Circle of Friends–Part 6: The Demons at the Carpathian Gate

On to Braşov, but not for long…

Packed, had a quiet breakfast, and said goodbye to Aron and headed north. It is always sad to think that you will never see someone with whom you’ve made friends.

Even with road construction, we got to Braşov in just under an hour. We found our way through narrow streets to our new apartment, thanks to GPS, and met Natalie. Natalie was renting her place to us.

She showed us up three flights to our apartment. It is a lovely spot. We have a balcony and another flight up to a tiny terrace on the roof. Behind us we see Mt. Tâmpa and on the other, old town with its tiled roofs that stretched out across the narrow valley.

We talked with Natalie about AirBnB, Ioana, and Natalie’s pet project, which is an Eco-tourism company. She and her husband are the ones responsible for all the signs yesterday. Isn’t that a coincidence? There is a connection–Ioana, whose parents’ house we stayed in, volunteers for Natalie and Michael. She is the one who gave us the lead on this AirBnB–in fact we are getting it at a “friends and family rate.”

We also met her husband, Michael, a man with a commanding presence. We talked for a long time–and we liked their thinking. The have started a foundation to promote the old ways of life in the rural areas of Romania and tourism at the same time–so, for example, there is a walking tour by Ioana’s parents’ house that takes you to a weaver’s house, then a wood worker, a cheese maker, etc. They even have a connection with Tudor and the zip line!

At our new apartment in Braşov, the contrast between these folks and Aron and Marie could not be more stark. While Natalie greeted us with the same warmth and openness as Ioana’s parents, Natalie sported a cosmopolitan flair and sophistication that dazzled us. Natalie was born in Germany and met her husband from Romania while he was studying in Münster. Their family speaks German, Romanian, English, some French and a smattering of other languages. Her daughters are more fluent in English and are both interested in international studies and pursuits.

Natalie had just excused a German Language student from her first floor “Germanica” a German language academy that she runs during the day, and ushered us up, past her second floor flat, past her third floor mother’s apartment, and onto the fourth floor, a three-bedroom apartment that she rents out through AirBnB. Amazing building! From the upper floor apartment, we had an amazing view of Braşov, and on top of that (literally) was a climb up a rickety stairway to the roof with a commanding 360 degree view of the entire city.

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Instantly, we both took a liking to Natalie. She was one of those rare people who had a sharp wit and tons of energy, but also listened carefully to understand her audience, fill in and add, rather than bulldoze a conversation. Ingenious and clever in her choice of English words, she still showed some vocabulary gaps as she searched for the perfect words to explain why they fell in love with this building, while standing on the roof, pointing out the sites in Brasov.

Natalie oriented us to the apartment then ushered us into her downstairs office to show us webpages for her various projects on her computer. Her husband, Mihai, (Romanian version of Michael) joined us moments later. The two of them had both studied Biology and Ecology at the University in Münster, Natalie in Biology and Mihai in Geophysics. They ended up here in Romania to work on environmental issues that Romania faces.

 

 

I asked Michael about all the rubbish we have seen on our journeys. “Oh, that’s just a surface problem. The real problem goes much deeper,” Michael explained in his technically perfect English. He told us that if everyone in Romania were to spend a day going out and picking up trash, it could be gone in one day. “But there is a much more dangerous problem, and it’s seeping into the ground.”

He went on to explain that Romania’s relatively short history (since the revolution) has left them in a really terrible environmental bind. While Romanians used to have reletively no plastic or toxic products during the Communist Era, they were able to adequately burn or bury most of their waste. But now, only 25 years later, they have the same habits, but very different products. They continue to bury or burn their waste, especially out in the rural areas, but in them are toxic and plastic products. In the urban areas, the infrastructure exists, but it is also inadequate. It’s a crisis waiting to happen.

On top of that, they have continued to use the streams to dump sewage and waste, and there are many rural communities that have no sewer system built yet. The environment is being threatened by old habits meeting new, and toxic products. “We’re trying to bring awareness to these problems.”

Then there’s the problem of the shrinking meadows. Farmers can no longer make a living in the valleys like Fundata. As these farms are abandoned because there is no one left to run them, they quit cutting hay, quit raising sheep and goats and cattle, and quit mowing the fields. Soon the forests will take over, and the biodiversity that exists in the meadows will be lost. “We’ve seen it happen within a generation or two.”

They have established an array of non-profit agencies, all having to do with preserving specie diversity and coupling it with the preservation of cultural arts and handcrafts in the rural valleys, like Fundata. Their main organization is the establishment of an information center in their “other house” in Moieciu de Sus, few kilometers above Ioana’s parents house, called Center for Mountain Ecology.

They sponsor eco-tourist events that get people walking, running, and bicycling in the mountains, and bring business to rural communities. They sponsor sporting events that have low impact on the environment, like marathons, dirt bike trekking and tours of traditional housing. These events will get people to engage with nature and support the efforts to preserve it while giving a lifeline to the rural farmers.

