Many times I have received recommendations to cross the Rodnei mountains in northern Romania. I have been told stories of empty and deserted mountains, where shepherds still outnumber tourists, and which are famous for their blooming plains of pink rhododendrons. I knew I had to come here, that without Rodnei I would never have a complete picture of the Romanian mountains. At the same time, I didn't hesitate for a moment about the right time to come here - when the rhododendrons were in bloom. The hillsides usually turn pink in mid-June and the plants last in full bloom for about two weeks. But a look at recent webcam footages from various areas of Romania reveals an unusual amount of snow this year, everything seems delayed. So I'm postponing my trip until the end of June and the beginning of July.
The hot sun is scorching as I make my way up the Lala valley. Already here I have to smile. The ridges, still distant somewhere ahead of me, are covered with huge purple expanses of flowering shrubs. I'm plunging into the shadows of the dark forest, for the last time for days. I pass a shepherd with a flock of sheep, leading him down into the valley. We greet each other, he whistles to the dogs and makes a path for me among the sheep.
Lala Valley and the river of the same name.
Lake Lala Mare and the first rhododendrons.
Above the forest begins the Bila Lala reserve with two lakes - Lala Mare and Lala Mica. Purple bushes are already blooming all around. I climb to the lake above, where it is possible to pitch a tent. I wonder why it's called Bila Lala. The river falls in white rapids into the valley, singing as it goes. So maybe, I wonder, maybe it's just a primitive relic of Slavic linguistic influences ("bila" meaning white and "lala" being self explanatory).
From the top of Ineu.
Outgoing storm over the top of Roșu.
Ridges of Rodnei mountains.
I examine the nearby peak of Ineu, the second highest in the mountain range, as it towers directly over the lake. In the evening the whole ridge could be seen in an interesting light from there, I decide to climb up there without my backpack. In the end I repeat the climb twice, the first time I am chased away by a storm, the second time the golden evening sun shows itself for a few minutes. Clouds are pouring over the ridges, the conditions are constantly changing. A perfect spectacle. If I had stayed at the lake and missed this (because I almost gave up after the first climb), I would probably have regretted it later. I feel like drawing, but I didn't bring paper nor pencil.
Semi-wild horses on the slopes.
Pink hillsides and the peak of Omului.
In the morning I continue over the ridges accompanied by semi-wild horses and large flocks of sheep, otherwise I meet no one. Truly deserted mountains. With each new peak, new views are revealed and it seems to me that there are more purple islands. I cross several places on the map marked with an exclamation mark, as is the Romanian custom to point out potentially dangerous sections. Nothing dramatic, everything is short. Overall, Rodnei looks welcoming, no high mountains, but pleasant hills on the whole. I almost change my mind on the climb to Omului, where I don't really want to go especially due to the unbearable heat. On Gârgalău my pace is already fast again and below the summit I crawl into the shade of a new shelter.
Central Rodnei: Buhăescu, Pietrosul, Laptelui and Puzdrelor.
I draw the opposite prominent peak in the visitors' book, while a trio of Romanians arrive. We talk briefly, they decide for a long time whether to continue further to Ineu, finally they believe they will make it before dark and we say goodbye. In the early evening I leave to explore the area. It's partly cloudy, lonely clouds drift across the sky, I expect ideal conditions. I explore the west side, from where it would be possible to photograph the summit of Gârgalău, but the view is not very appealing, it is more interesting on the other side, in the very centre of the mountain range. It seems to me that this direction would have better light in the morning, I go back and try the other direction from the saddle. Yes, this will do, deep dark valley below me, low sun from the right illuminating the peaks on the left. What remains is to find a spot with light-coloured rhododendrons to complete the foreground of the photograph, which proves to be a somewhat more difficult task than it seemed. The shrubs tend to grow on the northern slopes, where the snow stays for a long time. Towards the south there are fewer of them. In the end I settle for a couple of prominent shrubs, prepare the composition and wait while the valley darkens.
On the southern slope.
Dramatic clouds over the Gârgalău saddle.
When the sun is almost at the horizon, the clouds come in and cast the mountains into shadow for a moment. I think I'm done for the day, almost packing up my tripod, but the clouds move quickly and in a few moments the orange evening sun shines through them again. I change the composition (the original is already too dark) to a counter-light, using the same two rhododendron bushes. It works out perfectly. Until the last moment, it stays in the glare of the rays while dramatic clouds drift over the distant prominent Puzdrelor peak.
