Travis and I realized some years back that our rather unorthodox style of roughin’ it when we travel is not everybody’s cup of tea. Though I don’t think we’ve actually completely destroyed any friendships because of trips with friends, we have had some who’ve never repeated the mistake of traveling with us. We certainly don’t blame them. Our brand of spur-of-the-moment planning doesn’t suit everyone. To some, it sounds adventurous and fun, right up ’til they fully realize what we meant when we said, “We don’t know where we’re going to sleep tonight”.
It also means that when we do find friends who are comfortable with the way we travel, it’s pretty exciting. For our first three days in Romania, we traveled with two such friends, Larisa and Romi. After our first night camping with them in Cartisoara, they threw their tent and gear into our car without even knowing where we were going next. Gloriously open to anything, the four of us ended up camping in a thunderstorm in the Carpathians before spending one final evening together in the Bucegi Mountains, one that would become a rather bizarre, unforgettable night of Gypsies, gunfire, and one evil toilet.
With visions of vampires and Vlad the Impaler still mingling in my head, the four of us left Bran Castle shortly before dark to head east and then south to the town of Sinaia, home of the beautiful Peleș Castle. We thought we might visit the following day before dropping off Larisa and Romi at the train station to return to Switzerland, so somewhere near Sinaia seemed like the logical place to overnight. We arrived in town, however, to find only one campground still open, and when all four of us agreed they were price gouging, we headed up into the mountains in search of another place called Camping Zănoaga.
What we didn’t know at the time is that Bucegi is actually Bucegi Natural Park, a large protected area in Romania that is absolutely beautiful and wild and inhabited by bears and very creepy late at night when you’re tired and fog like The Mist envelops everything in sight. Feeling more and more guilty about being the primary instigator in finding “a better place to camp”, the relatively short 45 kilometers from Sinaia to Camping Zănoaga stretched into an hour, then an hour and a half, as we navigated around hairpin curves in the blackness. As the sole car on the road, our only visitor was a tiny baby fox that appeared out of the night, only to disappear back into the fog.
Arriving at the site where our campground was supposed to be, we found a river between it and us with no bridge or visible way across. Pulling into a dimly lit parking area, the only lights in sight, we peered cautiously at a rather shabby building. Like a ghost, a massive white shaggy dog abruptly materialized next to our car, followed by several more cagey guard dogs. We ordered Touille to stay in the car (to them, I’m sure she looked like a minnow to a shark) and cautiously edged our way into the pack of dogs. Staring at us morosely, they didn’t appear to be threatening as they milled about our legs, but I was careful to move slowly and avoid eye contact as they suspiciously kept to our heels. Still not sure if we were at a business or someone’s home, I was creeped out still further when we stepped into the entryway to find a wall of posters plastered all over warning of bears and bear sightings. It certainly explained the herd of Velociraptor-sized dogs.
Hightailing it back to the car, we piled in, returned to the main road, and turned left this time toward the river. Our grassy path quickly dead-ended in water. Parking the car, Travis disappeared in the darkness, finding a stick to test the depth of the river – if it was shallow, maybe we could drive through it. From the water level mark on the stick, our VW with stupidly low clearance wouldn’t make it without flooding the interior.
Hearing a ruckus down over an embankment, our quartet set off to investigate. Bravely leading the way, Romi entered a rowdy group of campers and was quickly surrounded by several of them, addressing him in Romanian. We couldn’t tell what they were saying, but they seemed friendly enough. Though they suggested we just camp for free with them in the surrounding fields, we glanced around at the alcohol bottles scattered about, dazzling lights illuminating the small field, and mess of extension cords running to speakers thumping out music. We politely declined. As we were leaving, Romi explained that they were a group of Gypsies (or as some folks prefer, Roma or Romani). Travis and I wouldn’t have known. To us, it looked like a scene straight out of our home town in Idaho, with friends cutting loose in the woods over a few brewskies. Later in the night when we heard the sharp crack of several gunshots from their camp, it reminded me even more of home, though I was still glad we’d moved on. I was just too exhausted to want to try to sleep in the midst of their boisterous party.
From the Roma camp, we drove back down the main highway a ways to a muddy gravel road straddling a creek. While I waited in the car, Travis waded across the shallow waterway and the others cut across a field to converge on a fenced enclosure. They’d found Camping Zănoaga!
Again grateful that Romi and Larisa spoke Romanian, they tracked down some campers who happened to still be awake in the middle of the night. Someone came out to the fence to point out where we could park under some trees after fording the creek, the only access to the campground. A tiny old woman with a head scarf chattered to us in Romanian, gesturing eagerly for a younger girl to interpret for her. Clearly excited to have unexpected midnight guests, they showed us the restroom and a place for our tent, then wished us goodnight.
