiful name for the surrounding plains. There is no subterranean path through the Fortress of Ponor. Galbena’s spring lies across a mountain ridge where its waters rush out from beneath a cliff. Happening upon it in a summer hailstorm, you are certain to be astonished. Though water and ice are dumped in buckets from the sky, the river gurgles quietly on. Then, quite suddenly, the clear waters beneath the cliff change. Browning, they begin to rise rapidly. Under enormous pressure from the Fortress of Ponor, they spew forth from the stranglehold of the earth, arching higher and higher into the air. Within seconds, they have grown a meter, then two. No longer a peaceful stream, they have become a hurtling, roaring, yellow torrent lurching into the canyon below.

You would be in a bad way, little brother, down in the Fortress of Ponor, down in the Galbena valley. During such a storm, your back becomes bruised by balls of ice and the forests are fist-high in hailstones – you might even build a “hailman” on the banks of the Galbena.

Padiş lodge, the only human dwelling in the heart of the Apuseni Mountains. All around: velvety places to pitch your tent and cool nights on valley floors. Indian water buffalo pass your shelter in the night, regurgitating gently. To the south of Bihor lies Țara Moților – Land of Stone – where amid dense, low-mowed meadows and icy ravines, you can borrow a carbide lamp. Out of the steep-pitched roofs of dwellings grow little, red, narrow-leafed willows. Above the Gîrdy valley, black hogs root in dust near wooden mills.

THE GAME OF THE LIGHT-HEARTED PILGRIM

The only people who never lose their way are the lamas of Tibet and Mongolia. Forever roaming the great expanses of High Asia, they travel tirelessly from one place to the next. Having no home, they can never lose their way, and having no aim they can never stray from the path. They go carelessly, ever happy, ever free.

Lady Evelyn E. Sloock, traveler, 1881

My face burns with excitement, little brother, for the first game is so important to understand, yet so hard to explain! If it goes uncomprehended, your journey will be a futile slog and any further reading a waste of time. The game of the light-hearted pilgrim, the light-footed pilgrim, the pilgrim of the small bundle – the most beautiful game of all.

It is good to begin playing it in youth. Not in childhood when legs tire and feet ache and all you remember of outings is the ice cream man. In youth. In the time when spirit is open and eager and the world passes through it as light through a church window: vividly, jubilantly. Unceasingly. Eternally. The spirit can yet be charmed and legs still have their spring. The body is a steed, the spirit its indomitable rider wielding gaiety’s banner in the sunny whirlwinds above.

I sometimes see such pilgrims, young and beautiful. Bright-haired, slim girls with heart-shaped patches on their trousers and bottoms like hearts upside down.  Next to them sway young men like Prince Harald Fairhair of old. Carefree, tall with woven bags across their shoulders, nearly empty. Under one arm, a blanket, sandals on their bare feet. Envy their carelessness! They roam. Where to?  Where will they sleep, what will they eat? Light souls! Those are true pilgrims.

Yet they are not alone. Pilgrims have walked the earth for thousands of years. People give them epithets, each age and continent has its own: ramblers, pilgrims, vagrants, prophets, sightseers, wanderers, saints, rovers, wayfarers, drifters, wandering preachers, journeymen, travelers, tourists (what a funny word!), hobos, explorers, tramps, lamas. They move from place to place. The truest of them have no home, the others give theirs up for the duration of their travels. Some admire them, others despise them.  Muhammadans pray for them for they loathe aimless tramping and pity the traveler and his tired feet, rubbed raw on the parched cliffs. They sit at home sleeping through the hot afternoons, smoking hookahs, drinking tea and shelling sunflower seeds. And why not? That, too, is beautiful, though too easily won, my downy little brother! First, toil and trudge for days on end – the longer the better. Then long afternoons of repose, marked by the tick-tock crack of sunflower seeds, will acquire their deepest meaning. A pilgrim traveling from Tarsus once remarked that while it is good to try many things, one must never let go of what is best. There is no place to experience greater good and hardship than on a journey far from home. Discovery is the essence of traveling.