In the shelter I meet a hiker from Bucharest who is crossing the ridge in the opposite direction. We talk long into the night about the Romanian mountains, the local conditions and the Czech Republic. He declares that it will probably rain later.
In the morning the rain beats on the roof of the shelter, I sleep a little longer, I don't mind. I'm not in a hurry today, it's a short walk to the Între Izvoare saddle. I'm sure I could have walked further, but I have high hopes for this place in the middle of Rodnei and I'd like to stay there for the night. At eleven o'clock I start anyway, even though it is still drizzling. I say goodbye to the fellow man, each of us continues to his mountain fog solitude.
At the saddle of Șaua Laptelui the drizzle turns into a full-fledged rain, but the mountains emerge from the mist at times. The peaks of Puzdrelor and Laptelui Mare loom right in front of me like giant pyramids, and I know from the map that I must pass somewhere between them. But it's not clear which way, I can't see the path, only the dark slopes. The rain has long since fallen horizontally. The ridges stretch like rubber, what was once a walk of a few minutes now seems like an endless pilgrimage. The mountains are pinched, the clouds add to their height. The world becomes so wonderfully simple again, I don't stop, I just keep going.
In the rain in the saddle of Tarnița Bârsanului. Panorama of 7 frames.
In the saddle of Tarnița Bârsanului, I'm pushing my way through the thick shrubs, the trail almost disappears at times, few people walk this way. The rain stops and the highest peak, Pietrosul Rodnei, comes into view. It's good again, only my right shoe is full of water. I laugh to myself, I shouldn't have forgotten that I have a hole in it.
Behind the mountain Negoiasa Mare there is already the saddle Șaua Între Izvoare (the name that sounds so beautiful to me in Romanian and means "the saddle between the springs") and the shelter La Cărţi is in sight. I see a figure walking towards me, another soloist. We meet after a few hundred metres:
... something in Romanian ...
"Hey, aren't you Czech too?"
"Sure! How did you know? By my clothes?"
"That too, but you have somewhat of a Czech accent..."
We're sitting on the hillside, the sun is long gone, we're eating olives and drinking the local spirit. We talk for a long, long time about the Carpathian experience, the traditional bear theme and pass on local tips.
I arrive at a refuge that is the newest in the whole mountains, called La Cărţi ("In the books / On the books") - named after the fact that it houses a collection of Romanian books to pass the long evenings. I'm not interested in books yet though, I'm quickly cooking dinner and already eyeing the nearby Repede peak as the perfect spot for an evening photo shoot. From down here I believe it will be good, the slopes of Repede are covered with the densest stands of rhododendrons, and directly opposite Puzdrelor rises - the sun's rays will lean directly on it in the evening. I like the shape of the peak, it reminds me of Moldoveannu, the highest mountain in Romania.
I'm still looking around, taking some pictures right in the saddle, but it's not the same. So I climb Repede, already around six o'clock, a few hours till sunset. A fairy tale up there. Views in all directions, the whole mountain range stretching from horizon to horizon. Pietrosul Rodnei on one side, Ineu somewhere in the distance on the other, and deep valleys in between, already filling with shadow. I watch the shadows stretch out and invent a Romanian game of "count how many shepherds hut you see".
Rodnei from Repede, panorama of 10 frames with an angle of view over 180°. On the far left Buhăescu and Pietrosul Rodnei, in the middle the prominent "roofed" Puzdrelor and the pointed Laptelui Mare. Somewhere in the distance to the right of them is Ineu. Completelly to the right, the Valea Aniesului Mic valley.
It's warm, only the wind blows cold. I wait in the lee below the peak for the light to turn golden. The conditions are perfect, the Puzdrelor reflecting the sun's rays until the last moment, as I expected. The sun even reaches the pinnacles on the peak I'm on. It couldn't have worked out better. Finally, a repeat of yesterday's situation, as the sun dips very low, I change the composition to a counter-light towards Pietrosul. In the foreground, the path from Repede descends through the purple hillsides towards Cormaiu, with the highest peak of the mountain range in the background.
Evening on Repede, view to the top of Puzdrelor.
The footpath from Repede towards Pietrosul.
Over the saddle Șaua Între Izvoare.