Not long after wearily pitching our tents, I heard a rustle in the bushes, followed by a low growl not far outside the camp fence. Though it didn’t sound like a bear, it definitely sounded threatening, and I called Travis over to peer out into the forest through the stout wooden rails of the fence. The quiet rustle continued parallel to the fence as the animal passed us and continued toward the Roma camp. When I heard the aforementioned gun shots later in the night, I imagined all manner of beast had wandered into their camp. The next morning when we saw a long-haired black guard dog making the rounds in our campground, I had a feeling we’d found our mysterious beast from the night before. Had we caught sight of him in the darkness, we easily would have mistaken him for a small bear.
I slept so well that night, I didn’t wake up until late morning, rolling out of our tent well rested and ready for new adventures. Surrounded by beautiful pine forests, our tent was right at the edge of a small village of A-frame cabins. The creeping mist, gunfire, and growling forest beasts of the night before were gone. As always, the friendly light of day wiped away everything sinister, except for one evil toilet still waiting to attack its next hapless victim.
Though I don’t think I’ll ever develop a preference for the floor toilets that seem to be so prevalent in many parts of the world, the one at our campground didn’t look bad. It was fully enclosed with a tile floor, door with a functional lock, and it even appeared to be scrubbed clean, so I’m still not sure what it was about this latrine that filled me with suspicion. Always trust your instinct. Sensing a trap, I left the stall before flushing, leaning far in to grab the ceiling chain, then partially closing the door before pulling. With a monstrous whoosh, a torrent of water shot into the toilet basin, flushing the contents up onto the floor and sloshing the walls before ferociously sucking part of the detritus down the drain. Had I been in the room, I would have been wearing human refuse. Beware the sinister toilet at Camping Zănoaga. It wants you.
Lounging around the campsite all morning, we boiled water for coffee, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then took turns taking showers. Still leery of the bathroom facilities due to the toilet incident, I was confounded anew to discover that the single shower stall didn’t have a functional light. Faced with the option of closing the door to shower in privacy or leaving it open for light in full view of a curious group of campers, I started with the closed-door policy (bit of a prude). Within minutes of frustrated fumbling for the soap in the dark, I gave up and threw open the door, figuring I’d likely never see any of those people again anyway. Even if I do, they probably won’t recognize me with my clothes on.
The VW loaded once again with camping gear, we navigated back to the creek. With me driving this time, I scoped out the best way to cross, angling to avoid a large rock Trav pointed out that was just beneath the surface. Gassing it right before hitting the water, we sheepishly laughed at how shallow the creek was and how daring it felt to cross it the night before.
Our adventures in Bucegi Natural Park were not yet over though. We hadn’t gone but a few kilometers on the road back to Sinaia when we abruptly arrived at a barrier. Marked by only a narrow strip of plastic tape and monitored by a single crewman, he told us the road was closed for construction and was impassable. We’d have to find a different route.
Turning around, we left the twisty but beautifully paved two-lane highway for a much more interesting unpaved, single-lane track through mud and gravel, past cows and pretty forest scenery, until we came across a Roma family picking blackberries along the road. We stopped to buy some, and the elderly grandmother asked if we had any water. She explained how they survived on almost nothing, selling berries and what they could harvest from the land. A bear had been seen nearby recently, and she was worried they’d run into him while harvesting his berry patch. Knobby, skinny knees stuck out beneath the kids’ dirty shorts.
Buying a small basket of berries, we scavenged in the car for something to dump them in so we could leave their basket, then hunted around for water. Since we’d been purifying water with our backpacking filter as we needed it, we didn’t even have any with us, so Romi handed over the only beverage we had: beer. Cracking a giant can right there, the grandma thirstily drank before passing it to the kids. Lacking any real food to share, we gave them our last bag of Roasties peanuts and some gummi bears. Less than an hour later, we arrived back in town, where I marveled at how the Roma family and their hardscrabble life in the woods felt like another planet from the beautiful tourist town of Sinaia.
The four of us wandered around Sinaia for a bit as Larisa searched for a place that sold papanași, traditional Romanian donuts. Settling at a table at the Hotel Bucegi Restaurant, Touille napped at our feet in the sun while we lingered over coffee and dessert, reluctant to say goodbye to Larisa and Romi.
It didn’t feel like we’d been traveling with them for three days, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d still want to be friends when we all met back up again in Switzerland later. (They would!) Though we still had several more days to explore Romania, I knew we’d miss them on our adventures to come.
The green and blue pins mark our travel for days four and five; the blue line roughly follows the first half of our entire 11-day travel path and attractions we visited.