It might appear that the days of footloose wayfaring have vanished forever. That the times of the rover, the journeyman and the wandering monk are no more, and that the tracks that led past haystacks, around millraces and into monastery gardens have become disused and overgrown. However, the yearning to march freely over open countryside has remained and given rise to something new, something which is at once beautiful and terribly deformed. Outdoor tourism.  The second word holds almost no meaning, it is as empty as the word “world”. “TOUR” comes from the French meaning a journey around something, to walk around, sail around, fly around. It signifies both a walk and an excursion, a ride and a trip. A tower, a revolution (of a wheel), and the wheel itself; a turn, a circumference, a lap, a lathe, a sleight of hand. A butterball, a porker, a fatty. There are many meanings and many kinds of tourism and many types of tourists. A whole range of them from those oppressed by mammon and dependence, to those as light-footed as a bird.

I feel no pity for the first of them. They pay for their own millstones and sell their incapacity for self-reliance to travel agencies. Unfortunates! Their punishment will be swift. They fly around the world in metal boxes while the poorer of them contract heat rashes from sitting in sweaty, poorly ventilated coaches. They all have one thing in common: they return from their journeys maximally unrefreshed, feeling as if they have just mushed a delicious breakfast, lunch and supper into a disgusting sludge and swallowed it all in a single gulp. More courageous butterball-tourists sit behind the wheel of their smog-producing, combustion-powered automobiles. An air of heaviness rests upon them from beginning to end. Mountains gleam above them in the sunlight, forests on hillsides sway like seaweed meadows in the fragrant breeze. But they beckon in vain – asphalt has shackled these travelers and pulled them to the ground.  They are not true pilgrims, for they have succumbed to matter.

Fat-thighed fellows in fuzzy, knee-high socks belong to what can be called the royal class of tourists. The heavy pilgrim. With great “backbreaker” packs atop their shoulders, they trek through mountainous country imperviously. They often stay in cabins, though the more valorous of them set up tents in tourist campsites. They love the society of their peers, they are noisy and travel together in droves, breathlessly seeking tourist badges, posters, certificates, and acknowledgment. They are the salt of the tourist earth. They maintain the pilgrim consciousness, yet take joy in counting up all the miles they have walked along their rigidly-planned routes, senselessly reporting the information to someone somewhere, and blanketing the forests in thousands of color-coded trail signs, the more, the merrier. Those with the fuzziest knee-highs may indeed be trophy holders, some even champions of their sport!

Then there are the boaters, the cyclists and the mountain climbers. However grand these pilgrims appear, they cannot go everywhere. Their spirits may soar mightily and freely, but their bodies are bound to water and boat, road and wheel, cliff and rope. They are not light. I know that from experience, I was one of them. Traveling, scientific expeditions and mountaineering treks no longer count as wandering; all the necessary metal and food and obligations and responsibilities make lightness and joy impossible. These are but a few kinds of tourists, there are many more I have not mentioned. The words of Saint Irenaeus of Smyrna still ring true today:  “God is certainly not too poor to lend a pilgrim his own soul.” Seek your own interpretation, meaning and joy.

Thus, little brother, I shall write only of the lightest pilgrims, of the noblest tourists – often impoverished and wild – of the birds among wayfarers, of those who today would not hesitate to set out for unfamiliar mountains and forests, taking with them only what they can carry, not fearing how one day will end or what will transpire the next. They wander in sunshine and rain, alone or together, lightly and carelessly – poverty their greatest freedom. They join hands with brothers of old who, with nothing but a clear mind, a beggar’s bowl and a loin cloth, walked through the Umbrian sunlight, the Theban sands and the Tibetan winds. Theirs is an ancient yearning. Thousands of years ago, an Egyptian scroll revealed what awaited them: “The pilgrim walks through the desert carrying bread and water on his shoulders as a donkey carries its burden. The bones of his back are bent and his drink is stale water.”