An afterglow in the heart of Rodnei.
I stay even after sunset, the horizon turns pink and the sharp shadows completely disappear. By the time I get back to the shelter, it must be well after ten p.m., but there is still plenty of light. In the snug I browse through books on the Romanian Carpathians, but the collection of Romanian ballads catches my eye the most. They have interesting titles, such as 'The Ballad of Death', 'Epilogue' or 'The Mountain Ballad', in which, according to my basic knowledge of Romanian, most people die and at the end a shepherd just sighs about it all and goes off to herd his flock again somewhere in the hills...
Before midnight I try to take pictures of the stars, but I can't, it's still too light. Who could have known? The western horizon is still bright even to the eye. So for a change, I'm looking for the source of the rustle in the snug. When I discover that it's not mice, but birds flying under the roof, I go to sleep.
Buhăescu Mic, Buhăescu Mare and the highest Pietrosul Rodnei after sunset.
Refuge La Cărţi.
I leave the Între Izvoare saddle towards the highest peak of the mountain range, Pietrosul. I'm thinking of staying somewhere near the summit, or at the lake below the summit if the conditions are good. There is also an official camping spot by the lake. But first I have to cross the peaks of Rebra and Buhăescu, somewhere between them a snow field crosses my path. A perpendicular snow wall, no chance without crampons. I shouldn't have been lazy and traversed the peak with the beaten path, but rather go straight across. But I don't want to go back, I go around the snow field from the left. The slope is steeper than it seemed, the grass is unpleasantly slippery. I breathe out for a long time at the top, it was a bit more challenging than I expected. Moreover, there is a familiar rumble from the valley. Very distant, for a while I convince myself that it is something else than the sound of thunder bouncing off the mountainsides.
But I don't like the clouds either, a cold front is approaching from the northwest, no doubt it will arrive sooner or later. I'm wondering whether to stay here in the saddle in relative safety, it would be possible to descend a little lower, bivouac comfortably and wait out the storm. But I could also sit here for hours and the storm would avoid Rodnei mountains completelly. The idea of being on the highest peak far away during a storm does not appeal to me either. But in the end, I'm rushing in its direction, confident that I'll make it. The thunders rumble more and more frequently. In the saddle below Pietrosul I drop my pack and run lightly to the summit. I don't like it here. A ruined stone building that might have been a weather station and rusty, twisted railings all around. I realise that pretty Rodnei has ended up in the saddle below the summit.
I look down on the town of Borșa some 1700 vertical metres below me, and that's where I end the trek. I also look at the leaden clouds moving menacingly in my direction. Back in the saddle, I meet a group of Romanians climbing up. They don't seem too bothered by the storm, they say they are going to pray. Within moments it is raining, I see the rising masses of people stopping and putting on their jackets. Suddenly there are lots of them everywhere. They climb Pietrosul and go back again. I don't understand it, the nice mountains are elsewhere. Although it might actually be better this way.
I walk down to Lacul Iezerul lake (as the Romanian hiker at Gârgalău finally confirmed to me, Lacul = lake, Iezer = mountain lake; it is indeed a Slavic remnant in the Romanian language). But I don't like the lake either. The tent site is overgrown and horrible, the crumbling yellow shelter and the barbed-wire weather station a little further on. No, let's get out of here, the weather does it all for me anyway. I descend steeply down a wide rocky path, just below the lake the unbearable heat begins. The storm passes and the sun shines again, making the heat even worse. The road is uninteresting all the way down to Borșa, I'm glad I made it today.
Haystacks in Borșa.
A sign disappears among the wooden haylofts, I ask for directions. In one of the first houses, 3 figures wave at me, when I get closer I find out that they are the 3 Romanians I met at Gârgalău and they decided to go on to Ineu. I don't understand how they got here, we chat for a while. They say they managed to cross the ridge to Ineu, then drove the car over here to Borșa.
I continue down and assess Rodnei. If it wasn't for that stretch around the highest peak, I would have no hesitation in declaring this the most beautiful Romanian mountain range I've crossed. But the deserted part, that's perfect! Unhigh, welcoming, but not boring. Still home to shepherds and not tourists, it's authentic. With a sea of purple rhododendrons and lush grass where one can lie down and relax for hours in the sun. All of you who advised me to go to Rodnei, you were right! Thank you!