So THESE are the people that do the Eco Marathons, I thought! Just yesterday we were wandering through the meadows in Fundata Valley, wondering who had the skills, passion, and spunk to mount such a campaign here in Romania. And now, 24 hours later, we’re sitting in their livingroom.

We spent a long time, understanding how their plan would work, to get people to go, enjoy the mountains, the open space, visit the homes of people that do hand-crafts, and spend money in the villages that, all over Romania, are dwindling in size and population.

Although generous with their time, they were busy getting ready to spend an entire weekend in the mountains. They were organizing an “Info Trip” of tour guides, ecology proponents, elected officials and commerce leaders this coming weekend. They invited us to come be a part of the events, and it sounded intreaguing!

But today was Rebecca’s birthday, and Ioana was planning to join us for dinner. So we would think about it and decide later.

They gave us the key and we headed out to explore the city. We are only looking at the city center, the old town, surrounded by the medieval wall. The buildings look like German buildings. In the center square there is a clock tower building painted yellow that housed the city hall, now it is a museum. Around it are cafes and stores in different states of repair. We went to the “Black Church,” a Luthuran church, called the Black Church because it was one of the few buildings that survived the fire of 1820 and the stones of the walls were left blackened.

 

 

Woody read about a free walking tour, so we headed back tot he square and waited at a cafe until 3pm when the tour was to start.

We met the group at the fountain, and a young woman named Emmy lead us around. She showed us sites and told us interesting history. We found”Rope Street” the narrowest street in town, and the one remaining medieval gate to the city, where different groups of people were let in and out of the city.

The tour ended with a climb to a guard tower at the west edge of Old Town. Emmy was a great enthusiast of history and also had a knack of engaging a large group with funny stories and instant quizzes, testing our knowledge. It was fun to participate or just sit back and listen. We said goodbye to our guide, not knowing that we would soon run into her again!

We met Ioana and walked to a restaurant that she liked. It is an old restaurant with low vaulted ceilings made of bricks. The food was Italian, but the sauce on my pasta was too thick and heavy for me.

 

 

We had a fun conversation and she bought me a cake! It was very kind of her. It even had a six and a two for candles. I was uncomfortably full after dinner and dessert. I waddled back with them towards home.

We have decided that Saturday, we will go visit Ioana and Natalie and all at their project in Moueciu de Sus and Fundata, so it won’t be the last time we see them.

A Hike up Mount Tampa

The next morning, we were hoping to take the tram up to the top of Tampa Mountain, (The a’s have a soft u sound, rhymes with “dubba” as in George Dubba Bush). We hiked up to the base tower only to find out that the tram was still closed. According to the locals, it’s always a toss-up as to whether will be open or not. So the other option is to hike up to the top. It’s 900 meters in elevation, how hard could that be?

So we started up the zig-zags under the canopy of trees that shrouded the steep hillside.

 

 

The first entry had a pretty stone staircase covered in yellow leaves; very inviting. We found a map on a signpost which showed the train, twenty switchbacks, Woody counted, and up we went. The gray skies gave a diffused light tot he yellow and green leaves; higher up the trail, the leaves were brown. Back and forth, zig and zag we went. Woody turned back and said, “There’s an icecream sundae waiting for you at the top.” Last time he said that on a hike, there wasn’t one.

Up and up we went, I had to stop and rest and Woody kept counting the switchbacks. There actually ended up being 24.

At the top, there were so many trees, we couldn’t get a good view. We followed the signs to the restaurant. Not only were there no sundaes, the whole restaurant was closed and had been for some time. Not only this, the restaurant blocked off any view of the view below. We were disappointed.

We started to head back, but saw a sign that said “To the Brasov sign,” (they have one like the Hollywood sign), and decided to go there since there was nowhere else to go. We were glad we did. What a great view of the town, valley and lands beyond.

Then it was time to go down, much faster this way. At the bottom, there was a restaurant, called Sub Tampa and we ate there. It was a bit expensive for Romania, but some of the best food we’ve had; and I had icecream for dessert!

We walked back towards old town so we could take a photo of the Brasov sign to see how high we had hiked. Back at the flat, we wrote for a bit and retired for the night.

Back to Fundata Valley

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Saturday: Wow, what to say about today? At Joanna’s suggestion (and Natalie’s too) we joined their eco-tourism group called Center for Mountain Ecology on an excursion back at Moieciu de Sus and Fundata near where our previous AirBnb was to see their project.

Ioana was very excited to see us again and we picked her up so she could direct us to join the group.

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Rebecca helps Ioana get some lunches ready for the day.

We drove to a resort that is huge, and new, and ugly, and getting bigger by the month. It has hacked out of the mountain places to build parking lots, dozens of hotel buildings, skating rinks, skiing tracks, et. al.

 

 

We met our current AirBnb hosts, Natalie, Michael, and their older daughter Valerie. There were about 25 other people in the group.

We walked out across the land that the resort complex owns. They’ve trucked in huge boulders to build roads and paved over much of the mountainside. One big road they’ve built is a drastic divider between the resort and the farmland. We stood for a while at the boundary taking in the difference.