Our homeland has no deserts, the people I write about wend their way through forests and mountains. Such journeys have many names – hiking, backpacking, camping – and such travelers usually visit a region only once. Whether that is good or bad is a matter for debate. But at least their first impression of a place is never diluted by a second, and they experience no disappointment upon returning to discover so much has changed. Where they arrive, they sleep, they linger where they like. They eat what they find and usually carry no tent.

Many have not survived such existential uncertainties, but our travelers flourish in it. Uncertainty keeps their minds limber and luminous. They know neither the hour nor the day; seldom do they fall ill; if they get wet, they dry: it is as simple as that. They must be self-reliant and are proud to balance days of self-sufficiency with the lightest possible knapsack. It gives them confidence. Such pilgrims can venture into far-flung regions where heaviness and comfort, fussiness and caution do not allow other tourists to go. It is difficult to reconcile self-sufficiency with lightness, long is the journey to that aim! But it is essential, for only with a light pack can the spirit leave the body and soar above in wind and joy – the very reason for embarking on such light and distant journeys. In vain do those without this gift drag their bodies through mountain forests! The spirit in the mountains soars highest when the pack is light enough to be worn on one shoulder. This is no easy feat, however. Mountains are high, forests deep, people far away and the body is a demanding steed: in the day it needs food, at night it craves warmth.

Many useful qualities are nurtured on such summer journeys. Modesty. Independence. Endurance. Respect for the earth and local peoples. Conquering one’s fears, overcoming dejection of body and spirit. You explore the land as an ant senses with its feelers. Time passes slower, too, dissolving into individual points in time; it is as if you are living in another dimension. You remember more from one month’s wandering than from all the previous eleven months combined. A year’s worth of banalities swiftly fades into the well of oblivion, but the fullness of experience from a few summer weeks spent wandering the mountains radiates from you for years to come. Those eleven trivial months, however, need not be fully wasted – they can be spent pouring over maps. From them, as if by magic, arise the lands to which you will turn your feet the coming summer.

My face still burns. Too vaguely, too tepidly have I described the beauty of light-footed pilgrimages. I fear you will not be roused by the blissful thought of such a journey. But one final and glorious card remains. Do you know what so intoxicates on such feather-light voyages, little brother? Freedom! The enthralling river of freedom from the first sweet breath of morning, so deep it pricks in the pit of your throat, to the final slumber of evening which falls upon the weary body like a warm and wooly beast. Only while traveling are you truly free, my light-winged bird!

You sit atop a bare ridge amidst unfamiliar mountains, the silvery grasses blowing in the wind. Like a polecat, the Carpathian evening approaches, dark and furtive. Silence. Below you, nothing but Transylvanian forest, no other sight to catch your eye. Green ridges and foothills flow like streams out of the mountains, the solitude is absolute. Such places do exist. Which way will you go? There is no bed waiting for you, no food has been prepared. Yet wherever you are, you always get a good night’s rest and you never die of hunger. Which direction do you go? You can travel wherever you wish, you are free. Head for the northern valleys and from there to the river currents and stony banks of the Bucovina. Or turn towards the southern ravines, following them to the distant wormwood pastures of Wallachian plains. Or venture eastward to where the mountains tumble down into Moldova. It will be beautiful wherever you go and just the way you make it. You fear the unknown, but know with crystal clear certainty that your home is wherever you choose to be. You will never lose your way, you carry everything with you; wherever you arrive, that is your aim. The wind blows silvery, no other sight to catch your eye. Cool air wafts from strange forests. Somewhere within them you will make your bed and drink from their waters. The unknown lies all around you. Long would you sit among the grasses with the rock at your back, but the time has come to decide: evening’s cloak is growing darker. You rise like an animal, scenting the wind with your nostrils. And then it comes, the brief moment of freedom, like an arrow racing through the air. Now you know which way to go.

The unknown before you, the unknown behind you, only the polecat paws of night rushing to meet you. That sweet, heavenly second of freedom!

