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 (or at least are willing to give it a shot), 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 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. Travis and I wanted to visit the following day before dropping off Larisa and Romi at the train station, 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.
Bucegi Natural Park
What we didn’t know at the time is that Bucegi is actually Bucegi Natural Park, a large nature preserve 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 in the Bucegi Mountains 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 the 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 our dog 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 high-powered 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.
We’d found Camping Zănoaga!
Travel Tip: Scroll to our Google map at the end of this blog post to see where the campground is located.
Camping Zănoaga in the Bucegi Mountains
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.
Facilities at Camping Zănoaga
Lounging around the campsite all morning, we boiled water for coffee and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Though the campground has nice covered picnic tables in a communal area, we opted to hang out at our rather expansive grassy tent pitch.
Since the shower facilities are a bit limited, we 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.
Travel Tip: Especially if visiting Bucegi Natural Park during the off-season, make sure you have a high clearance vehicle, ideally with 4WD. You might be fine without it, but you run the risk of not being able to travel where you want because of the condition of the roads.
Road Closures at Bucegi Natural Park
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.
Resort Town of Sinaia, Romania
Sinaia is a resort town located within the Bucegi Natural Park. Winter enthusiasts come for skiing, and tourists frequent the area year-round to see several nearby castles and the 17th-century Sinaia Monastery. The town itself is small but charming, with cute eateries and pastry shops lining the streets.
The four of us wandered around Sinaia for a bit as Larisa searched for a place that sold papanași – traditional Romanian donuts. The pastries are usually fried, filled with cheese, and served with a type of cream and jam on top. We’d never had them before, and she raved about them being one of the best Romania foods that we just had to try.
She popped into one restaurant after another, each time coming back to our group to report that they didn’t have them.
She finally struck pay dirt at the Hotel Bucegi Restaurant. Settling in at a table, 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.
Though Travis and I still had several more days to explore Romania, I knew we’d miss our Romanian friends on our adventures to come.
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Know Before You Go
Bucegi Natural Park is free.
Camping Zănoaga is open year round.
High season at Camping Zănoaga is from June 1 – August 31. Low season are in effect for the rest of the year.
High season rates for a rental cabin are 80 lei (high season) / 60 lei (low season), for a 3-4 person tent are 50 lei (high) / 35 lei (low), and for a 1-2 person tent are 40 lei (high) / 30 lei (low). Electricity is 20 lei per night. To get the rough price in US dollars, divide by 4. Camping in high season for a 1-2 person tent is only $9.50 per night. It’s dog-friendly, and we weren’t charged extra for our dog or for hot water for showers.