As we walked along the pathways, we would walk with one or two people and talk to them, and then they would drop back and I found myself waking with someone else. It was a nice, easy way to start conversations and then continue them at a later point. I found that Natalie and I walked together often. She talked about the project and would explain what would happen next. I also found her daughter besides me often. We invited her to visit us in Winters and that sparked her interest. She is smart and her English is very good. One woman, Elena has two daughters and is an English teacher. I found her to be quite fun to talk with; we have much in common.

I talked with many people along the 16k trek. One young lady I saw was very familiar, then I burst out, “Emmy, from our tour two days ago!” I asked her what she was doing here. She, like many others, were invited to this “Info Trip” to learn about other types of activities in the region. Small world!

I also met another tour guide from Sibiu named Adela. Since we would be in Sibiu in less than a week, I exchanged numbers with her in case she had time to give us a walking tour of Sibiu.

 

 

Michael told us later, that part of these eco-trips is to give a source of income to the craftspeople that live here so they can keep living off the land.

He and his group have planned different hikes to promote the region. This one connects a wood carver, a cheese maker and the zipline that we had gone on earlier this week. Isn’t that another coincidence!

We walked down gravel roads, some we had driven roads. Some were the same we had driven over the other day and along paths that crossed pasture land. Eventually, we came to a house to stop for lunch. This was the cheese maker. They served us water and palinca to drink and the typical breads, red bell peppers, and sliced meats, plus an assortment of their cheeses. Dessert was a fried dough with powdered sugar.

The woman who made all this lives here full time. I’m guessing she’s about my age and she reminds me of Melanie’s mom. Some parts of the year, her daughter and son-in-law live with her, like today. In the winter months, she is often housebound, due to the snow. I wonder if I could do that alone.

 

 

 

She has an old house on the property that she has turned into a museum, like many places do. Inside, besides the regular things, I noticed costumes with amazing beadwork. Fabulous, but a bit gawdy for my tastes. She also had an antique cradle made of basketry and suspended from the ceiling, filled with lacy linens to wrap the baby in. (I would worry about leaving a baby in it alone, but it did look charming.)

After lunch we continued up the mountain. This part was hard, and I got out of breath but I kept up. Woody and I realized that we had been here earlier in the week when we crossed some of the roads. We passed through the same little village where the church was and eventually ended up at the woodcarver.

We kept walking but some people starting getting tired, so they called a mini-van to pick them up. The rest of us walked and eventually got to the place where Woody and I had ridden on the zip line. As we walked up the lane, Tudor drove out. We stopped and said hello, and he was quite surprised to see us again.

At his house, there was a van that was waiting for us that brought food for dinner and we ate, but there was nothing for me, so I ate peanuts that we had bought. Then we walked down to the zipline and some of us went on it. It was equally fun the second time.

 

 

 

We came back up the hill in the semi-darkness. Woody wondered if we were all going to walk back or if the van was going to take us. Luckily, the van was the plan.

We also had to figure out what to do that night. Natalie and Michael had invited us to spend the night here at their house in Moieciu de Sus. So since it was late, we gladly accepted the offer.

We all arrived at the large house of Michael and Natalie. The have remodlled an older house to that kind of rambling farmhouse with one huge room to feed lots of people. Ten of us sat down to dinner which had vegetarian fare as well. Our conversations were varied but mostly surrounded environmental concerns, their projects, funding, and politics. I think both of us felt glad we had chosen to stay. There was such a feeling of comradery and intellectual stimulation in the evening.

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At our dinner, Michael pours the wine as we all toast to the success of the Mountain Ecology Center.

But eventually, near 11, it was time for bed. Natalie led us upstairs two flights, across to the back of the house, and back down half a flight of stairs to a cosy room under the eves with a skylight that she called “the Newlywed Suite.” Fun day in Fundata and Moieciu De Sus!

Some of the materials that they publish at the Mountain Ecology Center:

 

 

Farewell to the Heroes of Fundata

We enjoyed a big breakfast at their ranch-style table. Alina and her girls had stayed overnight as well. Valarie came to the table just as we were leaving, time to give her a big hug and, again, remind her that she has a home in California. Natalie and Michael, your heroic efforts are amazing! We wish you the best in all your endeavors as you fight the real dangers at Carpathian Gate. Once again, it is hard to say goodbye to people you have developed a love and respect for but wonder if we will ever be in contact again. Very privileged to have been given a front row seat to watch the brave work for the biodiversity and culture of this area, we left with encouraged but sad hearts.

A quick stopover at Aron and Maria’s place where Ioana stayed overnight. Ioana showed me how her dad had moved an old building that was originally on this property. She shows how they numbered each timber to reconstruct it here. She wants to make it into a little museum for the guests that stay here. Industrious girl!

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Ioana points to the numbers they put on each timber so that they could reconstruct the original shack in the exact order as it was originally built.

Hugs and kisses. Ioana had coffee and some little sweets her mom had made. Rebecca gave her a silver bracelet that she had since high school. We now regarded Ioana as our new Romanian daughter. We reminded her that she had to come to visit us in California. I could see her fighting back the tears, which caused me to do the same. This time, we knew that wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Farewell, dear friends!

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