MUNTELE MARE

THE MOTLEY MOUNTAINS. White cliffs shimmer above vibrant flowers far from the eyes of eager tourists. In the distance we can just make out the towering ridge of Scărișoara-Belioara, considered by some to be part of the Gilău mountain range, reaching one thousand three hundred meters into the sky. It stands a long dusty journey away, down a valley and along the crystalline waters of the Poșaga. Steep slopes, plateaus, and gorges plunge off King’s Plains, waterless and abounding in the soft greens of bearberry bushes and gentle hues of savin junipers. Canyons carved by running water have, by mid-August, become dry and parched, and grasshoppers remain the only creatures still jumping among the shriveled, crackling grasses. Visible from afar is an enormous cave worn by ancient waters into a white cliff face dozens of meters up in the air – the jewel of King Béla’s natural mountain fortress. The sun shines through a gaping oval hole in the cavern’s ceiling, casting its shape around the sides of the cave hour by hour. The floor grows thick with a strange non-stinging nettle known as Upright pellitory.

Scărișoara-Belioara is a renowned nature preserve where gently bleating sheep munch on the rarest of wild-growing plants. A picturesque land. Below the cliffs, slopes are dotted with haystacks and elven cottages, here and there inhabited by people and white dogs – sentinels of silence, wooden huts and cool rushing water. Roads here are only for the surefooted. We arrive at a house as light fades. The door creaks open: it is unlocked, uninhabited. Just as in the fairytales, it stands awaiting the weary pilgrim. Inside, a kerosene lamp, a wooden bowl, a table and bench, a coffin-like bed lined with sheep wool, an icon in a dusky corner. We drink our fill of water from the brook and fall contentedly asleep in a dark house beneath white mountain walls.

TRASCᾸU

THE GORGE MOUNTAINS. Nowhere else have I seen so many white gorges. On the map, the Trascău Mountains appear striped, crisscrossed by narrow limestone formations from Northeast to Southwest. Water flows out of them following a diagonal course, each stream carving a sheer white gorge. The remote and isolated village of Cheia rests in a deep basin between four such gorges and is altogether without electricity. A raspy-voiced matron stands guard at a log-bridge; smooth and narrow, it is the only path to the homes on the other side. Buildings here are the most peculiar in all of the Trascău Mountains. The deeper you forge into the mountainous terrain, the higher the roofs of dwellings become. Thatched and many times taller than the houses themselves, they appear like haystack resting atop low ceilings. Man and beast gaze from the windows of these fairytale huts, bread ovens stand before each home, and wells have painted roofs. There is a sacred spring in the Râmeț Monastery, which lies below a gorge and can only be reached by fording deep water between high cliffs. We must have looked like beggar pilgrims, for the old women of the monastery brought us baskets of hot donuts to feast on. We ate them gratefully, feeling both Mediterranean and medieval. The white cliffs towered above the ancient monastery like the Holy Mountain of Athos as the sun sang to them its sultry song. 

Some say the Trascăus belong to the Munţii Metaliferi, the Ore Mountains, where the Romans had their most impressive gold mines. There are many remarkable places there, little brother. Huda lui Papară is a rare and beautiful cave well worth a visit, though you will not see much more than the front and the back of it. Two streams pour down into an enormous basin, one flowing into a clear pool, the other plunging from the heights above where alpine swifts wheel and call. The waters rush round the base of a towering white wall and spill into the cave – there is nowhere else for them to go. During spring thaws, the entire basin fills with water twenty-five meters deep; on the other side of the ridge, a torrent gushes from a crevice in the cliff, and the only way in is to swim. A valley, lone and peaceful, spreads out below full of flowers, bleached water-worn sheep paths, sunlight, silence.   

THE GAME OF THE PRINCE AND THE KING

I have seen many a wild and beautiful place on the border between the States and Canada that no white man has laid eyes on since. Mine was the first white face to bend to the clear waters of Yellowstone Lake. Those were wonderful moments. They cost me toil, struggle, hunger, suffering, danger, and health, but I regret nothing. Yet, now, looking back at all the journeys I have embarked upon, half-blind and old as I am,  none were more wonderful than my two-day trek across Porcupine Valley into the woods behind my father’s farm. I was thirteen years old then, and my father did not want to allow it. Never have I had to overcome such fear of solitude, distance and the unknown as that time, and never has the victory been sweeter and my happiness and pride greater than when, after the first lonely night, I gazed from the top of Badger Hill at the endless forests of the north for the first time in my life.

JIM BRIDGER, mountain man and explorer of the Wild West, 1881

How glad I am the world still lies before you, little brother! All who set out on journeys in their youth are like the princes in fairytales of old. The boy, the king-to-be, forges ahead into strange and distant lands. He wanders alone, himself a stranger, seeking what others have never dared seek. He is not driven by lust of aim, delusions of grandeur, avarice or ambition, but by quiet attentiveness to the bright and distant star of his destiny. He experiences much, but always returns home again – I have never read of a prince who does not return happily home.

The time of quests begins when a child enters adolescence, when he becomes a prince. A boy’s aim might seem small – the top of Badger Hill overlooking Porcupine Valley – but the blissful feeling of victorious independence is so complete, nothing can surpass it. The expeditions of youth are like the universe compressed before the Big Bang, like the fruits of adulthood yet a kernel in some heavenly flower. Adults may undertake longer and more ostentatious voyages, but who is to say, little brother, which is the greater prize – ten kilometers as a boy or a thousand in adulthood? For just as a person ages, so does all of humanity. Yearning to experience the bliss of its youth, it sets its goals further and further afield. A century ago, men ascended the Alps in woolen pants, bearing bottles of brandy and wearing funny hobnail boots. Mountaineers through and through, they risked their health and their necks, overjoyed to reach the place where cable cars and automobiles can carry you today, bored and indifferent. For mountain climbers today to sense the same self-assuredness and exceptionality, they must spend years training in the harshest conditions. Then clambering into trucks packed with high-tech space-age equipment, they rumble across the globe before finally reaching the Himalayas, or the Andes, or the Pamir Mountains. Once it was enough to sail the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece, now we must send shock troops in airtight suits all the way to the moon.

It is easier for boys. There will come a day when everyone seems stale, pallid and insufferable. That is the moment to leave for fresher lands where true and distant suns shine. Those are the journeys that remain most luminously imprinted on the soul. Never again will there be so much to remember and so much triumphant pride. I was lucky, for that was the age I explored all the Czechoslovakian mountain ranges. I hiked through each of them, one after the other, usually alone and without a guide, using only some outdated military maps. I walked through Slovakia and ascended the Carpathians just as boys from coastal lands would venture out into the southern seas. I must have traveled thousands of kilometers, and though I did not count any of them, I remember each one. That was my domain! I came to realize that the most beautiful moments are experienced in silence and solitude, far from a parent’s care which may dispel hunger and fear, but which crushes joy and independence. I also learned to endure, for there is nothing worse than not achieving your dream because of rain, weariness, cold or fear of hunger and solitude. Always keep going, tomorrow will be better! Whenever I turned my back on my journey’s aim, the cost in time, money and suffering to return was always greater; for even more unbearable than cold and hunger is not bending to the waters of the lake you have dreamed of for so many months. Remember, little brother, mud washes away and hunger is forgotten, but the pure taste of fresh lake water remains forever in your soul. Do not forget that the honor of every prince and conquistador is heroic endurance. The worse things get, the better – repeat those words often, and if you weep, weep quietly.

All later trips are mere reflections of pilgrimages embarked upon in the prince-years of long ago. With sadness, you come to realize you will never see every mountain or cross every meridian. But if you do not grow bitter or small-minded, adulthood is not lost! For it is only then you acquire a king’s knowledge, wisdom no prince possesses – and discover the world is beautiful wherever you are and wonderful days are to be had even in weed-grown landfills.

You can wander through saltbush thickets like a giant over forest-covered mountains. Such wastelands hold many secrets, and there, as everywhere, the sun shines down on both good and evil. No more do you feel pride in fleeing people’s pallidness. In adulthood, you finally learn to wander the countryside. To saunter aimlessly yet knowingly, without sweat and toil. Lowlands, ponds, fields, muddy dirt roads; no matter where you are, it is all beautiful. Once a year in spring, I walk through the countryside like Sir Peleček, the knight, with nothing but my leather jacket and a sleeping bag. I roam the lowlands I had no time for in my youth, the country I once despised. Those journeys are like sunbaths after winter, returning strength to back and spring to step. Above the forests, birds call, and I go slowly and lightly. I rest on pine needles and lie in the fallows. It is on such journeys I have most of my ideas; they are an annual spiritual renewal and the announcement of spring. Taking no food with me, I follow wherever my eyes lead. I go without the obstinacy of youth, without pride and disappointed expectations; I go with joy. I walk, I wave, I am. I stride lovingly through places many would find disagreeable, places I would not have visited in my youth: village peripheries that have a long way to Scandinavian neatness, villages like the Slavic [1] “zadrugas” of old; mud after winter, wilted goosefoot, dead grass amid unmown dropwort marshes; broken fences, goose droppings, unpruned apple trees with last year’s apples rotting beneath them. I like it all. The smell of spring, the rawness, the manure: those are smells I love. Having breathed them for thousands of years, they have entered the human bloodstream; in cities we have lived for no more than a few hundred. Here alone, among good-natured ruffians, farmers and country girls, do I find the remnants of genuine community, uncorrupted by money and tourism. [2] Zadruga – one comrade for another. They give you milk to drink and offer you a bed of hay to sleep on, but that, too, is fading. Nights on spring journeys are often spent in forests beneath pheasant feeders. They are usually dry inside with plenty of food left over from winter. Before sleep, I pick out kernels of wheat from among the weeds and bird droppings. It grows sweet in the mouth, most ancient of foods. On warm nights I sleep in deer mangers beneath blackthorn bushes, occasionally in the attics of deserted fishing huts or in the homes of good people if I find any.

How long ago those princehood journeys now seem, how distant the voyages to wild mountains and the yearning for southern seas! Once again, I feel humans were not created to love but one thing. For we often love – is it our salvation or our doom, little brother? – incongruously. Towering mountains and muddy villages, the solitude of evening fires and the jungle roar of taverns. The silence of lakeshores and the thundering of orchestrions. The unwavering faithfulness of one woman and unbridled debauchery. The rigidness of the oak tree which snaps in the storm and the suppleness of the reeds which bend before the gale. The chasteness of the desert and the filthiness of landfills, apostolic poverty and innumerable riches. Arctic waters and warm seas, rags and glamor, unfettered feasting and a life of simple fare. You carry it all within you, little brother!

Two games are now drawing to a close: that of prince and that of king. Know that you can play both in the beautiful land of Romania. As a prince, you walk through melancholic mountains gripped by their desolation, and the strange words of shepherds fail to brighten your smile. Storms wail darkly about you – beware, or you may falter. As a king, you wander lazily through steppe sands sensing, amidst the vast plains, beauty not all perceive as the sun rains its heat down slantwise upon the flat land and your journey feels torrid, endless, and senseless.

Fear nothing. Travel to the end of the world – wherever you go, things will be what they are. Hunger does not kill, neither thirst nor distance. But fear of them does. Have you reached the Himalayas? You may well find they seemed more terrifying in books. The truth is, they are a land of shepherds. If you content yourself with barley cakes and tea as the natives do, you can walk right below the highest mountains in the world as lightly as in the Carpathians. Join the barefooted shepherds who graze their sheep at glaciers’ edge just where climbers make their basecamp. Walk softly as the princes of old, clear of mind, quietly alert, towards your bright and distant star.


[1] Patriarchal farmsteads in old Slavic societies where an extended family or clan of related families lived, worked, and took care of one another for the benefit of the entire community.

[2] The term “zadruga” is from Old Slavonic and is derived from the words “za” meaning “for” and “drug” meaning “comrade.” Thus the literal meaning translates to “for a comrade.”

SEMENIC

THE INHABITED MOUNTIANS. Passing through the Iron Gates, the pure, running waters of the upper Timiș River flow deep into the heart of the mountains. In peaceful wooded valleys, Festuca alpina grass leans out over the river’s surface.  In vain had I searched for it in the Carpathians of Slovakia. A full moon shines through the leaves of silvery beech groves. Such nights in Banat bathe everything in light metallic hues: leaves, mushrooms, evening breezes, ground beetles, mice. The fragrance of wild thyme rises from fields below the wood, and fireflies flicker the whole night through – though differently than at home: hotly blazing, extinguishing, reigniting – amorous lighthouses. The mountain ridges are home to meadows, oat fields, wild fruit, beehives, lonely dwellings and quiet, hard-working folk, and the heart of the Banat Mountains is bestrewn with raspberry scarlets and fireweed purples.

As we descended into a silent valley at Three Waters Lake, which lies at the confluence of three small rivers, the mountains changed around us: a great lake fire raged among old spruce trees at the water’s edge long into the night.

We arrived in the Semenic Mountains after being chased away by border guards at the Cazanele, the Danube Gorges. They were not so lucky the next time, however, and we floated downriver from Moldova to Orșova. It was a beautiful boat trip – sheer white bluffs hugged the powerful, dark river from both sides. The mouths of caves gaped at us curiously from cliff faces and sturgeons swam beneath our bark. Even here soldiers kept watch, so we dared not move on deck or disembark for a climb among the cliffs in search of rare Danube feather grass. But it was a beautiful journey nonetheless. A Romanian Slovak had told us about it, for ever since Banat had ceased to be an Ottoman-Hungarian battlefront, all Czech and Slovak villages had settled above the Danube Gorges.

The great river carried us down to the sultry city of Orșova where we had once been chased into the Semenic Mountains. Once again the smells of river mud, fish and tar, black mulberries – wild and sweet, as we rested at the wayside.

THE ANINA MOUNTAINS

THE RIVEN MOUNTAINS. Fissures, gorges, canyons, valleys and ravines on display nowhere else. Deep earthen scars lead to vast green-white karst fields. Sultry southern breath of the Banat Mountains. Horned vipers in regal velvety purples sun themselves on baking limestone. Abounding rustyback ferns gleam silkily from rocky crevices. Deep crystalline waters flow through the Caraș River gorge, joined upstream by the Comarnik River. There is no sign of man or footpath here. Running between leaning white bluffs, the watery depths are so clear you can pierce their bottom. Aside from occasional wild cataracts, white water rapids or shallows through which our boats are towed, there is little else to do than float down this aquatic thoroughfare, sheer overgrown crags towering above. Deserted caves in the cliffs appear like a giant’s cooking pots. And when the sun’s rays illuminate the mossy greens of watery caverns, a thousand scintillating rainbows gleam amid great Hart’s-tongue ferns, caught in falling droplets.

Through the stunning Gârliște canyon, foul coal-black water pours; dry Serbian plains lie above it, the home of old men, ripening plums and hot summer nights.

The Nera River gorge is an astonishing place. Three days among bluffs and river currents, three nights on white sands and gravel islands kept company by mole crickets and black spiders. Its solitary meanders tear fiercely at pearly cliff walls which clutch at its path-carving currents. The river is wide, powerful, flowing. Its browny hues are washed to greens by the gorge. The river, cleansed, speaks, smelling of fish. Quiet pools. Nera, a river without bridges. Traces of great floods, fatal currents, hang in tree branches ten meters above the water’s surface. On early mornings, the river is cloaked in dusky chill, but high up on the sharp cliffs, linden trees shimmer in the sunlight like silver candles. Vines hang from trees and white hyacinths breathe their tropical fragrance: exuberant growth wherever the eye alights. Evil valleys: great craggy cauldrons. Travertine lakes and cataracts of the Beu River. A dragon lake lies clear and blue in a sunken cave, while hundreds of meters up a precipitous cliff, a grotto yawns. Nera – a breathtaking land from the Wild West.